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The Pacific Ocean named by Magellan means peaceful but our experience with this vast body of water has been anything but tranquil.
I'm writing this from the Johnston Atoll, an island off limits to civilians. As some of you may have heard Taeping had an unfortunate accident about 240 miles northwest of here and this is a short version of what happened.
We left Honolulu 31. January destined for Yokohama, Japan, with a crew of nine plus the skipper, Nick Fleming. From the starting line we had very strong trade winds interspersed with squalls, with some gusts ranging upto 40-45 knots. Spinnaker sailing was out of the question and we were running down wind with a jib "goosewinged" at the end of the spinnaker pole. As the week progressed the winds strengthened to the point that we had to put a reef in the main and set a smaller jib even with the wind behind us.
On Thursday (4/2/99) morning at around 5 am local time (GMT - 10 hours) we were
hit by a squall with 40+ knot winds and torrential rain.
I was on the helm at the time. The
boat veered sharply to port backing the goosewinged jib.
Seconds later the shackle which attached to the spinnaker uphaul (keeps
the spinnaker pole up) released sending the pole in the water.
By this time the boat is doing in excess of the hull speed, 10.5 knots,
and the howling wind makes it almost impossible to heard each other no matter
how close. The pole is still
attached to the boat but straining to break loose.
I shout to Nick to get "all-hands on deck" to stabilise Taeping
ASAP. In short order the crew is
assembled in the cockpit with orders what to do.
The jib is brought under control and lowered and the pole retrieved from
an angry ocean. The only damage
suffered was a bent spinnaker pole and some frightened crew members.
On Thursday (4/2/99) morning at around 5 am local time (GMT - 10 hours) we were hit by a squall with 40+ knot winds and torrential rain. I was on the helm at the time. The boat veered sharply to port backing the goosewinged jib. Seconds later the shackle which attached to the spinnaker uphaul (keeps the spinnaker pole up) released sending the pole in the water. By this time the boat is doing in excess of the hull speed, 10.5 knots, and the howling wind makes it almost impossible to heard each other no matter how close. The pole is still attached to the boat but straining to break loose. I shout to Nick to get "all-hands on deck" to stabilise Taeping ASAP. In short order the crew is assembled in the cockpit with orders what to do. The jib is brought under control and lowered and the pole retrieved from an angry ocean. The only damage suffered was a bent spinnaker pole and some frightened crew members.
Friday (5/2/99) morning at about the same time Taeping was not as lucky.
My fellow watch members and I were down below resting prior to getting on
duty at 6 am. The radar showed
another squall approaching, which is a common occurrence (averaging about 7-8
every night). What we never know is
how strong any particular one will be.
Friday (5/2/99) morning at about the same time Taeping was not as lucky. My fellow watch members and I were down below resting prior to getting on duty at 6 am. The radar showed another squall approaching, which is a common occurrence (averaging about 7-8 every night). What we never know is how strong any particular one will be.
This was another big one.
Just after it hits us and it is apparent how strong it is, Nick calls "all-hands on deck". Tim Richmond, a round-the-world crew member on duty, had gone forward to retrieve the jib together with another crew member. When they are in the pulpit (the front) the main sail jibs. Jibing under these circumstances is a very dangerous situation both for crew and the boat. A sheet (rope) called a "preventer" is attached to the main boom to prevent it from jobing. Under the tremendous strain the preventer tore loose the shackle which held it to the deck and in the process caught Tim's left leg. The leg was almost completely sheared off above the ankle with the exception of a few tendons, nerve endings and blood vessels.
As soon as the boat was brought under control, medical supplies were broght forward and we did a bandage and provisional splint on his open fracture. I had the uneviable task of putting his foot back where it should have been.
The next two days where spent beating into 30-35 knots wind to reach the nearest human habitaion which was Johnston Atoll. The crew was split into caring for Tim and sailing the boat as fast as we safely could. Nearing the atoll a C-130 Hercules was sent aloft to verify our position and give us clear guidance on how to approach. 54 hours after the accident we reached the atoll where military paramedics were on standby ready to airlift Tim to Honolulu. His fever was 101-102 degrees Fahrenheit but during the whole ordeal not one word of complaint. This man is made of stern stuff. Four hours after arrival he was fitted with a new splint and on his way to surgery in Honolulu.
As I write this his prognosis is 80% chance of keeping his left foot. It will most likely be impaired for life, but hopefully functional. P.S. It was amputated six weeks later.
A lot of credit to the personnel on Johnston who were extremely well prepared for our arrival and got Tim in good hands. We have been the grateful recipients of all the services this island has to offer.
After two days of mental and physical repairing of crew and boat we set sail again for Yokohama, ETA end of February. Obviously this leg of the race is over for us and we will be happy to rejoin the other Clippers and fight them another day.
I hope my next report is less dramatic!
Until next time, ALOHA.
Johnston Atoll to Yokohama, 9/2-1/3/99 Taeping departed Johnston Atoll after 43 hours having been generously fed and getting some rest. Neither physically nor mentally were we a "fighting machine" at this point. More time was needed to heal the trauma of what happened during Tim Richmond's ordeal.
(I'm in the red Taeping t-shirt on the right.)
Taeping spent the next 3 1/2 days to return to the area of the accident from where we resumed racing. The boat was given 5 days, 13 hours plus some minutes redress versus the other Clipper boats but we were also 1000 miles behind most of the others. The strong headwinds experienced into J.A. had been tailing winds for our competitors who were clocking in excess of 200 miles per day. The first week following J.A. was spent with very conservative sail area to make for smoother sailing and resting crew and captain, however, it didn't help our race position. The winds had moderated but were still fresh. It was apparent that La Nina lived up to its reputation of being associated with stronger than normal trade winds.
The fishing gear generously given us in Johnston Atoll was a huge success and three tunas, 7-10 lbs and two doradoes were caught within a week, providing a great supplement to our diet. The crew insisted I stop fishing as they had fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a while! I became know as Haakon "the blood thirsty." One late afternoon an enormous "something" caught on, the brief glimpse I got indicated a marlin or swordfish. Once hooked, it dove straight down. After five minutes of intense strain the hook lost its grip and all we had to show for it were some fibers of fish jaw. With 465 lbs test the line withstood the pressure. I was more concerned about how to get such a monster on board and for how long the "meat" would stay fresh with no refrigeration. Wont speculate on size, suffice it to say it was enormous between the eyes! But the equipment is now battle tested and seems to do the job.
On 13/2 we passed the dateline giving us the first excuse to have a party, even warm beer tastes nice when its only once a week. It was also a moment of reflection, having passed halfway around the world from our start in Plymouth. The events of the last four months flashed by us: battling with Serica (and winning) across the finish line in Funchal; our first spinnaker blowout in the mid-Atlantic; the squalls that kept us on edge; the news reports of hurricanes in the Caribbean; battling with Mermerus for a week in the mid-Atlantic (and winning that battle until Mermerus went South and caught huge winds!); keeping a charging Chrysolite at bay on the approach to San Salvador; getting a great start from Havana only to be hit by an enormous squall the first night shredding our repaired spinnaker and breaking the pole and then coming back to fight the others for a photo-finish in Panama (and also missing the very same finish line by 200 yards in the dark and sailing back to re-cross the right one!); crossing the finish line together with Chrysolite in Galapagos; first wrapping and then ripping our asymmetric spinnaker on the way to Honolulu; keeping a charging Antiope at bay into Honolulu. The only thing missing from our list of memories is a finish in the top three! Maybe our destiny is to battle the elements rather than our fellow Clipper boats!
Taeping sailed due west between the 17th and 20th parallel until we reached 163 degrees East when we headed northwest directly for Yokohama. Little did we know what was in store. Our first indication of trouble ahead were the reports from Clipper boats having a hell of a time with wind and current as they approached Yokohama. Maybe lady luck would shine on us and give us a golden opportunity to win a leg. Our luck didn't run out, it never arrived! The cold fronts out of Asia started reaching us with regularity - stash away the shorts and t-shirts, this was wet igloo weather. With the fronts the dependable Northeast trade wind disappeared, to be replaced by winds of varying strength from all points of the compass. The low pressures announced their arrival with warm fronts giving southerly winds, these would strengthen as the associated cold front got closer, once the cold front passed the winds veered northwest and usually strengthened further.
The mother of all lows hit us three days from Yokohama. We were in good position to claim fourth, even third place. Mermerus, having finished sixth, was almost certainly beatable. The weather fax indicated a low forming 400 miles northwest of us, deepening rapidly and heading east. The weather systems in this part of the world, form, move and disappear with amazing speed and viciousness. The early morning of 26/2 see us with spinnaker flying in southeasterly winds until about 3 am, followed by Yankee 1 (the largest jib). In rapid succession sail area is reduced and by late afternoon we are on Yankee 2 and two reefs in mainsail. The cold front passes and winds freshen to about 40 knots, Yankee 2 comes down and we are sailing on staysail and two reefs only, still making 7-9 knots. Later in the evening the 3rd reef is set with winds about 45 knots. We have not had the service of a wind gauge since Cuba so the wind speeds are rough estimates. The waves are building and by midnight Taeping disappears from view in the wave troughs, wave heights being about 14-16 feet.
The early morning next day sees NW winds about 50 knots and the skipper decides to heave to, which basically means backing the staysail against the wind. The countering force of the main sail against the backed staysail keeps Taeping relatively stable in the water, bobbing up and down in the roaring seas. Taeping is heaved to for five hours, by which time we have gone 18 miles backwards due to unfavorable currents and the winds pushing us slowly downwind. Our hope of making Yokohama before the start of the next race is in jeopardy. In the morning of 27/2 progress is excruciatingly slow with unfavorable winds and current. The skipper convenes a meeting at lunch suggesting that we start our engines by late afternoon unless sailing conditions improve. This would ensure that we make Yokohama in time for the start of the leg to Shanghai. It also means we forfeit this part of the race and accept a last place. Tails you lose, heads you lose, the mood on board is not jubilant! Sightseeing in Japan will wait for another time. Conditions improve slightly but around 1700 the skipper turns on the engine. Hearing the hum of the engine is both relieving and sad, at least we are making 8 knots through the water in the right direction.
The currents are very strong (2-3 knots) and turbid coming from different points of the compass as we progress. At sunrise on 1/3 I was greeted by pilot whales jumping clear out of the water. We have entered the Kuroshio current, similar to the Atlantic Gulf Stream, a warm sub-tropical current flowing from SW to NE at 2-4 knots. Later in the morning we see the Japanese coast, what a relief. Approaching Yokohama, snow-capped Mount Fuji (3777 meters) is seen in the distance as a perfectly formed volcano in the clear winter air. In the early evening 1/3 Sir Robin Knox-Johnson greets us on the approach to Yokohama Yacht Club with a case of beer and an invitation to dinner at a local restaurant. With him comes the message that we must be ready to set sail for Shanghai by 0900 the next morning. 12 hours ashore is what we are given. The yacht club's facilities are the best we have seen anywhere, extremely well organised and very clean. For the first time I experience the sensation of heated toilet seats, a Japanese contribution to human welfare. My salt-encrusted face and aching muscles enjoy a hot steaming shower, if only we could enjoy this another day. Some members of the crew end up in the bar and rapidly proceed to unconsciousness. The following morning sees half the crew getting ready for another leg, the other half still unconscious.
Yokohama to Shanghai, 2-11/3/99 Motored out of Yokohama for five hours and started race in echelon formation out in the ocean. Serica was slightly ahead of the imaginary start line and Mermerus and Thermopylae lodged a protest, subsequently rejected. We got off to a flying start with Yankee 2 (Y2), staysail, and full main. For the first hour we were in the lead, even Ariel couldn't catch us. Then the winds died. We tacked away from shore together with Ariel and Serica and by nightfall the three of us had a large lead on the other four boats, 30-40 miles. The winds freshened to a gale, reefs were set and Y2 came down. By the next morning we were in 3rd place, with Thermopylae catching us slowly. Racing along the southern coast of Japan in Winter is a battle with the elements. The Kuroshio current can make progress very slow. It is also known as the "Black Snake" due to the colour of the current. It meanders along the coast sometimes right up to shore sometimes 30-40 miles at sea, at its narrowest it is only 25 miles wide, at its broadest 75 miles, and can reach speeds up to 4 knots. When you are caught in its grip with little wind you drift backwards (Northeast) - depressing. Winds were very fluky during the next four days and the field closed up, our earlier lead vanishing in the Kuroshio current. Taeping only has one working spinnaker pole. Therefore every time the wind shifts around the stern we cannot jibe onto the other tack but have to bring the spinnaker down, set up the pole on the other side and re-hoist the spinnaker. This happened on numerous occasions in addition to all manner of other sail changes. The crew was getting fatigued and frustrated by the lack of progress.
Approaching the southern tip of Japan in the early morning on the sixth day, I was leading the watch when the winds suddenly freshened from the north. Within half an hour the winds had gone from 3-4 knots to 30 knots. It was time to drop the spinnaker. During this process the spinnaker caught wind on the wrong side and started wrapping around the 2nd forestay. Within a minute the spinnaker had the appearance of a giant vertical bow-tie, not good news. We tried to raise the genoa and then back it to shelter the spinnaker from the winds, but the genoa couldn't be hoisted more than 2/3 up the forestay before it caught on the spinnaker wrap. The genoa was lowered. The skipper went aloft in a harness to try to untangle the mess. He cut the two jib halyards which were caught inside the wrap, in the hope of getting the spinnaker down. To no avail. During this time the winds strengthened. The forecast predicted freshening winds from NW to N. He was getting bounced around the rigging and took quite a beating. He was lowered to the deck battered and bruised. He told us that the 2nd forestay was unraveling at the top with 4 or 5 strands of wire in the cable already broken. The staysail halyard and one spinnaker uphaul were attached to the foredeck to provide additional mast support in case the 2nd forestay collapsed completely. A running backstay was set from the cockpit to provide similar support. A broken mast would mean the end of the road for Taeping.
Within an hour of the wrap the winds were 40 knots and increasing. The mainsail had 3 reefs and there were no headsails. At daybreak we were in a force 9-10 with horisontal sheets of water flying off the wave crests and battering our faces. The sea was a mixture of black, green and white foam. And still the top third of the spinnaker was partially filled - few can say they have run a spinnaker in a force 10 and live to tell about it! We were on a reach (winds at 90 degrees to the boat) trying to make for shelter of the headland. The rigging was under tremendous strain. Finally the spinnaker cloth ripped and started shredding in the fierce wind, making a tremendous sound. However, it relieved the rig of a dangerous load. Riding the storm for three hours we made the headland and with it a sanctuary. Taeping sailed into a bay behind the headland, the wind had eased almost completely, to assess the damage and take stock. The 2nd forestay was out of action, preventing us from setting a staysail. The two jib halyards had been cut so we had to rely on the two remaining spinnaker halyards to hoist headsails, not ideal but would do. An already fatigued crew was exhausted!
Entering the East China Sea the water temperature dropped rapidly from 10 degrees to 5, 4, 3 and the lowest reading was just above 2 degrees Centigrade. Not a single piece of clothing was dry. With the drop in temperature condense started forming inside the cabin. Getting ready for watch meant extricating yourself from a warm sleeping bag and spending twenty minutes putting back on damp and cold layers of clothing. Once in the cockpit the biting Siberian wind and sea spray did not improve the comfort factor. But what the hell - this is ocean racing, I expected and prepared for these conditions. By this time we were in last place - again! The head office instructed the skipper to maintain at least 8 knots boat speed to make sure we made Shanghai in time for trips organised to Beijing and the Great Wall. The engine was turned on during a brief lull in the wind - this part of the race was over for Taeping.
All the Clipper boats rendezvoused at an anchorage 80 miles SE of Shanghai to await pilots up the Yangtze estuary. After a 20 hour lay-over we steamed towards the meeting point with the pilots. Taeping lead the convoy - the only time we could see all our competitors in the rearview mirror. Each boat got a pilot, ours was Mr Hua. The poor fellow was dressed for a Spring outing and we gave him additional clothing and gloves to ensure that Mr Hua was not dead on arrival. He was used to much larger vessels and a sheltered bridge, we offered him an open cockpit and a cup of tea. The motion of our boat was unfamiliar to him and within twenty minutes the hapless fellow was below deck retching. So here we were in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes with an incapacitated pilot - but we have been through worse. Following a few close calls with vessels a thousand times our size we made the Huangpu River. In a cold, hazy sunshine we rode proudly into Shanghai at the front of the pack. People were lining the waterfront watching this parade of lunatics riding up the river. And what a place this is: new skyscrapers mixing Western and Eastern influence; shipyards aplenty; wharves; docks; a teeming water-borne life; 14 million people in the neighbourhood; great riches and poverty. And last but not least a resting place for Taeping and its battered crew after forty days at sea. Until Hong Kong (ETA 22/3/99) I say "Zaijian" (goodbye, pronounced tsigh djyan).
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