Practical Sailors June and July 2008 issues documented veteran West Coast racer Skip Allans preparations for the 2008 Singlehanded TransPac, a race he eventually won. In this tragic epilogue, Skip describes his final days aboard his custom Tom Wylie-designed sloop, Wildflower. After 62 hours gale-force winds, Skip made the decision to leave Wildflower and transfer to a commercial vessel, the MSC Toronoto. Just before boarding the passing container ship, Skip scuttled the boat he called home-one that he built himself 34 years before. Skip describes in this article the weather conditions, what gear and techniques worked well during the storm, what led to his decision to leave Wildflower, and how he boarded a 1,000-foot-long, 125-foot-high container ship in gale conditions.
The June and July 2008 issues documented veteran sailor Skip Allans preparations for the 2008 Singlehanded TransPac, a race he ultimately won. What follows is the tragic epilogue, as Skip was forced to leave behind his custom Tom Wylie-designed sloop,
Wildflower, in a gale off the coast of California during the return trip.
By Skip Allan
When we sailed from San Francisco to Kauai in the 2008 Singlehanded TransPac (SHTP) in July, Wildflower and I were in the best shape of our careers. We arrived in Kauai in just over 16 days, winning our class and overall honors on corrected time. However, even with the thorough preparation and planning, going to sea in a small boat is never a sure thing. After two weeks of cruising Hawaiian waters, we set sail Aug. 13, solo, from Hanalei Bay back toward our homeport of Santa Cruz, Calif., 2,200 miles as the albatross flies.
During the following two weeks, we sailed close-hauled due north 800 miles in the northeast tradewinds, then gradually curved 1,000 miles east, clockwise, over the top of the Pacific High, the expansive high-pressure system that dominates this part of the Pacific Ocean.
With less than 1,000 miles to go, I was tracking conditions ahead in “Gale Alley,” a notorious area of ocean between 34 and 42 degrees north, and 124 and 128 degrees west, which in June, July, and August produces the highest frequency of gales and seas in excess of 12 feet in the North Pacific.
and I had crossed Gale Alley before. I knew we would be met by vigorous winds and seas generated by isobars compressed between a strong Pacific High and the low pressure of hot inland deserts and valleys of southern Oregon and California. These conditions can persist for days, sometimes even a week or more. Generally, the forecast 30- to 40-knot northwesterly winds are less of a problem than the steep and breaking seas they create. The main risk for a small boat in a gale is capsize.
On Monday, Aug. 25, I dropped the jib, reefed the main in light winds, and slowed down in smooth seas to a pedestrian 3 knots to let the gale conditions ahead moderate. Twice a day, via SSB radio, I was receiving weatherfax forecasts, GRIB files, and weather reports from fellow singlehanders ahead. (See Weather Data, facing page.) A stout Perry-designed Saga 43 400 miles ahead reported winds 34 to 43 knots and 20-foot seas, causing its skipper to run 80 miles downwind under storm jib, past his destination of San Francisco. Also in the gale, a 45-foot Norm Cross trimaran holed its windward ama. The tri was assisted by both a container ship and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Midgett, which accompanied them for 18 hours as they limped to San Francisco with the windward hull submerged.
Securing for the worst, I felt confident that we could cross Gale Alley as we had done before, gaining latitude to 40 degrees north, and then broad reaching southeast under shortened sail toward home. With family caretaking obligations awaiting, turning back to Hawaii 2,000 miles downwind was not an option I seriously considered.
At sunset on Friday, Aug. 29, near 40 degrees north and 130 degrees west, conditions began to deteriorate rapidly. I changed down to the No. 4 jib (75-percent short hoist) and storm staysail, dropping the main completely. The next day, Saturday, Aug. 30, with Santa Cruz 365 miles to the east, we were running off due south in 35 to 40 knots of wind, with higher gusts. At 3:30 p.m., I dropped the No. 4, flying only the storm staysail (39 square feet), and began towing a 30-inch-diameter metal-hooped conical vinyl drogue.
The night was uncomfortable, windy, and rolly, with breaking waves filling the cockpit about every five minutes. Occasionally, the boat was spun 90 degrees and knocked down as far as 70 degrees by the seas, which I estimated in the 15- to 25-foot range. Wildflowers shallow cockpit and oversized 2-inch drains allowed full drainage in about 90 seconds, and this was not a problem.
Periodically drenched with spray, the electric Raymarine 1000 tillerpilot was steering admirably. The Sail-O-Mat windvane could not prevent a wave-induced broach in these conditions, and I had retracted its oar to avoid fouling the drogue rode.
On Sunday, Aug. 31, the wind continued a steady 35 knots with gusts to 45, with a confused wave train from the northwest, north, and northeast. At 9:15 a.m., I winched in the drogue to change from a high-tech spinnaker sheet to stretchy nylon anchor line only to discover that the reinforced vinyl cloth drogue had split, and was no longer effective. I deployed two spare drogues, but without a metal hoop to maintain shape, they would periodically collapse in a breaking crest and were less effective.
At noon, the gale had abated to 30 knots, gusting to 35. With two safety harnesses tightly tethered to the windward rail, I began to hand steer on a reach with the No. 4. It was mogul sailing at its best, bearing away frequently to avoid hissing 8- to 12-foot breakers on the top of estimated 15- to 25-foot seas.
At sunset, I again sought safety below, with the tillerpilot continuing to steer under the No. 4 jib on a broad reach. Not long after, the wind and seas began to build further. I dropped the No. 4, and later the storm staysail, as we were running too fast, at 6 to 9 knots. Under bare poles downwind, the speed dropped to 5 to 7 knots. That night, I stayed below wearing full foulies, a headlamp, and harness, ready to exit out the hatch and take the tiller if the autopilot failed and we subsequently rounded up.
During the night, my third in this particular gale, breaking crests would poop the boat about every five minutes, filling the cockpit and surging against the reinforced companionway hatch boards, spraying some nuisance water into the cabin.
During the long wait for daylight, I had more than enough time to ponder what might happen if the autopilot was damaged or washed off its mount: I hadnt seen seas this dangerous since sailing on Imp in the 1979 Fastnet Race Force 10 (55-knot) storm, when 146 of the 306 boats were rolled over to 90 degrees and 38 boats rolled to 180 degrees. In that race, 15 lives were lost.
If or when the autopilot failed, Wildflower would likely round up, beam to the seas, and possibly be rolled and dismasted. I carried two spare tillerpilots. But it would take several dangerous minutes, exposed in the cockpit, on my knees, to hook up a replacement.
Though not seasick, I was being worn down and felt decision-making might soon be compromised. Wildflower had as yet suffered no serious damage: Her bilge was dry; the radios and sat phone were working; the interior was in order; and the engine and solar panels were charging.
At 7:15 a.m. the following morning, Monday, Sept. 1, I sat-phoned a longtime and highly experienced sailing friend. We had maintained twice daily ham radio contact since I left Hanalei, and he had Internet access to forecast weather, GRIB files, QuikSCAT wind measurements, wave height charts, buoy reports, and routing programs. My friends unvarnished weather analysis for this particular gale was continuing winds of 35 to 45 knots and 18- to 22-foot waves along Wildflowers route, lasting for at least another three days. The only way for us to exit Gale Alley and reach calmer seas was to reach eastward for 250 miles, a point of sail I could not safely achieve.
I asked my friend for help in making a difficult decision. We agreed he would alert Coast Guard San Francisco Search and Rescue (SAR) by landline phone to my position and situation, and would query SAR what the protocol would be if I needed assistance. (Coast Guard San Francisco, Kodiak, and Honolulu were not responding to my SSB radio calls.) I wanted to make sure the Coast Guard understood I was not in trouble, and was not asking for help at this time.
Coast Guard SAR advised that Wildflower was beyond its 100-mile helicopter range, but that there was a foreign-flagged commercial vessel, MSC Toronto, inbound to California, that would pass Wildflower in the near future.
Three more days of gale conditions were going to test Wildflower and me to our limits, perhaps beyond. But transferring to a large commercial vessel would be highly risky. A decision had to be made before the ship passed by and before darkness fell on my fourth night riding out this gale.
For the next hour, sitting on the cabin sole on my life raft, I debated whether to ask for assistance in leaving Wildflower. She was my home, consort, and magic carpet that I had built 34 years before, and together we had covered more than 100,000 miles. She was also uninsured.
At noon, Sept. 1, I slid the hatch open to get a clear Sat phone signal, and called Coast Guard SAR. Thanks to the earlier advisory, SAR already knew our situation, and only asked, “What are you requesting?” I chokingly replied, “I am asking for assistance to be removed from my boat.”
SAR advised me that the MSC Toronto would intercept Wildflower in four to five hours, that I was NOT to trigger the EPIRB unless needed, and that I must take the EPIRB with me when I left Wildflower. SAR also advised that by leaving my boat, she would be considered “derelict” and a hazard. I assured SAR that I would not leave my boat afloat.
An hour later, Wildflowers AIS alarm rang. The MSC Toronto was showing 30 miles away, and closing at 23.4 knots from the southwest. Somberly, I packed my documents, wallet, passport, laptop, camera, cellphone, Sat phone, logbook, EPIRB, and a change of clothes into waterproof bags.
At eight miles, the captain of the MSC Toronto called Wildflower on the VHF. He explained his ship was over 1,000 feet long, that he would lie perpendicular to the wind and waves while making a lee at a forward speed of slow ahead (6 knots). He also explained that I would board his ship from a pilots ladder that led to a door, on the aft starboard side. I asked if he could slow to between 3 and 4 knots, and he agreed to try.
At five miles, a sharp-eyed lookout on MSC Toronto briefly sighted Wildflower ahead. This ships radar picked us up at 2.5 miles. Soon, one of the biggest container ships in the world was bearing down on Wildflower. Less than 125 feet dead ahead, its bulb bow was scending 20 feet and making a 5-foot breaking wave. With my heart in my throat, I motored down the starboard side of a gigantic black wall of steel, made a U-turn, and pulled alongside the pilots ladder while maintaining a boat speed of 5 knots. (See “Seamanship”)
With a heaving line, the ships crew quickly transferred my gear while the captain held position with the bow thruster. I jumped below, said a final farewell to Wildflower, and pulled the already unclamped hose off the saltwater thru-hull. At the shrouds, I reached for the bottom rung of the pilots ladder, which was alternately at head height and out of reach, depending on the ships roll. I grabbed hold, did a pull up onto the ladder, and climbed up, wearing a 15-pound backpack with my most valuable possessions and EPIRB.
At 2:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 1, at position 3517 N, 12638 W, the MSC Toronto resumed its voyage to Long Beach, Calif., leaving Wildflower alone. I watched her slide astern, but could barely see through my tears.
Four hours later, I was on the bridge of MSC Toronto watching the anemometer continuing to register true wind speeds of 32 to 35 knots. From 140 feet off the water, the 20-foot seas below still looked impressive, and the ships motion was sending spray above the top row of containers on the forward part of the ship. For the following 24 hours, I was treated with utmost kindness by the captain and crew of the MSC Toronto. Their ship-handling and seamanship were of the highest order and most professional caliber. The captain assured me that the transfer did not impact their voyage and that we would arrive in Long Beach ahead of schedule.
Some interested sailors have asked whether heaving to with a sea anchor was an option. My own experiences with Wildflowers sea anchor, and our successful tactic used aboard Imp in the 1979 Fastnet taught me that running under minimal sail and controllable speeds, while staying in line with the wave train, is the best tactic to avoid capsize in a gale at sea-if the crew is up to it.
I feel that running off is still the best storm tactic for a small, fin-keel design, as most modern designs have more buoyancy aft than forward. In addition, running off reduces the force of the waves that come aboard. For this tactic to work, the boat must have a strong, water-tight main hatch, a cockpit that drains quickly, and good self steering, preferably a belowdecks autopilot. Sea anchors, drogues, and towing warps are no guaranteed panacea, and their deployment is best practiced and validated before placing ones self in the path of a gale at sea.
My leaving Wildflower was emotional and heartbreaking. Time will heal the loss of a good friend. When asked about possible alternatives, I would only say that voyaging in small boats is risky, and that I have not second-guessed my decision.