Anyone who has ever run before a gale knows how exhilarating it can be. On the right boat, in the right conditions, the adrenaline rush is as intense as any we’ll feel in this world. Bull riders, surfers, and skydivers get a few seconds of excitement. An ocean gale can last for days … and that’s where the problem lies.
With your senses completely in tune with the boat, wind, and sea, the experience of hurtling down an ocean wave stirs the soul. But as the hours pass and day turns to night, the thrill gives way to exhaustion. Mostly, you’re too busy to be afraid, but each mountain of green water that fills the cockpit brings doubt. How high will these waves get? How long can I last?
Even with a drogue streaming off the stern to slow down the boat, running before storm-driven waves entails a great deal of risk. There’s danger enough aboard a fully crewed boat, as the rig, sails, and steering gear get pushed to the brink.
For the singlehander, the situation is especially precarious. Few autopilots or self-steering vanes can be trusted in a breaking stern sea. A single gear failure can spell doom. Once you have committed to this course, any attempt to change tactics can be disastrous.
In our June and July issues, noted single-handed sailor Skip Allan shared his insight into gear selection and tactics for solo racing and cruising aboard his 27-foot custom, Tom Wylie-designed sloop, Wildflower. Shortly after we published the second installment, Skip won the 30th Annual Singlehanded Trans-Pacific Race by a wide margin, covering the 2,120 miles from San Francisco to Honolulu in a corrected time of 10 days and 21 hours. Thirty years after his second-place finish in the inaugural race, Skip had taken care of—as he put it—”some unfinished business.”
Last month, on his return trip home, a seven-day gale planted itself between Wildflower and the California coast. Two days into the storm, Skip had problems with his drogues—his first broke, and the backup had a tendency to collapse and lose its bite. Running before 30-knot winds, Wildflower was being repeatedly knocked to 70 degrees on her beam. As the gale showed no signs of abating for days, Skip imagined it was only a matter of time before the huge seas, 12-foot breakers atop 30-foot crests, overwhelmed the boat’s tillerpilot.
Thinking of his parents who depend on him back home in California, Skip made the difficult decision to ask for assistance. A few hours later, a container ship bound for Los Angeles plucked him off Wildflower. Before scrambling up to the pilot’s ladder, Skip pulled the engine intake hose off its open through-hull and scuttled the boat. The stout little fin-keeler that Skip had built, and his partner for 34 years of racing and cruising, scraped down the side of the ship’s hull and went under the stern. Through tears, he watched it go.
Skip provides a detailed account of his experience on the SHTP race’s online forum at www.sfbaysss.net/. Given his long and storied career as a sailor, and his intimate knowledge of Wildflower, there can be no questioning his choice, one of the hardest that any sailor must make. But however sad it is when a sailor loses a cherished boat, it is far more tragic when the world loses a good sailor. Practical Sailor, and so many others, are thankful that Skip is still with us to continue to share his experience and wisdom.
On the cover: The newest crop of antifouling paints are carefully applied to fiberglass panels for in-thewater testing. Photo by Al Herum.