Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage. Newsletter No 19
Newsletter from Fine Tolerance
The trip from Greenland to Bermuda.
It was Sunday and the storm that had been blowing for the past few days appeared to have finally petered out. By 10.00 we were ready for departure and with just a few light puffs of wind rippling the surface of the water ever now and then we motored down the 15 nm of fiord to the open sea. When we hit the open ocean there was still a 2 to 2 ½ meter sea running on an otherwise glassy surface and we continued motoring to give us some sea room from the rocky land we were departing from. We had expected more wind when we cleared the land and hoped that we had not left our departure too late. Our idea had been to latch onto the back of the passing low pressure and use the easing conditions to slingshot us out into the North Atlantic. It was 2000 nm across to Portugal and it was quite late to be making a passage across the North Atlantic but we considered that the time spent in Greenland had more than made up for a potential rough passage.
By 15.00 hours the wind had increased a little and we were able to turn off the engine and begin to sail. With full main and furler we bounced over the seas on course to clear Cape Farewell, the most southerly point of Greenland. From there it was an uninterrupted course to Portugal. The wind steadily increased and so, just before dark, we put a double reef in the main. The seas were messy and with the wind continuing to increase we decided to heave to for the night. The wind was from astern and in a hove to position we would still be making ground. The seas were now 4 meters, confused, and rising and as we were still in quite a high latitude, just below 60 degrees north, the compass was sluggish to respond and had been difficult to steer to. We put another reef in the main, the third, checked everything and retired below. The night was pitch black, the wind was still rising and the seas were still building.
By midnight the wind was howling. Usually Fine Tolerance lies comfortably hove to, taking the waves on the forward quarter, but this time the wind was so strong we had a permanent heel of 30 to 40 degrees and were being held mostly sideways to the wind and seas. Liz lay down on the side cabin floor while I took the lower bunk. This is the most securest position in Fine tolerance and gave us both quick access to the deck. Sleep wasn’t possible but other than the odd wave slamming into Fine Tolerance’s side things seemed OK. At 03.00 hours our world was turned up side down.
It’s difficult to describe what actually happens when you find yourself not the right way up. One thing is that you are not really ready for it; another is that it happens so quickly that you are not really sure of what happened anyway. There was no outer body experience watching in slow motion what happened or anything like that. One minute we were lying there listening to the wind howl and feeling the wave’s crash into Fine Tolerance. The next moment, without warning, a huge crash and we were thrown against the cabin side. The floor space where Liz was lying is a very close fit that tapers inward with the base of the bottom bunk while where I was lying had the top bunk directly overhead. Neither of us was thrown out of our immediate area. In fact we were in the safest possible place we could have been in in the entire boat. How long we were held down for neither of us knows, but we both think it was somewhere between 5 and 8 seconds before Fine Tolerance righted herself again.
I can remember Liz calling out ‘What happened?’, not I am sure because she had no idea but more as an exclamation and a check to see if I was OK enough to answer. I remember also answering ‘We went upside down’ as I struggled to my feet. This is not as easy as it sounds I remember with my first step going through a hole in the sole where one of the inspection floors had come out. The next step was into the companionway ladder which was resting against the nav station. Turning a cabin light on showed a scene from the house wreakers. The companionway ladder, heavily made from Western Australian hardwood, had broken both bronze securing latches and had smashed into the navigational computer, breaking its screen. The small spice jars had flown out of their shelf in the kitchen, shattering as they flight was arrested by the deck head and spreading shards of glass all around. All the moveable sections of the floor had moved to as yet places unknown and the sea water that had poured in around the loosely closed companionway hatch had drowned everything. Worst of all was black diesel oil everywhere. The day before we had left I had changed the engine oil and replaced the oil filter. The engine oil is an easy operation but capturing the oil when changing the filter is harder. When I had done this, as I had removed the container, it had slipped out of my hands and oil had drained down into the bilge compartment under the engine. Not wishing to pollute by pumping it overboard and having no oil absorbent pads to soak it up I had figured it would be safe there until we got to civilization and could clean it up and dispose of it properly. Now it was everywhere. Black used diesel oil over everything. Especially over me. Both of us had been lying down fully dressed. Now my bright orange survival suit was half black, along with its nauseating smell. The first thing was to get the floor pieces back in and lash the companionway stairs back in place. This done, a check topsides was next. The bimini was flapping wildly, the canvas dodger likewise. At first look I thought the mast had gone but the motion of the boat told us this wasn’t so. Both sails were still there even, but the main was in bad shape. Other than two stainless steel mast slides every other slide, which were standard nylon composite ones, had broken with the result that the bolt rope had torn out of the luff. Although now shapeless, being held to the mast by the two stainless slides, it was still holding us hove to with the small, back winded storm stay sail. With the damage already done there did not seem to be any advantage in venturing out to pull it down and so we left it as it was.
Unfortunately, when something like this happens, things don’t instantly calm down. The storm still raged with Fine Tolerance still being well healed and being thrown about by the seas. We got it so that we could walk on the sole without stepping into a missing piece of flooring and cleared away the larger bulky items that had been dislodged. For the first time since starting sailing I was sick. While the motion wouldn’t have helped nor did the oil on my clothing but there was no way I was going to take of the survival suit. In these conditions we could not run the heater and the temperature was hovering just above 0 degrees.
For the next 30 hours, while the storm raged before starting to ease back, we would get up and clean for 15 minutes before sickness got the better of us and then we would have to lie down for 1 to 1 ½ hours and recover. It was not a pleasant time. Physically we were OK, nothing broken or sprained but mentally we were struggling. For the first time for both of us the joy had gone out of sailing, to be left with a dark empty space.
By first light we could move about Fine Tolerance again. We had found all the floor inspection hatches except one (we found it a few days later amongst a pile of warm weather clothing on the top forward bunk) and although below was still a mess it was taking on some semblance of order. Things that were still working were the VHF and HF radios, the radar, and the GPS’s. We were grateful for these as with these, and with the rig still standing we felt that we would be able to work out of this situation. We felt that it was the cold that presented the biggest problem as even on a good day at this latitude we could expect no more than 5 degrees or so.
Shortly after dawn the VHF crackled into life. “Fine Tolerance, Fine Tolerance, Fine Tolerance. This is Aasiaat Radio, Aasiaat Radio, Aasiaat Radio. Do you copy?” We looked at one other. Aasiaat Radio was Greenland’s Maritime Radio. What could they want with us we wondered? We had phoned customs that we were departing.
We called back that we could copy.
“Are you in trouble” they asked. “We have received an EBIRB distress signal from an EPIRB registered to your vessel”
I checked the EPIRB next to the companionway. It was in its normal switched off position. Then we remembered the liferaft. We also had a 406 EPIRB packed in the liferaft before we had left Australia. I climbed the companionway to the deck, holding aside the flapping pieces of the torn dodger and sure enough, where there had once been the liferaft secure in its cradle, there was now an empty space. We confirmed with Aasiaat radio that we had been slammed over by a large sea and that our liferaft lashing had broken, and it, along with its EPIRB, had been swept overboard. The EPIRB had been of the water activated type and had obviously been activated when the liferaft had inflated after being swept overboard. It was good to know the system worked. Within 6 hours of the incident they were on to us. Luckily we were still within the range of their powerful transmitters on Cape Farewell and they had been able to contact us otherwise a expensive search would have been the next step. After we had convinced then that there were no persons in the liferaft the rescue centre relaxed. We were now without a liferaft although we still had our rigid bottom inflatable dinghy which had been tied on the front deck. The handles where the dinghy had been tied down with had been torn off on one side and it had been hanging over the railing after we came upright, but we still had it and now it gave us at least some comfort if things got even worse.
Finally the storm passed us by. We had been blown 70 nm SSE’ward during the storm. The seas still remained confused but had calmed down a lot and the wind had come back to 10 to 15 kts. We let the engine sit for two days before we attempted to start it, trying it first on our flattest battery bank to see whether it would turn over, which it did, before switching over to the fully charged batteries. It started immediately which was another big plus. For the next two days we managed to make 60 miles both days. As soon as it was light and we had something to steer to we would make way and then after dark we could keep going for nearly two hours before the strain of keeping the boat on course became too much and we would heave to for the remainder of the night. On the fourth day another gale hit us and we remained hove to in 30 to 35 kt winds from the west. We had not been able to raise our friend in Cambridge Bay, whom we had arranged to receive weather reports since we had left Greenland, and had no idea to what strength the wind would get to or how long it would last. Fortunately by the next morning it began to ease and the seas at last began to settle and take on a more normal rhythm. That night we even saw stars for the first time and continued under way throughout the night on still calming seas under the storm stay sail and damaged main. By morning the seas had calmed even more and so we hove to once again and took on the task of repairing the main. We carry spare slides, needle and thread and other sail repair equipment but the torn bolt rope was too much to repair. We did replace all the slides and attached them to the sail as best we could but we knew it would not be strong enough if the wind got up again which it would surely do before we reached any shelter. Still in calmer weather we now had a usable main. Our spare main is old and while in one piece and usable we knew it also would not be able to stand up to this type of extreme weather either. We elected to use the one we had repaired as if it was lost we wouldn’t have lost that much considering the condition it was now in. The repairs took over three hours due to the motion of the seas but at least we were no longer seasick, our bodies having adjusted to the conditions. We had also cleaned up most of the oil which had made quite a difference to our comfort level below.
By that evening we were back into storm conditions. Forty five knot southerly winds, accompanied with heavy snow, lashed the boat as we lay hove to. At least with the water being thrown around the snow did not get to build up on the deck very much and we only experienced a very slight icing on the decks. We had managed during the last 5 days, since being tipped up, to have made 300 nm to the south but now, with this storm we were being driven back. Twenty four hours later we had been driven back 50 nm. It was time to get serious. We figured that no one would expect to hear from us for at least another three weeks but the way we were making progress it would take 6 weeks at least to make landfall. Our main problem was the cold and having to hand steer in it. We had to look after ourselves if we were going to make it and freezing and running ourselves down was not the way to do it. Slow and sure would see us get to safety. Crossing to Portugal, with 1500 nm of it having to be sailed between 40 degrees and 60 degrees latitude was not the way to do it and the decision was made to make for the Straits of Belle Isle, the strait separating Newfoundland from Labrador. This was only a little over 300 nm away. If the weather was kind to us we could make it in three days.
The next day was calm. The barometer was back up to 999 and with Liz steering we motored along while I attacked the task of stitching up the dodger, the canvas cover that protects the companionway and also offers some protection to the cockpit. The sea had really calmed down, the sun was out, we even had some dolphins come play around the boat but it was still cold being just a few degrees above freezing. It took 5 hours to stitch up the dodger, a task done with out gloves. It was to be 8 weeks before my finger tips returned to normal but what we had now was some shelter and the moral boost that Fine Tolerance was starting to look like her old self again. The seas were flat enough to have the heater roaring as well. By the end of the day we were back to where we had been positioned three days before, before the storm had driven us backwards. That evening we managed to contact the Canadian Coast Guard Station at St Johns, the main town of Newfoundland and had requested a weather report. We also explained what had happen to us and that we were heading for the Straits of Belle Isle. The weather news we received was not good. Another storm was headed our way with winds expected to reach 60 kts accompanied with snow and freezing rain. It was expected to reach us the next day.
The next day dawned calm with flat seas and a heavy mist. There was no way we could outrun this storm so we just sat there and waited in the windless, still conditions. We checked around the boat, doubly securing everything we felt may be at risk of moving or chaffing. Suddenly we heard a noise, a plane, a prop driven plane. It could only be out here looking for us. The mist gave us a visibility of maybe 200 meters but we had the radio. We quickly switched it on and called using Channel 16. Immediately the plane’s radio operator came on the air. It was a Hercules; sent out by the Canadian Rescue Services to check that we were alright. They asked what the visibility was like at sea level as all they could see was mist. We told them that that was all we could see as well but they said they wanted to get a visual on us and asked for our co-ordinates. Minutes later they swooped overhead, just visible in the mist at 400 ft. They made another swoop then ascertaining that we had things reasonably under control and that we were fit and healthy. They then called and said that they would make another swoop and drop a liferaft off to us. With the coming storm we may need it! It took them 30 minutes to re-rig the liferaft so that it would not open on impact with the water and then, after one more dummy run flew low overhead, pushing the liferaft out of the loading bay. Once again we marveled at the high standard of the Canadian Coast Guard. The raft bobbed to the surface less than 100 meters from us and within minutes we had it on board. The crew then wished us luck and soon the propellers were out of earshot. We were by ourselves again, surrounded by the still seas and mist.
We didn’t have to wait long. By that evening the wind was gusting up to 60 kts again. This time we hove to under backed storm stay sail alone. We knew our basic repairs to the main were fair weather repairs only and we did not wish to destroy it completely. It was quite possible that it would come in handy before this passage was over. Without the main flying Fine Tolerance stood more upright and although we shuddered along with Fine Tolerance every time a wave slammed into us, heeling us over that little bit more, there was none of the violence that we experienced in the storm that tipped us up. There could be a number of explanations for this. It’s true that the wind was not as strong but there was more to it than that. The fact that we had no main up at all, we feel, helped a lot. There was a lot less pressure on the sails and our healing angle was reduced considerably. Another thing may have been that the seas had started from a dead calm. In the previous storm the seas already had a 2 to 3 meter start. But the thing that we feel could have had the most effect was that we were in an area where there was little current, instead of in the stronger currents found around Cape Farewell. Whatever it was, even though at the height of the storm we were tensing ourselves in anticipation, our faith in Fine Tolerance was returning. By midday the next day the seas were already starting to reduce. That afternoon we fitted the trysail and put our full size staysail up. Our storm staysail had split along one of the seams for about 600mm (about 2 feet) and we wanted to get it sewn up before the 600mm went from leach to luff necessitating a much large repair. Our full size staysail has three reef points sewn into it so we could adjust it to a certain degree which, six hours later, we did when once again the wind rose to 35 knots. The following morning, with the barometer at 993 and slowly rising we were able to pull out our furler and set sail again. We managed to make some ground, traveling at 5 kts all day but by night with a confused sea we hove to once again. The compass was improving but it was still to difficult to steer to and the risk of jibing and doing serious damage to something, when we had so little resources to our name, did not warrant the risk for the few more miles we would gain.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that we would not be able to make the Straits of Belle Isle as the near continuous westerlies would not allow us to make enough easting so we changed our destination to St Johns. We were at the stage where the two places were nearly equal distance away and we also felt that repairs would be more easily undertaken there.
It snowed all that day but with a steady 20 kt wind from the WSW we were able to balance Fine Tolerance to steer herself. On the 21st November we finally crossed the 50 degrees latitude line. We had come just 600 nm in15 days.
The seas and wind calmed over the next few days and on the 23rd we saw our first ship. We did not make any attempt to contact them but it was comforting to know that we weren’t out here alone. The wind returned once again, again from the WSW and once more we could set the sails to self steer. That evening we were enveloped by a thick fog and although we could not see the full moon we were surrounded by the ghostly white lightning up of the fog around us caused by it. We were now over the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and as a precaution we had our radar going, sweeping every 5 minutes for a distance of 6 miles around us. At two o’clock in the morning I sighted a blip dead ahead. In ten minutes of fiddling with the controls I was sure it was a ship, probably engaged in some form of trawling as it was remaining nearly stationary. I took its position and, using the VHF radio, called it up on channel 16. It immediately replied but to my question as to whether he was a fishing vessel he replied in the negative. He was an oil rig tender and we were heading straight towards a fixed oil rig. This definitely was not turning out to be one of our luckier passage makings.
I should point out here that we had no charts for the east side of the Atlantic as we were originally heading for Europe and our charts for this side had stopped at the Straits of Belle Isle. We did have a Northern Atlantic Chart that covered from the Bahamas to Greenland, from Europe to America but this gave no details of any oil field on the Grand Banks. To our knowledge there were no oil rigs in this part of the world. I enquired as to how many rigs there were on the Banks to which we were told two. Two! Of all the luck. Only two in tens of thousand’s of square miles of empty ocean and we had to run dead into them. We received the coordinates for them, plus a tanker and a supply ship, both of which were stationary. We plotted them all and then plotted an avoidance course around them. They had a five miles exclusion zone and it was well past daybreak, still in heavy fog, before we finally cleared them and once again could resume course. We had seen nothing but fog but could hear them talking between themselves on the VHF radio. Actually resuming course is really a misnomer as with the wind continually from the west to south west we were still heading southward. St Johns was only 190 nm away in a NW direction so once again we changed our destination. This time to Halifax which was due west of us. The westerly winds would have to give up sometime and the prospect of attempting to head back northwards held little appeal at this stage.
We had read in ‘Ocean Passages of the World’ how, when one meets the Gulf Stream, the temperature rose and the water changed colour from grey to blue. We knew that as we came off the Grand Banks we would be in the area where this would occur, and we were constantly checking the colour of the water but could detect no change. Maybe it was an odd year we thought but then we both became aware that it was indeed quite a bit warmer. We checked the temperature gauge that hangs on the salon bulkhead. It was 17 degrees. In three hours it had gone from 7 degrees to 17 degrees. We were in the Gulf Stream. Every journey is made up of many small steps and we felt we had just made another one. We were now in the warmest weather we had been in for the last 16 months. Things were feeling better. For the first time we felt as if we had left the Arctic behind. The seas were only 2 meters or so but still quite confused and with the wind still from the west we kept on heading in a southward direction.
Two days later it became obvious that Halifax was not going to be our answer either. The only island left in front of us was Bermuda now and although it was over 800 nm away it was sure to be warm there with the weather sure to improve the more we headed towards it. Once again we changed destination and Bermuda became the place we now began to aim for. It was now the 30th November. We had been at sea for 24 days and had covered 1150 nm, an average of 45 nm per day made good, and we were now nearly through the 40’s, practically due east from New York even, and if the wind stayed as it was we could even be down into the 30’s by the next day.
This was not to be. The next day it rained, and rained, and rained, and then rained some more. It came down by the buckets. It wasn’t freezing anymore though and we knew that we had left behind the ice and snow for now. But with the bimini gone, standing out steering making only 2 to 3 kts was not our idea of fun and so once again we hove to.
When we first left Greenland, we had tried to contact some friends in Australia on the HF radio and while we had failed in that endeavor, we did hear, on a neighbouring channel, a radio schedule of yachts in the mid Atlantic region. We had thought nothing of it at the time but now recalled it and that evening we listened with more interest. This was definitely some sort of weather routing service run by a man called Herb and which appeared to originate from the Bermuda Islands. At the end of the schedule, by far the biggest one we had ever heard and lasting for over 1 ½ hours, we called in, explained our situation and our current destination, and requested if we could join in and receive weather routing for Fine Tolerance. We would be happy to fix up all cost’s when we arrived in Bermuda we told him. Welcome aboard, we were told and don’t worry, there was no charge for the service, all we had to do was call in the following day at the designated time. So began our association with Herb’s Network. Every evening we would call in and shortly later would be called back with weather for our area, we were back in the world of yachting!
The first report we received was not good. A large depression has moving into our area with 60 kts winds. We needed to get further south Herb told us. Forget about trying to make any easting, go south. The first night we made little headway in the confused seas of the Gulf Stream, despite the fact that the seas were only 2 to 3 meters, but as we gained more southward miles the seas at last took on a more familiar rhythm and we were able to put on some miles. Three days later we had only 400 nm to go to fetch Bermuda. The seas had settled and in the calmer conditions we had replaced the trysail with the patched up main. The wind was still coming out of the west and we were still making for due south. On the 7th of December the bottom of the depression caught us and we hove to for 24 hours, mainly to make sure we did not suffer any more sail or boat damage, before once again heading southwards. The next day we sighted our first land birds, the beautiful white Longtail and the following day we picked up some flying fish that had been unlucky enough to crash land on Fine Tolerances deck during the night. We felt like we were in the tropics at last. We kept heading south, passing the latitude of Bermuda still 300 nm east of it until finally, at 29 degrees north, we picked up the trade winds which at last enabled us to go west. We stayed at 29 degrees for the first 200 nm and then started making our way NW, heading strait for our destination. Another small blow was headed our way which we knew would get to us before we could made landfall but we knew it was all over bar the shouting. We were nearly there.
With one hundred nautical miles to go the wind picked up again. We had on board a paperback copy of ‘Rough Passage’, a story written in 1932 by an English sailor that had sailed from Newfoundland to Bermuda. This had a map of the island of Bermuda on one of the pages so we knew what the shape of the island looked like. With the inclement weather that was expected at our estimated time of arrival this was a major plus Also, as Herb had given us the GPS coordinates of the first of the outer buoy’s that lead into St Georges Harbour, the customs and immigration clearing in port for small boats into Bermuda, we felt reasonably confident that we would be able to manage a successful landfall. With forty nm to go we called up Bermuda radio who confirmed the coordinates that Herb had given us. We now had a 30 kt following wind with heavy rain squalls and rather than approach the island with its many outlying reefs in darkness we decided to heave to for a few hours so as to make our final approach in the light. Wind and current drifted us to within 10 nm of the first bouy by the time the pre dawn light came and so with sails set once more we made our final approach. We had a brief last moment of anxiety when the bouy appeared way to seaward of where we were expecting to sight it followed by everything being plunged into nothingness as heavy rain obliterated all sign of the island and navigational aids, but luck was with us once more as after 15 minutes the rain eased and we could see clearly the course we needed to take. At 7.45 am local time we tied up to the customs dock in St Georges harbour. It felt it had been one of the toughest passages we had made and both felt pleased to at last be safe and sound. We had covered 2200 nm in 37 days, at an average daily run of 60 nm per day.
Yours Phil and Liz