X-442 Summer Drama in the Biscay
How are we going to stop her?
We were still doing around 15 knots. “We’re fine now, but how on earth (so to speak) are we going to stop this thing?” I said. “It’s like driving an Aston Martin on full throttle without breaks. “We’ll stop when we reach Spain”, someone said, which didn’t sound like a consolation to me.
Call the Rescue Service
Fast forward, to compress a long night into this short story, we decided to call up the Rescue Service on channel 16. They came out to meet us a few hours later, and they followed us in to La Corona, where the winds were calm enough to wrap the spinnaker around the forestay to keep it away from the wind. Then it was Payday for the Rescue boys! 1,500 Euros they asked for, which I paid up happily. A low price for this sailing experience, I thought.
What could we have done differently?
We could have taken down the spinnaker earlier, of course, but then we wouldn’t have experienced sailing Shalabais in 25 knots. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. But I had left a window open when I had made lunch, and the navigation computer was washed out during our first knock-down as the water flowed in! BIG minus there, skipper! Then I allowed the spinnaker to furl around the forestay and form a time glass during the downwind sailing, instead of luffing up to avoid this classical mistake. The second minus for the skipper there!
The rest I was happy with, the most important thing being that we consolidated the situation to avoid more mishaps from happening. “An accident seldom comes alone” holds a lot of truth. Man over board, broken ribs from falling down the cabin stairs, fingers jammed while handling ropes, are only some of the things that can happen. No one on deck was a good decision, as was our calling up the Rescue Service to be available in case we would be blown onto a lee shore. And everybody on board knew where the flairs were and how to use them, and we had the life raft ready for use.
When three sailing friends with 100 years of combined sailing experience take on the Bay of Biscay in the “calm” month of July, an uneventful crossing is expected. But when the spinnaker gets stuck, and the infamous King Neptune comes to visit, things can change quickly!
Safely clipped on by our harnesses in the cockpit, we were watching “Shalabais” flying through the white-capped Atlantic surf like a leopard. Our spinnaker, firmly tied around the forestay in two places, had been reduced to a time-glass with half of its area still filling. Amazingly, it still remained effective as we steered as high into the easterly gale as we could to lay La Corona in north of Spain. The thought of missing Spain altogether, going straight to the Caribbean didn’t appeal particular this afternoon. As another Biscay wave washed down my neck, I allowed my thoughts to drift.
Two days earlier we had started out from the Solent at the break of dawn with two old Norwegian mates, Jappe and Rolf. That glorious morning we had set the course out of the English Channel under my best Kevlar racing Genoa 1 which had helped “Shalabais” take three line honours and one second place the previous summer’s X-Yachts’ Gold Cup. Now we were sailing in light airs, passing numerous other sailing boats motoring out the Channel. Life as an X-Yachts owner was good.
I had a dream
I had a perfect dream vision of our team winning in Elba, Italy the next Gold Cup, as another big wave missed us and Shalabais sped another dark waver.
The first evening in the Biscay displayed an incredible sunset over the Atlantic Ocean. That night in the cockpit watching the sky and looking out for occasional shipping in the horizon, had been a strong experience. By the afternoon the following day, King Neptune had begun to show his white teeth in the waves. We had put the spinnaker up early that morning and decided to adapt the slogan “Man puts spinnakers up - God takes them down”.
Towards the afternoon I had started steering manually, as the winds had freshened and turned more on our nose from the port. It was getting harder to hold the course to La Corona. Jappe was still reading in the cockpit and Rolf was downstairs sleeping after his long watch, when a bigger wave and a strong gust of wind sent us into a terrific broach. I heard myself shouting “Broooach, hold on!” The boat went down on its side with water up to the winches. I could feel through the steering wheel that there wasn’t enough water on the rudder to resist. The spinnaker touched the water, but the boat somehow didn’t feel “stressed” and I could feel how she slowly began righting herself, and soon we were back on our feet. What balance this ship has! Thanks, Niels.
We are flying!
I steered down to a course further away from the wind and asked Putter to pay out on the spinnaker sheet. We were absolutely flying now – I had never felt anything like it in my life!! Had I not had my ears in the way, my smile would have joined on top of my head. “Something’s smelling here” Putter said. “The PC is burning”. He went downstairs and came out reporting that the PC, and hence our main navigation system was knocked out. I must have left the window over the navigation table open after lunch, and water came flowing in during the broach.
“Let’s worry about that later - come out and watch this”, I said. This was sailing like you see on TV!” We were literally flying and the sailing instruments showed a steady 14-18 knots, with a lot more in the surfs. The boat handled absolutely perfect and I held the course without any effort at all. “Look behind us, chaps”, I shouted through the 30 knots wind. It was like the wake of my waterskiing boat. Whao!!
Hit the brakes and get the spinnaker down
But all good things must come to an end, and things were beginning to get too hairy and too much like the Roaring Forties. After all, we were only three set of hands onboard, not the usual 11 we would be racing. So after some more super-fast surfs down the Biscay, we decided it was time to hit the brakes and get the spinnaker down.
Everything ready? I would fall as much as possible to get the spinnaker behind the main sail. Putter would pay out the spinnaker guy and let it collapse. Then Rolf would pull the “sock” over the spinnaker and choke it. Cool. Everything went fine until Rolf shouted that the sock was stuck and he couldn’t move it. A moment later the spinnaker took it’s first turn around the forestay, and then a second. And a third. Flop, flop. You know why they are called “Time Glasses” when you see them. Now things had changed and we had been reduced to spectators.
The X-442 does what she is built to do
Last but not least; the X-442 is an extremely well constructed yacht. Not only is she safe and solid, but she is well thought out in all details. She is balanced to perfection, so that when you suddenly find yourself in an unplanned situation, which can happen to everyone, she will do what she is built to do; stay on her feet and be a safe place for her crew.
PS: I woke up after a few hours of sleep in La Corona to the sound of the spinnaker being handled by someone on deck. I got up and saw Putter stuffing it down the sail bin. I asked him how he managed to get the time glass out, and he said, “it did it by itself while we slept. It must have been King Neptune saying that he was pleased we us, and that he felt that we would be more respectful the next time we crossed his Bay of Biscay!” Too right we will.
Tom Sømborg, Skipper of X-442 “Shalabais”