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Old 06-08-1999
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John Rousmaniere is on a distinguished road
The Right Moves in the Sydney-Hobart Storm

Last month we discussed some seamanship issues raised by December's ocean race from Sydney, Australia, to Hobart, Tasmania, in which six sailors died and dozens were rescued from distressed boats. Now a narrative of one boat's experience in the storm provides meat for reflections about storm tactics. Roger Hickman, the narrator, and his crew on the 43-foot modern racer-cruiser Atara ably handled appalling conditions that Hickman estimates as peaking at 75 knots of wind with some waves as high as 80 feet.

The Sydney-Hobart storm kicked in during the first night after the start on December 26. As the boats ran south along the coast of New South Wales, the unstable northerly built from 20 to 40 knots. Any run before a strengthening, shifty breeze is a dangerous thing, especially at night, because the crew is fooled into false security.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that on a run, the wind usually doesn't seem as strong as it really is. When a breeze forward of the beam increases, so does discomfort.

But when it's on the stern, the deck is level, there's no flying water, and the apparent wind stays about the same because the boat goes faster. The euphoric crew cheering every new speed record cannot imagine that they're just one irregular wave or one tired steerer's mistake away from a broach that will leave the boat on her side, her mast lying flat in the water, and them realizing that it's really blowing pretty damn hard after all.

The second reason why boats often get into trouble on a run in a strengthening wind is that crews misread the waves. While waves early in a blow may be small, they're eccentric and maddeningly difficult to anticipate, even in broad daylight. Only after several hours will they stretch out into long predictable rollers. Excellent steering, extreme caution, and good luck are needed in these breaking waves if the boat is going to stay headed in the right direction and square on her bottom.

Atara was close reaching. Her crew shortened sail and got to work at making the best of what old-time sailors called a "hard chance," a bash into heavy weather. The goal is to make progress ahead in some comfort. With speed and weatherliness, you can crawl away from shore and also steer around a new gale's breaking seas that may well smash a hove-to boat. The trick is to set the right sails for the conditions.

Both of these reasons were in full play on the night of December 26-27. Boats were jibing wildly out of control. The well-handled Atara, Hickman reports, was hitting 19 knots when "I felt the fun was up." He replaced the spinnaker with a wung-out jib, which in a strong wind is more stable and often just as fast as a chute.

As the wind continued to build, it backed into the southwest until Atara was close reaching. Her crew shortened sail and got to work at making the best of what old-time sailors called a "hard chance," a bash into heavy weather. The goal is to make progress ahead in some comfort. With speed and weatherliness, you can crawl away from shore and also steer around a new gale's breaking seas that may well smash a hove-to boat. The trick is to set the right sails for the conditions. Unlike light air, when a boat can usually get away with carrying more sail than you think she can, strong winds require you to think small. Because the wind's power increases with the square of its speed, a force 6 (22- to 27- knot) strong wind is about twice the strength of a force 4 (11 to 16 knots) moderate breeze but four times more powerful. And a force 9 (41 to 47 knot) strong gale is another four more powerful than a force 6.

Atara had two reefs tied in, which left about half her mainsail exposed, and also flew her number 4 jib. This is the smallest working jib, somewhat larger than the tiny storm jib yet smaller than the number 3, which fills the foretriangle. One of the most valuable sails in an inventory, a number 4 is a godsend in fresh winds and stronger because it pulls hard but is easy to handle. Sheeted close, it's a terrific sail for beating to windward in a fresh breeze with a full mainsail. A good number 4 will raise any boat's comfort level by 10 or even 15 knots.

But Atara was still overpowered and at dawn her crew doused the number 4 and the mainsail, set the storm trysail and (to quote the skipper) "settled into the 50- to 55-knot gale." The invaluable storm trysail is a low sail that is a fourth the area of a mainsail, which it replaces. It's long on its loose foot and short on its luff. There are no battens to break.

It's usually sheeted to the rail on deck, with the boom lowered and secured so it doesn't fly around, but Atara kept the boom in place and set the trysail on it. This rig was effective, Hickman reports, because when the wind gusted over 65 knots, the crew depowered by easing the main sheet and twisting off the leech. A running backstay eventually chafed the leech so the trysail had to be doused, but by then the wind was up to force 12, or 75 knots and it was no time to have any sail up, anyway.

Atara was comfortable under bare poles until the wind dropped into the 50s, when she needed sail to steady her in the massive, mature rollers. After a hurricane-strength blow, a gale can seem like an afternoon southwester, but Hickman refused to be lulled into overconfidence. He wisely decided that the little storm jib was sufficient. It pulled Atara along at 8-plus knots. Such speed may seem high, but Hickman says the boat needed it to avoid being rolled down so far on the face of waves that her leeward rail tripped and pulled her right over. It was hardly a steady ride. "We got creamed plenty of times with only two being of real concern."

The wind died, as the wind always does. Under reefed mainsail and number 4, they sailed through a force 8 (30 to 40 knots) half the night, but by dawn were drifting in the leftover storm seas. Only then did this good boat suffer her first serious damage when the head blew out of an old spinnaker. After another 24 hours of inching along, she crossed the finish line sixth on corrected time in the IMS division. Her crew quietly cleaned up the boat and joined the people of Hobart and their sailor visitors in mourning the race's dead.

Atara's story is a model account of excellent proactive seamanship in a time that demanded decisive decision-making. Roger Hickman and his crew refused to be passively overwhelmed and panicked by appalling conditions around them. They knew their boat and handled her well. They accurately read and flexibly kept up with rapidly changing conditions. They made excellent use of their sail inventory and were not afraid to venture out on deck to make the necessary changes. And they concentrated on the basics of keeping the boat moving, and therefore upright, in a sea whose violence I'm glad to have missed. Good on them.

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