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Old 07-03-2014
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Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

I just returned from Sailing in Phang Nga Bay and during my journey encountered a Category 1 Tropical Cyclone. I've been going over in my mind how things could have turned out better. I would really appreciate the opinion of other veteran sailors in reading my story (which I composed to make my case to Sunsail, the charterer, to waive my liability - which they did). Sunsail staff initially claimed I merely encountered a squall and from my vantage point this was a VERY different animal. I feel we were very lucky to walk away from this incident. But, I would like to learn how to deal effectively with this should it ever happen again. Thanks for your patience in working through it:

On June 29 after 4 days in the Phang Nga bay, we left Tonsail Bay in Phi Phi and set a north easterly course for Koh Mai Pai running at 60 degrees on a port tack. The time was approximately 11:30AM. Winds were about 11-12 knts (as predicted by the weather reports that I had consulted earlier) and we reached speeds of about 7 knts on that course, running our motors in neutral (1500 rpm) to charge the batteries. This was to be a nice sailing day according to the skies, the weather report and our sailing performance.

It started to rain lightly and at this point I ordered everyone inside except my first mate (Anthony). Winds picked up, and although we were on a close haul before and on a comfortable tack, by now the jib was flailing on both sides of the mast. I attempted to bring the jib in at this point, anticipating that the storm might be severe, and mindful of the fact that the jib could potentially become damaged if the storm became worse. Unfortunately, the jib furling line was not getting the job done and I was unable to bring it in – we were sailing for 4 days before this time with no trouble. I gave the task of bringing in the jib to my firstmate so that I could concentrate on the storm, and he also could not bring it in. As the storm proceeded to get worse (it did not hit suddenly, as in a squall), I saw the knotmeter rise to 35. Although I could not bring in the jib, I was able to maintain a course where the jib was stable on the starboard side, and not flailing – we were literally “riding out the storm.” I began to use the motors to accelerate our progress out of the storm, but as I looked ahead the clearest weather was far to the east, and not on our current path. Our intended path was covered by black skies, and it was clear my family was getting very nervous about the situation. We were used to squalls and had already dealt with them earlier in the week. Our previous charter with Sunsail was taking the same vessel from St. Vincent to Grenada, nearly 100 nm, where we encountered many squalls and enjoyed what Sunsail describes as “Level 3 sailing.” This storm was different.

I tried many times to bring in the jib, and my first mate as well, but we could not figure out why this was not possible. It was not the strength of the wind preventing us from doing so, but the wind probably put the lines in such tangled position that furling the jib was not possible. The first mate also dropped the main earlier, but it only came down partway. We had already reefed the sail to expose only about 70% of the sail area, so had been prepared for the possibility of heavy winds.

Trying to get out of the storm proved difficult as it just continued to strengthen – again indicative this was not a typical squall. The knotmeter read 48 as I was trying to get the vessel under control. I am confident this was not the maximum reached, and that it got even higher. I ordered kids to put on lifejackets at this point and relied on my first mate to provide me assistance. The boat was pitching and we were well into 20 minutes of the storm at this point.

The bimini had torn earlier in the week at the stitching that held the zipper, and the wind ripped it further from this point. It was beating on my back and also flying in my face. My fist mate cut it off the railing to try to hold it behind my head so that I could see. Ahead of me, I could see the storm, to my port side I could barely make out the island we were passing, and to my right I could see open sea and relatively clear skies. Knowing my options to proceed ahead were not good, and drawing the conclusion this was not a mere squall, I considered either open sea or the land. I decided the land the best option – the open sea could introduce other unknowns. By this time we had already ventured some distance from the land as our destination was to the northeast.

The storm continued. We were fighting winds of 35 – 50 knots for about 30 minutes by now. During this time, even though lowered to about half the sail area, the main sail tore across the top (the head), and in the course of trying to make land, the jib was thrown to the port side and also ripped. The entire vessel pitched to the port side at one point and was nearly turtled (at a 45 degree angle with the entire starboard side in the air), but I was able to create slack in the jib in time to prevent the jib and wind from conspiring against me, and turtling the boat.

Land seemed to be about a half mile away and with the help of my two motors it would have been simple to get there. However, in the middle of negotiating the storm, the starboard motor overheated and the other one got fouled by a line that flew over the port side – we simply had our hands full and that line was not accounted for. I was able to use the starboard engine only intermittently as it kept overheating and shutting down. Without the help of the motor, I would likely have been unable to make land.

With one motor working, 35+ knot winds, unrelenting rain, and a torn jib and main we were in a very precarious position. If the wind was to have the day, it would turn the boat completely around and I would have absolutely no control.

By this time my wife and daughter were screaming and severely traumatized – we’ve sailed as a family for about 8 years but never under these conditions. I told my first mate that we would drop anchor if the wind took control of the boat and began to turn it away from land. Meanwhile, I tried to keep our forward motion focused on the approximate location of a beach resort that the kids visited the day before.

For about 15 minutes, this process continued. Me trying to keep us moving to the beach and the wind trying to turn us around. The motor helped when it was working, at other times the jib helped. If I lost either of these, we would have been in serious trouble. It turns out that the jib, which should have been furled under these situations, probably saved us from losing total control of the boat.

I ordered the first mate to bring down the dinghy in case we had to abandon. I told him that if I gave him the word then he would drop anchor, proceed to the dinghy and get the kids on board. I considered I might also stay with the boat and try to bring it in alone and put on my own lifejacket at this point.

By now we were about a quarter mile from the beach. We were so very close but the wind was winning. I could not keep us on the proper tack to reach the beach and to guarantee the safety of the kids and the boat – the wind kept pushing me off course. We were in water of a little under 20 meters, much deeper than we had anchored in before but probably deep enough to secure the boat long enough for us to get help.

I ordered the first mate to drop anchor and put kids in the dinghy. By now, neither engine was working, and to operate the windlass (the electric anchoring mechanism), the engine needs to be running. Thinking of my responsibility to ensure the safety of (1) passengers and then (2) boat, I told the first mate to get everyone in the dinghy while I went to the bow of the boat to try to free the anchor.

I found this was easy to do, the anchor dropped, and I joined the others in the dinghy. We made a course for the beach and contacted the marina immediately. The storm continued for several hours after we reached land. It is 1:40PM as I write this and the storm seems just as bad as when we were in it. We have several eyewitnesses as guests of the lodge where we are staying that we met upon arrival.

Squalls are defined as short bursts of wind and rain, often followed by sunny skies and even rainbows. We could get more technical by comparing the wind we experienced to typical winds in the region to get to a more precise qualification of this storm as either a squall or something else. To debate this is of little consequence since we were able to safeguard both passengers and the vessel until Sunsail staff were able to arrive to render assistance. However, any eyewitness to this storm will confirm there were no clear skies, no rainbows, but consistent rain for most of the afternoon even after the storm had passed. And I doubt anyone would consider a 2 hour storm as a burst of “short duration.”

On the arrival of Sunsail staff the employee suggested I should not have run the engine to the point of failure. His point, a reasonable one, was that to allow the engine to overheat threatens to sacrifice one of the most important parts of the boat that might be needed later. He suggested it would have been better to turn off the motor so that it could be repaired at a later time. I asked him how it would have been possible to safely traverse a storm of 50+ knot winds – of this duration - without the benefit of a motor. His answer was “I don’t know, I wasn't there.”
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Old 07-03-2014
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Re: Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

Do they get cyclones at that latitude (8°N)? I doubt very much it was a cyclone but that is not to say that it was not very windy. Also cyclones last a lot longer than a few hours.

Did you try to drop the jib by easing the halyard rather than furling? Also was the first mate a paid crew member. Did he (she) not know what to do in the circumstances? Generally it has been my experience that when you have 35 to 50 knots of wind you don't really need the engine (or engines, I assume a cat). There are lots of things that you could have done, but it all gets tougher on a boat that you are not really familiar with. Did you drop the main after it ripped?

Glad things turned out Ok for you and your family. I don't know this particular area and don't know if there are unusual weather conditions there, I would assume Sunsail would have told you. Sometimes it gets windy is probably the best answer.
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Old 07-03-2014
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Re: Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

Just to get things straight, you didn't experience a cyclone. Firstly, cyclones don't just pop up out of a clear blue sky and secondly they won't occur at the latitudes where Phuket is situated. If it was a real cyclone you would have had plenty of prior warning and the generally excepted practice is to either get out of it's way if possible or, failing that, to tie up in a sheltered location, of which most marinas would more than suffice for a cat 1.

A nasty squall on the other hand is exactly as you have described. Basic strategy is to drop/reduce sails and make other preparations BEFORE it hits (you should really have seen it coming) and to keep away from lee shores if the choice is available rather than head towards them.
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Old 07-04-2014
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Re: Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

Whatever it was, if it was of a few hours duration it was mostly likely, officially, called a "Tropical Storm". Still lots of wind and rain and big seas and glad to hear you got yourself, your crew, your family and the boat to safety. Quite an adventure... well done!


On the subject of cyclones: I once knew of a racing yacht called "Cyclone" - at least the owner thought it was fast; everyone else called it a slow-moving depression..

(I've been through two cyclones in the Whitsundays - but so long ago now I don't remember their names. The last one I remember just sat there and built up over the top of us, so where we were it was flat calm, sunny skies.. could almost have gone sailing - but didn't!)
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Last edited by Classic30; 07-04-2014 at 12:09 AM.
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Old 07-04-2014
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Re: Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

Quote:
Originally Posted by Classic30 View Post
Whatever it was, if it was of a few hours duration it was mostly likely, officially, called a "Tropical Storm".
The definition of a "Tropical Storm" is actually much more specific than that.

This is from Dr. Masters of Weather Underground:

Quote:
If the subtropical storm remains over warm water for several days, it may eventually become fully tropical, and be called a tropical storm. This happens when thunderstorm activity starts building close to the center of circulation, and the strongest winds and rain are no longer in a band far from the center. The core of the storm becomes warm, and the cyclone derives all of its energy from the "latent heat" released when water vapor that has evaporated from warm ocean waters condenses into liquid water. One does not find warm fronts or cold fronts associated with a tropical cyclone.

A subtropical storm typically has a large, cloud free center of circulation, with very heavy thunderstorm activity in a band removed at least 100 miles from the center. The difference between a subtropical storm and a tropical storm is not that important as far as the winds they can generate, but tropical storms generate more rain. There is no such thing as a subtropical hurricane. If a subtropical storm intensifies enough to have hurricane force winds, then it must have become fully tropical.
Definition of Tropical, Subtropical, and Extratropical Storms | Weather Underground

EDIT: I do not mean to further detract from the OPs desire for analysis of his handling of the storm.

Last edited by mr_f; 07-04-2014 at 04:57 AM. Reason: hopefully less abrasive
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Old 07-04-2014
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Re: Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

So the anchor held?
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Old 07-05-2014
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Re: Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

I've not had a chance to process all the replies, which I surely appreciate. I'll add further comments as I have an opportunity but let me answer some questions first.

1. The anchor held in about 12 meters until I was able to get help. I think it would not have held overnight due to tidal shifts, but that was a chance I had to take.

2. I adopted the term "cyclone" from the research I did later and terminology applied in the Australian/So Pacific region. Here is the link to the reference I used:


See reference to Australian/So Pacific at far right on the chart at the bottom, and please let me know if you still disagree with terminology, not that it matters at this point!

3. I've sailed through squalls before and when I saw this coming, that is what I expected in terms of duration and impact. However, this storm lasted 2 hours. How could I have known this before? It was not on the weather report. The squalls I encountered before lasted about 5 mins and were followed by clear skies and rainbows (consistent with what I researched). These skies remained gray for the entire duration after the storm. Would be interested in others that have seen the same distinction.

4. My biggest mistake on reflection was not teaching my son more about hazardous weather strategies. He was my first mate and was working to drop the mainsail. Somehow the main halyard ended up in our propellor. Had that not happened, I could have likely exited the path of the storm much earlier. It also probably explains why the sail did not drop as far as necessary to protect it from damage.

Again, I appreciate all the replies and advice. Will continue to process the info you've shared.
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Old 07-05-2014
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Re: Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

Also in response to Killarny, yes I did ease the job when I found I could not furl it. Actually, I think the jib saved me and got me to land, since both engines ended up challenged and unreliable in the thick of it. The jib allowed me to navigate to the shore, drop anchor, and get my family into the dinghy and to safety. Had I not had the jib, and lost the engines, I fear I would have had no control left.

Please see my earlier replies. I don't profess to be as competent a sailor as you-all and wish to learn from the experience. I recognize things could have turned out much better, or much worse!
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Old 07-05-2014
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Re: Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

A lot of these situations become difficult because the boat is unfamiliar. Its hard to drive a big cat when you are used to a mono, but any boat different to the one at home can be a pain in the neck in severe conditions.

By the way, your family were not severely traumatised... If the had watched you being killed they would have been. So keep stuff in perspective.

I'll bet the sand on the beach felt good! heading for a nice stable bar is the perfect antidote for a day like that.

If it was bad enough for you not to worry about paying the money for liability waiver then you did the right thing. Its a charter boat and Sunsail are in a business of risk. Its their problem to manage it.


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Old 07-05-2014
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Re: Case Study in Surviving a Cat 1 Tropical Cyclone

Thanks for the reply. I think you did experience a very severe, extended squall. the cyclone scale you refer to is for a tropical cyclonic storm (hurricane in North American terms). These scales assume that it is a storm of this type, the wind speeds just allow you to put them in a category.

The Australian scale you refer to is for tropical storms in the southern hemisphere. The area where you were does not get this type of storm. Neither would the area south of Cape Horn. You could get hurricane-force winds there but that does not make it a hurricane or tropical storm in general.

I cannot comment on what you should have done and I don't anything about this boat. I can only comment on what I would do on my boat in a similar circumstance - keeping in mind that I know my boat's capability and equipment. If I had sea room, I might just take down all the sails and sea what happens. if I had to make progress and it would be away from land and not towards it (to my mind that is where the danger lies), I have a fairly small, rugged staysail I could use instead of the genoa. I also have electric furling for the main so I can make the main any size I want. Fifty knots is not nice, but it won't last unless there is a very good reason for it to exist.

If the weather maps were not showing any huge pressure gradients it won't last that long although it can be scary while it happens. Note that I am not saying the forecasts. The maps themselves show the isobars and give you a good overview of the possibilities. The forecasts work within those parameters.

You are doing well to make this into a learning experience. I did the about 'squash zones' when we got pasted in southern French Polynesia.
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Back in the water in Grenada - with new main and #2 and cockpit canvas (Santa came early). Will spend the winter and early spring in the Caribbean and then head to Bermuda and the northeast US. Still trying to decide if we will bring the boat to Canada, either in 2015 or 2016.
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