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.”