17 June 2022

Day 13 — Gale!

Man, what a day!

It started pretty well. We were blasting along at 6-7 knots, close hauled into a 20 knot fresh breeze. I was very impressed with Petronella. It takes a powerful boat to sail into such winds, riding up and over 8-10 foot seas. Powerful, in the sense of being able to stand up to her canvas while beating into the wind. You don't want to be heeled over at 30 degrees in this kind of situation. Powerful also in the sense of being physically strong enough to deal with the astounding forces exerted on the hull and rig. Especially in a place where serious breakdowns are not an option.

But the wind kept blowing harder and harder, and the waves got larger and larger. It's hard to say how you know it's time to heave to — time when the distance you are making towards your destination just doesn't justify the risks you are taking with the boat, but suddenly you just KNOW. Then it's time to roll in the jib, sheet in the deeply reefed main and mizzen, and to turn a bit to windward so the boat stalls out if it gathers any headway. Suddenly you are stopped and things don't look so bad anymore.

But today the wind is relentless. It just keeps blowing harder and harder. From, 20 sustained, to 25, to 30 , and then our wind speed indicator stops working! The waves grow mountainous. I've heard that word used before, but had never seen it. Not every wave, of course, but say every 7th or 8th, there would be a big one. When you are down in the trough, looking up at a crest, and it looks like a 3-story building coming towards you, that's a big wave.

Luckily they weren't breaking. They were just massive peaks, moving in ranks like a mountain range that got fed up with its location and decided to move. But what if they kept growing? Should we do something beyond just heaving to? While I was pondering this question, a particularly tall and steep wave approached quickly, curled at the top in a beautiful aqua arc, and broke on to Petronella's deck. That was the signal for action, and we set about rigging our parachute sea anchor and Pardy bridle on the foredeck. The purpose of this sea anchor system, worked out by the famous sailor, Larry Pardey, was to allow Petronella to continue to point at 45 degrees into the wind even in very high winds and seas, and to drift dead downwind. Dragging our massive keel down wind creates a tremendous amount of turbulence (a slick, as Larry called it, because that's what it looks like) which disrupts breaking waves as they approach.

We were already making a slick, but without the sea anchor, as the wind increased, Petronella would be less and less able to point into the wind, and would lie more and more sideways to the waves. This is a very dangerous thing to do with breaking waves, because there is the potential to be knocked down, or even rolled over.

Not that we were at that threat level yet, but with the wind still increasing and darkness approaching, it was time to get ready for the worst.

There are three main components of the sea anchor: the parachute itself, which was ready to go in its own deployment bag, several hundred feet of heavy weight braided nylon anchor rope, and the Pardy bridle, which I really need a picture do describe. I can't upload a picture now, but if you just google "Pardey bridle, sea anchor" I thin you will find a bunch of descriptions and images.

Anyway, a half an hour later, the whole thing was rigged and ready to be dropped over the side if we needed it. Naturally, after all that work, the wind started to die down just a bit. Just our imagination? Nope, an hour later we were sure the worst had passed. The wind had definitely dropped from what we estimated as 35 knots sustained, down to maybe 25. We would remain hove to for the night (the waves were still massive), and the anchor was ready if the weather took a turn for the worse again.

Why didn't I deploy the sea anchor just to be safe? Mainly because I wanted to get underway again as soon as we were able, and retrieving a sea anchor is a big job that can only be done in relatively calm weather. I didn't want to lose that extra time unless it was absolutely necessary.

Thank goodness it wasn't. Instead, closed up the main hatch (just in case I was wrong!), made some dinner, and had a relatively calm night.

Hopefully, this will be the end of a long series of gales that have been blowing off the east coast of the US since we left. I figured we would get two, possibly three gales during the crossing, but we've already had more than that, and they've really slowed us down. Hopefully we will have better weather for a while and be able to make some steady progress. There's still 1300 miles to go to reach Horta. It's a long way to sail.


  1. John and Helena.

    Great we've now found your blog. Sounds like P is taking care of you in varied conditions! We think this is her eighth crossing. Love remembering all those typical P creaks and rattles as she powers across the ocean. Give her our love.

    We are in Shelter Bay, Panama where we have to repair the rudder bearing (don't ask) before deciding whether to head west through the canal or up to the Baja California.

    Fair winds my friend.

    John and Gill

    1. Yes, Petronella did her job. Everything that shook loose or had a problem was down to us… things we just missed during preparation. Once we fixed those few problems, she was a rock. Unbelievably strong and steady, just what we hoped for, and more. It took a lot to bring her up to this level of readiness, but all the work paid off.

  2. Oh my! You have me on pins and needles! I can’t help but worry but with such experienced sailors I have great faith things will turn out well! Sending you best wishes for a safe and happy voyage!

    - Carol

    1. Lol, I’m sure Helena will tell you all about the trip. She was amazing.

  3. Dear John, This day’s post exhausted your armchair readers. As I write (Saturday) the weather has calmed considerably. You Two Are Amazing. We’d love to also know more about or from your extraordinary first mate Helena! And how obsessive must you both be securing EVERYTHING on and inside the boat?! All that canning was brilliant (another book being conceived)? Are the Azores planned as your 1st destination? No doubt this journey has already been life affirming; continued safe journey. Pauline

    1. I would love to hear more from Helena, too! And a future book sounds great!

    2. Helena is planning to write some posts of her own now that we have arrived in the Azores. She had planned to post along the way, but it is not easy to write every day while at sea, as I well know! She preferred to write with a pen in her journal, whereas I was pretty committed to daily posts here. Stand by for news from her. I’m sure her posts will be very different from mine!


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