Biblical winds that come from nowhere, sneaky sandbanks and ‘killer’ slush – even the most experienced adventurers face the odd mishap at sea, discovers Sam Fortescue.
There’s a saying among the boating fraternity that sailors come in two varieties: those who have run aground and those who lie about it. The idea has been claimed and attributed to numerous salty characters down the years but, regardless of its origin, it illuminates a fundamental truth about yachting. That sooner or later, things will go wrong.
Experienced sailor Chris Durham shares an elemental lesson he learned in the South Atlantic: not to be complacent when it comes to weather. "Back in 2010, during a voyage on an Oyster 62 sailing as mate, we departed Ushuaia, Argentina in benign conditions with a forecast for winds building from the west to Force 6. Conditions soon deteriorated and worsened to far beyond the forecast, with winds in excess of 60 knots sustained and seas building to 8-10 metres."
He continues: "After a vigorous 48 hours of helming one hour on, one hour off, we limped into Port Stanley in the Falklands to conduct repairs on our sails and tender davits, having battled some pretty nasty conditions for a number of days. My experiences of sailing in the Southern Ocean have shaped me hugely, ensuring that due respect is always paid to the conditions and voyage."
Damage is a factor to consider when you’re operating in oceanic conditions, as is where the nearest yard is for repairs. And it was in a similar remote part of the world that Barry Houghton’s Salperton IV found itself sailing at the limits. "We underestimated the Roaring Forties," he admits. "There were 24 days when we saw no one and nothing. In that time, [the crew] had hardly any sail up; running downwind with just a small staysail, hitting 25 knots. It wasn’t just the wind but the wave power – we must have been close to broaching many times."
When Houghton himself joined the crew in Punta Arenas, one of the sails had been blown out completely and there was bad damage to another. But there wasn’t a sail loft for thousands of miles. "So, we set up a workshop on the dock to repair these sails,” he remembers. “We found someone there with a strong enough sewing machine, and someone flew out from Doyle Sails to supervise. It was on a commercial dock – no yacht club. These were good laminate sails."
Sometimes bad weather rolls in with plenty of warning – other times, it ambushes you. With paying guests aboard, it has the potential to ruin a cruise either way. Rob McCallum, co-founder of expedition leader EYOS, swears by the near-miraculous effect of Stugeron on seasickness. "It’s a magic potion," he tells me. "We stock up with it whenever we’re in the UK. But you have to get in early and take the medication two hours in advance. It’s no good waiting until you’re feeling sick. We lead by example."
Adventurer, climate campaigner and TV presenter Jim McNeill is no stranger to the powers of Stugeron. During an expedition across the Drake Passage under sail, he recounts: "We got on the boat in the Falklands, and I couldn’t believe how incapacitated I was by sea sickness. I was responsible, leading the thing, and checked in each day via satellite phone to our UK base. I tried Stugeron on day eight, and when I went to dial, I realised I was instead tapping my left palm with my right hand."
At the other end of the planet, serial adventurers Steve and Linda Dashew had different problems to contend with when they put their famous 25.5-metre functional power boat (FPB) through its paces a decade and a half ago. Wind Horse had been designed by Dashew from the keel up to give the ultimate in seakeeping, safety and redundancy, to enable them to explore Arctic latitudes in comfort.
During a 2008 expedition to Greenland, Dashew remembers coming face to face for the first time with a new challenge. "We had a real easy passage across the Davis Strait and were about 50 miles out from Greenland when we hit this wall of fog," his voice cracks at the memory of it, even now. "Ice and fog, that’s the ultimate negative scenario: if it’s calm, the radar will pick up the big bergs – you can see those. When it’s not calm, there’s a breeze blowing, now you can’t see the bergy bits."
In this scenario, with visibility that ranged from a few dozen yards to a few hundred, the only option was to run. "We turned around and got back into the clear. We got hold of the ice guides in Prince Christian Channel, who told us there was 70 per cent ice in the southern channel. We didn’t want to deal with it in fog, so we went up to Nuuq instead."
Fog and ice loomed large in the Dashews’ Arctic cruising, and they had another close call years later, running south in atrocious visibility to find shelter ahead of a storm. They were glued to the radar screen set to spot ice, which Dashew describes as looking "like someone had turned up the gain too high on a CGI movie".
"We were there straining our eyes and Linda was working the throttles. We must have done this for 8-10 hours – the strain was incredible." Only then did he think of zooming out on the radar to see the strategic picture. "It turned out that the fog was associated with the ice. Just a few miles further out, there was no fog and no ice!" After that, they kept two radar screens set up – one close range and one looking a couple of miles out.
Sometimes, changing plans is the best plan. If you stick too doggedly to your destination, pre-arranged timeframes and so on, you can expose yourself to unnecessary risks. So when the forecast deteriorated dramatically during a Pelorus expedition in a remote corner of Greenland, the team decided to return to port three days early to avoid getting stranded.
"In less than 24 hours, the team organised for the clients to fly down to Iceland where the weather patterns are much more reliable and there are multiple flights in and out per day," says Gayle Patterson, director of yachting. "So they could spend three days enjoying an incredible land-based Iceland experience instead."
Sir Andrew Cook has had to deal with a different sort of weather challenge for his 30.1-metre Pendennis-built sloop, Nostromo. The boat was sailing with guests in the Adriatic when she was struck by lightning. "The captain must go ‘dead ship’ if there’s any risk," says Cook bitterly – his now ex-captain didn’t take this precaution. "Lightning will destroy all your Navionics and could even destroy your mast."
The boat limped into port under a scrap of jib with all of its electronics fried. "It was an absolute fiasco," he adds. "The strike outlined weaknesses in the lightning conductor system – which all went to a single point. It also put out my gyro compass." He recalls how a specialist from Blohm+Voss came to "de-Gauss" the yacht afterwards – that is, to reduce its electromagnetic footprint and make it less attractive to lightning. The exercise cost thousands of pounds.
Dashew advises owners and captains to consider the number of thru-hulls they have when assessing the risk of lightning. "When you see the 30-centimetre hole that lightning leaves, it gets your attention!" he says. On one of his earlier yachts, he successfully eliminated 19 of the 23 thru-hulls during a refit.
When you’re cruising well off the beaten track, you can find yourself operating well beyond adequate charts. Ancient soundings may be inaccurate, or their positions skewed by the geodetics of modern charts. And at high latitudes, climate change is turning dry land into wet.
"In Magdalena Fjord in Svalbard, the ice has retreated so far that at times, the chart showed us a quarter of a mile inland and yet we were in 50 metres of water, half a mile from the ice front," says Captain Christoph Schaefer.
He also remembers, only too well, the experience of hitting a sandbank as the local pilot tried to bring his 54-metre Amels into Tanjung Putting in Indonesia, to visit the orangutan conservation area. "I told the pilot to sit down, got him a cup of tea and told him to shut up every time he tried to open his mouth. Then we put the tender back in the water and surveyed the channel ahead. You always have to be a little bit paranoid when you’re in charge of an explorer yacht."
Navigating to the site of the adventure is one thing – a big one, admittedly. But then there are the risks entailed in the actual expedition itself, as McNeill tells me. On one occasion in the Arctic, he got stuck in slush ice half a mile from safety, after jumping off the sledge to push the snowmobile. His co-driver raced on unaware, leaving him to wade, walk and drag himself to the solid floe, fighting the fatal urge to just lie down and rest. "In those days, we didn’t have as much down – had I been wearing it, I might have perished," he says. "I was wearing synthetic insulation, and that also helped me."
Another time, he was 170 miles from land, making for the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility, and measuring sea ice thickness for NASA as he went. He made an error trying to drag his sledge across the sheer zone between two chunks of sea ice and suddenly found himself dangling up to his chest in freezing water. "My first reaction was ‘oh that’s nice’," he says. "Heat management is the problem in the Arctic, not cold management – most of the time anyway." He managed a life-or-death flail to get a leg up and onto the ice, tearing a number of intercostal muscles along the way, and succeeded in getting out and setting up camp nearby. "Then I reported on ITV News at 10 about the state of the ice," he chuckles drily.
There are other adversaries up here too, as Rob McCallum and his team at EYOS know only too well, after being ambushed by a polar bear. The group huddled together and the guide fired off a "bear banger" – a non-lethal deterrent, which did the trick. "People often say, ‘I know how to handle a gun, I’ll be alright," McCallum says. "But it's not about the gun, it’s about understanding the bear and how it’s going to react. They are the most majestic of creatures, but they’re faster than a racehorse and cover 100 metres in seven seconds, so they have to be treated with absolute professionalism."
McNeill, who has a base in bear territory on Svalbard, concurs. "You have to be able to recognise what mode the bear is in – predatory or curious – and react accordingly. All we can do in those conditions is to survive. That’s all about continually problem-solving."
Luckily not everything that goes wrong is quite so life-and-death. Sometimes it’s about managing expectations. Jasper Sigon of bespoke yacht charter specialist Voyages and Journeys remembers a client getting hot and bothered about a delayed flight home via Paris after an expedition. "We ended up arranging a private lunch at L'Ambroisie to kill the extra time and everyone was super happy."
A world away in Papua New Guinea, McCallum at EYOS was faced with another disappointment when the village they were visiting turned out to be deserted. "The fires were still smouldering, but there wasn’t a sound," he says. "We wandered around for a while – it was a little bit eerie." It turned out that the whole village had decamped to a neighbouring island to mark the funeral of their chief. "We went along and observed that instead, which was an astonishing visual spectacle. We simply asked whether we could pay our respects, and they welcomed us."
Whether you’re a captain or a guide, guest, crew or owner, there’s one thing to learn from all these tales of mishap. Just as you can be certain that something will eventually go awry, preparation, quick thinking and being surrounded by a team with the right experience will resolve any drama before it turns into a crisis.