June, a month of maritime disaster


June 7 welcomed the return of two Japanese sailors who circumnavigated the globe nonstop: Kenichi Horie and Minoru Saito. I have a special admiration for these men because June also marks the first anniversary of my rescue from the sea while attempting to cross the Pacific in a yacht to Australia.

On June 3, three of us were 400 km off the coast of Japan, headed for Guam, our first port of call. We had already sailed through a couple of small storms that kept us busily pulling on ropes and reefing the main sail, but these storms were short and sweet. You can see them coming — and what really struck me was how fast they come up. The wind starts getting strong and suddenly, just 10 minutes later, you’re in the woes of rain, wind and heavy gusts. One minute you’re sitting on the deck drinking wine and eating cheese and saying, “Wow, isn’t this fantastic!” and the next minute you’re reefing down the sails. It’s that fast.

Paul, the other crew member, and I were doing the 11:00 to 14:00 shift at the helm while the skipper slept. The seas were relatively calm and the wind was blowing from the northeast. There were whitecaps, which meant the wind was over 15 knots, but that was nothing to worry about.

Then the wind picked up and started to get gusty. I don’t like gusty, an unpredictable element of the wind. Strong consistent wind can be dealt with, but gusts are tricky.

I watched the wind meter nervously. The wind was blowing at 18 knots and occasionally jumping over 20 knots. “Shouldn’t we pull in the head sail, Paul?”

Paul’s face was etched with tension, with deep furrows in his forehead. “Not yet,” he said, his eyes never leaving the wind meter. I looked at the barometer: 980 hectopascals — strong typhoon conditions.

The meter kept rising: 23, 24, 25 knots. The boat heeled more and more, but Paul just glided confidently over the big swells, adjusting the wheel ever so slightly as we came off each swell.

Within half an hour, the wind meter zoomed up to 30 knots and held steady. “Call the skipper up here,” Paul said.

The skipper was in the middle of a 10-minute groggy wakeup routine that involved a lot of yawning, grunting and face rubbing.

“We’re going to pull in the heady,” Paul said. “The wind is up over 30 knots.”

“Let me just finish making some toast and I’ll be right up,” said the skipper.

Finish making toast?

The wind continued to creep up the meter: 26 knots, 27, 28 . . . 30 . . . 32 . . . 34.

Toast? Damn.

Then 35 . . . 40 . . .

“Get your ass up here!” I yelled inside my head, as I knew the wind was too strong for me to be pulling on ropes. Now it was 45 knots, with gusts up to 55.

The skipper came out of the cabin, licking jam off his fingers. “Paul, you keep steering. Amy, you pull in the jib sail while I release the jib sheet.”

Damn, I guessed I wasn’t going to get out of this after all. What the skipper says goes, so I winched the self-furler and pulled as hard as I could. The sheet didn’t budge.

“The rope is caught on the jib mast,” someone yelled as the jib sail flapped wildly in the wind, creating loud slapping sounds as it snapped back and forth against itself. The noise was unbearable, each slap reminding us that at any time the sail could rip. And it did just that.

I climbed on my hands and knees to the bow to remove the jib and nervously pulled the sail down and tied it to the boat.

In the meantime, the wind speed continued to increase. The main sail had already been reefed two times, leaving only the smallest area of the sail exposed. But even this was too much wind for the boat. The wind was so strong, it had already ripped the main sail too.

With both the sails down now, the skipper went into the cabin to get out the storm jib, which would allow us to keep the boat pointing into the wind, a key to survival in rough seas. But once in the cabin, the skipper reconsidered. “I’ll do it later when the storm has calmed down a bit. I’ve got a ton of lead hanging down below on the keel. This boat is safe as a house.” It was true that the keel of the boat was particularly heavy. The whole boat had been modified to have a longer, heavier keel for racing.

I noted the barometer had dropped to 965 — very strong typhoon conditions — and that the wind was 55 to 60 knots. In another hour, the gusts would reach 70 to 75 knots.

As we waited out the storm in the cockpit, the boat was repeatedly slammed by waves that sent the boat rocking back and forth and shuddering. But the storm would be over soon.

SLAM! The skipper had told me earlier that storms never last more than 24 hours.

SLAM! Surely the waves would soon die down, the sun would break through the clouds and we’d be having dinner within a couple hours while watching the sun set.


I looked up and everyone was sitting on the ceiling. The boat was upside down.

— To be continued next week