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Gale Force 8 - Imminent!

Once upon a time (+25 years ago), I had a small sailboat of 24ft.

An Achilles 24, to be exact. This craft was built in Wales, UK, by a local manufacturer and, to date, probably the most fun and adventure I have accrued in my younger years of sailing.

At the time, I was in my late twenties, the owner of a house, the owner of a push bike that took me to work, and forging a career. My youngest Nephew (who is more like a brother to me) had taken up residence at the University of Cardiff, Wales, to study Geography.

I had secured him a job in the local marina for work during the summer, had a room for him in between terms, and we shared an original Mini at one point, which was his after both my cars were stolen, hence the push bike.

I had planned to sail my small boat with Griff to West Wales at the early start of the season. I had confidence in the boat. The 'Panache' was swift, with a very low freeboard and a tiny beam with a five-foot fin keel. She had an old-fashioned round boom furling, a basic but operational headsail furler. A one-cylinder diesel engine and tiller steering. She could sail close-hauled almost 12/15 degrees off the wind. A large open cockpit and room enough below for a small sink, a tiny stove, two bunks, and a v berth, but only 4ft headroom.

The overall distance in a straight line was only a mere 120 miles. We departed on a sunny April 1st from the second marina (40 miles or so from departure) as I had decided to split the journey into two sections, manipulating the Bristol channel tides of 12m range and minimizing night sailing. We had made the first hop the day before in excellent time. On this crisp morning, the sky was blue, the sea kind, and the spinnaker was set for a fast passage picking up the ebbing tide.

To 'while away some time,' I thought it an excellent opportunity to teach a little navigation. We learned how to read the digits from the handheld green screen GPS, place a mark on the chart, and do a fix by compass. His natural intellect and flair for this lesson were later to become very important, but for then, it was a great exercise. The GPS was my only gadget on board and a small VHF; they were all the safety gear I carried. No life raft, no dinghy. Harness and a lifejacket were all I felt I needed.

As the sea gently rose and fell, we admired the jagged coastline of the Gower peninsular. A harsh cliff backdrop with a muddied-colored sea, the Bristol Channel, as it becomes the Irish Sea, the land falls away, and slowly shifting waters turn into the recognizable blues of the ocean. Everything felt as it should.

A late afternoon forecast was due, and as I scanned the horizon, being the only sailboat or marine traffic afloat that day, a large and dark bilious cloud grew on the sealine. The breeze freshened. It felt cold. I eyed the ever-increasing darkness with great suspicion. I asked young Griff to tune the VHF into the local coastguard weather forecast, soon to be aired and broadcast to all those listening.

It rattled through some areas I was not interested in, but it was odd. The wind strength was more significant, and the forecast dramatically changed from 7 am that morning.

It got to the section I was waiting for, and the words echoed across the cockpit and to my ears. Imminat Gale force 8. Rain. Sea State - Moderate to rough.

Glancing over the port quarter and then back to the spinnaker and again back to the horizon, my mind frantically took in this information.

Very dark, in fact, very, very dark and moving very quickly. The weather, now approaching from behind, had us within its sights. It would catch us.

My mental arithmetic is not agile, but I have already summarised and painted a challenging picture of events. We could not turn back; we had already traveled too far to make the tides work. We had no haven to starboard that could or would easily be entered in the dark, and all harbors were drying. We had no choice but to press on.


The heading was set, the wind freshened steadily; the spinnaker was dowsed and put away; items were stowed below; we talked about deck and harness procedures; the VHF was checked, and a passage plan posted to the coastguard, and finally, we waited for what was to come.

What came first was the night. I had anticipated this but not in bad weather. Certainly not in a gale. It became so dark that even at 24ft, the navigation lights seemed to be masked by the pounding rain.

Then the wind, we had too much sail set, and we had to reef fast, as the wind went up several notches simultaneously.

Griff went to the mast; visibility was almost zero from the rain, I could make out his shape, but the stinging reward for trying to see was unsustainable. He grunted and cursed the mechanism. It should roll away, but it didn't. More wind, more waves.

He shouted above the noise that the handle had bent. This information surprised me, as it was a solid piece of a metal bar with a wooden handle. I encouraged him to try harder; we had to reduce sail or take it down. Hand steering in these conditions was not easy, but spilling wind and sailing down and around the cresting waves gave a moderately stable platform; there was a hiss from behind, the boat lurched as one giant wave engulfed us, and the instant report returned, the handle had gone.

Flogging terribly for a period, the mainsail was dropped, stowed, and secured as reefing was no longer possible. The head sail was reduced yet again to a storm sail.

We re-grouped in the cockpit, and the rain continued to pound us. As a precaution, the engine was started (and such a lovely thumping noise it made). It also helped keep steerage of the now surfable waves coming up from our quarter.

During this commotion, the main compass, which rested on a nice plastic bracket below the tiller, and aft on a bulkhead, was stepped upon. The crack and then the rolling away of the compass held my focus for a second, as Griff was my primary concern on the coachroof. Now huddled under the dodger, Griff asked the ultimate question, what now?

It's hard to summarise precisely how bad things were becoming to a young man, yet I still felt we were OK. I should point out this was his first long voyage and, therefore, his first storm, and sometimes ignorance is bliss. The course and the weather gave us two options before us. I had to make a difficult choice as one passage had a much greater risk, and the other meant a long extended night of clawing more miles.

With no main sail, sailing out and away from land and into open water to heave to was now lost to us. I had no compass to steer by, my crew could hold it while I got a bearing, but this could not work forever. Griff could use the GPS and could plot a position. The GPS also had a compass.

The two choices ahead of us had a section of dangerous rocks known for eating boats and spitting them out. It was known locally as the inside passage and the outsider passage. The inside course was significantly shorter in time and distance to the mouth of the Cleadeau River but would place us between the rocks and the land.

The outside passage would involve heading out further into the Irish Sea to ensure we were not pushed down onto the rocks as my original course had planned for the inside passage. However, this course alteration would take time and distance in deteriorating conditions. The last hurdle was visibility, as we had none. My greatest asset was Griff, as he had surfed all the beaches on this coastline and knew every landmark by heart.

I asked Griff to go below, dry off as much as possible, plot a position on the chart, and then work a bearing to carry us through the inside passage. Additionally, please give me a bearing to the lighthouse, which marked the entrance to the river; it also had a five-mile range of light.

My decision was made. We would run the inside passage, hoping the range of rocks to port would alleviate some sea conditions. It kept us off the lee shore by only a maximum of four miles but narrowed considerably, but that should be enough. The plan set, Griff called out a bearing and heading from the GPS; we altered course a little and plunged further into the darkness.

During what seemed forever, Griff would plot a position on the chart, give me the heading, and we held a steady course. All of this happened while the wind whistled around us, and the rain did not stop; the wave strength had the boat so hard when cresting that the rudder alteration had to be put into place before the roller coaster grabbed the keel, and no power abound, or tiller alterations would adjust this.

At this point of no return, I decided to alert the local coastguard of my heading and current position; we were now in range but not in danger. If I did get something wrong, I justified the call to myself; hopefully, someone might come for us.

I should mention the coastguard's request upon my call.

To have a radio call before midnight with a full gale blowing from a 24ft sailboat transiting one of the worst places you can imagine was one of surprise and concern. The very first question in an annoyed tone was, "Do you know what the weather is doing" which I thought most odd.

I was requested to call every 30 minutes to report my progress. I explained this was not possible. What they could not hear was the shrieks from my Nephew. His skill set had not developed enough to counter the rudder to the wave action before they arrived, and with every passing wave, a call from outside came, "Hurry up please - hurry up - hurrrrrrrryyyy up."

We hit the mental milestone that, by now, the lighthouse should be clear and be seen. It was not. The distance diminished, and without leading lights ahead, the nagging doubt began to rise like bile. I cursed the rain. I cursed the sky. I ran the following scenario through my head;

"I can alter course, but now the wind and waves are abeam with little sail and soon to be a flooding tide. Wind with tide meant an even larger sea, or possibly smoother, but vessel performance would be greatly hampered." or,

"I can stand on with no visual confirmation that land exists or it is where it should be, but we are approaching very fast."

Four miles from the lighthouse, then three, my bile was palatable.

Land to my starboard, less than two miles, rocks to my port and one mile, the last part of the inner passage was testing me. I knew what we should be seeing, but nothing but black was before us. I prayed for one, any one of the multiple leading lights, to show. I need one; I kept saying in my head.

Then, the rain stopped. The sky above parted like an opening curtain of a play. Ahead in full bore beaming out was the lighthouse, five points off the bow, a leading light to the outer channel, then another. The hand-bearing compass quickly appeared, and I called out for the bearings to be scratched down somewhere, anywhere; we so needed this data.

That was it, we had a fix, and the mood changed to a lighter tone.

Then as quickly as we had seen them, they were gone, as the rain and the sky took back the light and started where it had left off only moments before. It was OK; we had our approach.

The passage from there was like we had not even been in a Gale Force 8 for 8 relentless hours. Once into the river mouth, the wind eased enough to raise the main, the rain eased, and we had such a lovely sail and covered the 14 miles upriver in good time. What had occurred to stop the reefing was discovered when we did raise the sail. It was the main sheet that had wrapped itself into the sail above my head. I had not noticed. The block and line had stopped the boom from rotating and thus reefing.

We arrived at the marina at a sharp and chilly 4 am and called the coastguard back, I had called twice before during passage, but again it was met with another slightly surprised tone to my announcement we were safely tied up and going to bed for a rest. Tired, cold, and wet as we were, the damp interior was not appealing, but appealing all the same. A home-cooked breakfast was all we could talk about, and perhaps not to mention how bad the weather was to various motherly figures. We slept well for a few hours, arose to the sun, and called the family to say we had arrived safely.

To this day, my Nephew recounts to his trainees how he learned how to navigate (now that he is a Captain and a training officer of huge planes), especially when they sit in the simulator to face their flying tests. The photo below was Griff repaying the kindness when he got his PPL and mentioned it has a smaller engine than his motorbike.

The return journey proved almost as complicated and fraught as the arrival. That, though, will be in another account.

What did I learn from this trip?

  1. Passage planning is not all about the destination. I could have, in hindsight, made an earlier anchorage. It would have prolonged the journey, and being in an exposed anchorage I was unfamiliar with, plus the risk of drying out, outweighed this choice unless correctly planned. Always have a secondary port, just in case.

  2. Reefing in daylight is more straightforward than at night. Quicker and more efficient. It may slow the passage for a while, but ultimately you are in control when it is needed. I utilized the boat speed to stay ahead of the storm for as long as possible, but in turn, I would have preferred to have the reefed main as an option.

  3. Running is easy, and slowing down is not so. Running before the storm gave me the edge to cover greater distances. Heaving to would have been my preferred choice at times, but altering course to gain sea room was not an option. I would now carry a drogue if I knew there was a chance of being caught in storm-force winds.

  4. I would own another Achilles 24 any time. I think I was lucky to have the retrofitted diesel. It was an Italian brand and challenging for parts. The original design had an outboard in a well. However, nothing is more reassuring than a thump of a diesel engine when you need it.

  5. The basics never change. Learn the old ways, rely on the facts, and not what your imagination can produce. I sailed with an embarrassing amount of luck, or was it skill? I am still not sure. I achieved in a 24ft sailboat what the local fisherman feared and would not have tackled in those weather conditions. This passage, though, could have gone wrong at any point with the loss of the GPS. Instinct, I have found, can not be taught. It can be 'felt,' and gut feelings often are; on this occasion, it kept me safe.

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