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A Tale Of Two Storms

In a small boat sailing the world's oceans you must be fatalistic about weather - you certainly can't change it. With weatherfax you can be forewarned and sometimes you can even sail away from trouble. But eventually you will have to endure bad weather.

I remember tracking a depression in the Southern Ocean; which quickly developed into a giant, smudgy thumb print of whirling close packed isobars - heading straight for us. The waiting makes me anxious and a tight knot of tension builds in my gut as we prepare and check the yacht. I even begin to wish we'd never seen the faxes. Then the gale arrives and you're too busy to worry anymore.

During this particular storm darkness was my favourite time; then I couldn't see just how big the waves were. Even better was to be below, off-watch and snuggled down under the duvet with a hot water bottle, leaving Peter to worry about reefing, steering, broaching, sail handling and everything else.

It's actually a relief when the wind gets too strong to sail in. Then we furl and tightly lash the main and mizzen; leaving only a small hanky of headsail for stability. We lock the helm and retire below - washboards and hatch tight shut. Mithril bobs like a cork and the furious, hissing seas break all around but rarely come aboard.

Quiet and cosy below; we sit by the fire watching the radar and taking turns to venture outside for a quick inspection. With the wind howling in the rigging, waves roaring alongside and snow squalls stinging your face it is very comforting to smell your own turf smoke thousands of miles from any land.

As frightening as a storm at sea can be; there are worse things. I spent the most anxious night of my life impotently sitting out a storm in the harbour of Cape Town, South Africa. The "cape doctor" wind blows with tremendous force through the city and over Table Mountain; sending the famous table cloth cloud cascading down the face like a swirling gray waterfall.

Mithril had been hauled up a slipway for scraping and antifouling and we had already spent two uncomfortable nights sleeping on the steep slope. Through the third evening the wind increased and the boat vibrated and bounced on the rickety trolley. 50 feet long, 75 feet from ground to mast tip and beam on to a gale; we were very vulnerable out of the water. Repeatedly we checked and added to the wedges and lashings which all seemed impossibly frail.

In bed we lay awake - helpless - feet jammed against the bulkhead, fists clenched, as we tensed with each gust; fearing that this would be the one to wrench us from the trolley and scatter us across the yard. The wind gusted to 65 knots that night and we were completely powerless to save Mithril had the trolley beneath us given way.

Sometimes a ship in harbour isn't safe at all.

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Article © Peter and Geraldine Foley
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