300 miles, 600 boats, 1 deadly storm
On Saturday August 11, 1979 a team of Canadian sailors set out on a 600-mile race from the south coast of England to a lighthouse off the Irish coast called Fastnet Rock. A storm of unforeseen size and strength descended on the fleet. This excerpt from Beyond Endurance describes the scene aboard the Toronto boat Magistri as conditions begin to deteriorate.
The difference between a gale and a survival storm is that in a gale, the skipper and crew retain control of the boat. In a survival storm, wind and sea become masters. The crew struggle to stay alive one minute at a time, hoping conditions will ease enough to give them back control of the boat. There is no navigation per se, because the boat is blown along the waves by the force of the wind. The waves are breaking and tumbling like surf on the beach, sometimes burying the boat under tons of water.
The difference between conditions at the upper end of Force 8 and Force 10 is the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia. At Force 8, about 46 mph, the spray is blinding, it is difficult to be heard above the noise of the wind, and every muscle is clenched in order to move or brace against the boat’s movement. Small children will fly. It takes enormous strength to hold a course and seasickness may be knocking off the crew one by one. At Force 10, with the speed at 63 mph, you hang on and pray.
Nick DeGrazia wedged himself in Magistri’s cockpit to stop from sliding. The distressing answer to his earlier question, ‘How bad can it get? was now clear. It was lamentably, much, much worse. He had raced in squalls of 35 knots [1 knot = 1.15 miles] on the Great Lakes, but there winds like that don’t last long, certainly not long enough to create waves like this: 30, 40 feet high, with spray flying even higher. He could see the spume illuminated in the masthead light. DeGrazia was an economics professor and Dean at the University of Detroit and had met the Magistri crew during one of the many summer Great Lakes races. Although Magistri sailed out of Toronto’s Royal Canadian Yacht Club they liked him and invited him aboard their long distance races.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see the wind speed indicator which was attached to the bulkhead just forward of the hatch leading down to the cabin. For as long as he stared at the instrument, the needle was stuck on the far side, a reading of 60 knots. He bent over and tapped the glass, but the needle stayed put. Must be broken, he thought. This put the wind speed at Beaufort Force 11, just shy of a hurricane. The sea was now covered in long white patches of foam and everywhere the edges of the waves were blown into froth, as Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort predicted when he created the scale in 1805. To DeGrazia, it seemed as if the needle was trying to bend past 60. Magistri dove off a wave and for the briefest moment in its lee, the needle flickered and dropped back. He was startled: “That when’s I realized it wasn’t broken and that it was blowing more than 60,” he says.
Peter Milligan had been peering at the compass, reading the course and relaying that to other crew like DeGrazia, who in turn shouted it into the ear of the next person and so on down the line until finally it reached the helmsman’s ear. Milligan had been squinting into the spray without the protection of glasses or goggles. The sensation was painful, akin to having needles driven through the retina. He could stick his nose right up against the compass, shielding his eyes with his hands. He could turn his face a bit to one side and peer at the compass from an angle, or he could stay low and close and squint. All at once he realized that the red glow of the compass was a blur and he could not read the numbers at all. In fact, he couldn’t see anything. He had gone blind.
“My eyes just ceased to work,” Milligan says. “I couldn’t get them to focus. I was terrified.”
He stumbled below and collapsed at the bottom of the companionway, with his head to the back of the boat. It was about as comfortable as “lying in a sewer,” he says. He rinsed his eyes with fresh water and gradually his sight returned.
DeGrazia was coming down the companionway into the cabin and had just closed the hatch when the boat went over. He was undoing his foul weather jacket when the boat lurched and “what flashed through my mind was rocks, but then I thought it can’t be rocks, we’re in the middle of the ocean for God sake,” he says.
Chris Punter heard the wind howling, the halyards slapping inside the mast, the hammer blows of the waves. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was warm down below and he was in a half sleep. He felt a sense of weightlessness and then the boat fell on its side with a wind-sucking thump and stopped.
Punter believed they had run into a ship and were being crushed as it drove over them. His fear released a surge of adrenaline and he threw off the bodies around him and made for the companionway hatch to escape. This was no way to die, he thought.
The big question as they opened the hatch was whether there was anybody left on deck.
Beyond Endurance is available at Amazon