Sea of Dreams

The Around Alone yacht race was a thrilling adventure for the sailors passionate enough to try it. Among the 13 sailors in the 2002 race  was Derek Hatfield, a former fraud-squad Mountie, whose forty-foot Spirit of Canada had cost him almost everything he had.

The race took sailors through the wild storms of the Bay of Biscay, the frustrating and infamous Doldrums, the angry Southern Ocean, and the treacherous seas off Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America.

In this excerpt, Adam Mayers describes Hatfield’s rounding of Cape Horn in hurricane force winds and 50-foot seas.

Where Heroes Flourish

Derek Hatfield waves from the cockpit of his 40-foot Spirit of Canada.

By the early hours of Thursday, March 7, the wind was inching toward the mid-fifties. In a small corner of his mind, Derek Hatfield started to doubt that he would get around Cape Horn safely. The storm was overtaking him with a wind and wave combination few
experience. Fewer still live to describe it after an encounter in a boat his size.

That morning, the forecast was revised again. It called for sixty knots by late Thursday, gusting to eighty maybe overnight. Sixty knots is a Force I hurricane, eighty knots Force II. On land, there would be severe damage. At sea: visibility close to zero, the
air thick with driving spray, waves crests blown into froth, the horizon lost from sight behind the swells.

Brad Van Liew had seen similar conditions in the same spot. The waves were deeper from trough to crest than the height of his seventy-five-foot mast. That’s the height of a seven-story building. He says it was the most frightening of all his solo sailing  experiences. He was afraid, not of the waves themselves, but because there was absolutely nothing he could do.

The raw power of the sea made his enormous skills pathetically inadequate. “I had no idea how big the waves were, how strong the winds were, it was all off the meter,” he says. “I had a little bunk, a cubbyhole down the back alley of the boat. I went in there and waited. I don’t even like to think about it.”

Hatfield was two hundred miles from the Horn, less than twenty hours from its protection. When a gust caught the boat at the wrong time at the top of a wave, the impact hurled the vessel sideways and it would hang for a moment. Inside the cabin, Hatfield’s feet would leave the floor.

When all seemed lost, the keel would bite, bringing the boat back up.Where other skippers might have trusted their boats to the autopilot, Hatfield felt he could do better steering by hand. If you can’t rest, you might as well work, he reasoned. He was barely in control of Spirit of Canada, too busy steering to be afraid, or perhaps keeping busy to keep the fear at bay.

“When you see a 50-foot wave with the top 10 feet breaking you really don’t want to sleep,” Hatfield says. “There’s some fear factor there, believe me. It keeps you awake.”

If he could get past the cape and turn northeast, putting the island between him and the conditions, he thought, the waves should be more manageable.
The rogue waves were the ones to fear most. Unlike the others, they sounded like surf breaking on the shore.  He had about fifteen seconds between hearing the sound, glancing back to judge its speed and size, and reacting. Like a surfer, he had to steer across its face.

They rose like a wall, curled at the top, and fell with enormous force. He could only hope he was far enough ahead that when the top fifteen feet of the fifty-foot wave collapsed, it didn’t break on top of his boat.

“You have to try and avoid the curlers,” Hatfield says. “They are the killers.”
Spirit of Canada and its skipper had passed into the place where, as Derek Lundy says, heroes flourish. Hatfield was beyond the realm of his experience, engaged in a struggle for survival. He was sailing through the kind of weather that a racing sailor might experience once in a lifetime, and rarely when alone. The sole objective was to survive another minute, and then another, until the wind stopped howling and the waves diminished and the glow of dawn painted the sky pink once more.

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