Roving Commissions extract: Calm in the Storm

Yachting World

Despite rig failure and a tropical cyclone, Francis Hawkings remains composed on an eventful Pacific crossing. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Roving Commissions

Not for the first time, the Royal Cruising Club’s wonderful annual journal Roving Commissions has turned up a jewel of seamanship. Delving into the 2021 edition I found an account by Francis Hawkings entitled ‘Three lucky escapes to Japan’. The article comes in two sections. The first describes a passage from California to Hawaii, two-handed on his Tradewind 35 Plainsong with his son-in-law.

As is so often the case these days, the trades largely fail to oblige and the passage is not without incident. Hawkings goes on to make the run from Hawaii to Japan single-handed. He finds himself confronted by challenges aplenty but deals with them in a relaxed and seamanlike manner, describing the events with unusual clarity yet never losing the human touch.

He manages a potentially catastrophic cap shroud failure with what seems almost a shrug of the shoulders, then makes an assessment of how to cope with a truly ugly weather situation. The single-handed passage is recounted here in its entirety, including a final twist courtesy of Japanese bureaucracy.

Extract from Roving Commissions

Left Hawaii on 27 March and for the first two and a half weeks enjoyed the beautiful trade wind sailing that I’d not found before Hawaii. The dawns were stunning and the sunsets exquisite; the wind blew, gently, and the waves were very well behaved.

I took care of the boat in the morning and read a book in the afternoon. I got used to the solitude, though with a satellite phone, and therefore unlimited texts, ‘solitude’ in the 2020s takes on a rather attenuated meaning, and came to terms with the beautiful enormity and emptiness of the Pacific.

I slept in 60- to 90-minute increments at night and felt remarkably untired. The going was not my fastest but I was making around 800 miles a week in the right direction and feeling pretty content. My biggest concern was that I was about to finish Barak Obama’s excellent memoir A Promised Land. Until, that is, lolling on my bunk on 13 April, about 10° deep into the Eastern Hemisphere and well over the International Date Line, I heard a loud crack on deck.

Francis Hawkings aboard Plainsong at dawn off Honolulu

Francis Hawkings aboard Plainsong at dawn off Honolulu. Photo: Michael Milton

I didn’t hurry unduly to get up but would have done if I’d realised what the problem was: I had lost my windward cap shroud. It turned out that water had seeped under the port chainplate, which is in effect a D-ring bolted through the deck, and corroded the nuts holding the bolts on the underside of the deck; eventually the nuts disintegrated and the bolts pulled up through the deck. Bleak thoughts of being dismasted thousands of miles from anywhere.

At this point a series of lucky breaks set in. First and foremost, the wind was pretty light and I hadn’t lost my mast. In addition, because of the bounty of the cutter rig, I was able to cannibalise the nuts off the inner forestay, which I figured wasn’t so critical to the rig’s structural integrity.

By a miracle, both sets of nuts were accessible and the same size; the threads on the cap shroud bolts were more or less undamaged; the fitting had come up cleanly and not enlarged the holes through the deck; and the through-bolts were welded to the D-ring above the deck, so I didn’t need a second pair of hands to hold anything on deck while I tightened the nuts below. Within three hours we were cautiously under way again.

fair breezes and rain showers on passage from California to Hawaii.

Fair breezes and rain showers on passage from California to Hawaii. Photo: Michael Milton

The following day I jury rigged the inner forestay using the stemhead fitting. So we were back to full sail plan again and this arrangement saw us through another 2,500 miles and two gales. Having escaped from lockdown, this was escape number two.

Kirk Patterson, my ever-present satphone consultant, put a damper on my rigging celebrations the following day by telling me about a typhoon forming in the vicinity of the Philippines, beyond the range of the GRIB files I was looking at. In the next few days this strengthened into what I subsequently learned was super typhoon Surigae, one of the most intense tropical cyclones on record.

For me, happily ignorant of that, the question was how to avoid it if, as is typical, the typhoon swung north-east away from the Philippines and out towards my course.

Calm in the Storm map

Not the sort of forecast anyone wants to see. Photo: PredictWind

The question was made more tricky by the fact that Surigae hung around the Philippines and strengthened for about a week or so, which made it very hard for the forecasters to agree on where it might go once it got moving.

Several predicted a relatively easterly course, in which case Surigae would pass south of me. But there were always one or two outlier forecasts suggesting a more north-easterly course, in which case the typhoon would be ahead of me. To thread the needle between these two scenarios I needed to be sufficiently far north to avoid the easterly path but not too far west.

Boxed in

The obvious solution was to sail north-west. But there was a problem: to the north there was a fairly vigorous low which was producing gale force northerlies, north-westerlies and westerlies around its western and southern circumference. I couldn’t sail far north or north-west because doing so would have taken me straight into these gales. I was boxed in.

My solution was to head in a north-westerly direction up to 28°N from 24°N and then sail due west. This was designed to keep me sufficiently far north to avoid the most likely path of the typhoon and yet not so far north that I was exposed to a full gale from the low. And indeed it did: I didn’t experience sustained winds from the low of more than 35 knots, with only occasional full gale gusts. But I did have to heave-to for the best part of a day, costing me valuable escape time from Surigae, which was now, it was confirmed, tracking along the relatively easterly path and headed to pass south of me.

After almost two weeks of typhoon anxiety the denouement was forecast to come on 26 April. But at the last minute – by now weakening and an extratropical cyclone of less than typhoon strength – Surigae jinked to the north-east.

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I stopped congratulating myself on having evaded its path. The wind steadily increased during the morning of 26 April and backed from south-east to north-east. The barometer was plunging. The rain became intense. By early afternoon I realised that storm jib alone was too much sail; eventually the Monitor, which is a remarkable self-steerer, couldn’t cope, we gybed, and were lying uncomfortably crosswise to the waves, which were pretty big and angry (and, I will admit, a bit frightening).

Good storms are all alike; every bad storm is bad in its own way. The trouble with bad storms is that your normal defences (heaving to, running under storm jib, etc) don’t work and you are experimenting to find the right solution.

I hand steered for a couple of hours while trying out different rigs. Storm jib was too much but Plainsong wouldn’t run under bare poles and Monitor alone; she wasn’t going fast enough and kept getting pushed crosswise again as the waves came up under her counter. The key was to move fast enough but keep the stern as straight on to the following sea as possible. I thought that a drogue would slow her down too much and didn’t want to have the recovery challenge from a failed experiment.

Plainsong at Naoshima, Japan. Photo: Michael Milton

In the middle of all this the rain stopped and a hole of blue sky opened above us. I wondered whether we were in what was left of the eye and feared a sudden shift of wind direction and an even more confused sea. But it kept blowing steadily in the low 40s and gusting, at its maximum, into the 50s while continuing to back through north.

Eventually the right combination was a tiny triangle of yankee, barely more than the reinforced corner of the sail unfurled from the furler, plus a warp and chain streamed astern. By late afternoon the wind had reached north-west, the barometer was rising and the edge was coming off both the gusts and the waves.

So, on what turned into a bright sunny evening, albeit still windy, I was celebrating the fact that nothing had broken or gone wrong. In retrospect, I estimate that I was perhaps some 120 miles west of the eye at its closest point of approach.

It was my third lucky escape, both because I stayed in the better sector of a now-weakened cyclone and because later that day Surigae began to undergo ‘explosive cyclogenesis’ once it had passed me, with 10­ minute maximum sustained winds of 70 knots.

I had about 100 miles left to run and 24 hours after my Surigae moment I could resume my course to the west. I told myself that now, with the typhoon threat passed, I didn’t care what the weather did and revelled in some light air and diminishing seas in the following days.

About 400 miles from Japan the Japanese authorities, through Kirk, started pressing more insistently for an ETA. It was made clear that once I’d specified an ETA, I mustn’t be late and it wouldn’t do to be early. I was to behave, in other words, like a ship.

fenders ready, Plainsong approaches Tannowa

Fenders ready, Plainsong approaches Tannowa. Photo: Michael Milton

The problem was that the forecasts for the next few days were all over the place, mostly light and contrary, and I needed to negotiate the Kuroshio current which would run at three knots or so for a while but which, like the Gulf Stream, was meandery and hard to pin down until you were in it.

I had no real idea when I would arrive. But I was making progress. Once I’d passed the line of offshore islands running roughly south from Tokyo I could tell that things were changing. I was visited by a swallow which did a lap of the boat and headed back to the mainland, a magic moment between two voyagers.

[As] my AIS screen changed from the beautiful blank of the open ocean to a chaos of up to 35 vessels or so at any one time, it was clear I was reaching the known world again. In the end, I decided to do a sustained stint of motoring to get across the shipping lane and because this would put me within striking distance of a predictable ETA. It was boring but it paid off: I was able to set sail again for my last night on the open sea. Sunrise on the morning of 8 May revealed, along with intense coastal shipping, the beautiful green and grey shades of hills on the southernmost tip of Honshu, Japan’s largest island.

Coasting

During the day I sailed up the narrowing funnel of Kii Suido which separates Honshu from Shikoku, the next large island to the west. An ocean voyage turned into a coastal day sail as towns came into view, tiny white fishing boats surprised the life out of me in the haze and I swept between two islands on a fair tide, a smooth sea and a moderate breeze on the beam.

Given the times of these tides, in order not to be late for my ETA I had to arrive way too early. But since I was way too early, I couldn’t arrive (I wasn’t allowed to anchor, since that would have been penetrating Japanese soil). So I spent the night hove-to off the entrance to Tannowa, drifting this way and that.

I was annoyed at the bureaucracy but by the time a beautiful dawn arrived, I couldn’t care less; nothing could spoil my good mood. Finally, after 42 days at sea I moored alongside the Q dock in Tannowa Yacht Harbour at 1001 on 9 May. I was, to my shame, one minute late because, at the last moment, I changed my mind about which direction to lie and had to switch the fenders.


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