Great seamanship: A surprising landfall

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Lynn Roach reaches the Chesapeake after being rolled and dismasted while crossing the Atlantic – only to find the US Coast Guard nonplussed. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Living In The Lap Of The Gods

Seefalke is a long-ended 1930s classic, built to the old 50 Square Metre rule for the Luftwaffe by Abeking & Rasmussen, one of the finest yards of the golden age of yachting. In 1945 she and a number of her sisters were famously ‘liberated’ from their home berths in Kiel by the British armed forces and sailed back to the UK for training.

Their subsequent history is varied and colourful, but none can beat Seefalke for sheer derring-do. Bought in a parlous state by Lynn Roach, a young Welshman from Barry, she was restored and prepared for a single-handed transatlantic voyage in 1995, still without an engine.

Lynn’s book Living in the Lap of the Gods is such a cover-to-cover page-turner that it was hard to choose a section to share. But here we join Lynn and Seefalke approaching the Chesapeake Bay in November. He has just suffered a shocker of a storm which rolled him twice, dismasted him and left him pumping for his life. Any of us would go big on the drama, but not Lynn. This time-served toolmaker seems to take whatever the ocean tosses his way in his easy stride.

Extract from Living In The Lap Of The Gods

0600: I was blessed with light winds, a flat sea, and the sun was out. This was a good day to get all my wet clothes dried. Before having half a packet of porridge and a coffee, I spread all my clothes out across the deck.

Once breakfast was out of the way, I had to get the boom working. The gooseneck had been ripped off, so all I could do was lash the boom to the mast stump as best I could.

The mainsheet now gave me a functioning boom. I was all finished and could focus on getting some sails up and starting my long trip towards land.

I attached the trysail to the boom and hoisted it up. Next, I rigged the storm jib to the forestay and got that hoisted too. I sheeted both sails in, and slowly Seefalke started to move forwards. I fixed the self-steering and, with George back up and running, it felt like old times again.

1200, 30°18’N 072°03’W: After an orange for lunch, I turned on my GPS. I had been pushed 60 miles to the north­-west by the wind and current since I last checked two days ago, which was good news for my limited food supply.

According to the GPS, my speed over the ground was roughly 1½ knots, which wasn’t brilliant, but I was moving. With the help of a bit of current, I hoped I could cover between 36 and 50 miles a day. If I could coax a bit more speed out of my set-up, it would make a huge difference. I had done enough on the rig for one day, though, and so I decided to leave this little challenge. I was just content with being back sailing again.

My afternoon was spent repairing the solar panels. One was unrepairable. The other one looked more promising. A wire had been pulled out. Once I emptied the water out of the connection box, sprayed it with WD40 and let it dry in the sun, I managed to get it working again. This was another big result. I could now recharge my batteries, my handheld VHF radio, and use the electric bilge pump at night, if needed.

Seefalke under sail. This early photo shows how narrow the yacht is and her beautifully curved sheerline

1800: I had the same for tea as the previous day: corned beef hash and pasta, followed by coffee with a tot of brandy.

17th day at sea,Wednesday, November 11, 0600:

I enjoyed my first good night’s sleep in ages and felt really refreshed when I woke up. I had porridge again for breakfast and sat in the cockpit with my coffee, enjoying the early rays of sunshine, although it was still quite chilly.

There was a light easterly breeze and flat sea. With this in mind, I turned my attention to improving my sailing performance. After sitting on the coachroof for a while, contemplating the problem, I came up with the idea of cutting down my oldest No2 genoa.

I cut the sail roughly in half and fixed the bottom half to the forestay, then I trimmed the foot until it cleared the deck and then attached two sheets at the leach. Next, I took the trysail down and replaced it with the top half of the genoa. This needed to be trimmed to improve the shape. Once I was happy, I cut holes in the foot and luff and attached it to the mast and boom using sail ties.

My new sail set-up made me laugh. The boom was longer than the mast was high. Laughs aside, when I checked the GPS, my new sail configuration had breathed fire into the yacht. I was now doing an electric 3 knots over the ground, which was unreal. At this speed, I could reasonably expect to cover in excess of 75 miles a day, subject to the wind remaining constant. While this was unlikely, it meant getting in somewhere was now a real prospect.

it didn’t all go swimmingly – on the first launch in 1992, after her rebuild, Seefalke sank and the cabin went below the water in front of a crowd of spectators, including Lynn’s mother.

1200, 30°56’N 072°37’W: Logged 50 miles in the last 24 hours. A bloody good start. While eating my last apple for lunch, I sensed that there was a ship in the area. After scanning the horizon, I picked it up. I tried to call it on my handheld VHF, with no luck.

I watched the ship change course and head towards me. She was called Asphalt Champion, and as she circled the yacht I waved at the ship holding my radio. Two minutes later, the ship’s French captain called me up.

He asked: “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I got rolled and lost part of my mast, but the hull is sound. I’m making slow progress but I should make it to a suitable port.”

I also told him that I had enough food and water for 22 days.

“Do you need any more food?” he asked.

“No, but I need a beer.”

“‘I cannot help you there. We are a dry ship.”

“Just my luck,” I replied.

“Did you get caught out in that storm?”

“Yes, it came from nowhere. It rolled the yacht twice.”

“You are very lucky, my friend – 11,000 people are dead or missing.”

The author signing copies of Living In the Lap of the Gods

“Bloody hell. Did the storm have a name?”

“Yes, Hurricane Mitch. It was a class five hurricane when it hit Honduras.”

I also asked him to report me to the US Coast Guard, but on reflection I didn’t want them turning up. They would make me abandon the yacht, the only thing I owned.

For supper, I had rice with half a tin of beans mixed in, and a coffee with a tot of brandy as my nightcap.

0600: The wind had picked up overnight and had been blowing quite hard from the north. I awoke to the sound of sails flapping around like mad. The forestay, with all the halyards, had fallen down the mast. I spent a good hour standing on the boom, hanging on to the mast with one hand with the boat hook in the other, trying to get the forestay back up the mast.

1200, 31°53’N 074°22’W: Logged 48 miles in the last 24 hours. What a result: three days sailing around 50 miles between east and north-east, whichever was best for George.

20th day at sea

Saturday, November 14, 0600: Around midnight, the wind had picked up, and the forestay and sails had fallen down the mast again. I had to drop the sails and tie them to the deck. The yacht was rolling around in the small, choppy seas. Bloody great. It had been too difficult to try to get the forestay back up in the dark.

Looking out through the porthole, I saw an overcast, cold-looking day, with a fresh breeze. Before I got the yacht moving again, I made myself a cup of coffee to celebrate my birthday. For an extra treat, I put a tot of brandy in it.

With my head sticking up through the hatch, I looked towards the bow and saw the dorsal fin of a huge whale. It surfaced right under the bow. The back of the whale came out of the water, well above the deck.

I quickly made my way to the mast and clipped my safety line around it and watched as the whale disappeared below the surface. Looking around, I saw three whales swimming around the yacht. They seemed very curious.

Big waves sweep past Seefalke. This photo was taken in 1995, two days after weathering a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Note lines from the self-steering gear to the tiller

One by one, each whale swam straight towards the yacht and dived beneath it. After an hour, the three surfaced behind the yacht and swam in a line only 30ft off the port side, lifting their big heads out of the water to look at the yacht and me before disappearing below the water for the final time.

What a birthday present. I wondered what Prince Charles got for his? We have the same date of birth. After the whales departed, I needed a J Cloth shower.

I was soaking wet from them blowing off. I remembered being given, at some point in the past, a book to log any whale sightings in the North Atlantic. In the front of the book was a warning advising that it’s illegal to sail or motor to within 300m of a whale. Someone should have told the whales that.

By 1200: I could see the coastline clearly. For lunch, cornflakes again.

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1800: I was only 5 miles off the coast by this point, and though I could see a surf line that was being caused by water breaking over a sandbank, I decided to sail on a more northerly course and head away from the coast.
I ate the last packet of soup and rice for supper.

2300: It was another lovely night. I was sailing quietly up the coast towards the Chesapeake. I could make out the loom from the Cape Henry light, which was roughly 15 miles north of my position. I was too close to the coast to be sleeping.

29th day at sea

Monday, November 23, 0600: It had been a long night. The wind died to the point where I had to helm.

As day broke, George and I were sailing past Cape Henry, at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay. I could see the Bay Bridge and tunnel complex.

My pilot book recommended entry via the southern channel, following the Thimble Shoal. It also advised me to take note of strong currents which could run up to 3 knots, with particular reference to the area around the bridge.

I got lucky with the outgoing current. It was flowing against me, but nothing like 3 knots. Still, the only way I could sail through into the bay was to start out close to the bridge on the port side and try to sail crablike across the current at an angle. I had to sail out of the narrow channel a few times to avoid large ships. Finally, on my fourth attempt, I sailed past the bridge complex into the Chesapeake Bay.

That’s it, I thought. I’d achieved my goal, and it was now time to make contact with the Coast Guard and get them to tow me in.

Ghosting in light winds. A good angle to appreciate Seefalke’s pretty, nipped in counter

I called them up on VHF Ch16. They duly turned up and asked how they could help me.

“Sir, what’s happened to your mast?”

“I lost it in the Bermuda Triangle, together with my navigation lights and liferaft.”

“Sir, your yacht got rolled?”

“Yes.”

“Sir, how many days have you been at sea?”

“Twenty-nine, I think?”

“Sir, if you had told us your condition earlier, we’d have come out straight away. You kept telling us you were okay.”

I tried to explain the contrast from being out in the Atlantic with no mast to being in the safety of the Chesapeake Bay. Relatively speaking, I was okay.

“Sir, do you have engine problems?”

“It’s simpler than that. I don’t have an engine.”

“Sir, no engine? How did you get here?”

“I sailed in.”

The Coastguards looked again at the mast and the general state of the yacht before asking: “Sir, why didn’t you activate your EPIRB after you got rolled? If you had, we would have sent a ship to pick you up ages ago.”

I replied: “Well, the yacht wasn’t sinking. I had food and water. I figured I could rig something up that would get me in here.”

They shook their heads in disbelief.

“Sir, we can only tow you into Little Creek if you are wearing a lifejacket. Do you have one?”

“Yes, I’ll put it on.”

In a cupboard under the chart table, I found my lifejacket. It was still in the bag from when I bought it, with even the price tag still on.


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