Ian Herbert-Jones found himself dismasted and injured in an 80-knot storm deep in the South Atlantic after 219 days at sea in the Golden Globe Race. He told Theo Stocker about the experience
Cape Horn gave me a good beating, and I needed to sort some problems on the boat, so I anchored off Picton Island in the lee of the Horn. It was a good break, and the boat felt ready as I set off north amid a snow storm for what should have been a downhill run towards home.
I was also very aware, however, that I was still a long way south in the Furious Fifties. For the first few days it was just that, helped by the northward Falklands current, but then a week of headwinds, which pushed me quite far east, about 1,000 miles or so from the Falklands and 4-500 miles north of South Georgia.
That’s when I got a weather warning from the Golden Globe Race race control, which they only issue for a severe gale or worse. Race organiser Don MacIntyre’s advice was to sail south as fast as I could to get out of the way of a developing intense, deep low pressure system. I took the advice as best I could, sailing south east.
The barometer just kept falling. I’ve never seen anything like; it just kept going down. If I’m going away from the low and the pressure still keeps falling, then you know it is going to be serious.
I remember the barometer reading something like 936mb, and I know it went lower than that still. Having sailed all the major oceans already, this wasn’t my first rodeo on Puffin. Up to that point, it was pretty much a standard gale and was fairly manageable and I’d been through the normal reefing process.
Then it was like a switch flipped in the heavens – proper Old Testament fire and brimstone stuff. I was overpressed with just bare poles and it was more than the windvane self-steering could handle by itself, so I was also steering at the wheel to help the Hydrovane. The boat was continually accelerating down the waves before rounding up and then being laid flat on her side. There was so much water in the cockpit.
A biblical storm
The wind speed went through the roof in the gusts, but it was the sea state that was just horrendous. We ended up with a cross-sea, which is typical in those storms. This wasn’t the first time we’d seen those sort of seas, but they were very confused with an average wave height of almost 8m. The gusts joined up into one constant gust with very occasional lulls. It was so windy the masthead Hawk wind indicator got blown clean off.
By this point it felt like trouble was just round the corner and I knew I needed to let the outside world know. I was dealing with the situation but I didn’t know what the outcome would be – this was more than just a bad day at the office.
I had to be in the cockpit to helm, but I had already been lifted out of the cockpit twice by the sheer weight of water even though I was tethered on. It’s the secondary and tertiary swells that catch you and wash you out, because I was keeping the main swell astern or on the quarter. It got very bad, and eventually I got through to GGR on the satellite phone and Don very kindly pointed out, ‘You’re on your own and you’ve got to deal with it now.’ Sounds harsh, but he was making sure I was thinking straight.
Feeling the impact
While I was on that call, the boat got hit broadside by a wave. The impact was very hard, like being T-boned in a car.
I guess a couple of seconds later, I came to and my world had changed. Puffin had capsized. I believe we rolled all the way over. The boat was immediately full of water, about 60cm deep, and more coming in. I put my head out of the hatch to see what damage had been done. The rig was gone, the mast hanging over the starboard side.
I was flipped from sailing in the Golden Globe Race into survival mode.
I knew where I was in the ocean, the distances involved and I knew that while the chances of rescue are high these days, my boat was in real trouble.
I retreated below very quickly because it was pretty scary out there. I closed the companionway hatch, but there was still water coming in. One of the coachroof hatches had burst open, so I had to cut lines to clear the hatch in order to close it. The automatic bilge pumps were going, so I turned those off as they would mask any further water ingress and were also chewing up power fast.
Below decks, it was chaos and I had hurt my shoulder and back, and blood was pouring from my head. I lost contact with Don on the satphone when we rolled, but the EPIRB was triggered.
I also set off the YB tracker emergency button to show that the EPIRB hadn’t been set off by accident. The YB tracker would then also prioritise my messages.
Having done that, I went to deploy the drogue. The rig was acting as a sea anchor to some extent over the starboard side, but I was very aware that we could be rolled again. It was difficult to shackle the bridle on and to launch the ‘one shot’ bag, which weighs 15kg, along with its sinker chain of another 15kg, but I managed it. As soon as it was in, the stern came round to face the main wave direction, and the boat went from feeling like she was on the edge of being rolled again, to just being in a rodeo. It wasn’t comfortable, but it felt a lot more secure.
The rig was hitting the side, but I was beaten back by the waves each time. Eventually I did manage to cut away the backstay, runners, and port cap shroud, using my angle grinder, which I had to tie to my lifejacket, and I was lying on deck trying to cut shrouds; it was pretty horrendous. It’s not like the gale stops just because you’ve lost your rig.
I reckoned I had about 24-48 hours before conditions would allow me to get to the point of rigging a jury rig to potentially make for the Falklands, but I was also aware that I’d triggered a rescue, through the EPIRB, so that would be the first option. I shoved anything into the forepeak that could injure me if we were rolled again. I did still have my liferaft, thanks to the extra lashings I’d put on it, but I made it my mission to stay out of it.
It was dark by then and I had a job list to work through, but I tried to take some rest and have some food from the snack box and water I kept next to my bunk. I strapped myself into the bunk to try and rest my back, which was very painful.
I had spasms running down my right leg, and I kept thinking of Abhilash, who broke his back in the 2018 race. I was very aware that I could make the situation worse by being too macho about it and becoming a casualty.
At first light the next morning I was back to pumping bilges and trying to cut away more of the rigging. I then had a message that the Falklands Fisheries Patrol Vessel boat, Lillibet, was being routed to Puffin with an ETA of 30 hours. This was great news, a vessel like the Lillibet would be able to launch a rescue rib. Another update came through that a Taiwanese fishing boat, the Zi Da Wang, was on its way, ETA 1900. It was a 76m steel beast, so I wasn’t sure how the rescue would work, but I was glad they were coming.
I set about trying to clear more of the rig and went forward to get rid of the forestays, again with my trusty grinder. While I was lying on the foredeck a wave washed me like a ragdoll through the pulpit and I was literally hanging off the boat. I said to myself, ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ and retreated below to get ready for the rescue. Amazingly, I’d kept hold of the grinder and it was still working.
It was like packing for my holidays; a small drybag with my passport and a few precious items; the watch that was a wedding present from my wife Sally, the crucifix that came with the boat from the original owners, the toy Puffin that I’d taken round the world for my nieces and nephews, plus letters from my daughter.
At this point, I imagined I’d be taken to the Falklands and that I could arrange salvage from there. So I packed a small day bag with one change of clothes. Then I put in my logs and larger things I really wanted like my journals in a bigger bag.
I heard chatter on the VHF, I guessed in Mandarin. I couldn’t make contact with them on my VHF, so I went back to pumping the bilges, still very conscious that the rescue may not work. I only received one message from the Zi Da Wang and they said ‘Puffin, we’re coming for you,’ in faltering English. All of a sudden the ship appeared out of nowhere.
The skipper went beam on to create a lee and was being pushed down on to me, which was terrifying. The drogue kept Puffin stern to the swell and made her a stationary target for the Zi Da Wang to approach from upwind. I had no communication with the bridge, so I didn’t know what the skipper’s plan was. When the ship drifted down onto Puffin, it was more or less a controlled crash.
I made eye contact with the bosun and he got a line across, which I secured to the bow. We got another line on to the stern to hold Puffin alongside. At times it felt like she was going to be pushed under the bigger boat. A pilot ladder appeared and I knew I didn’t have long to get off – it happened so fast. I had my drybag and my daypack, but didn’t have time to get the bigger bag from below, so I picked my moment and jumped for the ladder.
I had only taken a couple of steps up before the crew grabbed me and pulled me on deck. I was surrounded by happy faces, but it was a shock. Then the worst moment of all, Puffin was cut adrift.
The crew gave me some clothes and patched me up and told me we were on our way to Cape Town as they were heading home at the end of their fishing season, with the hold packed full of squid. The skipper was amazing, and helped me make satellite calls home and back to GGR race control.
Amusingly, I was bunked with a guy who had the best English on board, to look after me, whose name was Davy-Jones, though no-one on board seemed to see the irony of this.
In a strange way it was like pressing pause for me. I was in the completely different world of the crew, waking for watches and enjoying the food onboard – rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner – before I re-entered the real world ashore. We arrived in Cape Town 10 days later.
Don’t be a hero: There were points it was tempting to go on deck to clear the rig, to keep on working when I needed to rest, or to try and cope alone when it was time to call for help. Taking the sensible course of action early is good seamanship.
Communications: Having multiple means of communication was a life saver. I was able to use two methods of communication to raise and confirm the alarm, and then establish two-way comms by satphone.
Thinking straight: It’s hard to keep a clear mind in the middle of a storm. Keep planning ahead and taking the next necessary action will help. Work through a jobs list and work to keep options open to keep you safe.
Rig plan: Plan how you’ll get cut your rig away if needed. It was a horrible job but my angle grinder was amazing. Have a jury rig plan too. My spinnaker poles on deck were unharmed, I had pre-cut dyneema stays and my storm sails were available.
Clipping on: It wasn’t easy to clip on when cutting the rig away, but I was nearly washed overboard. Clipping on saved my life multiple times during this storm and the ones before it.
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