KatieKat 2003 Cruise Chapter Seventeen
- New Caledonia to Australia Passage Day Three -

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GoBackTo NewCal-Australia Passage Day Two
27 October 2003Passage Third Day
27 October 2003Evening Unpleasantness (MUST READ!)
Weeks LaterRetrospective
GoFwdTo NewCal-Australia Passage Days 4&5

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This webpage covers the third day's passage sail and includes the, uh, 'interesting' (horrible) time we had that night. Our actual Passage Report SailMail e-mails are shown in italics.

27 October, 2003 -- Passage, Third Day

OK class, listen up! As a precursor to today's events, let's look at the New Zealand 30-hour Prognosis which I downloaded at 11pm last night and which is valid UTC noon on 27 October which is approximately 11pm on 27 October (i.e., tonight). Our location at that time would be roughly 30% of the way to Brisbane. Specifically, I just looked in my logbook and the last entry hastily scribbled in there (with an expletive) and with an eight-hour gap following was at 1800hrs tonight and was around 24deg3.9minS by 161deg23.5minE.

[NZ Prognosis] The tail of the cold front does not extend up to our latitude and should not even be close to us at that time.

At 0520 I managed to connect with SailMail and downloaded the next three-day forecast. Here's what it showed:

[GRIB Today] [GRIB Tomorrow] [GRIB Wednesday]

The left GRIB is valid for around noon today, the second is for around noon tomorrow, and the last one is for around noon Wednesday. Our actual position this morning relative to the arrow shown on the picture is about a half a degree further south and almost two degrees further west.

I quickly glanced at the first GRIB and saw that today we should merely be expecting NNW winds of around ten knots and perhaps increasing to 15 and shifting towards the northwest. Nothing to worry about. Tomorrow's GRIB was indifferent, with light winds, whatever their direction. Wednesday was looking more ominous, with strong northerlies turning northwesterly of about 25 knots and possibly stronger as we get further south and west.

At 0730 I downloaded the Australian MSL Analysisweatherfax, which was valid at 0500 this morning. I'm including a fairly high-resolution image of this download just to show you that many of these weatherfaxes are indeed crisp and clean (it's a 92K jpeg file):

[NZ Prognosis] The bar across the picture means that one of us probably turned on the water pump, forgetting that a weatherfax download was in progress.

My take on this, comparing this weatherfax with last night's New Zealand prognosis, is that the tail of the trough line was indeed much longer than the cold front; however, on this weatherfax, there was no cold front identified with this trough and so it was reasonable to expect a change without much fuss. Besides, it was still pretty far west of us and shouldn't affect us for at least another day.

NewCal to Australia Passage Report#3
Date: 27 October 2003
Time: 1300hrs NewCal
Position: 23deg54minS by 161deg40minE
Course: 238degM
Speed: down to 4.4kts
Distance to Moreton Bay Entrance: 494nm
Last 24 Hours: 129nm
WindSpeed: just dropped to 18 (was 25)
Wind Direction: NW
Waves: lumpy

One thing about sailing in this part of the world: it is never dull!

Yesterday we wafted along all day and into the evening with the wind behind us flying our Big Ugly Spinnaker. In the late evening the wind picked up a little and shifted and we broad-reached pleasantly all night long with a double-reefed mainsail. This morning it changed to about 14 knots on the beam with smoother seas and we zipped along at around 7 knots for a few hours. By late morning, it shifted to the north (not supposed to happen this time of year) and blasted us (and still blasting us as I type this) with confused seas and winds between 18 and 25, as we alternate between third and fourth reef trying to keep the speed up without taking off. We are beating very hard on the wind. Wow, just came off a sharp wave and punched into an oversized swell and the wave came over the entire boat - and yet the back of the main saloon is wide open and the water does not migrate forwards so everything is dry inside! A couple of hours ago I moved a lot of the heavy stuff which is down below further aft - sure seems to help keep the bow buoyant and in reality we very rarely take a wave on deck (like we just did). Nice to have boatie bob up and over instead of through this stuff.

I moved the stuff aft as an experiment and, while it perhaps helped keep the bow even more buoyant than it already is, I think overall it was a detriment and was a contributor to a problem a few days later. In the future I think I'll only move stuff aft if we are broad reaching in very strong winds and super-large swells.

[Stowage Starboard] [Stowage Port]

In the starboard hull (left photo) I moved back the emergency water tank and all the para-anchor gear. In the port hull, all I moved back was the book box, leaving the water tank and anchor amidships.

The weatherfax and GRIB and voice broadcast weather for the next few days all disagree with each other, the forecasts for Wednesday ranging from a dead calm to a 35+knot gearbuster from a low coming off Australia. Sigh. We're prepared for anything, so we'll take whatever comes...

Radio transmissions have been erratic - I understand worldwide, so you might not receive my daily missives (no clapping, please).

Bouncy 'bye for now.

From my Passage Report you can see that although it was lumpy I was more concerned with Wednesday than the present conditions. Indeed, the wind gradually diminished but stayed from the northwest as the afternoon progressed and was down to 13 knots by 5pm.

From the above you can see that there was a slight disparity between the GRIB chart and the conditions we were experiencing: the winds were significantly stronger and were clocking around to the northwest. Looking ahead (i.e., further west), I should have realized that we were really there and that the peak of the single GRIB isobar was indeed indicative of a trough, and it was appearing sooner than expected. Isn't hindsight great?

Now, the 3:00pm New Zealand MSL Analysis weatherfax (valid as of about midday) is the last one I would download until the following morning - you'll soon understand why.

[NZ Analysis] No apparent problems at all. The tail of the cold front is still west and below us, or so we thought...

Finally, after the daily position report with Russell Radio, if I recall Des allowed as there was a front out there but that it wouldn't reach us yet and that we might just see a slight effect from it, anyway.

27 October, 2003 -- Evening Unpleasantness (MUST READ!)

What the heck, let me just post tomorrow morning's Passage Report right here...

NewCal to Australia Passage Report#4
Date: Tuesday, I think. It's a beautiful sunny morning a little after nine as I type this.
Position: off my knees
Course: thataway - it's morning so the sun's behind us
Speed: not too bad right now - about six knots
Distance to Moreton Bay Entrance: let's see- the soggy log entry for 0900 says 429
Last 24 Hours: doesn't count because of what happened last night
WindSpeed: right now it's a nice 10 knots on the beam
Wind Direction: from the south
Waves: right now, minimal

Nice to be here.
Nice to still have the boat and all this electronics stuff intact.
Nice to have a wife who didn't freak out
Last night was the second worst night in my life (don't ask what the first was).
Before I proceed, a note to Kathy's parents: grab a drink (and it should be a wee bit stronger than a glass of wine).
Yesterday day we had a good sailing day. The wind gradually increased and the seas became a little lumpy, but we were making great time. Recall, we are sailing in the company of a number of boats, two others close by (one in front, the other behind).
Close is relative: each is about five miles away from us.
About four pm we were approaching a front, a little gray and not the nasty black stuff - the first boat went through it and radiod back that it was very mild - winds of 10 knots and a shift to the north.
I already had the second reef in so I left it in.
We go through this front in about 10 minutes and radio back that it's a pussycat.

[Nav Station] [PussyCat Squall] [PussyCat Squall]

View of this pussycat squall from the main saloon. Despite the highly-evident rain on the radar, the skies weren't ominous and the wind was negligible. This little series of squalls was over with quickly.

Well, that wasn't too bad, we thought, as we chased the changing wind and tried to settle back onto our course

It's getting dark.
The darkness is not because it is late in the day.
All of a sudden, the lead boat gets on the radio and (with some anxiety in the voice) yells that the wind has shifted 180degrees and is up to 40 knots.
Could not see this coming.
I furl the jib while Kathy gets the engines running and I rush forward and reduce the main down to the fourth reef (we're a good team, and can put in a reef in under a minute - have to time it, because I could do it in exactly 20 seconds on my Telstar).
Just as I lock the main pretty far out with the preventer off the starboard aft quarter, all hell breaks loose.
Sure enough, the wind shifts to the south and instantly the seas are a mass of waves and foam, followed by blinding rain. The seas are high and are not flattened by the rain like I'm used to.
Wish I had a fifth reef.
The boat does wonderfully as I keep the port bow about 45 degrees to the wind, gently powering into this stuff. The tightly-sheeted main helps keep the boat pointed into the wind.
We be fine, but I would have preferred to be sitting to a para-anchor in this stuff. This was a nasty introduction to the front, and lasted maybe an hour, with winds 35-40 for a while (peak 42.3 knots).

[Wind and Waves] This is what it looked like. As is usual, still photos fail to describe the scene.

[42.3 knots] The maximum windspeed reading gets saved automatically. Unlike when this picture was taken, I kept the wind direction during the frontal passage between 30 and 50 degrees off the port bow. Incidentally, other boats around us reported winds registering in the mid-50's.

It's getting darker, and lightning starts appearing.
The wind drops off and eventually goes back to the north, but there is LOTS of lightning coming in from the west.
Using the radar, I pick out a big cell moving fast towards us and after plotting it I decide to go north to avoid it because there is a lot of lightning to the south. This works, barely, as all this horrible stuff passes a couple of miles behind us. Now, this isn't just inter-cloud lightning, this is huge massive bolts coming down and hitting the water!
We try to compare notes with the other two boats - even though we are very close, we can barely hear each other on either the VHF or SSB. Anyway, the boat in front goes south while we and the one behind us continue northwards. Big mistake.
To make a long story short, we spent eight hours surrounded by lightning and occasionally some incredibly heavy rain. Why we didn't get hit, I'll never know, because we repeatedly ended up right smack dab in the middle of the storm cells.
I was too chicken to go out there and install my home-made grounding rod (battery cable terminated in a copper water pipe which I strap onto the mast) as by the time I realized there was lighning it was too late.
I put our backup GPS, a compass, and a hand-held VHF into the BBQ (Faraday Cage). Should have put one of the computers in there also.
Kept the radar and engines going the whole time, the boat nicely steering itself on autopilot. Winds weren't too strong after the initial lashing, maybe up to 20. Kept the mainsail up and on the fourth reef and locked dead amidships with the two preventers and mainsheet.
This was one of the most awesome and spectacular events in my life - if we weren't right inside these humongous thunderstorms, I would have loved watching it. As it was, those sizzling bolts coming down into the water not far from the boat were the most fearsome things I've ever witnessed. This was continuous incessant lightning and not just a bolt here and there - it was daylight out there! The smell of ozone permeated the air. Would you believe I forgot that I now have a camcorder on board!
Anyway, I spent the time alternating between setting the engines and autopilot to what I thought would avoid the major upcoming nasties (totally unsuccessful in this) and then curling up next to Kathy on the bunk down below. A pillow over the head minimizes the flashing lights. I think we both got religion last night.
While in the middle of one of the last nasty chunks of thunderstorm that I failed to avoid, I bit the bullet and turned the boat south and after we got out of that one we were able to avoid the few remaining nasties.
It was over with by 2am.
At least the boat got washed.
The other two boats came through unscathed, but each caught with a man on deck stowing sails when the winds hit.
Kathy's doing fine, figuring it's just another strange ritual one goes through when sailing a boat across the ocean.
Enough - you get the picture.
'Bye for now.

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Weeks Later -- Retrospective

The lightning storm caught us completely off guard, as there was no hint of it until it actually hit right after the storm front (with its 40-knot winds) moved through. The storm was a continuous succession of storm cells moving very fast - some of the other round-the-world cruisers said that this was as bad if not worse than anything they had ever seen in the infamous lightning areas in Southeast Asia and Florida.

The fundamental error that I made was the result of the successful evasion of the first thunderstorm cell group by heading northward. I had tracked the storm on radar and came up with a storm path of around 60 degrees magnetic (a little over 70 degrees True). The first time, I was far enough north of the storm track and thus it passed to the south of us. Since it worked, I repeated it - clear sky and stars to the north seemed tantalizingly close at first. The problem with this tactic is immediately evident if we look at the tail of the front on the weatherfax - what happened is that by going northwards, the long tail of clouds just kept following us in that direction. The result was that we continued to be inside this insidious succession of thunderstorms for hour after hour after interminable hour, in vain trying to outrun them (someone on one of the other boats said the storm cells were moving at 30 knots). I probably used up half our entire fuel supply that night. What I should have done is in the short lull right after clearing the first storm cell group I should have turned south - I might not have cleared the next cells, but would soon thereafter have been out of their pathway.

The boat's rigging is ungrounded. The only thing permanently connected to ground is the steering system - the steering wheel is conneced via stainless chain to the stainless cables leading to the aluminum quadrant attached to the stainless rudder post. The electrical system is grounded if the engines are lowered; otherwise, it is floating and is only connected to the SSB ground (two through-hulls in the head compartment) if I turn on the SSB power switch (the ground is switched to avoid electrolysis, recognizing it's useless at high voltages). My poor-man's rigging grounding scheme was to attach a car-battery cable to the mast, the other end being a three-foot length of copper pipe which I would lower into the water by the mast with as shallow a curve as I could. As I said above, no way was I going to go out there and attach that cable to the mast in those conditions. Due to the ungrounded rigging, the concern I had was, as I understand it, the increased probability of side flashes. No way was I going to be hand-steering, and thankfully the autopilot continued working wonderfully. Inasmuch as the main saloon is filled with wires because of my tabletop navigation station setup (among them the VHF and radar cables straight off the mast), I wasn't about to hang around the main saloon any longer than necessary. Believe me, seeing these monster lightning flashes sizzling down and whapping the water not far from the boat (maybe less than a quarter mile) took away any desire to watch the light show. Once the boat was set on what I thought would be an evasive course, there was really nothing to do up there so it was comforting for both of us to simply curl up on the bunk and wait...

What was going through our minds? It turns out that Kathy, whom I had sent down to the bunk early in the storm, never saw a single lightning bolt come down and hit the water (just as well then, but now much to her disappointment). Having grown up in California where in the Bay Area lightning is not commonplace, Kathy did not have previous first-hand experience to dwell on. Since we had the foam covers on the side windows, all she saw was the glowing (almost continuous) light from the inter-cloud lightning and of course the bright flashes through those covers and the overhead hatch. Really, it was very bright out there! Since she normally sleeps with a pillow over her head anyway, this simply added more sensory insulation for her. Hey, I had a pillow over my head as well, the irrational thought process being that it would muffle the sound and at least I wouldn't have my hearing destroyed if we were hit. In talking with Kathy afterwards, she didn't consider being struck by lightning as highly probable, but she was convinced we'd be blown to smithereens if we were and was consoled by the fact that it would all be over with instantly. She still considers taking off and landing in an airplane as worse, and, it turns out, considered the launching of our para-anchor a few days later as far more stressful. For Kathy it was just another grin-and-bear-it episode associated with this lunacy called ocean crossing.

For myself, I was plumb scared, as this was one condition for which I felt helpless. Unlike storm winds and waves where one can be actively doing something with the boat, here I felt totally at the mercy of the elements and the only active thing I could do was to try to drive the boat away from the rapidly-approaching storm cells at which I was being so unsuccessful as they just seemed to descend on and engulf the boat.

The thoughts going through my mind were simple: if a bolt hits us, what can go wrong and what would I do about it? Forget the electronics as that would all get fried and hopefully the backup stuff inside the barbie would be ok. I had turned off the propane at the tank and, besides, it is all in metal tubing (even the hose connecting to the tank I had replaced with a stainless-sleeved one), so I didn't think that would be a problem. If a primary flash came down the shrouds it should stay outside the boat and probably scorch the side of it, and if it came down the forestay it would hopefully keep going and jump straight down into the water without going sideways on the forward beam and damaging the hulls. In both cases I was hoping the rigging would stay together. The overriding concern was a bolt coming straight down the mast, which sits on an aluminum crossbeam which goes out to the hulls and is supported underneath by a stainless strut. No telling what the lightning bolt would do, but hopefully it would simply go straight down into the water under the center of the boat. As I said before, unpredictable side flashes are a concern on ungrounded boats.

Now, on my boat I have a very non-standard petrol (gasoline) tank installation: over the objections of Seawind, I had insisted that the tanks be located inside the huge lockers underneath the mast (actually, they're off to each side of the mast) - they did a very nice job of this. Now, my spare petrol tanks are plastic and are in the starboard forward locker right next to the primary metal tank. I simply gave up worrying about those plastic tanks and, now that I think about it, probably the only thing I could (should?) have done is run out there and thrown them overboard. Now that I even further think about it, I could simply tie these tanks together, attach a long line to them, and let them float behind the boat a couple of hundred feet and thus be able to retrieve them afterwards. The main petrol tanks themselves are aluminum and all the piping going to the tanks is metal, so that really wasn't a concern except for the non-metal breather tube going up to the vent in the foredeck (just underneath the mast) - actually, I was focused on what I would do if that caught fire. On a stock Seawind, the petrol tanks are underneath the floor of the main saloon, offering very little exposure.

As for side flashes, I hoped they'd stay up there on deck or in the main saloon and not penetrate down into the hulls. The all-metal targa bar and aft aluminum beam are probably attractive secondary targets and hopefully any strike would not do significant damage to the hull or steering system. The twin steering on the Seawind is comforting from a redundancy standpoint, as each side can easily be mechanically isolated from the other.

We weren't the only ones trembling out there, as four of the boats in our group experienced the same conditions - afterwards, it made me feel better to have someone describe how they were hugging each other and cowering inside the companionway hanging onto their emergency grab bag and praying while waiting to be whapped...

Other boats in our group were just ten or twenty miles further north and completely missed the excitement: they were totally unaffected and were treated to a fantastic light show in the distance, with simply no anxiety! Grrrrr...

Oh, you probably noticed how the very strong hour-long front preceding the lightning storms has paled into insignificance. Actually, it was quite nasty because the seas weren't being flattened by the horizontal rain and instead seemed to be growing by the minute. The now-proven technique of keeping the wind and waves off the forward quarter on the diagonal axis of the boat worked very well, with the boom (with fourth reef in the mainsail) held out triangulated between the preventer and mainsheet. Motoring like this was ok for a relatively short-duration frontal passage, but long-term there's no question in my mind that a para-anchor or drogue would be the better defense mechanisms as I wouldn't want to be actively sailing in this stuff for long. I think that simply running with no sails and without a drogue would have been ok also, as the winds and seas weren't overwhelming.

Thus, the third day at sea ended. In looking at my logbook I see that we simply unfurled the jib and left the fourth reef in place (peace of mind to replace a piece of the lost mind) and continued on course in relatively light winds, yet remembering that strong winds were predicted for Wednesday...

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