Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Some Thoughts on Capsize in the Atlantic

I am back home in Virginia Beach and working my way through the mountain of email, progressing toward normalising my work again. I have swapped the Southern Hemisphere for the Northern one, summer for winter and cruising the Brazilian Bay of Islands for a blizzard that is coming later today. What else is there to do than to dig right into the pile of work that awaited me?

A relaxed holiday on the sunny beaches, mountains and waters of Cape Town gave me time to absorb and reflect on the whole experience of turning a big boat upside down on the ocean.

Many people have said to me that it must have been a frightening experience but I didn't find it frightening at all. I remember thinking "Oh, we are upside down, was that a wave or have we lost the keel?". My next thoughts were about the safety of Sean, who was alone in the cockpit. I saw through the companionway that he was hanging on tight then my eyes and mind went back to what was happening inside the boat.

Sean says that he wasn't frightened either. The wave broke over the top of him and he was entranced by the mast spearing the water as "Black Cat" rolled over. He wondered if the mast would still be standing after she righted herself. He says "Rather a surreal experience more than frightening. BC ("Black Cat") felt safe somehow."

In contrast, Gavin had what might be considered a more normal reaction to what had happened. He got a big fright and his reaction was to move into the cockpit and stay there, where he felt safer (in the event of another capsize) and from where he was able to pump water from the bilge with the pump that is mounted in the cockpit seat. Gavin is the youngest member of the crew but has almost as many seas miles in tough conditions as the rest of us and can cope with anything that is thrown at him at sea.

I think that the big difference between Gavin's reaction and that of Sean and myself is possibly due to our different experiences in waves. Gavin is not a surfer but both Sean and I are. We have spent countless hours in breaking waves that are sometimes big and frightening. As with all things in our lives, our minds get sensitised by our experiences and it takes progressively more intense experiences to break through that sensitising and make an impression. That sensitizing helps us to keep a clear train of thought in intense situations. This situation involved being thrown around by a big wave and was less out of the ordinary for us surfers than for the non-surfers in the crew.

It was also a lot more frightening for those on land than for us on the boat. We knew exactly what our situation was but loved ones on land could only speculate. They were hearing very sketchy reports from multiple sources. They knew that we had hassles and they knew that there was a very violent storm hammering us. Their minds were having a field day imagining all sorts of things happening to us on the ocean in wild conditions. Whether or not our actual experiences surpassed their imagined ones I don't know.

A few people have asked if I would rather not have been there or if I would have preferred it to have happened to someone else. Truthfully, a definite no. I am glad to have been there and to have experienced this. I am pleased that it happened to me and not to someone else. If I could exchange what happened for anything else, it would be that we did not break the rudder and were able to continue our Cape to Rio Race as planned. But that was not to be. We did break the rudder, we did get blown back into a very violent storm, we did get turned upside down by a big breaking wave and we did all survive with minimal damage to the boat or injury to the crew.

The result is that I went through that roller-coaster washing machine and I did it with my eyes open and my analytical brain switched on. I was able to observe for myself what happens in this situation, what happens to the boat itself and to everything that is inside this kaleidoscope tube as it turns through 3D space, jumbling up crew, stores and equipment and leaving them all relocated in whatever positions gravity and rotational forces happened to have thrown them.

I consider myself, crew and boat to be fortunate to have come through as lightly as we did. I also consider myself very fortunate to now be one of what must be a very small number of boat designers who have this experience in their backgrounds, an experience that is foreverafter there to influence how and why we do what we do in every future boat that we design.

I was told a few months ago by an interior design specialist that she wanted to work with me to design interiors for my boats. She said that on boat shows and in magazines she had seen some really bad interiors and the fact that she was talking to me on this subject seemed to infer that she thought that my interiors could do with improvement. I asked what ocean sailing experience she had, which proved to be none at all. I told her that my interiors were designed to be safe for a gyrating boat on the ocean, not for boat shows or drinking cocktails on a marina. My interiors and all other aspects of my designs come from my experience at sea, gained over many thousands of miles of cruising and racing in conditions from delightful to horrendous. From now on they will also be influenced by my experience of being tossed out of control inside a capsizing boat.

To see our range of boat designs, please go to http://dixdesign.com/.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Video Interviews from Cape to Rio Race

Steve Searle did two video interviews with the "Black Cat" crew after our hassles in the opening days of the Cape to Rio Race. "Black Cat" looked after us very well in nasty conditions. Read the full story here.

Interview discussing the whole experience.

Interview about the standard of service of National Sea Rescue Institute.

View our boat designs at http://dixdesign.com/ .

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Our Cape to Rio Race Wrap-up

First off I want to say thank you to all friends, family and supporters for all of the good wishes that have poured in following our experiences in the Cape to Rio Race the past few days. The five crew of "Black Cat" are all very grateful for the assistance received. As is always the case, stories have varied depending on the source and they have no doubt expanded with the telling and retelling. I will tell it from the very personal point of view of being right there in the middle of the action.

The weather briefing two days before the race start told us there there was bad weather expected and their advice was to sail due west as fast as possible to get through the system to the high that would follow. That would give us SW winds that would turn S then SE. With my navigator, Dave (Wavy) Immelman, we decided to follow that advice as the most logical route. The weatherman warned about being in the SW quadrant of the storm that would follow a day or two later.

The race got off to a good start in light breezes, the course taking us around the perimeter of Table Bay. This was a good indicator for us of our chances of placing well in the race because we were very quick, and staying in the lead group of 4 smaller boats trailing the 3 big guns that led the fleet. Our group opened up a large gap from the others behind us.

We sailed through the first night in gradually strengthening wind that gave squalls of 20-25 knots. Around daybreak the squalls started to intensify and broke through 30 knots with 18-20 knots between them. Feeling a bit over-powered in the squalls we were reefing the mainsail when a squall of somewhat over 40 knots hit us. We were now entering the SW winds behind the front, so I changed from our westerly course to a NW heading, taking pressure off the sails. Despite that, the wind over the deck increased, with gusts of over 50 knots that shredded our new carbon jib, leaving us under main only.

While changing from the #1 jib to the smaller #3, we were running before and gaining speed rapidly. Wavy was standing on the foredeck at the forestay, hauling down the tatters of the jib when we took off down a wave, accelerating to 22 knots. The waves were very short and steep and we ran straight into the back of the next wave, washing Wavy aft against the shrouds, spraining his ankle and inflating his automatic life-jacket. At the same time the tiller went sloppy in my hands. Although "Black Cat" was running fast and straight down the wave she was doing it on her own, we had no steering.

We dropped all sail and elected to sit out the worsening conditions before setting up a jury rudder to take us back to Cape Town. "Black Cat" was comfortable and in no danger. While we waited we saw the German entry "Iskareen" sail past from behind. We thought that this very fast boat was ahead of us so it came as a surprise to see them come past from well astern.

The wind and sea moderated quite quickly from that first storm and we put our minds to making a jury rudder from lazarette floor boards. Sean Collins went over onto the sugar-scoop to screw and strap it to the stub of the rudder that remained below the pintels. It worked reasonably but we treated it gingerly for fear of breaking it. We motored on a heading for Cape Town but as the day progressed the conditions slowly deteriorated as a second storm started to move in. I saw that we were not going to lay Cape Town so elected to rather head for the closer and easier Saldanha Bay.

As evening approached this storm grew progressively more violent. We were in the SW quadrant of the storm about which the weatherman had warned us. We had no desire to be in that position at that time but we had no choice in the matter. Fate had placed us there and we could only do our best to cope with the situation as it developed.

Around dusk there was a massive bang, a noise that sounded like the boat being ripped apart. Sean had shouted a warning from the cockpit that I can't repeat in present company but none of us heard it. Suddenly we were upside down and the cabin was filled with flying bodies and objects that were loose in the cabin and also those that were inside closed and latched lockers. I had been sleeping on the starboard saloon settee and had only a few seconds earlier stood up to walk aft to the cockpit. I was still in the saloon and was hit on my face and top of my head by unidentified flying debris, leaving me with minor cuts and a black eye.

The noise of this impact was so great and our up-turned position so alarming that I thought that the keel had come off. I was on the cabin roof and looked up at the bilge, all cabin soles having fallen out. I saw no gaping hole as I expected but shouted "Everybody out!!", still thinking that we had no keel. This all happened in a few seconds, then suddenly she was upright again and I knew that we still had a keel. We were left with an awful mess of food packages, cabin sole panels, tumblers, containers and anything else that managed to find its way out of its allotted place. And there was water everywhere. There had been some in the bilge but a lot more had come in through the companion hatch and a hole that we had no yet identified.

With no instruction from anyone this very capable crew automatically set about sorting out the chaos, first picking up anything that could block the bilge pumps before starting to pump out the water. The day fridge, which had been bolted into the saloon table, had relocated itself to the settee on which I had been lying only 30 seconds earlier. Three fire extinguishers, mounted in brackets from which they are removed vertically, all fell out when we were inverted and flew across to the starboard side of the cabin. Only two of the five onboard were in steel straps with locking mechanisms that held them firmly in place, the other three fell out and became lethal missiles.

Next we discovered what the hole was that had appeared in the deck. During the inversion process the tail of the mainsheet went over the side and attached itself to the propeller and wound itself up to the point that it stopped the diesel motor. It had so much tension in it that the force downward on the upper guardrail wire punched the nearest stanchion through the 12mm plywood deck. That left a hole about 75mm diameter into the locker below, where my clothes were. From there the water spread itself all over the starboard aft cabin, soaking everything that Wavy and I had in that cabin. That was all of our clothes, bedding, camera bags etc.

Of more consequence, the volume of water that came into the boat spread itself over the chart table, the lid of which had ripped right off, and into the electrical panel and electronics. The two satellite phones and main VHF radio were drowned, leaving us with only a hand-held VHF of limited range with which to communicate. Smelling smoke, Wavy opened the electrical panel to see smoke coming out but it didn't develop into a fire.

Time stands still in these situations. I have no idea how long it took us to clean up the boat but she was back to a semblance of ship-shape before too long. The hole in the deck was plugged as well as possible with some muti that we had brought onboard the day before the race start.

In the midst of all this Sean came down from the cockpit and described what had happened. From inside the boat we had no idea, it was just massive noise and upside-downness.

Sean, a surfer like me, says that he suddenly felt the same feeling as when caught inside the impact zone of a big surf break, where you have no way of escaping the beating that is about to be dealt to you and you just have to take it on the head and cope with it. He did not see the wave coming but became aware of it as it loomed over the boat. It was very large and broke as a hollow tubing wave completely enveloping "Black Cat". She rose up the face of the wave, rotating as she rose until she was hanging from the roof of the tube. Then she fell or was thrown down the face of the wave with the mast going in first. The crash that I heard inside the boat must have been the cabin and deck hitting the water. While this was happening I also looked into the cockpit for Sean and he was hanging from a winch or whatever he had been able to grab as the wave reared up. I required that all crew be hooked on with safety harnesses before going on deck but Sean was hanging on so tight that his harness had no work to do.

This wave was much bigger and more violent than any others we had felt or seen. If that one could clobber us there may also be others, so we streamed warps from the bow and deployed the storm jib as a sea anchor to try to hold her bow-on to the waves. These did not seem to help much because the underwater current seemed to be pretty much the same speed as our drift. We didn't get her to lie more than about 20-25 degrees from broadside-on to the waves but it seemed to be enough to ease the motion a bit and cause other breaking waves to roll past the port quarter instead of hitting us amidships.

The worsening storm and loss of major communications prompted us to ask Cape Town Radio to put out a Pan-Pan message on our behalf to warn of our location in the shipping lane and to ask for the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) to be called to our assistance. We advised that we were in no immediate danger but would appreciate assistance when it could be provided. We switched on the EPIRB to give a signal for rescue services to home in on. We had AIS onboard but it had flooded along with the other instruments at the nav table.

Initially the assistance came in the form of the fishing vessel "Miriam Makeba" heading our way. When they were still a few miles away the navy frigate SAS Isandlwana took over control of the widespread rescue efforts and released the fishing vessel to continue fishing. As the frigate approached in the rain they asked us to send up a flare, then another, to help them to locate us. Once they had located us we confirmed that we were in no immediate danger and they headed off to take care of people and boats that were in much more serious situations.

In the morning conditions again subsided. Wavy went over the side in his diving gear to free the mainsheet from the prop, which allowed us to restart the motor. At the same time he swam the length of the underbody to check for damage or other problems. A new and improved version of the jury rudder was fabricated from more plywood cannibalised from the lazarette and we continued on our journey toward Saldanha Bay at 4-5 knots under our own power. We were well set to reach there during the night.

Early afternoon the NSRI Rescue 3 arrived from Cape Town. They offered us the choice of continuing under our own steam to Saldanha Bay or accepting their tow back to Cape Town. Proceeding to Saldanha Bay presented logistical problems for crew and boat, so we took the tow and headed for Cape Town at 10 knots.

Manoeuvring into the RCYC basin proved to be more difficult than anticipated because the jury rudder boards added to the starboard side of the rudder severely limited rudder movement in that direction. Add a pomping SE gale and we sorely needed the welcoming hands on the dock to catch us as we came in at rather high speed and with negligible control.

Now "Black Cat" is safely back in port but she has some more patching to be done to her. This is for the hole in the deck from the stanchion and for the spot where her bow kissed the marina rather harder than necessary on our return.

My big question out of all of this was "Why did the rudder break?". It had a solid Iroko spine nearly 100mm thick and 150mm wide, extending top to bottom, with plywood fairing to leading and trailing edges. That is a massive piece of timber that can easily support a large car and really should not have been broken by a 22 knot surf. The answer came from the owner, Adrian Pearson. He told me that when "Black Cat" was squeezed between the steel RCYC marinas a few weeks ago when the mooring chains broke, it was not only the hull and keel that were damaged. He said that the rudder was also "graunched". If that is so, it may have started a fracture of the rudder spine that culminated in the blade shearing off at high speed.

We are all very disappointed that our race had to end this way. We were going so well and must have been in with a reasonable chance for a top result. Unfortunately, we will now never know. We are just glad to be back on land safely and are very grateful to NSRI and the crew of Rescue 3 for their part in it, as well as the "Miriam Makeba" and SAS Isandlwana.

I also want to thank the crew of "Black Cat" for being such great and capable shipmates, always ready to do the right thing and with a smile.

Adrian Pearson (owner)
Dave (Wavy) Immelman (Navigator)
Sean (Buttercup) Collins
Gavin (Doris) Muller

And a big thank you must also go to our  Didi 38 "Black Cat". She took a hammering on our behalf and came through with negligible structural damage.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Cape to Rio Race Starts Tomorrow

It has been a long slog to get here and, strange as it may seem, even now I am not sure where "here" is. We need to be on the start line in Table Bay at 14h00 South African Time (UTC+2) and have been working toward that goal for a year. Now that we are almost there time-wise, we have had all sorts of issues popping up to try to trip us and prevent our participation. Each time that we side-step an issue, another appears in its place.

These are not problems that are directly related to the boat, neither are they related to most of the crew. I can't say what they are but they have been a major distraction in our preparations, detouring our efforts and moving our focus from much needed work into stuff that really should not be on our minds at this stage of preparations. These issues sap energy and drain enthusiasm. It takes effort to maintain optimism, which is normally self-fortifying.

We expect to be on the start line tomorrow and will be deeply disappointed if we should be prevented from going. Only time will tell whether or not we will be there. Watch for the yellow boat if you are able to watch it live, or maybe recorded live (whatever that means).

From here on I will not be posting on this blog live until after the race is over and I return to USA. I will be sending email updates to my wife, Dehlia. She will be posting on the blog but it will probably be without photos. Our Internet connections via satellite phone will be too slow to transfer photo files. If we have something really special to show then we may make an exception.

So please follow us via the tracking link on the race website at http://cape2rio2014.com. This is not a clickable link, so please copy and paste into your browser's address window.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Didi 950 Build Started

Michael Vermeersch of Ohio commissioned the Didi 950 design and has now started construction of his boat. He is building from a pre-cut plywood kit that was supplied by Chesapeake Light Craft in Annapolis. The kit arrived as 61 sheets of plywood with all components accurately cut by CNC router and packed on 2 pallets.

Michael reports that he is progressing well with the assembly of the backbone and bulkheads and that everything is fitting together beautifully. A few more bulkheads to go, then he will be ready to start setting up on the building stocks.

Michael with wife Pat & daughter Catherine.
Since adding this design to our stock design list, another three boats have been started. They are in Australia, Greece and Latvia.

The Didi 950 is drawn to the Class 950 Rule and detailed for building by the radius chine plywood construction method. It can be built from plans only or from a kit. Kits are currently available in USA but can be supplied by most of our international kit suppliers as well. Enquire with the supplier in your area and I will send the files to them for pricing. Note that for USA you must order from us, you cannot order it directly from Chesapeake Light Craft.

For our full range of designs, please visit http://dixdesign.com/.