By the morning of May 31 and after three days of bad weather and attempting to make way towards New Caledonia, we were getting exhausted. Heaving to helped us catch our breath and have a bit to eat, but the continual pounding and bashing was taking its toll on us both. We had been motor sailing with a double reefed main, but needed to return to sailing to better manage our fuel consumption. We were adding a staysail to our sail plan and had just fallen off the wind to a deep broad reach to make some adjustments to the sail. I was sitting in the companionway driving the boat with the auto pilot and as the boat settled down I stood up into the cockpit to don my PFD.
At this point it is important to know that Starship has a very ruggedly designed offshore dodger/bimini (or awning enclosure). When all of the windows are closed, the dodger is generally very dry (except for when being pounded by the sea) and protected completely from the wind. However, as this story will tell, this sense of security was only a perception.
Pam and I are fanatical about wearing PFDs and tethers in any rough conditions or when we are out on deck. I was just reaching for my PFD and planning to tell Pam that we needed to be clipped in for the sail change. The next second I felt the boat drop beneath my feet and start to roll. In the tick of the clock I also knew that I needed to hit the deck literally, and I dove for the floor and grabbed onto a support pole. On my way down I glimpsed a huge wave coming over the boat with a size towering above the boom. The wave came from the opposite direction of the prevailing wave pattern and crashed straight down on Starship. I felt the full force of the wave come down on me with a huge crash and continued to roll the boat to nearly 90 degrees. Everything that was in the cockpit was now flying past me and a cushion had just landed on me. The sensation was like being in a breaking wave when you are body surfing. In the next second it was over and as the boat righted herself, the cockpit was half full of water. As I came to my knees I remember thinking that 'that wave caused some damage'. Just then I could see that where there had once been windows and canvas on the port side of the boat was now completely open. Actually, only about one third of the canvas material remained intact, I also looked around to see that everything except for me, four rags, and the cushions were still in the cockpit. Glasses, monoculars, shoes, clothes, a winch handle and other important gear were all fed to Neptune. The next thing I became aware of was Pam yelling to me from down below. As it turns out, Pam was standing by the forward head door and was in the safest place on the boat, because you can wedge yourself between the head and food pantry. To her relief I answered back and told her "that wave was huge and did some damage".
Our first order of business was to stop the boat from sailing. We both clipped in and hove the boat to, and it would be in this position with the boat stopped that we would remain for the next thirty hours. I can now only remember snippets of our conversation immediately following the wave, and I am sure that I was in shock. Realizing that we had taken on a lot of water we headed straight to the bilge to find it completely full. We also realized that something black and fuzzy had got in the bilge and kept clogging the primary pump. Pam grabbed a screwdriver for me and I immediately tore it apart and cleared the hoses and filters. After about ten cleanings we finally cleared away all of the black fuzzy debris and the bilges were completely empty. I then went on deck to assess the damage. The dinghy on the bow was shifted with the cover hanging on under a single strap. On Starship our dingy rides on the bow in chalks with a turn buckle and two ratcheting straps to lash it to the deck. The only thing missing was the outboard engine canvas cover. Walking past the disaster that was now our cockpit enclosure, I headed for the stern where I found that the wind generator pole was bent and both supporting poles were dangling. I managed to reinsert one of the support poles into its fitting. The newly sponsored barbecue was unbelievably still on the rail but had rotated 90 degrees and the only thing keeping the lid closed and the grills inside was the barbecue cover. We would later learn that there are issues with our inverter and some of our electrical systems due to the water. In general however, we feel very lucky considering the magnitude of the hit we sustained.
The next order of business was to report our situation. We determined that our status was not life threatening, despite the raging weather around us. We decided the best plan would be to report our situation and position to our friend Tony in Newcastle. We called Tony on the satellite phone and his first response was "Mate, I know that voice you must be in Koumac!" If anything could give me a giggle at that second it was that response. "Well Tony we aren't quite in Koumac yet
" as we proceeded to fill in the details of our encounter with the wave.
We made as many repairs as possible, but we were hampered by the rough seas. As daylight began to dwindle and our exhaustion was almost paralyzing, we enclosed ourselves in the forward cabin and set to the task of making a warm meal. We had some pre-made crusts and all the fixings for pizza so we sat at the table building our pizzas in silence. With everything in mid preparation I went to light the oven just to have the propane solenoid switch scream out a warning alert and cut the LPG off. I tried again with the same result. It was at this instant that Pam and I probably hit our low. Here sat our future warm comfort food, to bring us from the edge of exhaustion and the damn oven wouldn't light. I was back in my PFD and tether on a mission to face the LPG locker on the stern. I tightened all the fittings and switched gas tanks and to our resounding relief, the oven stayed lit. The solenoid switch did continue to act up and we fear it was electrically compromised by the salt water, but we were able to eat.
I don't think pizza has ever tasted so good in all of my life. We just sat at the table, no music playing on the stereo (this almost never happens aboard Starship) and we ate in silence. Occasionally one of us would throw out a partially completed sentence like - "Do you think?" or "Maybe we should
", but we were really too numb to do much but chew. We had also planned to take showers but soon realized that despite how awful and salty we felt, there was just no more energy left for showers.
I was asleep in seconds and while Pam sent email she said I lay on the bed snoring and talking in my sleep nonstop. When the alarm went off to check the radar I somehow managed to climb out of the lee cloth and check our surroundings, a process that continued throughout the night. Just like the pizza though, and despite the continual need to check the radar, I experienced some of the best sleep of my life due to pure exhaustion.
The next morning we made coffee and cocoa and were at last able to really consider our options. We were roughly 280 miles from Koumac with settling wind on the nose, and about 400 miles from the Australian, Queensland coast. Assessing that we probably have a months of repair work needed, our first plan was to sail to Queensland and make repairs. However, this would turn out to be impossible. We relayed this plan over the satellite phone to Tony in Newcastle just to learn that another serious weather pattern was developing over the Queensland coast, and the low that had developed over us was quickly dissolving. It would be far safer and easier to continue to Koumac. Tony also informed us that he and Bruce had had very positive experience working with trade's people in New Caledonia. Koumac here we come!
The remainder of the day was spent on repairs. The seas had flattened some and we were able to tidy up starship as much as our tools and resources on board would allow. Finally at 17:00 our ragtag vessel was ready to sail again. We tacked across the wind, releasing starship from being hove to and started making way towards New Caledonia.
During our voyage we have learned that in the midst of a crisis there will always be success and regrets. We certainly learned the lesson that ANYTIME we are in the cockpit on Starship we must be clipped in before leaving the cabin below, despite the perception of safety the enclosure provides. We feel that our training carried us through the aftermath. Our decisions to stop the boat by heaving to and taking the time to take care of the boat and ourselves was a good one. Recognizing our boundaries and fixing a warm meal and getting rest were also key to coping with the situation.
One of the most frequently asked questions by the media prior to departing on the voyage was: "How will two legally blind people deal with an emergency at sea, surely you will have problems and then need to be rescued?" In hindsight we think many people in our situation would have considered firing off their EPIRB and requesting to be rescued, especially because it took another twelve hours for the seas to calm after the wave strike. As mentioned nobody responds perfectly to an emergency, but on a whole we drew on our training, used our minds, kept our cool, and worked our way though the situation and never once did we let our vision limitations become a negative factor. We were simply people determined to overcome adversity despite our limitations, and ultimately this is what our voyage is all about.
On our departure day I was asked by a reporter if I thought this voyage was dangerous. I replied that yes it is, it can be dangerous for anyone, but if it was easy then it would have already have been done. People have a remarkable ability to achieve great things beyond their perceived limitations, and Pam and I are continually amazed and rewarded by what we are capable of achieving through determination. Are we disappointed that our boat was damaged by the freak wave? Yes. Does it make you stop and wonder why we are doing this? Yes. Will the repairs be expensive? Yes. Will we continue to carry on? Yes. At the end of the day we have a broken boat, and it can be fixed. Far more important however is the knowledge that we are capable of so much in the face of adversity. Disability is about overcoming adversity and we are stronger and even more determined to spread this important message.
So, New Caledonia here we come. Look out Starship is on the move again!