SI Vault
William A. Robinson
May 28, 1956
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May 28, 1956

The Ultimate Storm

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Four thousand miles out of Tahiti, in the far southern latitudes where ships no longer sail and the sea is whipped by constant storms, my ship and I were fighting for our lives. Varua, the 70-foot composite brigantine which I had built 10 years before in the shipyard I used to own in Massachusetts, was home and safely to me and my small family: Ah You, who in all her 21 years had never been beyond the barrier reef of Tahiti where we lived; and Piho, my 11-year-old daughter who had been given to me at the age of 7 by her parents in faraway Raroia. Tino and Zizi were my crew, the former a dark, unquenchably good-natured native of Rapa who acted as my mate, the latter a native of Tahiti who usually came along as cook on a long voyage. Now we were in the grip of a great storm, the ultimate storm, the greatest I had ever known. I had tried the conventional methods of riding it out by holding Varua into the wind under riding sails but had abandoned that when the seas became too steep and high. Now she was drifting under bare poles. But it was clear that Varua was still in trouble. She needed a hand at the helm. I put on my oilskins and went on deck.

As soon as my eyes had become adjusted to the blackness of the night I could see what was happening. The mechanical section of the rolling seas, now towering incredibly steep and high, had overcome the vessel's natural effort to drift downwind with the seas on her quarter. Nearing the top of a sea, the wind blast would heel her over, get a grip on her forward top hamper and start to drive her downwind as before. Then the crest would strike her on the quarter, counteracting the wind. Finally, falling down the steep back side of the sea, cut off from the wind, she would slide broadside to again. This was a final, dangerous proof of what I had always feared: that the method of letting her drift under bare poles would not work when conditions produced a disproportionately high steep sea.

To satisfy my curiosity once and for all I left her this way a little longer. I wanted to find out if it was true that a good ship left alone would always take care of herself. The seas were so huge and concave at this point that the whole upper third seemed to collapse and roar vertically down on us. Our oil had little or no effect as the surface water was all being blown to leeward. After feeling the shock of two or three of the more moderate seas crashing down on us, I felt I had carried my scientific investigation far enough. I unlashed the wheel and with no effort at all ran her off downwind before one of the real monsters chanced to break on us. I am convinced that, although her hull structure might have withstood the battering, boats and everything else on deck would have been swept away, and most likely masts as well.

By this time, using conventional methods, we would have been trying to hold her head into the seas with a sea anchor. In choosing to run before them as a final emergency tactic, I was going against all the books. I thanked my stars I had not put a sea anchor out earlier, for nothing in the world outside of being moored to an island would have held her head into the wind and seas that were now running.

I have no argument with the well-known fact that running before a big sea can lead to disaster in the form of serious pooping, broaching to and being rolled over, or even to being driven under bow first. There is one important difference: we ran very slowly at a controlled speed.

Thus—sensing at last that this was building toward the ultimate conditions I had never yet encountered—I ran Varua off dead before it. The seas were now white, phosphorescent avalanches that I felt towering over my head astern but did not see until they burst down on us and swept by on either side. Although under bare poles, Varua picked up speed and began running six or seven knots, dangerously fast but steering beautifully. We at once put out our rope drags and slowed her to the point where she had just enough forward motion for good steering control. It took a 75-fathom, two-inch diameter manila line which we dragged in a big bight, plus four 75-foot mooring lines of the same size, each dragging its big eye splice, plus about 100 fathoms of assorted lines of smaller size to do the job.

Drag lines are simplicity itself to handle, and you can add or subtract until you get the exact amount of drag you want. I doubt if they would work over the bow, for much more power is needed to hold a vessel into the wind than to let it drift slowly downwind.

Moving slowly ahead as we now were, we could lay an oil slick right along our path and astern. Sometimes, to my astonishment, the wind picked up so much surface water that it even carried the oil ahead of us. Conditions being extreme, we kept two bags on each side, lashed outboard to the channels so that they could not be thrown by the seas, and pumped oil steadily through a toilet down below. It is difficult to say how much good it did, but it seemed to me that the seas broke less frequently on us than at a little distance to either side, and perhaps less heavily. Quite possibly all those heavy lines we were dragging astern may have had some beneficial effect too.

It was 11:30 p.m. when I took the wheel and we began to run. The storm reached a peak at around 2 a.m. and maintained this condition for six hours, shifting imperceptibly from north .to northwest. Varua remained under perfect control but needed expert and constant steering, with special attention to each crest. Several of the biggest monsters that broke just under her stern lifted her bodily and carried her shudderingly along with them like a surfboard for a considerable distance. At these times she was going downhill at such a steep angle that she would bury her bowsprit in the trough before rising: an excellent object lesson of the danger involved in running before a storm, for if she had been carrying any sail or even running under bare poles without drags she would probably have gone right on down.

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