Storms always strike fear into sailors. They cause broken masts and bones, ripped sails machine failures and sometimes even ship wrecks. People go overboard or get smashed against hard surfaces. Storms are serious and we try to avoid them at all cost, but sometimes they creep up on you and then you experience something like this . . . . . . . . .
The inability to talk to anyone because the wind is howling in your ears. The rain making it impossible to see further than a few meters. Getting knocked off your feet at intervals as the waves crash over the railings, sweeping you along with them so you actually briefly swim before your feet touch the deck again. The biting cold tearing though all the layers that you are wearing. Stray hairs plastered to your face or whipping into your eyes. Being soaked to the skin although you have all the offshore weather gear on. Nothing can compare to the adrenaline that you feel in moments like that. In your wildest imagination you could not have pictured this. It is fear and anticipation mixed together.
Leaving the Azores, I was hoping for some stormy weather and strong winds. I even said so on my last phone call home, feeling we’d been so lucky with the weather all along we needed some more challenging sailing to qualify as hardened seafarers. I should learn to be more careful what I wish for. As we left harbour the weather forecast for the upcoming days looked good with strong winds but nothing to worry about. Then on day 3 after leaving the archipelago, the forecast showed a huge storm directly in our path. It was so bad that our captain considered turning around and going back to Horta to wait it out. But we decided against it and made ourselves ready for the extreme pummelling the storm would bring.
We closed all the portholes, sealed the hatches and made everything completely sea proof, ensuring nothing could fly around or fall out and hurt anyone. This was the furthest we had ever gone to converting the Thor into a submarine. We even put walkie-talkies on deck and in the mess for radioing up and asking when it was safe to open the hatch between two waves breaking over the deckhouse.
The wind picked up but it also turned against us, coming straight from the East. As you can probably guess, wind from the front isn’t very good for a sail ship, any sail ship, but it’s especially difficult for a wide, heavy, top sail schooner like the Thor.
The Thor can’t sail as close the wind as small sailboats. There’s a limit to how far we can adjust our sails, so if the wind comes from behind or at an angel of up to 90 degrees from the back of of the ship, so anywhere from the back to perpendicular to the ship’s course it’s okay and we can harness it to move us forward. The more from the back, the better we can sail.
If it comes from the half circle facing forward we can sometimes catch a bit of wind by cleverly aligning our sails to funnel it in the right way but we won’t get a lot of actual propulsion. And we definitely cannot sail very close to the wind or straight against it, so in this case the wind direction was making proper sailing impossible and we had to rely solely on our diesel engine.
And then there were the waves. The smaller surface crests are all created by the wind and they are the ones that come over the deck normally. The big underlying mountains of swell are carried across the sea after being created in storms in another part of the ocean. Normally the wind and waves match but on our journey it happened a few times that the wind came from the front but the waves from the side which led to heavy, jarring ships movements.
When we travel with motor power alone, firstly, it isn’t very quick, especially if we are going against the wind. Secondly, we are usually moving against the waves which causes the ship to heave and roll to the extremes. It was always a sign that we were going to be tossed around a bit when Olga (the engine) was turned on.
For 11 days we battled the North Atlantic storm: Winds of Beaufort 7-8 gusting to 9 or 10, that’s 50 knots or 100 km/hr. Waves on average 7 meters, cresting higher, splashing cover the deckhouse, the lower deck basically under water all the time and the people at the rudder on the poop deck getting waves crashing over their heads every other minute on the worst days. Our captain and mates were constantly in touch with the German weather service and the Thor office in Germany who worked tirelessly to help us steer a course to avoid the worst of the weather but what we experienced was challenging enough.
After a few days we were all completely black and blue. On deck it was of course necessary to wear a safety harness to stop yourself from getting swept overboard, an absolutely terrifying possibility. Those harnesses, though vital, did also give us bruises when we fell hard into them as the ship heaved from side to side.
I don’t have photos from the worst days because by then you wouldn’t have been able to take a camera on deck or take pictures below. We were too busy just dealing with the situation to worry about documenting it as these violent ships movements were also felt under deck. We bounced off the walls and furniture and were unable to do anything properly. Everything needed to be clutched tightly and we had to hold onto handles or walls or shelves to stop ourselves and whatever we were carrying from sliding away with each wave. Meal times were a struggle. How are you expected to hold a plate, cup and cutlery all at the same time whilst trying not to slide away yourself? We probably should have come up with some clever idea but at the time there was little that we could change and we dealt with just one moment at a time.
Sleeping was also a difficult. We would either slide up and down in bed or be repeatedly thrown against the wall or out of the bunk onto the floor, depending whether our bunks were perpendicular or parallel to the Thor’s keel. This left more bruises and I certainly would not recommend having a top bunk when the seas are rough.
But the worst part was definitely the galley duty: The cookhouse is on the same level as the main deck and therefore experiences wilder movements than any space under deck. It was just awful. You were thrown from one side to the other, crashing into the metal cupboards on both sides. Things were constantly flying though the air. You don’t normally think about it but it is really hard to cook when there are lots of waves because you can’t fill pots with water to boil things, oil runs over the side of the frying pans, nothing stays on the chopping boards and on top of that there’s the (understandable after multiple knocks and burns) bad mood of everyone else to deal with. Luckily we had baked extra loaves before the storm hit and so often meals consisted of a few slices of bread and anything cold you could put on them.
By this point we were also only working with a reduced crew because quite a few KUSis were hanging over the railing, sitting on deck or sleeping off their seasickness. Those of us with better sea legs were then tasked with either running the ship or looking after our seasick comrades.
A week into this weather we skirted the outer edges of the eye of the storm. I was on deck at the time doing watch duty. The wind suddenly died, an eerie calm descended for about 4 or 5 minutes before suddenly the wind hit us again from a slightly different direction. I’ll never forget that feeling of being completely at the mercy of the elements.
Amazingly, one gets used to everything, the number of people seasick and the number of injuries dropped and we got into a routine again.
And of course the minute we felt we were coping better the wind changed, we put up sails, the waves slowly calmed, the floor stopped heaving, things stopped sliding, the nights became more bearable.
I learnt to really trust in the capabilities of those around me and to not be scared in situations like that. Like many times on this journey before, I discovered I was able to handle more challenges than I thought I would. I also learnt to be patient, to not get annoyed if in a 3 hour period we actually lost headway instead of gaining any, to wait for the next set of gusts to get us the few nautical miles further. And the most important lesson was to stay positive through it all and to hang on to your sense of humour. To laugh, and to make others laugh, to somehow cling onto an optimistic, constructive attitude is not just beneficial it’s essential in these hard times.
There were some hairy moments. The North Atlantic showed us a face we hadn’t seen before. There were times when each one of us just wanted to beam themselves home to a hot shower, a warm bed, a cooked meal and a steady floor. But we made it through and there is nothing like the sense of achievement and fellowship you get from battling a storm like this together and coming out – mostly unscathed – the other side.