PC 249 Knockdown!

If you engage in an adventurous sport over many years, there are bound to be some occasions more memorably dangerous than others; and I am not writing about Tiddlywinks or Darts here! In PC 215 (January 2021) I described a near disaster off the Minquiers; in PCs 209 & 211 (December 2020) I wrote about drama off Arromanches and in PC 231 (May 2021) about grounding on the beach at Dhekelia in Cyprus.

Here’s another! In May 1969 I found myself one of the crew of St Barbara II, a 42ft Rebel sloop belonging to the Royal Artillery Yacht Club, for the RORC North Sea Race. This 180 nautical mile course ran from Harwich to a large buoy off the Belgium coast …..

……. then back up to the widest part of East Anglia before a run across the North Sea to Scheveningen and into Rotterdam, a course like a Z, from behind!

I knew two of the crew and we met the others in Harwich on the 14th May, a Wednesday evening. We stowed food and our gear and repaired to a restaurant for supper. The forecast for the 0800 hours Thursday start was overcast and cool, with occasional rain; blustery would sum it up!

The following morning we crossed the start-line in company with another thirty or so other yachts; three hours later there were few to be seen, as each skipper adopted their own course. From memory we were probably averaging five knots so the race would take us at least 36 hours. We rounded the mark off the coast of Belgium before sunset and headed back north towards East Anglia. After a long night we tacked around a lightship and by dawn were on the last leg, a long beat towards Holland.

A generic example of heavy weather sailing

The yacht seemed comfortable with a large foresail and full mainsail, but it was constantly wet on deck with spray and rain. Jon, Mark and I came off duty, somewhat damp on the outside and with general sweatiness inside, with the 0800 Watch Change, We gave control of the deck to James, the mate, and his two crew. My berth was the port-side bunk, requiring a degree of agility to get into at the same time maintaining my balance. The skipper was in his bunk, reading.

It happened about thirty minutes later; someone on deck noticed a line of clouds on the horizon a mile or so away. I can hear the next few minutes in my head as if it was yesterday.

Skipper? There looks like a squall coming (note 1); might be a bit too much wind for the Genoa. What do you want to do? Shall we change down?”(Ed. To the next smaller sail, capable of coping with a stronger wind.)

OK! James. Keep her on the same bearing and I’ll be up in a minute.”

I don’t think we have a minute. We need to act now!” The last word was shouted to impart a degree of urgency. 

I leaned out of my bunk to see the skipper putting his oilskins back on before going on deck. Suddenly there was a screaming sound as the line squall hit us, the yacht lurched and fell over on its port side.

Not St Barbara but something like this!

I looked up to see Jon trying to hang on in his bunk, which was now almost directly above me. The skipper was on the cabin sole and seawater was pouring in through the open companionway. On deck there were shouts:

Let go the mainsheet!

Let the foresail fly!

‘You OK Simon?’ (who’s lying sideways against the guardrails, half drowned!)

The rain was cold and vicious and everyone on deck was being thrashed by it. St Barbara II shuddered like a racehorse trying to rid itself of large flies and gradually came upright (Note 2).

Immediate actions like these are well practised and the crew on deck were all hooked on with safety harnesses, but no life jackets (Note 3). No one had gone overboard. The genoa was in shreds, the main undamaged; the wind speed indicator had stopped at 65knots. Several things happened in tandem. The foresail was changed and hoisted; the ripped genoa bundled below to be put into a sail bag; the bilge pumps started; the chart position fixed; the kettle put on; equipment checked. We got under way again, back in the race. And everyone probably had a cigarette!

Some hours later we crossed the finishing line at Scheveningen and made our way into Rotterdam Harbour.

Sailing can be dangerous but experience and training can mitigate injury and damage. Writing about the knockdown in the North Sea has reminded me of some personal damage. Generally I have managed to miss the main boom on its inadvertent swings across a yacht, learned that watches and signet rings are potential hazards and fingers don’t need to be wrapped around a winch at the same time as a rope.

Many years ago after a weekend sailing on The Solent, we returned the chartered yacht to its marina. As always, the clearing up and cleaning, both above and below decks, got underway. The yacht had a forward hatch, about 35cms square, able to be locked with a small gap or fully opened with the hatch cover lying on the deck.

Whilst some of the crew were cleaning below, I was sorting out and tidying away the halyards around the base of the mast, before fresh water was used to scrub the deck. With a brush in one hand and the end of the hose in the other, I was working my way from amidships backwards towards the bow.

I stepped back without looking. My foot fell into nothing. The next thing I knew was that my bum was on the deck and my right leg down the hatch. In getting into this position I had managed to scrape a large amount of skin from the inside of my thigh. Arnica, Savlon and rest …… fortunately my balls were OK!

It’s good to have adventures!

Richard 24th September 2021


Note 1A line squall is identifiable as a mass of dark low cloud strung out across the horizon; visible beneath are curtains of heavy rain, as though someone had pulled out a plug. The surface of the sea below the clouds is invariably rough.

Note 2 Yachts with a deep keel will always self-right, providing the wind doesn’t have anything to push against, like a sail; in this instance the crew needed to let both the main and genoa sheets fly!

Note 3 Back then life jackets were bulky and cumbersome to wear. Only in dire emergency would the skipper tell the crew to wear them. Their design has come a long way – fortunately!

2 thoughts on “PC 249 Knockdown!

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