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Seawind in a Cyclone

by Helen Hopcroft on 14 Jun 2007
Cyclone Sam thermal image Seawind Catamarans
Royce Black sailed a Seawind 1000 catamaran through a category five cyclone and lived to tell the tale. His candid description of the cyclone and its aftermath does much to inspire fear and terror in the listener, and he is refreshingly honest about mistakes that he says he made.

He has used his experience to help deliver a ‘heavy weather sailing for cats’ seminar as part of Seawind’s free public education program. You will be able to see that next at the Sydney International Boat Show at Darling Harbour from August 2nd to 7th.

Black is a yacht deliverer with over 170,000 nautical miles on multihulls and 20,000 on monohulls to his credit. He set off from Darwin in December 2000 with five people on board a 33ft Seawind 1000 cat, little knowing that he was heading into Cyclone Sam. He explained what happened next.

‘We came out of Darwin very late in the year, it was the second of December, heading for Perth. And I thought I had a two week weather window to get myself south of Broome…the end of the cyclone zone. And on day four we got hit with a very, very big low which was at that stage a category one.’

‘We had a four day forecast when we left but we didn’t have HF radio or a satellite phone on board in those days. And I couldn’t get anyone on the VHF. It’s a very sparse area up there, and obviously the people that were there had been evacuated because of the cyclone.’

They ran across Bonaparte Gulf, ‘aptly nicknamed ‘Blown-apart Gulf’’ cracks Royce, and headed across to the top of Western Australia, then found shelter in a little bay for the night. By morning the wind had changed direction and they found themselves in danger from a lee shore. They bashed their way out of the bay and sailed through the day, only managing to cover 45 nautical miles due to the intensity of the storm.

‘We found another little alcove and hid in there for one more day. And the storm seemed to pass and go off to sea, so we continued down and around the coast. It was still raining but the wind had gone back to below 30 knots.’

They continued down the coast until they were just north of Biggie Island, then sought solace in the perfectly named ‘Shelter Bay’

‘It was a very beautiful horse shoe shaped bay with very high cliffs and it was like a millpond inside. But on the other side of the island there were five and six metre seas raging quite fiercely.’

Royce and his crew stayed in Shelter Bay for a day and repaired damage caused by an earlier crash gybe. The sheath of the main halyard had shredded at a cleat, leaving only the strong inner core intact, so it was replaced with a spinnaker sheet. Fortunately this repair lasted for the duration of the trip.

He eased the boat out of Shelter Bay and headed south down the gap between Biggie Island and the mainland. Conditions were still tough and Royce had two other serious problems to contend with: his crew were all incapacitated with seasickness, and he did not have detailed charts for the area.

‘I didn’t have high definition charts for that area. I only had coastal charts and that was really to my detriment because the plotters in those days weren’t up to anywhere near the standard they are now. And without having that information, when you do get into trouble, you’ve got no where to run and hide.’

They passed Biggie Island and continued to motor sail south to Broome through the night. Early the following morning there was a new problem: the autopilot was no longer functioning. They started hand steering while all the time the conditions were getting worse and worse.

‘In the end we dropped all of our sails and we’d only had about half a metre of the jib out just to keep the front of the boat going in the required direction. I’d centred the jib and furled it right up, just about a half metre out, a little blade at the front like a trysail, and that certainly worked.’

‘The waves just got bigger and bigger and on the change of the tide I was trying to go down the inside of a group of islands called the Lacepedes, about 80 miles north of Broome.’

Black had chosen a passage inside the Lacepedes because he thought that they would provide some shelter from the large seas pounding the coast.

‘But the current through the inside of the islands was quite ferocious. We were surfing down waves that were 10m plus, bare-poled with both motors down and at times in reverse, trying to slow the boat down.’

With the crew out of action, Black did not have the manpower to deploy a proper drogue, but he compensated with an inspired piece of improvisation.

‘I had two milk crates on board and I just tied mooring lines to each of these and threw them out the back, one each side. In those seas we still got to 26.4 knots bare-poled. It was quite incredible. The amount of water that was going over the boat from breaking waves and from us driving through waves was just amazing.’

At about one o’clock that afternoon they received their first radio communication for days.

‘We got a call on the VHF…They told me that we were in a very large cyclone that was destined to go over Broome in about six hours. So we were very close to the centre of it, and we were also in a dangerous quadrant of it.’

The front left side of an approaching cyclone is considered to be its most dangerous quadrant: if you are caught in this area of the storm, winds are blowing you into the path of the cyclone and the strongest winds.

Fortunately the person making the radio call was a highly ranked captain with detailed local charts. He told them that the Broome police had requested that they turn the boat around, and then helped guide them to a safe haven to wait out the cyclone.

‘He gave me a series of co-ordinates for where I should head, and I sailed those.’

‘And we ended up in a little creek called Crocodile Creek in Beagle Bay and sat there for about three days, sharing that with a four metre crocodile. I was going to run the boat into the mangroves when I got into the bay, because it was till blowing 45 knots plus, but we got lucky.’

As they navigated their way up the creek there was barely one foot of water under the boat. Their way was also blocked by a big floating barge that was swinging in the strong winds like a pendulum. It was a bit like the famous myth of Jason and the Argonauts: heading their boat towards needle sharp rocks that opened and closed like the jaws of a shark.

‘You just had to go at it when it was going the wrong way, so it wouldn’t be there when you got to it. We just snuck past it and picked up a mooring in the creek. Half an hour later we were on the bottom.’

Some of the locals came out to the boat on quad bikes and kindly gave Black and his crew accommodation. They were all shocked and exhausted by what they had been through.

‘I had five people on that boat. Three of them refused to get back on, and one of them was my wife at the time.’

Even Black was surprised to have survived the experience, and now shares his ordeal in a constructive way by teaching sailors heavy weather techniques and delivering public seminars for Seawind.

‘Those conditions…you wouldn’t wish them on your worst enemy. It’s absolutely amazing what Mother Nature can do in a very short period of time.’

‘I really didn’t think we were going to see the end of the day, but the boat handled it unbelievably well. It was just a case of reducing sail, and battening the boat down. We did take a lot of water over the boat, but it was just a case of battening the boat down and keeping it off the shore.’

‘That was about the worst storm I’ve been in. The mistakes I made, and I don’t mind if you point that out, the mistakes I made were not having sufficient communication with shore based station, or a land based station; and not having the correct definition of charts for the area

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