Strong winds and big seas

We are having a windbound day in Coral, anchored in Broad Haven, just east of Erris Head on the northwest corner of Ireland. Strong winds today are forecast to touch gale force, so while it would be possible to launch on the next leg across Donegal Bay to Aranmore, it would be both uncomfortable and silly.

We probably had our fill of strong winds and rough seas yesterday as we sailed round the coast from Blacksod Bay. For the first couple of hours we had to tack out from the bay in fresh winds directly into the Atlantic swell. As each wave rolled toward us it appeared as a hillside, wavelets rippling down its steep face.Well reefed down, Coral made good progress, climbing each wave in turn, seeming to pause on the crest, then surfing down the other side. With Aries holding an exact course on the wind, the three of us sat side by side on the windward seat of the cockpit, looking down past our feet at water swirling along the lee rail. While this was tough sailing, it was also deeply pleasurable. We laughed together as we exclaimed at the size of the waves, as we pointed out how the changing sunlight picked out the streams tumbling down from the summit of Slievermore on Achill Island. Our third long tack took us past Turduvillaun, the last of the rocky islands at the southern end of the Mullet Peninsula. This was the first time Susi and Dave had seen heavy seas from a boat, and they watched in some awe as the swell rolled up the rock and broke over it, fountains of dazzling white seawater rising high in the air then running down the rockface in temporary waterfalls, soon to be inundated by arrival of the next wave.

Once round the headland we were able to bear away northwards up the channel between the Inishkea islands and the mainland. Now, with the wind on the beam and the island sheltering the sound from the extremes of the swell, Coral, even with her mainsail reefed down and flattened, raced along on a more even keel. We could relax, think about making coffee and realize it was already lunchtime. Cup-a-soup and warmed pitta bread were more than enough to keep us going, and our spirits remained high.

The passage between last group of islands and the coast narrows and is set about each side by underwater reefs. Pilotage depends on accurately identifying islands and rocks from the pilot book descriptions. But it was not easy to distinguish one low island from the next, so for a few moments I had an anxious time. Was that Inishgloria ahead, or had we already past it? Were we clear of the reef jutting out from the mainland? Dave helmed while I checked and re-checked the pilot book. I realized we were through the gap when we crossed through a layer of foam streaking clear across the passage, just as the pilot book told us.

But after the relative shelter of the inner passage we were suddenly exposed to the full force of the Atlantic swell. But it was not regular as it had been earlier in the day. The waves felt chaotic, bunched up in peaks and troughs. With Annagh Head in front of us, we hauled in the sails to bring Coral close-hauled in order to weather it. But with rough seas shaking the wind out of the closely reefed sail, she didn’t have the power to muscle through. She faltered and dropped to leeward, far closer to the rocks and foam of the headland that was comfortable, rocks that looked particularly jagged covered in foam the looked particularly fierce and bright.

“Time for a judicious use of engine,” I said. Was I trying to sound calmer than I really was? We were all three holding on tight to stop us being thrown around the cockpit, and getting to the engine controls was itself a challenge. Coral lurched as I reached for the throttle, throwing me across the cockpit. Susi grabbed at me, telling me later that she had feared I was going overboard. But the engine did its business, powering us through the water at five knots, quite sufficient to clear the head, give enough sea room to round the enormous mass of Eagle Rock rising sharply out of the water a mile or so along the coast.

Coral crashed into the waves, nothing elegant about her progress. The engine roared under our feet, and an unfamiliar whine came from the propellor as it thrashed through solid water one moment, foam the next. Sharp peaked waves towered around us, lurching Coral viciously this way then that, each side deck under water in turn. Between the peaks the sea opened into deep and dark troughs, eerily calm at the bottom, that we could peer down into. One wave seemed to pick the whole boat high in the air and drop her directly into a trough, where she landed with a crash, the rigging shuddering, the hull throwing sheets of water high on both sides. There was a clattering from the cabin as crockery was thrown around in its racks; Susi looked anxiously down the companionway, but nothing seemed to be broken, just a tin of drinking chocolate flying out of the locker. But even in these severe conditions, never once did Coral feel at serious risk, never once ploughing into a wave or allowing one to actually break over the deck, but rather lifting bow or stern buoyantly to each challenge as it came. Was it scary? Well, scary enough for Susi to reach for her lifejacket, although Dave seemed happy enough to watch the waves and exclaim at their size. I was just relieved that the steps we took to keep moving safely were sufficient. “Thank goodness for an engine that starts!” we agreed.

Once we were clear of Eagle Rock we turned north and east. The seas quietened somewhat and with the wind on the quarter we turned off the engine and ran for the shelter of Broad Haven Bay. “Where have you come from?” asked a fisherman on the quay side where we landed in our dinghy. I said something about the rough water. “Ah,” he said, “It can be very rough around Eagle Rock in a northwesterly wind.

Now, sitting in the shelter of Broad Haven with Coral riding at her anchor and the wind roaring around us, I wonder what I want to take from this experience. An immediate thought is, how much more violent can the sea get? We recorded 27 knots on our wind indicator, scarcely into Force 7. What is it like in storm force winds twice that speed, given that the force of the wind increases at least geometrically with velocity? This leads me to wonder at the ingenuity with which we humans develop technology to adventure into the wildness of the world, from the design of Coral’s hull to her solid marine diesel to the Gore-Tex of our waterproofs. In what contexts, I wonder, is this ingenuity appropriate and in which does is it destructive? And along with this I hold an admiration for my crew, for both Susi and Dave are new to sailing, and despite their lack of experience remained calm and responsive.

But really what I am left with is an image in my mind of steep sharp waves, water flying everywhere, the crash of the hull and the shuddering of the rigging along with the knowledge that, alarming though it all was, everything was going to be OK. I am not really sure how to write that.


  1. Oh! My goodness…… Phew! I am exhausted just reading it… x

  2. How strange it is to sit at a static desk in front of a computer where nothing seems to really be moving but my thoughts, and read your post. What an experience! I am glad to hear that Coral and her crew are doing well even though the sea has been so challenging. What a contrast to our sailing in June, I remember the day I wrote ‘the sea is like silk’.
    Changing faces… and we as humans try to adapt to the changes I guess, as much as everything else. But we want to explore all space that is in any way accessible to us, and some spaces feel less controllable. – Why are we attracted to them? Why do we expose ourselves? I wonder. Is it the strange quest for thrill that we have lost in our presumably ‘controlled’ daily life routines? Or is it something else? What are we trying to find in these experiences?

    This is from Yann Martel’s book ‘Life of Pi’, written from the perspective of the main character Pi who is a castaway on a small lifeboat – I again had to think of the passage, as on Coral last time:

    “There were many skies. The sky was invaded by great white clouds, flat on the bottom but round and billowy on top. The sky was completely cloudless, of a blue quite shattering to the senses. The sky was a heavy, suffocating blanket of grey cloud, but without promise of rain. The sky was thinly overcast. The sky was dappled with small, white, fleecy clouds. The sky was streaked with high, thin clouds that looked like a cotton ball stretched apart. The sky was a featureless milky haze. The sky was a density of dark and blustery rain clouds that passed by without delivering rain. The sky was painted with a small number of flat clouds that looked like sandbars. The sky was a mere block to allow a visual effect on the horizon: sunlight flooding the ocean, the vertical edges between light and shadow perfectly distinct. The sky was a distant black curtain of falling rain. The sky was many clouds at many levels, some thick and opaque, others looking like smoke. The sky was black and spitting rain on my smiling face. The sky was nothing but falling water, a ceaseless deluge that wrinkled and bloated my skin and froze me stiff.

    There were many seas. The sea roared like a tiger. The sea whispered in your ear like a friend telling you secrets. The sea clinked like small change in a pocket. The sea thundered like avalanches. The sea hissed like sandpaper working on wood. The sea sounded like someone vomiting. The sea was dead silent.

    And in between the two, in between the sky and the sea, were all the winds. And there were all the nights and all the moons.”

    Have a safe and enjoyable journey!

  3. I always love your closing lines. “the knowledge that, alarming though it all was, everything was going to be OK. I am not really sure how to write that.” Somehow it reminds me of the last lines of a part of a poem by Seamus Heaney that’s in my head a lot at the moment. It makes me cry.

    Now it’s high watermark
    And floodtide in the heart
    And time to go…
    What’s left to say?

    Suspect too much sweet talk
    But never close your mind.
    It was a fortunate wind
    That blew me here. I leave
    Half-ready to believe
    That a crippled trust might walk
    And the half-true rhyme is love.

  4. doctormimi says:

    That’s plenty scary. And I know just what you mean about the hollowness of the danger. It was always going to be OK, at least that’s how it feels when it was, and just up to the moment when, suddenly, it isn’t.

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