August 27, 2015

dismasted - auckland to puerto williams: part 3

Story/Photos by Somira Sao

Below is another excerpt from my story about Anasazi Girl getting dismasted in March 2014. A shorter version is featured in the September 2015 issue of Yachting World (UK).  First parts of the original story can be read HERE.


The kids understood that we were safest down below and when conditions were aggressive, it was best to be in the quarter berths.  James was sailing single-handed.  He made all sail changes on deck, examined lines to make sure there was no chafing, checked the condition of sails, lines & hardware, and obsessively checked and re-checked all our systems.  On deck he always stayed clipped in and wore a safety harness with a built in PFD.

All of our senses grow more acute offshore, especially hearing, as we are always listening for good and bad sounds.  Good sounds were his footsteps above us, sails getting dragged to the fore-deck or getting dropped down through the hatch, the winch handle locking in place, the subsequent grinding as the lines are adjusted or tightened, the click of the mast cars working as the main gets reefed or raised, head-sails getting furled or unrolled, and sails getting tightened or eased.  Bad sounds were that of a sail or lines slapping loudly, loud bangs, or complete silence.  By listening carefully and sensing changes in the boat, sails could be correctly adjusted for best performance.

All sail changes at this latitude were difficult, but a gybe always required special mental preparation. Gybes were few and far between, with an average of one gybe every 1000 miles.  First we had to make the ballast adjustment down below. The kids would help us with the system of valves and scoops, which needed to be opened and closed in a specific order. They would watch the bright orange balls inside our sight tubes to let us know when tanks were empty or full.

Then James went through a meticulous process of putting on his “action suit.” Paying attention to the smallest details in his preparation to put on foul-weather gear and safety equipment prevented the possibility of tripping, base-layers getting wet, harness failure, a carabineer not getting properly locked, a head-lamp flying off, or a hood obscuring his vision.  All of these things could cause stress, exhaustion, or mistakes, and we were in the business of taking extra care to avoid all of these possibilities.

Out on deck, James took calculated steps to make sure our gybe was a smooth & quiet transition. Once he stepped out, we prepared for the sound of sails getting reefed, lines getting adjusted and stacked neatly, the slide of the track as the boom shifted to the opposite side of the boat, an “OK” call from above, then sails filling, reef shaken, and lines tightened. Our bodies braced down below for the change in the angle of heel on the boat until sails and ballast were adjusted once again for comfort.

Down below my primary responsibility was keeping the kids safe.  All physical movement was always very controlled. Even for our older children to use the head or move about the cabin required direct supervision.  My eyes were constantly on them and on the instruments, watching for imminent or unexpected changes in wind speed or direction.  If the kids were all asleep and tucked in safely, then James and I could sometimes make a coordinated effort to make a sail change, with me driving the boat down below with the autopilot and him on deck above.

Twice a day, we ran the Yanmar for 1-2 hours to charge the house batteries.  Inside the uninsulated carbon structure, it was always a loud exercise, especially with the engine room doors open for good ventilation and easily accessible for inspection.  During this time, we did all our power-intensive tasks: ran the water-maker,  booted up the computer to update our position, downloaded new weather files and SAT-C (Navtex) warnings, downloaded & backed up image files, and charged the kids’ tablets.  Once this was done, we allowed the kids to watch one movie on the big screen of the boat computer.

In the quieter times or during rough conditions, we took turns sleeping, reading or telling the kids stories.  The kids played games or watched movies on their iPads.  When things were stable, we would do an art project together, stretch, play music or have a dance party.  Then there was the regular business of cooking, cleaning, drying out the boat, and maintaining everyone’s hygiene.  Running the heat with little ventilation meant constant condensation, so it was an ongoing task to keep things dry inside.  There was a constant rotation of squabs and sleeping bags hung up by the heater to get dried out.

For this passage with a crew of five and the kids eating more than ever, we provisioned partially with freeze-dried meals.  When we were tired, it was a quick way of getting a balanced shot of nutrition inside of us.  Though we had four cups and four spoons aboard, we often just split and shared meals into two cups, which made for less spills and less clean-up.  No shower aboard, but hair was brushed, and teeth, ears, and bottoms were kept clean with fresh water.

On day 17 of our passage, James overlaid a weather file on the chart that made us both stop and stare. We were about 1300 nm from Cape Horn.  The forecast showed a monster low pressure system was approaching us, very fast and very powerful.  The diameter of the system was so wide that we had no way escaping it.  Wind forecasts were no greater than what we had already experienced in the Southern Ocean.  Our hope was to stay ahead of it, but we were sure to get some very strong winds and big seas.  We prepared for the big blow, taking extra care to make sure that everything on board was strapped down and put away carefully.

As seas grew bigger and winds increased over the next three days, we spent most of that time hunkered down in our berths, with little activity aside from necessary sail changes and charging batteries.  The boat speed combined with sea state created so much air in the water that it was difficult to use the water maker.

Outside were the largest seas I have seen since I started sailing.  They were magnificent dark blue walls that rose up behind us like mountains.  As they peaked and the sun shone through them, they turned crystalline blue, then broke, leaving the dark deep awash in sea of white foam.  Nature had never appeared more beautiful, dangerous and powerful to me.

With four reefs in the main and a fully battened storm jib, we were in the system and had big mile-maker days, covering just over 1000 nautical miles over the course of three days.  Wind speeds were between 40-50 knots, gusting 60-70.   Over the course of the depression, there were 3 times when a wave caught us just right, nearly knocking us on our side before James could correct the boat.

By first light on day 21, the wind at last abated, and we felt our muscles relax for the first time in days.  We were steadily moving East toward the Horn.  Winds had decreased from 60-70’s back to mid 30’s and we were feeling the pressure of the last few days slowly starting to dissolve.

We were approximately 300 nm west of the Diego Ramirez Islands and excited to know that we would be around the Horn within the next day and a half.  We were pointed on a course to go directly through the middle of the Drake, as far from the land as possible.  It felt a little strange to be so close to Chile and Argentina, places so familiar to us, and not stop, but I knew it could not be part of the plan.

The wind had laid down, but the sea state was still large, periodically bringing a big wave that slammed hard and loud into the side of the boat.  After days of being crammed together in one berth, Tormentina was stretching out, sleeping alone in the port side quarter berth.  James was lying on the nav station seat, boots and bibs still on, which he hadn’t taken off in 72 hours.  He had his eyes closed and was fighting a headache that was threatening to turn into a migraine, all from the intense pressure of maintaining everything during the big blow.  I was in the starboard berth, watching the instruments, while Raivo and Pearl both slept.

Out of nowhere, a huge wave hit the boat, just at the right angle, pushing us on our side.  “James!” I yelled, feeling the boat start to heel over dramatically as my body shifted in the berth.  I was hoping he could correct the boat before we got knocked on our side.

At the sound of my voice, James reached his hand for the pilot remote.  But before he could do anything, we accelerated fast to port, heeling over beyond the point of correction, approaching 90 degrees.

In slow motion, I saw James’ body lift into the air toward the port side of the boat.  I felt myself getting slammed inboard and quickly braced my body to make sure I would not crush the kids.  Raivo must have nudged his way to the opening of the berth in his sleep because as the boat continued heeling to port, one moment I felt his body next to mine, then immediately felt him slide out of the berth and his voice as he let out a long “Ahhhhh!”

I reached out and just missed grabbing his ankle, watching in horror as his body flew out of my reach, along the floor and past the center-line of the boat.

In the next instant, Raivo slid along the floor all the way to port , making contact with the ballast tank while James was simultaneously airbourne. Water rushed along the port-light window.  As the boat continued to roll past 100 degrees, both Raivo and James both hit the cabin top.  Next I saw the ocean churning on the other side of the Lexan windows at the top of the boat.  I heard Tormentina yell, “Mom!” from her berth.

After that a deafening silence filled my ears.  Time seemed to freeze and I felt this warm tingling feeling inside of me, expecting water to burst next into the boat or for us to fully roll 360.  I thought to myself that I was so glad we had really lived it to the fullest with our kids.  The last five years with them had been incredibly magical, so full of love and joy, and I felt we had experienced more with them in those few short years was more than what most people did with their children over a lifetime. I didn’t feel any regret and my last thought was that I if I could go backwards, I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.

Filled with this warm calm, everything stopped.

Water did not come rushing in, we did not roll upside down.  Like magic, the boat came back up the same way she had come. James and Raivo both dropped down to the floor.  My sense of hearing returned to me and I heard clanging in the galley as our cookpots rattled back into place and a few loose items dropped to the floor.

Raivo cried out, “Dad!” and James helped him up, asking him if he was okay.  He angrily replied, “Yes, but I bumped my head and my back!”

“Is everyone else okay?” James asked as he looked in Raivo’s eyes and gave him a thorough head-to-toe inspection.

I looked at Pearl, who was awake now.  “You alright?” I asked her. She couldn’t talk yet, but she gave me a nod.

Tormentina and I both replied, “Yes.”

James brought Raivo to me and he crawled back in the berth.  I held him tightly.  Then I tried to look him over myself, but he shrugged me off, and crawled down low in the berth, under the sleeping bag by my feet.

We asked Tormentina if she was sure she was okay, and she said, “Yes, but I got wet.  There’s water on this side and my head got squeezed between the gray spares boxes.”

James checked on her and tucked her back into her sleeping bag.

He then stood up and held onto the grab rails, looking up through the windows of the cockpit bubble.
 “Oh no,” he said.  “We lost the rig, Somira.”

Everything was quiet.  All we heard outside was the swirl of the ocean moving around us as we bobbed around, no longer under sail power.

“No,” I replied, in disbelief.

“Yes,” he repeated, his face awash with disappointment.

Tormentina said, “The mast is broken!  What are we going to do?  How are we going to sail the boat?”

James reassured her, “It’s okay, we’ll be fine.  We’re going to figure out a way to get into port.  Don’t worry, sweetheart.”

He was calm. Incredibly calm.  Too calm.

I felt strangely calm too.  It seemed like a situation like this should have put all of us in big panic.  If we were in a Hollywood movie, there would be some dramatic music playing in the background or someone would be screaming or running around.  But there we all were, all okay, no blood, no screaming, just present with the reality.  We were on our boat, like we had been so many countless days before, and as unreal as it seemed, the mast was broken.

We knew before we set off that losing the rig was a possibility, but we had hoped that this worst-case-scenario would never happen.  The kids had heard many epic stories from James’ sailing adventures before, had seen YouTube videos of boats losing their masts, and had been around enough sailors, especially in Auckland, to hear countless tales of boats getting dismasted, rolled and knocked down.

James put on his action suit quietly, meticulously checking his safety gear like normal, as if he was going out for any regular sail change.

“I need to go out and assess the situation,” he said.

“Let me know what you want me to do or if you need me to come out.” I told James.

“Okay,” he said.  “I want everyone to stay put in the berths.”  With that he stepped outside.

I held onto Pearl and kissed her tiny hand, who was awake and breast-feeding.  I tried to talk to Raivo, but he said, “I just want to go back to sleep.”

Tormentina was the opposite, wide awake and wanted to talk, chatting away non-stop.  She kept asking, “What are we going to do?  I can’t believe we broke the mast.  This is bad, this is really bad, isn’t it?  How are we going to get to France?”

“Don’t worry,” I said.  “We’re going figure out a way to get into port.  Everything is going to be okay.”  I took a deep breath, hoping that my promises would be fulfilled.

Part 4 continued HERE.


  1. Amazing, and terrifying! Looking forward to the next installment.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and your kind worlds Rebecca! -Somira

  2. Wow. And the photos of the ocean -- gorgeous.

    1. Thanks for following our story Chris. -Somira

  3. Amazing story and beautiful photos. Glad you guys are all safe and excited to follow your future journeys! I'm inspired by you guys voyaging on an Open 40!

  4. Interesting to read. ... Then I was shocked! ... I wish you...the very best! Yes...from deepest heart, for you 5 bravest, the very best! Gg

  5. Hi - would I be able to use one of your images (IMG_9388 copy.jpg) for a powerpoint presentation I am making for a client? I am paying about £10 for stock images so can offer you similar if you are interested...