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Weathering 70 Knots In An A30

The Squall and 'Surprise'

By: Gordon Laco

Two seasons ago (August 2nd, 2006), while participating in a Wednesday evening club race, we experienced a severe squall in which one of the competing yachts was sunk, thankfully without loss of life.

My faith in the Alberg 30 as a fine seaworthy sailboat was strengthened by my own experiences felt in this event. Hopefully, after reading my story, yours will too.

My yacht is an Alberg 30 named 'Surprise.' She is a one-design racing class boat developed in the early 1960's. My crew gathered aboard 'Surprise' as usual at approx 5:40pm. We left the Club under power and hoisted the main right after leaving the basin. Aboard we had our regular crew of my son Peter Laco and Duncan Strathearn doing Mast and Foredeck; George and Lynn, Duncan's parents, ran the cockpit; all of them dealing with me as skipper.

On the way out to the start, I called everyone's attention and described the weather forecast, which clearly predicted a thunder squall was likely. I told my crew that if a squall approached, what indicators I would be looking for. The indicators included a wind shift to the west...and in particular, the cloud formations, with timings to the arrival of the squall as each feature appeared. I told them that when the distinctive squall roll became apparent, we would go onto port tack and furl the main quickly. We would then jibe and furl the genoa. We would wait for the squall to expend itself hove to on starboard tack under bare poles. I detailed two people to stay in the cockpit with me, and two to go below and man the VHF.

Nearing the start line, we shut off the engine, set the genoa, and joined in the usual pre-start jousting.

Once we were settled down after the start, we found ourselves reaching for Snake Island in a very light south wind. We watched a dark cloud pass us to the north... If it was a squall it missed us.

At about 6:30pm we saw the sky darkening again, this time NW of us - it looked like this one might get us. The wind slowly clocked to the west and we ended up running on port tack with genny and main, both wing out, 'reading both pages' as they say on the East Coast. We saw some boats raising spinnakers, but we did not on account of the clouds.

We kept in the main pack of the race and watched the squall develop over about 35 minutes in a text book fashion. The bulk of the storm was over Midland Point, north and west of us. The wind gently increased from ghosting airs to about 10-12 knots from the west. It looked like we were going to get clobbered, so I had all hands don life jackets, and we went over the shortening sail drill again. I reminded the crew that when the squall came, there would be a lot of rain and noise, we would heel a lot but we would be OK.

When we were closer to Snake Island than Midland Point, a quite pronounced white skirt or squall roll appeared under the leading edge of the darkness, and upon seeing that text book warning, I rounded up to port and called for the main to come down. The boys were being tidier furling the main than time allowed so I disturbed them a little by shouting to hurry them up.

As the last gaskets were tightened up I saw a cloud of dust blown off Midland Point, and a white mist blasting off the water as the squall came racing toward us. We could see heavy rain north of us; presumably that edge of the squall was in advance of the part that was about to get us. I then jibed onto port tack, heading approx South-east, and we rolled up the genny on the furler. We just finished that and were closing the companionway (drop boards and hatch) when the squall hit.

I saw another yacht close-reaching on starboard tack at a high angle of heel under full sail between us and the housing development we call the 'California Houses' in Tiffin Bay. I made note of his position and told my crew that after the blast of the squall, we would head that way to look for him to make sure he was all right.

We had no sail up when the squall hit, and were laid over on starboard tack, heeling rail under in the first blast then settling down to approx 25 degrees. The rail was just clear of the water to leeward. Driving spray and rain accompanied the wind, which I estimated to be over 70 knots. (a friend who served many years on ice patrol in the Navy told me that at 60knts of wind one feels suction in your chest if you make an O with your mouth and stand with your cheek to the wind) I held the helm down, and 'Surprise' used her forward speed (approx 5knts) to round up and heave to on starboard tack. Apart from the flying water, which was painful on skin, we were safe and in no danger.

Down below, Peter and Duncan, now manning the VHF, began hearing distress calls; we reported ourselves on Channel 16 as safe and gave our position. I told the crew that we were abandoning the race. I started the engine and engaged the transmission. We set off toward a point to leeward of where we last saw the yacht south of us. At 800rpm we were hove to, forward movement virtually stopped but moving across the wind at 1.5knts. At 1,200rpm we could make about 3-4 knots on a close reaching course with the wind on the starboard bow. The wind was consistently very strong and seemed west with a very little south in it.

Despite the short fetch we were being swept by driving spray from waves, still heeling about 25 degrees under bare poles. The waves grew to about 3 feet high, but with a very short and steep wave length. Visibility to windward was nil, to leeward only a few boat lengths. The roar of the wind was loud enough to make speaking possible only by shouting.

After about 30-40 minutes, (longish for a squall), the rain eased and we could see several boats to leeward of us. The rest of the fleet apparently been driven to leeward out of sight. I told my crew that we were going to stay to windward and look for the yacht we saw with sail up as the squall hit. He was nowhere in sight, and I feared he was in difficulty.

After a while we saw the shoreline to the east of Doral Marine appearing ahead so I tacked (under power) and searched with the wind on the port bow. About 20 minutes later I was very relieved to have my son Peter report that he had heard on the VHF that the owner and crew of the boat we saw had been picked up safely by another yacht. We did not know yet that the boat was saw had been sunk.

At that time I bore away for Snake Island, where we could see one of the racers at anchor in the lea, and another motor sailing with a bit of her genny drawing.

We could see the boat that had reported picking up crew directly to leeward of us; I headed for her for a while thinking that if she was towing, we could assist with our powerful engine. After awhile, it looked like she was heading away from us, so I gave up and resumed a broad reaching course for Snake Island. It occurred to me that we should call home on the cell phone. Peter told my wife that we were safe but not coming in yet. Caroline, a good sailor herself, and well aware of the storm, was very relieved to hear from us.

At Snake we saw that anchored yacht was, comfortable and safe; we saw the one who was having difficulty completely furling her Genny, was safe, although not having much fun. We later learned that their furling line, while long enough to furl up their headsail under normal conditions, was too short to turn the furler enough times to furl it when the high winds made the sail furl in extremely tight wraps.

A commercial tug arrived about then from toward Penetang; and a CCG or police RHIB was seen approaching. We had been following another yacht's adventures on the VHF and heard that she was in Port McNicol, alongside something - she seemed out of difficulty. I had Peter report us again as safe and standing by to render assistance in the lee of Snake Island. This call was acknowledged by our Club and also by the Canadian Coast Guard radio operator.

The time was now approx 8:00pm. There seemed to be nobody in danger near us, with my own crew being very wet and cold. I decided that I needed to look after them. I told my crew that since it was going to be dark in an hour and the police and CCG were on the scene, we had not received any assignment to help anybody, and the club was reporting the racers accounted for. We would head for MBSC.

We saw the yacht which had performed the rescue coming up from to leeward and joined them motoring home at about 5knts. On the way, we heard the Club radioing that two boats, were unaccounted for - we broke in and reported them seen safe at Snake Island. At this time, we realized that the yacht we had seen close reaching when the squall came boat was lost and that the skipper and his crew had been picked up out of the water. We gave the rescuers, still motoring home near us a cheer for their seamanship. Later I had a cold chill when I realized that I had been looking for them too far to weather - I never would have found them.

We heard renewed distress calls from boats north of us down the Sound, so we reported our position to the CCG. They did not direct us to take any action, so we kept heading in. On the way, we were approached by the Midland Police boat and a civilian motor boat. Neither responded to our radio calls, but both headed east after getting our 'we're OK' thumbs up. By this time the wind and waves had settled down considerably.

Off the Coal Dock we saw one of our sailing school's Cl14's, 'Puff' turtled and adrift. While we circled I considered salvaging it, but decided that with the chop and remaining wind there was too much danger of somebody getting a hand smashed or a line around the prop so we left it. Shortly after, we began to hear the CCG report 'one of the racers' found capsized with no crew visible where we had seen the CL14. We broke in and told them that 'Puff' was not in the race and had likely been blown off the crew to look for. The police boat took much convincing that there were not dinghies in the race...their knowledge of sailing boats was very sketchy and it was fortunate that we could describe the boat clearly enough that they finally decided we knew what we were talking about. Ten minutes later we were back in our slip.

At the Club, we found devastation and a crowd of anxious people gathered counting the boats that came back. Our well secured floating docks had been wrenched away from the shore by the wind; we later learned that 1/2" chains had been broken and mooring pads weighing thousands of pounds had been shifted. On the way home we found the electrical power out, and the roads covered with pieces of buildings, leaves, lawn furniture and both branches and whole trees on the road.

We were very pleased with how SURPRISE performed, and never felt in any particular danger at any time. The engine, a standard direct drive Atomic IV with the standard two bladed prop performed magnificently. Best of all, our crew were steady and calm through the whole thing. They are good people and we all benefited from several years of racing together as a homogenous crew.

We learned the yacht which had been sunk had met the squall with all sail up - and was held on her side until her non-self bailing cockpit filled and sank her. I noted to my crew that even flat on her side the A30's companionway is above the water; and since as a matter of course our companion way was shut, significant ingress of water could only have happened if the hull or deck had been breached.

As time went on it became apparent that most of the racers that night had missed all the signs that a squall was developing. One sailor, with a reputation as a great racer, admitted to me that his first intimation that something was up was when he felt the blast of wind on his back. His yacht was caught with her spinnaker and main up. Many sailors attempted to use inappropriate or even dangerous coping tactics during the squall, most under the misunderstanding that what they were doing was the right thing to do. Two behaviors in particular were evident. They were running off to leeward (dangerous in that by doing so one is running blindly toward a lee shore) and attempting to sail with the full mainsail set and no headsail (dangerous because of the helm imbalance created and near impossibility of gybing safely).

Our Club's racing committee decided that a move had to be made to educate people about both the commonality of squalls and basic seamanship measures for dealing with them. In order to prevent finger pointing or accusations of preaching, we decided to invite a Canadian Naval officer to come and give us a talk about squalls. Predictably, the meeting was well attended by novice sailors and those with an interest in seamanship; our stalwart racers were noticeable by their absence.