The weather worsened over the day though, and towards evening Stu checked the barometer which read about 1040. I made the joke (“joke”…!!) that I hope he had his cyclone seasons right, which got us on to the topic and we were discussing how cyclone weather seems to start around the 950’s. I looked down at the barometer again and instantly felt sick, passing it to Stu to double check. It was reading 954. In less than a minute the barometric pressure had dropped by almost 100, and the wind had started to make a low growling sound like I have never heard before. Not howling, not whistling, but a long, low, menacing growl that made me very aware that mother nature is very much a living creature. Even after that previous hideous night this was the first time I felt scared, and even thinking about that sound now I feel sick to the stomach. Stu called everyone on deck and said that the weather – which had already turned nasty – was going to get a lot worse. We all got in to our wet weather gear, boots and life harnesses (which we didn’t remove for 3 days) as Stu ran through what we would do if we needed to abandon ship (which of course he had done before we left, but wanted to ensure we all remembered the drill and knew what we were doing). Seeing the life raft in the cockpit was an everyday thing, as that is where it is stored for easy access if needed, however it was always just this big orange thing that sat there. Now I was looking at it as something which I might need to entrust my life to. The thought of heading in to a storm – a cyclone perhaps – in Pelon was terrifying enough, but the thought of having to climb in to a glorified ‘floatie’ in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with 12000 feet of water below me and 3 or 4 days from land, made me feel absolutely sick and sitting in the cockpit listening to Stu my body started trembling and I couldn’t stop it. Stu said that he was pretty sure that the storm would blow over and wouldn’t get much worse, but he wanted to be over-cautious. I found myself touching my jacket pocket every couple of minutes, making sure that my personal EPIRB was still there – like the ultimate security blanket I guess, because as long as I had that on me I knew I could be located to within 3 – 5 metres.
Needless to say that same noises that I had heard the other night were so much more threatening tonight as the weather got worse and we all went below to ride it out, Stu sitting up all night at the nav table, making regular checks above. Those who were watching out tracker would have seen us change course – we had to just go with the wind as it would have been dangerous to fight against it, but eventually it took us back in the direction of Catalina Island and the decision was made to continue on that course as we would need to restock and re-evaluate.
The next few days are a bit of a blur. We dozed when we could; we ate what we could force down; we were cold and wet, going from on deck to bed with all our wet weather gear on including life harnesses and boots. Every day we were sure that the wind would die down and the waves would calm down, but they kept coming, and kept coming, and the wind would growl that horrible growl. I know that no one got much sleep, although boys took on the lion’s share of the tasks and let Claire and I shelter below. I know that Stu didn’t get more than a couple hours of dozing for at least 2 nights and was functioning on pure adrenaline.
The only sail we had up was a tiny, tiny storm jib which helped us to maintain steerage and stability and we were still doing over 10 knots – bearing in mind that with full sails up we were only averaging about 6 knots in good winds previously.
We also put out a sea anchor – it’s amazing what a loop of rope with a fender attached to it will do in 30+ foot swell and winds of 50-60 knots. The weather hadn’t calmed at all though, and I was still terrified of having to crawl in to that life raft.
On what would be the last night of true storm weather Claire and I were woken with Bruce shouting that they needed us on deck NOW! The furling line for the jib had snapped causing the sail to unfurl fully, which meant that we had enough sail to race along in 15 knots of wind and therefore way, way too much for 40+ knots. Claire and I raced up on deck to find Stu right on the bow of the boat trying to drop the sail by hand, Bruce steering. I took the wheel from Bruce with instructions to keep the boat dead straight and the waves directly behind us so he could help Stu. Going from lying down for 2 days to leaping up (plus the stress of the situation no doubt) sent the blood rushing from my head and I suddenly found that I was trying to steer the boat with totally blacked out vision. Claire took over the steering and, while I know that she was terrified, did such an amazing job and kept Pelon absolutely spot on course. She was amazing. It was freezing, it was wet and the waves were massive, with a random waves coming from the side making us feel like we were going to tip over. Poor Claire was sliding around and I had to wedge myself between Claire and the side of the boat to hold her in place. Meanwhile, we were watching two of the people we love most in the world balancing on the bow trying to get the sail down. I’m sure it only took 10 minutes, but it felt like hours. Stu and Bruce told us later, once it was all over, that a lose rope had managed to hook itself on to Stu’s life harness and – had he let go of the sail – it would have flung him up in to the air or over the edge. He had his harness on which attaches him to the boat (with a massive strength rating of 600-700kgs), however it could have resulted in him dangling over the edge of the boat or flinging up in the air and crashing back down on to the deck, causing who knows what damage to himself.
With the sea anchor out, the sail down and the motor running, there wasn’t much else we could do except head below for shelter and what sleep we could get, leaving the auto helm to steer for us. Unfortunately it wasn’t as simple as that. The auto helm decided not to cooperate and Stu and Bruce had to hand steer all night, taking turns hour for hour, with Claire and I taking turns keeping them company and awake. Utterly exhausting after everything else, particularly for the boys who were already sleep deprived and totally worn out.
Finally, the weather seemed to be easing, or at the very least it was steadying.
Another long day for Stu, and poor Bruce wasn’t well so was in his cabin but I’m sure he wasn’t getting much rest either.
We were all talking in the cockpit and discovered that we had all been hearing things – I heard music and singing all the time (mermaids, I’m sure!!), Claire kept hearing a Jamaican man talking to her (saying “bloop, bloop, aaye” in a deep, Jamaican voice) and Bruce heard people talking to him. Weird stuff.
We were all so tired – Stu had only slept for about 5 hours since the storm started – and were so sick of being cold and wet. Days were cold, but night watches were freezing. The weather had calmed a lot by evening, although still nasty, but it meant that we could set the auto helm and rotate watches while Stu sat in the cockpit with us dozing, waking up when we needed to check anything with him. He was so calm and strong through the whole thing, even with minimal sleep (and usually he’s crabby after one night shift!!).
We knew we weren’t far from Catalina Island at this stage, but also knew this would feel like the longest part of the trip so far!