South East Cape

21 Mar


March 21, 2018

Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, Hobart

All day we ride due east on brisk northwesterlies, which Mo takes beam-on with double reefs. Hour after hour she froths the aa, giving off a sense of intention, as if she too understands the urgency. Tony has made it clear we are racing a large and strong low pressure system–“Westerlies to 45 knots and up; at your current rate, you are five hours ahead;” and later “given your progress, you should be under Tasmania’s South East Cape two hours before the weather turns.”

And what Tony did not say, the barometer did. For days it has been dropping a point at every log entry, reminding of the sailor’s proverb, “short notice, soon past; long foretold, long last.”

I want no part of it and feel pleased we are outrunning this final Indian Ocean gale. Only 70 miles to Mewstone Rocks, a nothing compared with where we’d started. In the evening I take photos of the sunset, have a beer and a slow dinner of beef hash and potatoes. I think about Hobart; the pleasure of meeting my wife at the airport.

9pm. The wind eases dramatically and turns northeast. Suddenly we are making but five knots with full sail and are close hauled in a sloppy sea. I start the engine to give us an extra knot. Situation stable, I decide to take a quick nap. The landfall will be rugged and met in the dark. This is my only chance for sleep.

I wake with Mo laying right over. In the pilot house, the gauge reads NNW 35 knots with long pulls of 40. I kill the engine and douse the main in a hurry, then triple reef the working jib. We charge on, close reaching, slanting up for the Cape. Slowly we pass pulsing Needle Rocks light and then are under Mewstone Rocks, unseen.

At 2am the South East Cape light begins to bob. We are well over the continental shelf now. Seas are racing short and steep. Mo shovels water high into the air; immediately it is swept beyond the range of her running lights. I am standing in the cockpit, knees braced and holding the rail with both hands; head under the dodger for some protection from the bullet-spray. This is the most secure place on deck. Still, and for the first time, I am compelled to clip in here. The gauge shows winds to 45 knots.

4am. Dawn. Wind howls in the rigging. A diabolical sky, as dark and heavy as the sea, so low it feels barely above the mast-head. The Cape, a black, evil-looking smudge too far too windward, our goal, D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a tight squeeze on this tack.

I remember my fear at the Cook Bay entrance in Tierra del Fuego. There the landfall was lee, right below the westerlies, and the challenge being that, once committed, there was no turning back. Here, the opposite. Here the headland is decidedly up wind. A mistake means being swept out to sea.

5am. We need to hurry. To the north and west I can see the front carrying the long foretold westerlies, a single roll of low cloud extending from the Cape to the horizon, a giant, inverted wave; behind this, a solid wall of gray extends from sea to sky. But we are behind the weight of Tasmania now. Seas are still a mass of confusion, but smaller by half. We’re still on time.

Mo begins to open D’Entrecasteaux Channel. I can just make out the western headlands, and its eastern border, South Bruny Island and Tasman Head.

Suddenly the wind shifts into the NE, straight down D’Entrecasteaux, without losing any of its strength. And with it the sea changes direction, pushing in a rush through the channel and stacking up as it exits. Now our goal, a mere 6 miles north, is a dead beat in gale-force winds. Mo is still flying a deeply reefed working jib, and our new course, I see, puts us far below D’Entrecasteaux; even Tasman Head and Storm Bay are now up wind. I need more drive, a seeming impossibility in these conditions.

I douse the working jib and raise the hanked-on staysail. With the boat awash, it’s slow work. I’m on all fours or seated with legs wrapped around rigging. Finally the sail flies, but the result is no better. Mo can’t develop enough speed; each sea sets her bow back, heaving the boat bodily southward. We need more drive if we have any hope of raising the land.

I throw triple reefs into the mainsail and haul away, but before I can pull the halyard taught, it fouls in the mast steps. I free it and try again. It fouls again. With the main partly up, I have to climb the mast fifteen feet to grab the line. Boat movement is extreme; keeping hold of the halyard and mast, difficult. I lower the sail and try again. And again. Each time, same result. We are losing ground fast. The great wall of cloud is approaching. I’m running out of ideas.

Gerry Clark in The Totorore Voyage recounts being blown off a southern ocean island in just such a gale and having to motor the  60 miles back. It took him three days. This, I decide, is my last option. I start the engine, but instead of pounding directly into the sea coming down D’Entrecasteaux, I turn Mo northwest, taking it slantwise. This heading is just south and west of the Cape. If I can tuck in under the landmass, I reason, the land will block sea and wind, and I can make for the channel by coasting along the cliffs.

To my surprise, Mo can do this. It’s a crawl, but within two hours we are under the headland. There the wind is still strong, but without any fetch, the sea is flattening. We are nearly kissing the black rocks of the Cape when I turn Mo north toward safety. The front is now here, the great rolling wave in the sky right overhead. The northeast wind dies right away. A heavy rain. Astern I see a whiteness rushing toward us at water-top and in a moment we are slammed. The westerlies have arrived. But they are too late. We are sliding behind the protection of South East Cape. We’ve made it.

Inside the weather is sunny and bright. The gale is entirely stopped by the western mountains, the great wall of cloud and its falling mist creating a rainbow high above green forests and smooth sand beaches. We motor slowly north to a divot in the channel called Lady Bay. Anchor down in 25 feet at 2:30pm. I spend an hour cleaning; have an early dinner and am asleep by sundown.

Mo departed Ushuaia, Argentina on January 12th; arrived South East Cape, Tasmania on March 18th; 63 days; 8,500 miles; four lows of Force 8 and 9; three knockdowns; rail bent; window smashed; water-logged electronics. Still safe. One tough boat is Mo!



This article was syndicated from The Figure 8 Voyage


  1. Jorgen

    Such a landing is what all sailors both fear to encounter and hope to add to their sailing accomplishments.

  2. peter Gudgeon all been there some time or other. A gripping story Randall.. It captures well all the fear, tension and chanciness of sailing a storm . Thank your engine, your true grit, sailing skills and survival instincts. . Well done.

    Peter.. also a soloist.. in the Med.

  3. Anton

    Man, what a voyage! I’ve been following your travels, and wondered how far you’d gotten. Happy to hear you’re safe and sound in Tasmania.

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