The young crew of a 16ft open boat face an impending Force 7 gale off the coast of Brittany – and it’s getting dark
I’m always delighted to find a book about high adventure undertaken with no sponsorship and nothing out of the ordinary in way of funds. The Sea Takes No Prisoners, recently written and now published by Bloomsbury, tells of voyaging in the late 1960s and early 1970s in a 16ft Wayfarer dinghy.
Peter Clutterbuck is a classic example of the understated seaman. When reviewing the book, John Mardal of Florida wrote: ‘The events described and the hardships not described are so extreme as to seem suicidal’.
Clutterbuck’s voyaging takes him to all manner of venues in the British Isles as well as such far-flung cruising grounds as the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Less famous than Frank Dye, whose Wayfarer exploits have also featured in these columns, Clutterbuck is at least his equal as a survivor.
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In this extract, he and his intrepid crew find themselves caught out by some shocking conditions in the Bay of Biscay. We join them as they set out for what promises to be a pleasant leg of their voyage.
With only the shipping forecast on which to base a passage plan, things turn rapidly to the bad, leaving them torn between staying at sea to face probable disaster and running onto a lee shore where they may yet have a ghost of a chance. What follows is seamanship of the highest order.
From The Sea Takes No Prisoners by Peter Clutterbuck
On 15 August we managed to sail round from Port Maria to Port Haliguen, a rough passage in the turbulent waters off the Quiberon Peninsula. This was the first we saw of the Atlantic seas which were to trouble us nearly all the way to Bordeaux.
The waves kicked Calypso onto the plane, and she was often surﬁng along, throwing up sheets of spray from her bouncing bows. She was packed to the gunwales with equipment and provisions, so she did not lift onto the plane easily. The big waves helped.
When we arrived, we were dragged off to the yacht club, where the champagne flowed amongst much cheering and congratulations.
We were later interviewed and photographed by the newspaper Ouest France, and they titled their story ‘Deux jeunes Anglais sont venus de Southampton sur ce 5 metres.’
Our friends in Quiberon wished us bon voyage and we set off on a fast broad reach. We passed lle de Houat and lle Hoedick with sails ﬂogging in a squall and shortly afterwards had to reef as the wind came round on to the beam and freshened.
The RDF was being temperamental and Peter could not pick up the 1355 forecast. All he heard was that there was a hurricane off Spain! This was disturbing, as there were a lot of cirrus streaks sweeping across the sky, heralding a depression.
However, as long as we kept well offshore we were in no immediate danger. Visibility was excellent, and the land was below the horizon, so we were well off the dreaded Atlantic shore.
Soon there was a large swell running, very long but steep and breaking at the crests so that Calypso often had to be luffed into them. The spray cover really proved its worth, thwarting the progress of the heavier seas as they swept over the bows.
The increasing swell worried us. It was a warning. We were about 20 miles off the French coast, getting ready for sailing on through the night. But something was ominous, not right.
Peter was normally unflappable, but he looked worried. He asked loudly, above the sound of the rising wind: “What do you think’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know. There’s a big swell running, so there must be bad weather coming at us.”
The sky was black to the west, and it looked like a huge, menacing squall. This had every aspect of the Atlantic in an ugly mood. The shipping forecast was imminent, so we hove to. I unstowed our waterproof RDF, which we also used for the weather forecasts, and tuned in.
At 1758, the forecast started. But I could hear nothing except crackling noises. And then, when sea area Biscay came up, I could make out just one word: “seven”. That meant a Force 7 gale, way more than our little boat could survive.
I gave the RDF to Peter to re-stow, and set the boat back to sailing on a beam reach. The black sky was upon us. What was going to happen? White foam was being blown off the waves as the wind picked up to our weather side. Suddenly, it hit us like a rugby tackle.
We were knocked down, and I let the sheets ﬂy on both sails. The sails were ﬂogging uncontrollably now, and shaking the boat violently. I could not luff up, as the wind was too strong. I dared not bear away, as we would take off like a rocket out of control.
We could not stay as we were — we would be blown over, and we could never right the boat in such conditions. Night was coming, and if we capsized we would not survive.
“Down main!” I yelled.
The halyard had been carefully stowed so that it would run out with no delay. This precaution paid off. Peter got the sail down and into the boat in seconds.
We now had just the jib up, but the rising wind still forced us over, with water washing into the boat. If the boat filled up, we would lose our stability and be rolled over. What to do now? We let the jibsheet ﬂy, and it ﬂogged ever more violently.
It was too rough to risk going onto the foredeck to take it down. It was either going to shake the mast to pieces or tip us over. We were at the mercy of the sea. This time, it was merciful, and the wind dropped a little.
Peter hauled the jibsheet in, and we sailed on. But the seas were getting rapidly bigger, and the wind was blowing the tops off the waves in sheets of white spume. The noise went to a high-pitched shriek. What options did we have?
Dangerous after dark
Sailing on like this, with the waves on our beam, would be very dangerous after dark, as we would not be able to see them coming, and could be filled up or rolled over. Running for shelter was risky, as we would be surfing huge waves in the pitch black of a stormy night, and closing a lee shore without any shelter, and the risk of being wrecked on rocks or reefs.
We could try to ride it out, lying to our small sea anchor, but this was also risky. If the weather got worse, the sea anchor would not save us. Also, we would drift onto the same lee shore about twelve hours later, without being able to choose which bit we wanted to be wrecked on. On this l00-mile stretch of coast, there was no shelter that we could reach.
“What do you think?” I yelled at Peter.
“We’ve got to get to shelter before it gets any worse,” he said.
“But there isn’t any shelter,” I reminded both of us.
I looked at our chart inside its waterproof case. There was an island to our lee: Ile de Noirmoutier. It had a bay on the side facing the mainland. But we would have to sail past the island, and past many rocks, before we could alter course for the bay.
We would then have to beat into the gale to get into the shelter of the island. By then the waves would be huge, the night black. A Wayfarer could not beat into a Force 7, even in flat water. In big seas, at night? We could never do it.
I looked again to the west, where the Atlantic weather was coming from. The western horizon was still darkening and the rest of the sky becoming uglier every minute. We had to get out of this. It would be dark by the time we were near Noirmoutier. The waters between the island and the mainland were strewn with rocks and reefs.
But there was a lighthouse on the lee side of the island, and beyond this a beach. If we kept in the white sector, we would be clear of the rocks. We would have to head up hard on the wind and drive into this gale.
We had never done anything like this before. If we could not, we would be smashed to small pieces on the reef in the dark. We would not be able to swim to land on such a stormy black night. We would probably not survive.
There was another problem. The boat would not beat with just the jib. To beat, we needed the mainsail. But we could not set the mainsail when the wind was this strong, even if we reefed it to a quarter of its size.
I had made what I called a ‘trysail adapter’ to cover such a situation — where we needed to beat, but could not set the mainsail. It allowed the jib to be hanked onto it, and then hoisted up the mast as a small mainsail, or trysail.
But it had never been used. Would it work? Our lives would depend on it.
“We’ve got to get into the lee of Noirmoutier,” I shouted at Peter.
“That means the trysail adapter. We’ve got to set it up. It’s our only chance.” We unstowed it and lined up the holes with the jib hanks, to make sure we could set it up while effectively blindfolded in the dark.
So at 1850 we bore away and Calypso began surﬁng down the steepening waves in the fading light towards lle de Pilier, which guarded the north end of Noirmoutier. Soon we were surﬁng up waves as well.
Calypso was in danger of driving her bows under, or being pooped by the large seas. The wind was rising inexorably. I was expecting the jib to be split in two any moment.
The sky was black to windward, above us were red streaks of cirrus, and to the south it was a sickly green and yellow. Soon, some ragged brown clouds scudded low overhead and the rain began as the light faded. It was a frightening sky.
Calypso was planing continuously up and down waves like a speedboat under only 46ft2 of canvas, and the safety line on the rudder blade was screaming. We could not risk going any closer to the rocks. We had to try to beat off them now. Everything depended on being able to sail to windward into the lee of the island. It was dark now. The sea was breaking around us on rocks and shallows.
Ahead were more breakers. We had to turn and try to beat. Would the trysail adaptor work? Could we escape the rocks downwind of us? Could we control the boat on this stormy night? Would we be able to see the lighthouse and its white sector light? Could we point high enough to get to the beach? Would we capsize? Or hit a rock?
When we headed up, I was amazed to ﬁnd Calypso would point towards the lighthouse, ﬂashing at us through pelting rain. She was driving through sheets of spray in the howling wind, and the self-bailer was working overtime.
The ﬂashes of the light loomed higher and brighter in the rain, which was by now heavy and pelting horizontally. Soon we were round the back of it, where we found a mooring, got the tent up, unstowed sleeping bags and slept.
First published in the January 2019 issue of Yachting World.