Yankee ingenuity gives Martin van Breems and his J/44 Mohegan a competitive advantage in the Europe 1/New Man Star singlehanded race.
At 11:30 I was awakened by a sickening crash. I bounded out of my main salon berth, and was greeted by the sight of a large red hull out the main salon portlights. My first thought was that I was being run over by a freighter. In a second I was on deck and saw that I had sailed right into 60-foot fishing trawler, probably Portuguese. I could see that my bow was damaged. The front two feet of the boat had almost entirely broken off. The bow was hanging on by only a few layers of glass on the port side. The stem of the boat was offset a good six feet to port, and there were gaping holes on the starboard side and on the deck. My position was 49 degrees 47.6’ north, 11 degrees 06.8 west.
Martin van Breems set out on the first leg of the Europe 1/New Man Star race on June 4, 2000, from Plymouth, England to Newport, Rhode Island, USA. This race evolved out of the 40-year-old Ostar, a singlehanded race held every four years. The race travels the “wrong way” going west, into the wind. In addition to wind, there is fog, cold temperatures, large waves, foul currents, icebergs and shipping traffic. Aboard his J/44 Mohegan, which he purchased and refurbished in 1996, van Breems encountered numerous challenges that threatened his safety and his chances of completing the race. This is the story of an ingenious inventor, sailor and adventurer.
Two men walked up to the bow of the fishing boat, looked at their boat and mine, muttered a few things, and went back to their nets in less than a minute. I had hit (the) starboard side in an area reinforced with a series of four-inch diameter round steel pipes welded into the hull. Either the fishing was very good, or collisions were not that interesting!
I realized the autopilot was still trying to steer me into the trawler, so I changed course and began to sail away. I dropped the main, so as to stay close to the fishing boat. I knew I was at fault and did not want to be accused of sailing away from the accident. I hung around until I saw them head away. Although I considered heading back to make repairs, going the wrong way had no appeal to me. Knew I could figure out some way to fix Mohegan. Within a half-hour, I decided to stay in the race.
“Within a half-hour, I decided to stay in the race.”
The crash happened almost 200 miles off the coast of England, 100 miles south of Ireland. Three days into his route and van Breems had sailed over 12 hours without sight of another competitor. There were 80 boats entered in five classes. Mohegan was entered in the open 40-foot monohull class. All of the boats in this class were older than Mohegan except for one. The weather forecast for the race was a series of gales, each one increasing in strength.
The weather forecast was ominous. The problem was that the 500 Mb charts showed the jet stream making a sharp U-turn at about 40 degrees west, which was to generate a never-ending series of low. If combined with a low from North America, the results could be scary. The way out, heading south into the Azores/Bermuda high, was a ticket to nowhere, with light, variable winds. Having experienced both, I’ll take a gale to drifting conditions any day and I set off on the classic great circle route. The first two days were mostly light air, with winds to 16 knots.
I was still keeping up nicely with a new, state-of-the-art 40, sailed by Dutchman Pieter Adriaans and an older French 60, sailed by Patrick Favre. With winds out of the southwest that gradually built to 26 knots true, the wind shifted to the west, then northwest as the low passed to the north. Worse were the large seas. The constant pounding as you beat upwind is nerve-racking.
I knew only too well what was holding my boat together. Was it enough? Shouldn’t I have made that tabbing one or two layers thicker?
The reality of the race started to sink in as Mohegan pounded across the building seas. The initial excitement had passed, replaced by fear and doubt. I was sick, as I often am in the early stages of an offshore trip, if weather strikes. I had not slept much, given the frequent traffic and pounding.
Assessing the damage, van Breems quickly began making adjustments to save further damage to the hull of the boat.
If the bow were to completely break off and the forestay was sent flying free, it could help bring down the rig, especially if there was a sail on the furling system. I took down the number three genoa and sailed on with a reefed main and the staysail. I lashed down the forestay to several deck pad eyes aft of the damaged area in case the bow completely pulled off. After that I did very little for the next 24 hours.
When Mohegan was built it had a small anchor locker forward of the V-berth. When Van Breems rebuilt it, he installed a self-draining anchor locker that extended into the forward cabin. The aft end supported the inner forestay with a 3/4-inch plywood bulkhead overlaid with glass and quarter-inch aluminum plate to spread the inner forestay load to the sides of the hull. From there the inner forestay ran three-quarters up the mast, to a spot above the connection of the runners.
The inner forestay had certainly saved the rig. The boat was not taking on water, and was sailing well with the staysail and main. However I knew my temporary lashings on the forestay and furling system would not hold for long.
Wednesday, June 7
With winds over 30 knots from the south-southwest a low-pressure system passed through the area. Mohegan was making 9 knots on a beam reach. As the wind changed direction to the west and then the northwest, Mohegan experienced another drama.
The bow locker hatch flew off into the sea. I watched it sail off to England, followed by two fenders I had stored in the bow. I knew I had to make repairs soon. The bow locker was filling with water, which slowed the boat down. I began to feel like I was on a sub!
Thursday, June 8: A Solution
The winds had lightened to 10-12 knots and the seas flattened out. Several large waves came onboard and filled the bow locker while I was working on it. Battery drills will work underwater, at least for a little while! I drilled two 5/8-inch holes in the bow under the damaged area, and cut off 10-feet of line from the 5/8-inch kevlar jib sheet. I tied a figure eight knot in the end, led the line out one hold, up through the end of the spinnaker poke, around the forestay pin, and back around to the other hole. The difficult part was securing a forestay and keeping it from moving around too much as the boat rolled around in the swells.
I used vice grips to hold the line tight, like a line stopper, while I tied in the other figure eight knot. I also ran side support guy lines from the front end of the pole back to the bow cleats. Then, I moved the mast end of the pole down to push the front end of the pole out, helping to tighten all the lines. While I tightened the backstay, I had a little more mast rake than normal, but it looked good, so I moved on.
Fixing the hole in the hull
I had a hull patching kit from Naverex, which I tried out. The kit consisted of a sponge with several chemicals, which, when mixed soaked into the sponge and when exposed to seawater, were supposed to harden and lock the whole sticky mess in place. It seemed to work. Next, I covered the bow with a very strong tape, which was difficult given the constant wave action. Then I ripped a section of the interior overhead out, which was quarter-inch plywood with a Formica overlay, and used this to make a new bow locker cover. This was screwed and glued with 5200.
Keeping the bow locker empty was essential. The bow repairs held through the next low, with winds up to 30 knots out of the northwest on Friday night. The wind dropped down to 20 knots on Saturday and built to 30 knots when low number four came through. By Sunday night, June 11, I had winds up to 37 knots true, 43 knots apparent out of the southwest. Monday morning the winds quickly shifted 70 degrees to the northwest in three hours.
The rough seas were more than the sponge/tape repair could handle and bow locker hatch number two disappeared that night. Tuesday night the winds abated and I fabricated a bow locker hatch number three by cutting a spare dodger I had sewn up for the trip, and securing it to the toerail using wood battens, just as it was getting dark. The center wrapped over the spinnaker pole, and it served well to keep green water out of the bow locker. I also wrapped canvas around the bow, and secured it with battens.
This bow repair lasted through the next two gales.
The final repair to the hole in the bow included plywood over the hole, with a canvas overlay, which prevented the canvas from chafing on the exposed fiberglass. This lasted the rest of the race.
The most difficult thing to deal with was the fact that everything was wet and cold down below, from my clothes to the bedding and cushions. You come below, get out of wet foul weather gear and climb into a wet bed. During this part of the trip I was reading Slocum’s classic book. What I would have given for his coal burning stove!
June 14, Wednesday Low number six was the big one.
The winds were unusual in that they were out of the east-northeast, blowing 25-30 knots true. As always, it was overcast. I was broad-reaching at 9-12 knots, steering by hand to surf the waves as much as possible. My course was almost due west. At 2000 UTC I hit 16.4 knots in a 40-knot gust. The bow wave rose 2-3 feet above the deck, as I hung on the back of a 20-foot wave for over two minutes!
46° 12.7’ North and 36° 57.0 West at 2300 hours
Mohegan sailed along while the wind increased and a frontal line moved north. Van Breems headed up and reefed the main. Within 30 minutes the wind shifted to from the northeast to west as he kept Mohegan sailing south, into the front.
Thursday June 15
At 0200 the barometer dropped to 1000 and I recorded steady winds out of the west at over 62 knots true, or almost 70 apparent. Due to engine problems I only had the electronics on for five minutes every two hours to do a log entry. I continued on with a very flat double reefed main, and my staysail. I was averaging 6 knots at 35° apparent and the boat was sailing herself nicely with the wheel lashed down. Small problems can quickly become disasters in such conditions, so I put on my drysuit.
Since I did not have the power to run the autopilot for long, and she was doing well with the wheel lashed, I decided to keep the main up. I tried to contact the Canadian Coast Guard to give my position, but could raise no one.
At 1100 the winds were 40 knots out of the northwest. At 1900 the winds were still over 35 knots true. Winds held in the 30-knot range out the west-northwest for the next 24 hours. I had survived a pretty serious low-pressure system. Wave heights averaged around 25 feet, but some were clearly as high as Mohegan was long, or over 40 feet.
I have always believed in keeping a boat moving in a storm, and I also think being closehauled has many advantages, including the ability of the boat to sail herself and minimal danger from breaking seas. The pounding is difficult to take, but like anything else, you get used to it. Initially I was north of the center, however, the system was tracking to the northeast, and I must have sailed through the center of the low when the wind shifted from the northeast to the west. Going through eight gales takes an incredible toll on a boat and the equipment.
I cleared the Grand Banks – and the last gale – and sailed into the first clear blue skies of the trip! With 30 knots out of the northwest, things began to dry out, and I was making 8-9 knots. I sailed through several more fog banks and quite a few calms.
“Daddy, don’t worry. We’re coming to get you.”
On Tuesday evening I arrived in Newport, R.I. at 9:00 a.m. local time. The first voice I heard was my 4-year-old son calling out from the tow boat, “Daddy, don’t worry. We’re coming to get you.” All entrants get a free tow, which most of us needed!
I took 23 days, 13 hours and was the first American to cross the line, and second in class 3. The winner of class 3 beat me by a little over two and one half days. Given the damage and that the other boat was brand new, I was pretty happy with my results.
All the racers had stories of being knocked over and equipment damage. About 70 percent of the boats under 50’ had dropped out, or had gone south into the high-pressure region with no wind and would not finish in time.
Would Martin van Breems do this race again?
I would. Singlehanded sailing is difficult and risky. This is both the problem and the attraction. Collisions, like mine, are very rare. I believe the risk factors from sailing offshore with an unprepared boat or skipper is vastly greater than those of a knowledgeable singlehander in a well-prepared boat.
No matter how good a sailor you are, doing such a race will make you a better sailor and the experience will help make our Ocean Sailing class at Sound Sailing Center and my Dutchman products even better.
--- as told to Dana Paxton