Hong Kong - Typhoon Sailing

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

With a terrific crack like a pistol-shot the starboard bow mainstay parted. The mainmast shuddered in the most alarming fashion.

"Not good", I thought, "not good at all". I don't know very much about nautical matters, but even I know that a mainmast really ought to have at least 4 stays attached in 4 different directions if it is to stay in the preferred position, ie vertical.

A couple of days earlier, after a bit of jetlag-banishing spa pampering at Hong Kong's art-gallery-impersonating Langham Place Hotel and some gourmet dining at Wang Chai's Szechuan Lao restaurant, we had weighed anchor and set sail into the central reaches of the South China Sea. A force-9 typhoon had unexpectedly changed direction and blown in from the south-east, keeling the yacht over to the bow by about 30 degrees.

Huge seas were running head-on from the southwest, with the occasional rogue wave slamming in from the southeast and keeling the boat over to an extreme degree. Each time, the yacht took a frighteningly long time to right itself, groaning, complaining and creaking like the geriatric that it wasn't. Each time I wondered how steel, timber and fibreglass could possibly survive such an onslaught. It had been such a wave that had swung the mast over from port to starboard and then back to port again so quickly that, as the mainmast had passed the vertical, the stress on the stay had become too much and it had snapped. Most unimpressive engineering, I thought, you'd think they would have built the thing to withstand a bit of a blow. I doubted if it would have happened to the Bavaria I'm most used to sailing.

"Morgan" I half-heard the skipper shout through the howling wind, "MOVE". Morgan, who had been working on the port side, hadn't needed the skipper's warning, as he too had heard the stay part and was frantically moving forward in order to vacate the port side as rapidly as possible as, if the mast went, this was the direction in which it would fall. All eyes turned to the starboard stern mainmast stay. Would it hold? It Would not

The entire cleat was ripped from the boat and shot skywards, this time with a report more like a car-crash than a gunshot and sending an accompanying hail of splinter arrows like wooden shrapnel up into the rigging.

"Hmm", I thought, "even worse, but at least I wasn't up there getting skewered, as always seemed to happen to at least one of Horatio Hornblower's crew in CS Forester's brilliant nautical novels.

The mainmast lost no time in following the starboard bow stay as with an almighty bang it parted a metre from the deck and crashed to port. The sails and rigging tangled with the bow gunwale rail posts, fixing the stricken mast to the port side and immediately increasing the yaw to what seemed like about 70 degrees but which I am assured cannot have been more than 50.

I may be a nautical no-brainer, but I am British and have always been fascinated by the stoicism and sometimes heroism in our tiny island's remarkable nautical history. Unless CS Forester's novels were pure fiction then the mainmast now posed a significant threat to the vessel and to the lives of all aboard her. Well, I'm used to fear, in fact in my younger days I habitually courted it by falling off rock-faces hundreds of feet above the ground, but the fear I used to experience while climbing was different, as then I could always do something about the source of the fear, whereas now I felt as helpless and about as much use as a baby in a bullring. With nothing to contribute and so nothing to occupy my mind, my brain idly wondered if an intellectually-committed but spiritually-backward Buddhist like myself could summon up enough equanimity and non-attachment to meet my possible impending demise with dignity. I rapidly came to the conclusion that no, I could not, if the worst came to the worst I'd feel no shame at all in screaming like a baby.

This typhoon thing wasn't at all what I had thought I was letting myself in for - I had been assured that it was going to miss us. My last sailing trip to Asia had been much more my style. We had chartered a crewed 8-berth yacht with crew from a Phuket outfit by the name of Faraway Yachting and then sailed up to the Myanmar (Burmese) archipelago. I had arrived in Phuket a week earlier and taken a sailing course in the nearby waters, having chosen to learn there due to the absence of extreme weather and as I had heard about the breathtaking scenery in nearby Phang Nga Bay. The week's sailing lessons, combined with lots of island hopping, had proved to be thoroughly enjoyable. Afterwards I had boarded the boat to Myanmar, which is also blessed with relatively calm waters. That last trip had been much more my thing. We had spent six days sailing from Phuket to the Myanmar archipelago and back, cruising through waters bereft of people but full of picture-postcard islands and fish that were obligingly stupid enough to let me catch them (I'm not much of an angler or a sailor, although I enjoy both immensely). Out of mobile phone range of anywhere, after three days I finally stopped thinking about work and totally relaxed, for the first time in years. The skipper Wolfgang was (and I hope still is) an unusual fellow, in being one of the gentlest men I have ever got to know, plus also one who was able to inspire complete confidence in us. Rather an uncommon combination of personality characteristics to come across in a man.

"Well", I thought, "I'm as safe as possible under the circumstances", as when the storm had hit I had secured myself to one of the starboard gunwale rail posts with a length of rope and karabiner, as a backup to the safety line attached to the gunwale rail.

The other men seemed to know what to do, as Morgan and the chef Joe moved to each end of the stricken mast and prepared to manhandle it over the side.

At this point I briefly thought "maybe I should help out here". Well, call me an idle coward if you will, but the other two guys seemed to have everything under control and I felt relatively safe, attached with steel and rope to the gunwale, so I left them to it.

Morgan cut the stern bow stay. I was watching Joe, port bow mainstay in hand and searching frantically for something, when it dawned on me that he was looking for a knife but didn't have one, whereas I, most unfortunately, as it seemed to me, did.

"Steve", I half-heard Joe shout to me above the gale while miming cutting and beckoning motions, "get yourself down here".

"You can't be serious", I thought, "I do have a knife, but how am I going to get it to you?" I considered throwing it to him, but then realized it would be impossible to catch.

"Oh, you ********" I thought, "every good sailor's supposed to carry a knife in a storm, aren't they?" It seemed to me that it was particularly annoying that Joe didn't have a knife on him, as he's a chef. I admit that I was being a trifle unreasonable when I fleetingly thought "if you're that desperate then maybe you should learn a lesson by catching this blade in your chest". Maybe a tad unrealistic too - me not being one of those Hollywood b-movie stars like Chuck Norris and Steven Segal who can supposedly lob a knife into a villain's chest at 6 yards from a wildly thrashing yacht deck, with the other hand manfully around a fit but feeble babe and using a single foot to fight off three other bad guys.

I abandoned this plan because men with knives in their chests can't cut stays and because that stay clearly needed cutting, very soon, in order to ensure the safety of the fifth most precious person on the planet, me.

Did Joe really expect me to clamber along the wildly-swaying and now seemingly-horizontal gunwale, all the way to the bow and then back down the port side? It seemed a most improbable thing to expect anyone to do, let alone a land-lubber like me. I realized that yes, he really did expect me to do exactly that.

"No chance, mate", I thought, "I'm far too young and good-looking to die, I haven't had children yet, I've only seen Kylie Minogue live in concert eight times and besides, my mum would miss me".

"Well, she's the only female in the world who would", I thought, somewhat depressingly, as I unclipped my carabiner, swung up on top of the gunwale and started scrambling to the bow.

"I'm still attached to the yacht by a metal wire, so I'm still safe, so WHY DON'T I FEEL SAFE?" I thought, my brain addled by the rage of the howling gale.

Ten minutes later we had cut the stays and manhandled the mainmast overboard. Released from its deadweight, the boat keeled rapidly back to starboard, before the storm abruptly arrested this movement seconds later. The sudden stop flung me skywards, after which I landed on the deck so painfully that I could scarcely sit for a week afterwards.

It could have been considerably worse though, as nobody had noticed the naked terror that had gripped me throughout the ordeal and as I had managed to account for myself reasonably well, if totally involuntarily. Also, my aches and pains gave me the perfect excuse to jump ship and check into Manila's superlatively appointed Ascott Makati hotel in order to recuperate in comfort - I could already picture the small hillock I would create on the coffee table of the stacked empty plates of delicacies ordered up from room service. I also enjoy stacking up empty margarita glasses, as it's rather risky, because they are liable to all fall over if you put one too many on top.

The bruises on my back-side reminded me of the ones I acquired whilst being caned for smoking at school, a story which I'd like to digress to and away from nautical matters, if I may.

I was at school in England in the days when corporal punishment was regarded as character-building - ie about two millennia ago - and had been caught smoking John Player's Number 6 in the bus stop loos, then subsequently dragged with my friend Kim before the headmaster. I bent over first and received 3 whacks on the back-side from our headmaster, who had batted second for Warwickshire and so was physically as well as temperamentally well-suited to the task in hand - that of inflicting maximum damage to teenage rumps. After my beating I hopped out of the room and waited outside the door while Kim received his. After the expected three whacks I heard the headmaster shout "you stupid boy", then the sound of three even louder whacks impacting on the unfortunate Kim's backside. A few moments later Kim emerged, biting his lip in an only partially successful attempt not to cry.

"So why the extra three strokes, Kim?" I asked. It transpired that the cretinous Kim, while bending over to receive his punishment, had managed to accidentally drop his Players Number 6 onto the carpet. He had hastily attempted to cover them with his foot but they had subsequently been discovered by the ex-cricketer, who had then got very angry and practised boundary strikes on Kim's bum.

Well, I know that corporal punishment is very un-PC these days, but I've got to say that the punishment did me no harm at all, except that Kim's complete idiocy in earning himself an extra three bottom-weals totally upstaged my paltry three, thus depriving me of the customary wallow in glory that was a boy's right after being caned. On this occasion, due to Kim's far greater foolishness and much to my chagrin, nobody was interested in my story at all. I hope this admittedly pointless digression from my sailing story has more luck on these pages.

Posted by Davinder Bisht at 4:39 AM  


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