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I briefly met Neptune - 16th November, 2011

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Race in a nutshell: 16th November, 2011
Cancelled due to strong wind.
Max Speed: 19.7 knots
Weather Forecast: Clear. Wind SSE 18 knots
Weather Actual: Clear. Wind SSE 28 knots gusting over 40. Temp 18C
Seas: Fairly flat with some chop further offshore
Sails: Reefed Main (Quantum), No.2 Genoa (Quantum), A3 Asymmetric Spinnaker. (North)
Crew: Trygve Roberts (Helm), Craig Preston (Genoa/Spinnaker), Phill Rentschler (Main), Simon Penso (Pit), Erhardt Joubert (Bow) Gordon Burchell (Mast), Total: 490 kg

Neptune and other salty thoughts

One minute we were reasonably under control bursting through the waves at high speed, and a second later I was catapulted off the boat to find myself under water and tangled in ropes. In almost 40 years of helming, I have never fallen off a keel boat before. That's enough to make most people panic. I opened my eyes to see which way UP was and hurriedly freed myself. I surfaced just three meters behind the boat, still coughing up a mouthful of sea water, and immediately made a valiant effort at swimming the gap. Easy? Nope, almost impossible - with a full set of oilies and boots on. Seconds ticked by as the gap between the boat and I increased at an alarming and despairing rate. No-one had yet noticed I wasn't on board. I immediately resigned myself to following all the articles I have read on the subject ...keep calm, conserve energy, float in the foetal position, stick your arm in the air, dont try to swim. I did not feel cold at all. That was probably from a massive shot of adrenaline. I spent the next 10 minutes trying not to skipper the boat with mental power from 500 meters away, but to run through the crews options. If they couldn't find me, they could send a Mayday call or shoot a flare off. We were about a mile from the harbour and there were several yachts and other ships in the vicinity plus we had a full hour of daylight left. It was not as catastrophic as what it initially felt. What about sharks? Probably too cold (I hoped). I had for some peculiar reason worn a peak cap that day and it was bright red. I have a habit of tying caps onto my life jacket with a lanyard. I saw it floating nearby still on its lanyard and instantly realised it's value as a beacon - and promptly put it on my head as wet as it was.

Mental sailing
I watched the crew from my water level viewpoint (the Pacer still looked cool and racy) get the headsail up and kite down and Erhardt took charge of what was left of the tiller extension. I had broken it badly as I crashed off the boat. They tried tacking the boat, but they lacked enough speed. Mentally I was giving instructions: "Foot off and build speed first. The boat carries very little way in strong breeze, so it wont tack easily - if at all"

After three failed attempts at tacking back towards me, they finally decided to gybe around. A minute later I saw the boat heading directly back to me, but I was worried at the speed of the approach and just how they planned to retrieve me. It looked like I was going to be run down by my own boat, so I pointed for them to approach to leeward of me. The helmsman responded and the boat immediately picked up speed, passing a good 10 meters downwind of my position and unable to stop. They bore off some more and went for a tack - (successful this time) and approached me on the starboard tack coming upwind, which was a much better plan. Some 12 minutes after falling over board, strong young hands hauled my sodden body back onto the boat - quite unceremoniously and without any dignity whatsoever, but I can assure you, I didn't care. I took charge of the stump left over as a tiller extension and we headed back to moorings. Then the leech of the mainsail split neatly between the two lower battens....

This graph shows the wind speed between 18h00 and 19h00 on 16th Nov 2011. The anemometer is situated within the Cape Town harbour. Note the peak gusts above 45 knots and average wind speeds for that hour persistently between 30 and 40 knots. Graphics courtesy of Charles Crosby.

Decisions, decisions...
The afternoon had always looked touch and go in terms of whether a race would be held or not. I had checked with the RO in person and I was assured that the Div 1 and 2 boats would definitely race, so we prepped the boat. We were just casting off when the RACE CANCELLED call came over the PA system. I suggested we go for a short burn inside the harbour. All the crew happily agreed. We stuck a reef in the main and high tailed it out of the harbour. As soon as we had a decent angle to clear the breakwater we hoisted the asso and leaped onto the plane, doing 16 knots easily in the flat water. The Pacer is such a joy to sail in strong breeze and flat water, so we pushed our luck and headed for the stronger breeze visible a few hundred meters away. Once we got into that lot, there was an immediate increase in wave size and gust factor - some of them which were in the 40 knot range. The crew were whooping with delight as the boat ripped through the waves at high speed with plenty of spray and white water. Soon we were hitting 19 knots plus and taking some big dives into the back of wave faces.

GPS shows our max speed for the afternoon. this is the second fastest speed we have achieved on this boat.

And then it happened. The broach took just two seconds from start, to mast in the drink. The decellaration was massive as the leeward chine dug in. The three of us in the cockpit who sit facing inboard were flung off the deck with unbelievable force. The two trimmers were OK in that they both had ropes to hang on to. As the helmsman, my security is just the tiller extension attached to a very light rudder. We have broached this boat so many times, I have long ago lost count, but there is always (well almost always...) time to throw an arm over a lifeline and hang on as the boat capsizes. We did one other similar broach during Cape Town Sailing Week when we first started sailing the Pacer 27 - that was with the big A2 masthead kite and a full main in 25 knots of winter north-westerly off Hout Bay in big seas, but even that one can not be compared to the snap and violence this one exhibited.

Are you afraid to sail now? (Hah - hah)
So....what about the future? I am considering buying a harness and I cant wait to get back on the water again, but first I must buy a new tiller extension. I would like to stress that if i had not been wearing a life jacket, I would probably not be writing this story today. For those of you who think its not cool to be seen wearing a life jacket, you might deeply regret that one day. Some boats have a "life jackets on above 25 knots" rule. That is just a load of nonsense. When you have 25 knots of breeze, there isn't time to put on a life jacket. Our rule is simple. We don't cast off until everyone has a life jacket on. It has proven to be a really wise decision we took so long ago -and stuck with it, despite the odd smirk and smart-arse comments from passers by.

I would like to record my gratitude to my very competent crew of the day:
Phillip Rentschler, Craig Preston, Simon Penso, Erhardt Joubert & Gordon Burchell.