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Updated: Oct 21, 2022

I have recently re-read ‘Typhoon’ by Joseph Conrad, a story about a ship in a typhoon with several hundred Chinese passengers literally battened down below. It includes this notable passage:

"A gale is a gale, Mr. Jukes, … and a full-powered steamship has got to face it. There's just so much dirty weather knocking about the world, and the proper thing is to go through it with none of what old Captain Wilson of the Melita calls 'storm strategy'.”

Conrad’s Captain MacWhirr was master of a powerful steamer, equipped with a barometer, in an age when the techniques of avoiding tropical storms were well known, and he could have avoided the typhoon by judiciously altering course. Although our chances of avoiding very heavy weather in Kadash, our recently acquired sailing boat, are good, we are currently deciding what storm tactics we might adopt, and this made me think about heavy weather I have experienced at sea over the years, and how Kadash or another yacht might have coped with them.

In 1971, as a teenager, with my father, I sailed from New York to Lymington in a 26’ home designed and built boat. Cicely 2 was loosely based on a Folkboat, but she was exceptionally strongly built in plywood, with numerous frames. She had no coachroof, a very small self-draining cockpit, and very small windows. A few days after leaving New York, in July, we encountered a fairly stiff gale. We were quite worried, as a sight we had taken had put us a long way north, almost on the Grand Banks, but we were so exhausted with seasickness that we could not do anything except furl the sails, go down below and let the boat do what she would. In the night we were woken by the noise of water washing about on the cabin sole. The pump soon choked, and we spent an hour of so removing cans of food from the bilges to gain access to the pump filter. We were so weak that we could only with difficulty lift a single can, and the cabin, lit only by a candle, was a nightmarish scene, with dark water rushing about, cluttered with the debris removed from the bilges, and the incessant noise of the gale. Next morning, I realised that the seasickness had run its course, as had the gale, and I went into the bright sunshine of the cockpit. The sight of the waves is something that will always stay with me. They were huge, bright blue, and the water was so clear that I saw a large shark swimming under the surface on a wave high above the boat, while the Mother Carey’s Chickens fluttered about, grabbing morsels from the sea’s surface.

The next gale was a rather more serious affair. It was blowing strongly, probably Force 9 from the west. The boat was lying ahull, and we were down below, reading. The motion of the boat was not particularly violent, and she was heeled perhaps by twenty degrees by the pressure of the wind on the mast and rigging. Suddenly, and I know that this is a cliché, there was a noise like an express train, the boat was knocked violently sideways, the cabin went dark as the portholes were submerged, and seawater squirted under high pressure though gaps around the main hatch. The boat was must have been several feet underwater for some time. In retrospect, I suppose we were lucky the boat did not get knocked down, but she was completely undamaged, and when the gale abated, we put our books down and proceeded on our way.

The North Sea in winter is a hostile place. I was a junior engineer on the Forties Kiwi, a converted 16,000 ton tanker which was used as a support ship for BP’s Forties Field production platforms, about 120 miles off Aberdeen. A very severe gale was blowing, accompanied by an unpleasant blizzard. The ship had steam powered winches, and they were kept running slowly to avoid frost damage. The bridge told us that a winch on the main deck was clanking, and so, armed with a grease gun, I went on deck to lubricate it. The waves were very large, hissing as they broke, but the ship was facing into the wind, and her high freeboard meant that the decks were free of water. I was going about my work, when I heard a shout from the bridge, and looked up to see an enormous breaking wave, much higher than the rest, rearing up ahead of the ship. I ran as fast as I could, and was sheltering in the break of the fo’c’stle head as it broke on the deck. The winch I had been working on was submerged in frothing water, and I think that if I had not been warned, I would probably have been swept overboard. I do not know how high that particular wave was, but the significant wave height measured during the storm on of the Forties production platforms was thirty five feet.

The most awe inspiring weather I have ever seen at sea was from the British Commodore, an 80,000 ton BP tanker. We had discharged our cargo of crude oil at Durban, and were heading to Ras Tanura in the Persian Gulf. We knew that a cyclone was imminent, and in preparation the ship was ballasted down with tens of thousands of tons of seawater. On Christmas Day we were in the Mozambique Channel, between the island of Madagascar and the African mainland, when we started to encounter very strong winds. I was third engineer, and had the twelve to four watch. In the engine control room, it was difficult to know what it was like on deck, but the pitching was violent, and, on two occasions I had to re-start the main engine when the propeller came out of the water and the overspeed trip operated. After the second re-start, and a rather tense conversation with the bridge, I decided that the engine governor was not working quickly enough, and so I manually stood at the engine controls, bringing the fuel lever smartly backwards when the propeller became airborne. The ship was quite big, probably 800 feet long, and had a Burmiester and Wain diesel engine of about 30,000 bhp, but even with the engine running at its maximum speed of 100 rpm, the ship could only make about three knots against the wind. When my watch was over, I went into the ship’s bar, which had a view forward. The scene was astonishing. The sea was, and this is not an exaggeration, completely white, with breaking waves and blown spume. The waves were huge, and the ship bent visibly along her length as they passed beneath her. Waves continuously washed over the ship’s maindeck, crashing against hatches, pipes and winches.

Soon afterwards, the ship came to the eye of the cyclone. The wind dropped completely, and there was watery sunshine. The eye was quite small, and the eye’s edge of swirling white clouds was easily visible. Huge waves came from every direction, smashing against each other and making conical peaks, like waves reflected from a harbour wall, but on a gigantic scale. The ship’s deck became covered in an astonishing variety of wildlife. Long legged, vivid pink flamingos, gigantic fruit bats, as well as smaller species of bird and bat which the cyclone must have picked up on its passage across Madagascar sought refuge on the ship. They disappeared as the ship left the eye of the cyclone, the sky darkened, and the wind returned, now behind the ship. The British Commodore, which had hardly been able to make headway against the wind, was now blown along at fourteen knots with the engine turning at ‘Dead Slow Ahead’, 30 rpm.

I have often thought how a yacht might fare in these conditions, and my conclusions are not encouraging. I believe that a yacht, whatever storm tactics were adopted, would have been rolled over and submerged by the wave in the Forties Field, whether she was facing into the wind, lying ahull, hove to or running before it. Perhaps she would have been unlucky to have been hit by such a wave as it broke, and I do not know how frequent these waves are, but I think that an encounter between a yacht and such a wave would probably not have a happy ending. When I was watching the cyclone from the bar of the British Commodore, I thought it was difficult to see how a yacht could have survived. Every single breaking crest, it seemed to me, was sufficient to overturn a yacht.

My conclusion is that, from my experience, there are some weather conditions that can only be dealt with by avoidance. If the yacht is navigated with caution, with tropical storm seasons avoided, and attention paid to barometer and weather forecasts, such conditions are unlikely to be encountered.


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