The sheer terror of being stranded at sea without a mast
When solo sailor Susie Goodall's yacht flipped in the Southern Ocean, memories flooded back
In a text message to race HQ at 8.29am last Wednesday morning, Susie Goodall reported that her 12m boat was taking a hammering in the middle of the Southern Ocean.
“Wondering what on earth I’m doing out here!” she wrote.
A few hours later, 157 days into her solo race around the world, Goodall would be in serious trouble, floating without mast or sails in the middle of the ocean, 772km away from help.
When she woke up on the floor of her cabin and slowly began to take in her surroundings, every detail would have painted a picture of what had happened in the minutes before she was thrown off her feet. The pain in her head, the 12cm-deep water on the floor, the bottles smashed around her, and the violent rocking of her boat.
Goodall, 29, an experienced sailor, would have known that the devastation in her little cabin could only mean one thing – she must have capsized, and judging by how much the boat was jerking about she had probably been dismasted too. Before she had even heaved herself to her feet, let alone opened her hatch and looked out, the realisation would probably have dawned that she was in serious trouble.
More people have been to space than rounded Cape Horn in the Southern Ocean. Even fewer have found themselves in the middle of that ocean in a boat without a mast and in serious trouble. Unfortunately, I can count myself as a member of that unhappy club, and the terror of it is something I can recall with almost total clarity.
I found myself in the same position Goodall did during a Jules Verne attempt with Dame Ellen MacArthur in 2003. I can still remember the loud bang we heard below deck which could only mean one thing. We had dismasted on day 26 of the race, 240km southeast of the Kerguelen Islands, on the way to Australia.
When something like this happens you know in that moment your race is over. But you can’t dwell on it because you’ve got to make sure everyone’s safe and the boat isn’t taking on water. It could feel chaotic, but you’re so prepared for every eventuality that you just work on adrenaline.
Our mast had come crashing down and was puncturing the side of the boat, meaning we had to cut free the damaged rig and create a makeshift one by lifting the boom in the air like a mast and cutting the sails to make smaller ones. Once we’d secured the boat we had to steer a course to Perth, and slowly get ourselves there, bitterly disappointed. It took 22 days to sail to Australia. Some people take to their bunk, others seek out the good food supplies. We made chess pieces from tools and playing cards from our emergency procedure cards, and whiled away three weeks at sea.
When it happened to us, we were on a 32m catamaran and were fully crewed. Goodall, on the other hand, had been on her own on a tiny boat, which with no mast or sails was no match for the Southern Ocean. All she could do was to secure the hatches, portholes and safety equipment, cling on to her bunk to combat the swinging, and wait for help. Goodall’s yacht, DHL Starlight, appears to have pitchpoled (when a boat rolls end over end). Boats often roll in storms but usually on their sides. Unpleasant and frightening, but not necessarily devastating. Pitchpoling is another thing altogether. It’s impossible not to take on water, and in a boat as small as Goodall’s, it’s no surprise she was dismasted.
After three attempts, race HQ were able to raise her on her emergency satellite phone. She confirmed: “I have been dismasted. Thought I had holed the hull because the boat filled with water, but the hull is not holed. The hull is OK. The boat is destroyed ... We were pitchpoled and I was thrown across the cabin and knocked out for a while.”
Goodall thinks she may have surfed down the face of a huge wave and catapulted over, filling the boat with water and snapping the mast. With only a small engine, and no sails to steady her, her boat quickly became essentially useless. A solo sail is an incredible feat of mental and physical endurance, but the Southern Ocean, where Goodall waited two days to be rescued by the MV Tian Fu, a Hong Kong-registered container ship, is a very particular test.
It’s the relentlessness of it. The storms are like nothing you’ve ever seen. You have to remember that because of the vastness of that bit of ocean, there are no land masses in the way, so wave height can build up and up. These waves can be 15m high and they just get higher and higher. Even if you aren’t in a storm, there’s always a storm somewhere else creating residual swell which will be moving the boat around. Take away the mast and you’ve suddenly got a tiny blob sitting on the water with a massive weight underneath it and nothing to steady it on top.
The adrenaline and fear keep you going. I often come back from a race which has gone awry with huge bruises I have no memory of getting. You only feel the pain once you’ve calmed down and know you’re safe. When something goes wrong at sea, you begin to automatically go through the motions, doing everything you know you need to do to stay alive. When a big storm comes through, the best thing is often to ride it out below. Goodall will have known that even though things had got almost as bad as they could, a floating boat is the most important thing.
It’s uncomfortable out there, but knowing that help was coming and her boat wasn’t sinking would have kept her going. The worst thing she will have faced over the past few days will have been the isolation.
Goodall must be feeling utterly devastated right now, to have been 157 days in, and sailing in fourth place. That’ll chew away at her. I imagine once she’s recovered, six months later there’ll be a burning desire to do it again, because she’ll see it as unfinished business.
I hope for her sake she got to pop her head out of the hatch and experience one last view of that incredible night sky before she was rescued on Friday afternoon. It’s the one thing I’d miss most if I were to never go off shore again. That sky, completely uninterrupted by man-made light. It’s just the most amazing thing you could ever see.
I imagine, though, that after four days spent waiting to be rescued, she’ll have been feeling pretty low. In those moments, when you feel absolutely on your knees, sailors have something on standby to perk them up. It’s different for everyone. For me, it’s always been chocolate. For others it can be letters from home or a particular book. In her message to HQ she said she was gasping for a cup of tea. I hope the rescue ship had a box of Yorkshires on board.
• As told to Eleanor Steafel.
– © The Sunday Telegraph