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Posted by on Nov 30, 2011 in Cruiser/Racer, Safety and Seamanship, Sailing, UK, US |

Pressure Falling: The Smeetons and Cape Horn, Part I

This is a classic tale of blue-water voyaging, a near disaster that somehow helped inspire yet more small-boat sailors to tackle the Horn.

The world’s premier blue-water sailing event is well underway, with Leg 1 finished and three international crews of the Volvo Ocean Race gathered in Cape Town aboard their blazingly fast Volvo 70s. Three other  boats and crews had to drop out of the leg (two dismastings and a major hull puncture), but will soon arrive in Cape Town to prepare for the start of the second leg. Anyone who loves boatspeed, seamanship, and offshore thrills is already tuned in to the VOR. For those new to the race, there’s an exciting  e-book narrative of the last running in 2008-09 by English sailor and writer Mark Chisnell, called Spanish Castle to White Night.

Chisnell specializes in writing about offshore adventure, and he’s recently come out with another e-book, titled Pressure Falling: Short Stories of Stormy Seas.

With Mark’s permission, Boats.com presents below the first part of one of the stories from that e-book. The tale of the Smeetons aboard Tsu Hang is legendary among long-distance small-boat sailors, and, strangely enough, was one of the stories that helped inspire the first full rush of such sailors in the 1960s. If you’ve already read this part, move on to The Smeetons and Cape Horn, Part II.

A calm day at Cape Horn, which lies in the band of ferocious westerly winds that blow unimpeded around the bottom of the world. (WikiCommons photo)

A calm day at Cape Horn, which lies in the band of ferocious westerly winds that blow unimpeded around the bottom of the world. (WikiCommons photo)

The Smeetons and Cape Horn: Part I

Beryl and Miles Smeeton were the kind of redoubtable British adventurers that belong in Boy’s Own annuals. Together they climbed mountains and crossed oceans — and unsurprisingly, it’s the latter that we’re interested in here. Miles was a career Army officer, and it was after his service in the Second World War that they took up sailing. They bought the Tzu Hang in England – a 46’ ketch, originally built in Hong Kong from teak and copper fastenings — and sailed her home to Canada. Four years later, in 1955, they sold the farm in British Columbia that had been their home since the war, and took off in the boat. Like so many people before and since, they set off across the Pacific. Unlike many others, on reaching Australia they turned back east, sailed down into the high latitudes and attempted to round Cape Horn.

It all started well enough, Miles Smeeton’s descriptions of life on board are idyllic to anyone familiar with the privations of the sort of modern racing boats that head into the deep south these days. They had the fire stoked up like a country pub on a winter weekend, with the cat curled up in front of it. Beryl Smeeton had taken to knitting jumpers, and her breakfasts of porridge, bacon and eggs, toast and home-made marmalade, all washed down with tea, would have shamed most British bed and breakfast hotels. The bunks were real beds, oatmeal cakes were baked, pudding was cooked at any excuse and the England versus Ireland rugby match was on the radio — blissful really, until the 12th February, 1959.

The Tzu Hang was a very slow boat to Cape Horn by today’s standards, where even the monohull racers of the Volvo Ocean Race can reel off one 400+ mile day after another — fast enough to almost pick and choose the weather. The Smeetons were hoping for an average of little more than a hundred miles a day. At that speed, they were the proverbial fish in a pork barrel — whatever weather came along rolled right over the top of them. And two days before Valentine’s Day, things had been deteriorating for a while. Tzu Hang was down to a reefed mainsail and mizzen only, with 60 fathoms of three-inch hawser trailing out the back to slow her down and help keep her stern to the breaking waves. The swell was bigger than they had ever seen before — Miles Smeeton described a seascape that was as different from a normal rough ocean as a winter landscape is to a summer one. There was white foam and spume everywhere; showered like confetti by the breaking crests of the huge waves, it lay over the ocean like Christmas snow. And for the first time since the Tasman Sea, the albatrosses had disappeared — this, it turned out, was ominous.

Miles was in his bunk reading when it happened, his wife on deck at the helm. He described what she saw: “Close behind her a great wall of water was towering above her, so wide that she couldn’t see its flanks, so high and so steep that she knew Tzu Hang could not ride over it. It didn’t seem to be breaking as the other waves had broken, but water was cascading down its front, like a waterfall.” After that, Beryl Smeeton remembered thinking that she could do nothing else with the helm, then the sensation of falling and no more, until she found herself floating alone, in the Southern Ocean, with just the broken tether of her lifeline for company. It was only when she was lifted by the following wave that she saw the boat just thirty yards away, both masts gone and very low in the water — which was unsurprising, when you consider that the deckhouse had been ripped off.

It’s arguable whether Miles Smeeton and their crew mate, John Guzzwell, were any better off down below. They were hurled around the cabin along with everything that wasn’t tied down and quite a bit of what had been, until the vanishing deck house had allowed the cold black sea to pour in, as the Tzu Hang was rolled over and under that huge wave. They both surfaced into waist deep water, awash with cushions, mattresses and books — and one seriously unhappy cat. Miles made it on deck in time to see his wife swim to the remains of the mizzen mast, from where she pulled herself to the boat on the still attached rigging, and was hauled back on board by the men.

The Smeetons' story is one of six non-fiction tales in Mark Chisnell's new e-book.

The Smeetons' story is one of six non-fiction tales in Mark Chisnell's new e-book.

It seemed that they had only saved Beryl for a few minutes —  both men felt the Tzu Hang would sink at any moment. Their home was full of water, and there was a two-square-metre hole where the deckhouse had been. Both masts were gone, as were the rudder, dinghies, and the cabin skylights. The rigging, guardrails, and stanchions were a mass of twisted metal. There was no liferaft, and no hope of rescue. The men just stood and stared in despair, but Beryl went for the buckets. She galvanized them all, and their energy was rewarded with luck. John Guzzwell quickly found nails, a hammer and wood in the chaos below. He worked like a demon to make the Tzu Hang watertight again, before another wave took her down for good. Meanwhile, Miles and Beryl bailed, and bailed, and bailed. It took twelve hours to get the water down to the level of the floor boards — had there been any floorboards left. Then, exhausted, they managed to heat some soup, and slept.

There’s more to this story: Pressure Falling: The Smeetons and Cape Horn, Part II.