Pressure Falling: The Smeetons and Cape Horn, Part II
This is the second and final part of a true sea story told by English sailor and writer Mark Chisnell in his e-book, Pressure Falling. In the first part of this story, which takes place in February, 1959, the 46-foot ketch Tsu Hang is overtaken and trounced by a huge vertical wave in the Southern Ocean near Cape Horn. The crew — Miles Smeeton, his wife Beryl, and crew John Guzzwell — have managed to bail the boat and partially seal the gaping hole on deck left when the deckhouse has been washed away.
The Smeetons and Cape Horn, Part II
The storm abated the following day, and they were fortunate that the sturdy teak hull had not sprung a leak. Slowly, the chaos was cleared — amongst the casualties was the stuffed blue bear they carried as a lucky mascot. Headless, he was thrown overboard, judged to have been no help at all. The boat had been pitch-poled, somersaulted end-over-end. The evidence was a tin of make-up that had slid down a bulkhead as the boat sat on its nose, then slipped into a gap between the deckhead and the bulkhead that had opened with the force of the masts hitting the water. As the masts had sheared off at the deck, the load had disappeared and the make-up tin had become trapped. And there it stayed, proof of their experience.
They built a jury rig and a steering oar, although mostly the Tzu Hang sailed herself, with just changes to the trim of the sails to keep her going in a straight line. Enough navigational equipment had survived for them to take position fixes, along with a pilot book for South America and twenty-three unbroken eggs. It took almost a week for the cat to dry off and recover her good humour.
They made a landfall near the Chilean naval yard in Talcahuano, and with a great deal of effort and patience the Tzu Hang was rebuilt. Then the Smeetons — alone this time — went back to the south, intending to run into the Chilean Channels and round the tip of South America through the Magellan Strait. There was also a sense that they had some unfinished business down south, and Miles allowed for the possibility of another crack at the Horn if the opportunity appeared. So they sailed west, offshore, to clear the southerly wind and northerly current that tore up the coast of Chile.
And they found another storm. This time, they let Tzu Hang lie a-hull — that is, all the sails down and the tiller lashed to keep her bow up into the wind. It was a technique that they had used many times previously, but not in the Southern Ocean.
After ten hours of riding out the worst of the storm, the boat was hit by another monster wave and rolled — this time on its beam ends, tumbling through a full circle with both the Smeetons down below. Despite the stove breaking free and being thrown around the cabin, neither of them was badly hurt in the carnage. And so, a year after their first crushing defeat by the Southern Ocean, they found themselves in remarkably similar circumstances — a little further north, but a lot closer to the coast. The radio, chronometer, and barometer were all gone, and so they had much less in the way of navigation aids. Otherwise, the damage was not as bad; the new deckhouse — built by John Guzzwell in Chile — was cracked and crushed, but still in place, and a stump remained of the mizzen, along with the rudder. Their new dinghy, which they had never even used, was gone, but at least the cat seemed a little less disgusted than the first time.
They built another jury rig, and once again turned back to the north. This time they were insured, and used the favourable wind and current to reach Valparaiso, from where the Tzu Hang was shipped back to England to be repaired.
When it was all done, Miles Smeeton described the encounters with the rogue waves in his book, and then put himself at odds with received wisdom when he concluded that there are some waves that a yacht is simply not going to survive — “whatever she does.” Prior to the Tzu Hang’s experiences, yachtsmen had believed that a well-sailed, well-founded yacht was safe in any deep water sea — and boy, were they ever wrong about that.
This story was originally published in Mark Chisnell’s eBook, Pressure Falling: Short Stories of Stormy Seas. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission. Also see Chisnell’s book about the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race, Spanish Castle to White Night.