May 22, 2011

Picture-perfect pitchpole

A FEW YEARS AGO I was fishing off the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena aboard a Boston Whaler of about 16 feet or so. The skipper, a city man, began running down the faces of the long swells at a speed that made me wonder how long it would be before we dug our bows into the back of the swell ahead and flipped end over end. We didn’t, luckily, because even he recognized the danger after a while, and slowed down. But in thinking about this recently I was reminded that capsizing lengthways, that is stern-over-stem, is always a possibility for yachts in a gale.

One of the classic recorded examples is that of Tzu Hang, of course. Miles and Beryl Smeeton’s 46-foot double-ended ketch was attempting to round Cape Horn in a storm, running before the wind and dragging 60 fathoms of hawser, when she was pitchpoled. The story of how the two of them, and their only other crew, John Guzzwell, not only survived but also made a jury rig to get them to South America, is told in Miles’s excellent book, Once is Enough.

I seem to remember that another double-ender pitchpoled, too, this time a similarly-sized Colin Archer on her way from Europe to South Africa. She was the 47-foot gaff-rigged ketch Sandefjord, owned by Erling Tambs. She survived the accident but lost a crewmember and her mizzenmast.

But the most spectacular pitchpole I know of that was captured on film was that of Silk II, a 41-foot ocean racer running under spinnaker before gale-force winds off Calshot on the south coast of England. When she tripped up on a wave and dug her bows in up to the mast, leaving the crew hanging on at the stern 20 feet above the water, veteran photographer Keith Beken, (82), of Cowes, was there clicking his shutter. (See picture above.)

The funniest pitchpole I ever saw involved a Hobie 14 catamaran running at full tilt onto a yacht club launch ramp in a high wind. A sudden gust from aft depressed the bows, which slid under water, bringing the boat to a sudden stop. As the stern flew upward, the skipper was launched high into the air and landed in the water ahead of the boat. Then the boat slowly backed up. The bows came out. The Hobie resumed her forward sprint, straddling the man in the water. He grabbed the bow cross-bar as she charged over him and was dragged up the launch ramp on his back until she ground to a stop. He wasn’t hurt. Just humiliated by the roars of laughter from the yacht club pub, which overlooked the launch ramp.

Today’s Thought
How slight a chance may raise or sink a soul!
— P. J. Bailey, Festus: A Country Town.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #202
Something you may need to know sometime: The average strength of a six-hour tidal stream is two-thirds of the maximum. The total drift in nautical miles is two-thirds of the maximum rate in knots, multiplied by 6.

“I followed your advice and went to the doctor, and he told me to drink a glass of carrot juice after a hot bath.”
“That’s good. And did the carrot juice make you feel better?”
“Haven’t drunk it yet. I’m still drinking the hot bath.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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