THE Story of the whale - By Chris Pontet. 1999....
It turned out that this little episode was quite popular with those of you sailing around cyberspace so I decided to give it its own location. Read on....
Well, what can I say! It has been a very eventful past two months. I will try to fill you in on all the latest news.
Unfortunately my boat "Speedy PYM" is not very well at the moment and is being tended to buy Projection Yachts. It all started en route to the canaries for the start of the ARC atlantic race, (You may remember that I was entering this race to practice for this year's Mini Transat). We were running a little behind schedule and ended up having to leave around the beginning of November. This was far from an ideal time to leave and around one month later than our original plan. We were further delayed by a series of extreme depressions sweeping across the North of Britain from the Atlantic. We watched the weather carefully and finally saw a break in the weather providing us with strong North to North-westerly winds long enough for us to clear the North coast of Brittany and give us a fast passage across the Bay of Biscay. So on the afternoon of 2/11/98 we set off on what was to be the biggest adventure of my life (and also that of my Norwegian companion Howard).
We timed our exit perfectly and sped out of the Solent at the Portsmouth averaging over eight knots. Just as we reached Nab tower the tide changed, and so did the wind speed ing us along the coast of England. As we left the solent we passed a BT Challenge boat, fully reefed! This gave us a little clue as to the conditions out there.
The next two days were very exciting. We crashed, splashed and sped our way down the coast of England. We were very, very wet and tired. The conditions gave us very little chance to eat and sleep but regardless of the constant sail changes we still managed to settle into a routine and keep the pace up.
As we raced past Lizard point on the very southern part of England the wind backed to the North-West and we altered course and plunged into the fabled Bay of Biscay. I must say at this point that it was here that I saw the strangest weather conditions I have ever seen. Squall after squall tore past us. We were now freezing, wet, tired, hungry but loving it, it can be strange what you find funny at times like this. The Northerly winds were bitterly cold, even Howard, a native Norwegian and used to temperature around 15 degrees below, commented that he had never been so cold....ever!
The strangest sight was seeing a squall develop on the horizon. We could see the black clouds swirling as it formed, it seemed to be sucking in all the clouds around it and you could hear the wind howling inside it. It must have measured 5 or 6 miles across and was getting louder and louder as we approached it, the worst thing was it was right in our path and we had a very uncertain hour wandering what best to do about it and where we should go to avoid it.
It then took off!!! Luckily for us, in another direction, and by the time we reached where it had been, it had gone.
After another cold night of bashing head to wind we woke to clear blue skies and no wind. No half hearted efforts for us! Either loads of wind and waves....or none!
We took this opportunity to fix a few minor breakage's, dry off and eat and convenient and piping hot pot noodle, absolute luxury. We weren't sure how long this break would last but we made the most of it. By night time the wind was back, hard on the nose but the stars were still out!
In the morning it was back to the same routine of large waves strong winds and much banging. It was 13:30 when this all changed...for the worse!
We were fine reaching at around seven knots when we suddenly stopped dead in the water. I was on the helm, Howard was off watch and trying to get some kip. A million things ran through my head at this point, it was as though we had run aground but we were 100 miles from Spain and the nearest land, then it struck me, it had to be a whale! A glance over the side confirmed this. It was grey and around 30 feet long (10' longer than the boat itself) and also the first whale I had ever seen! Just my luck to hit it!
Howard was a little confused by the situation having been pile drived into a bulkhead.
The next thing was to check the boat. Howard and myself checked the keel and rig but found no immediate cause for alarm so on we pressed, a little shaken but not hurt.
An hour later I was off watch lying down in my bunk looking at the keel box when to my alarm realised something was very wrong. The keel was moving rather a lot within it's keel box and a couple of large cracks had appeared in the join between the keel and it's supporting beam, increasing each time the keel moved.
I then made a temporary repair on the keel using some spare wood and rope and sent a pan-pan message to alert the coast guard that although we were in no immediate danger there was a possibility that the situation could deteriorate rapidly.
Due to the damage we could only head downwind, to Brest in France. So we spun the boat around and made for the coast some 250 miles away. At this time we also got warnings of severe gales in our area in the next 48 hours, the race was on to get back.
Downwind is where the Mini boats excel. We only had a reefed main up for most of the time, as we didn't want to push the boat too hard, yet we still were surfing at speeds upto 18 knots. Over the next day and a bit the wind increased to force 9 and visibility dropped to just 15', we couldn't see the front of the boat! As we approached Brest it was evident that with the conditions we were under and the way we were feeling (both of us had started to hallucinate quite badly, at one point we were both convinced that there was someone else on board and the the compass was a spanish dancer!) there was no way we could enter the harbour alone as we had no adequate charts so we called for the lifeboat. To there credit the Camaret lifeboat launched and came to pick us up, which wasn't that easy. For starters "Speedy" was a little too speedy, at 10 knots with no sails up the lifeboat could not keep up with us, we deployed our sea anchor. Then we had another problem, the waves were too big for the lifeboat to get a visual on our little boat, so up went the flares. At last we were spotted and a line was thrown to us for the tow. It was only when we were towed did we realise just how bad the weather was, up until now we had been surfing with the waves, now we could see just how huge they were, no wonder we were hard to see!!
The lifeboat tow in gave ample time for me and Howard to reflect, we decided it had been a massively sore, painful and tiring trip that we will never forget, and maybe one day repeat.....but not too soon!!
Howard then flew back to Norway and is now in the Caribbean crewing on another boat, as for me, well it's started to snow so I shall grab my snowboard and head to France to shred some corduroy whilst my boat is being fixed.
At this point I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Camaret lifeboat crew who not only came to our aid in terrible conditions but also found us a hotel to stay. Thanks also go to the French and English radio services who dealt with the distress call so efficiently and kept my family informed, and finally thanks to Noel and Marie-Claude Strullu of the hotel Vauban in Camaret who helped far more than they needed, I will never forget their kindness and will carry Camaret across the Atlantic in the Mini Transat for them.
Until next time, stay dry!!!