The Sea Wolf Story

by · June 11, 2015

An after action interview with R2AK racer George Corbett from Team Sea Wolf sailing a Windrider Rave.
Seawolfaftermath
June 8th began quietly for Team Sea Wolf as they worked up Haro Strait—often under pedal power—and cut through Boundary Pass in search of more wind.

George says the forecast was calling for 10-15 knots, but things were dead calm and race partner Mike McCormack lay down to try for a nap. The sailors hadn’t been able to get any real sleep in a couple of days.

Before long the breeze began to build, and by about 9:30 that night it was really starting to blow up. Mike came back up to join George and the two decided they’d better head for shore, aiming at Gabriola Island. But as conditions continued to deteriorate, wind, waves and current pushed them back and they were never able to reach shore, and once they came about on a port tack, they were never able to tack again.

“The boat wouldn’t come around in that wind and sea state. We basically side-slipped across the entire Strait.” Winds he says had built to 40 knots and seas were 15 feet and breaking.

“We were getting the sh*t beat out of us,” he said. “We started to try a jibe but it was obvious the boat was going to pitchpole.”

The nearly delirious, sleep-deprived sailors worked out a sort of system for managing the boat in the maelstrom. They kept jib trimmed to a close reach and with Mike calling out waves in the dark, George would ease the main and fall off down in the troughs to get enough speed to power up and through the waves hammering their port bow. This went on for five hours.

When asked if it was a wet ride, George said it was like having a swimming pool’s worth of water dumped on you once every minute. The boat was swamped repeatedly and they were manning the hand-operated bilge pump non-stop.

George estimates they had seven near-capsizes—most because of especially big waves.

“Believe it or not it was maybe the best sailing I’ve ever done. Ninja sailing. If I made a mistake we would have been in really serious trouble. Conditions were fu*king horrendous.”

Although Team Sea Wolf was somehow managing to hold it together, their Windrider was being driven back toward the muddy shallows of Sand Heads, at the mouth of the Fraser River. Both sailors were familiar with the area and knew that’s not where they wanted to end up. With northwesterly fetch coming down all the way from the top of the Strait, the huge waves would be crashing down on the debris strewn lee shore.

“At that point we were forced to contemplate getting smashed apart on logs,” he says. “So we decided to call the coast guard.”

Their handheld VHF’s antenna had been ripped off during the melee, but fortunately their 911 cell phone call was answered and they were patched through to the coast guard. George estimates it was about an hour later that the coast guard arrived on scene. They told the sailors they’d never had the hovercraft out in water like that. He and Mike were able to grab one bag with passports before being forced to ditch the boat.

“It was hard to do, but it was better the boat was smashed up than us with it. I’m actually proud we made the correct decision to call the Coast Guard in enough time that they were able to recover us instead of just a couple of bodies.”

Discussion15 Comments

  1. mike says:

    glad they are safe but this is a wild story for all sailors. this race sounds epic and way more fun than eating-your-way-to-alaska on a cruise. thanks for the blog

  2. Jimi Wright says:

    Great seamanship and judgement. Glad you are safe to fight another day. Good on ya Sea Wolf. You are true watermen.

  3. Shelley says:

    Glad you are safe.

  4. ronp says:

    Great story. Holy cow, talk about dangerous. Amazing job by those guys and way to go Canadian Coast Guard. I assume the Siyay did the recovery? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CCGH_Siyay .

  5. Karl says:

    Wow! I think this does speak to some extent to the issue of a boomless main. One of the downsides of a boomless main is that not only is it not reefable, but – having sailed some, they do not jibe in as controlled a manner as a boomed main.

    Sure if you are in normally powered conditions its not a problem. But when you are overpowered, as soon as you ease off to bear away, the lack of leech control generates a large amount of twist and that in turn generates a huge amount of pitchpole force since essentially the top of the sail goes broadside to the wind and is powered by the battens.

    Had then had a boom and vang, they might have been able to crank the cunno, crank the vang and get through a jibe. In fact coming out of the gybe with enough vang, the battens stay inverted thereby depowering the boat and allowing a more rational gybe.

    I’m a bit surprised at some of the craft that were looking to do this event. North of Johnstone straight these sorts of conditions were quite feasible to have to plan for. And if you don’t know that you can gybe the boat in such nasty conditions (you have to assume you will be stuck out in them) – then I’m not sure you should be out there.

  6. Sandy Banks says:

    It’s oh so easy for those of us who were reading/watching from the shore to make comments about what mighta/shuda/been done, but these guys demonstrated some incredible sailing skills to manage to survive the night and get rescued. As one who was once caught out in weather that was never predicted to be as awful as it was, I can tell you, in retrospect, if we had known (had an inkling, even) that the weather would turn as bad as it did, of course we would never have left the dock. But we managed to slog through it, as these fellows have, learned a lot from it, and am still grateful for the angels that watched over us back then.

  7. Devon says:

    Glad you folks are safe and what a story…..

    Fair-winds :)

  8. Paul says:

    I’m sorry guys, doing this race in a Windrider Wave is downright foolish and stupid. I’m all for the adventure of the race and challenging yourself in your chosen craft for the R2ak, but this is just dumb. The boat is a POS and is designed for day sailing. Anyone who commends these guys for their excellent seamanship is missing something huge. Good seamanship starts with good decisions and proper planning. These guys should apologize to their loved ones and the coast guard for risking the rescuers lives as well.

  9. Not having a traditional boom on my Core Sound 17, but double reef points on each sail, and being parked next to those guys in Victoria, they where VERY prepared for those conditions.

    That boat was absolutely prepared, and in the conditions described any normal boat would have had trouble. Normally in the ocean you are able to hold the bow into the storm until it passes. In this case they had no where to go put a windward shore.

    Paul and Carl, I’m you don’t know what your talking about when you mention poor seamanship. With the high quality upgrades on that boat, and the quality of the crew I’d go out with those guys in rough weather anytime.

    Team Sea Wolf good job on your amazing seamanship, and I don’t think any average sailor on almost any boat out there short of a kevlar lifeboat would have come out of it as well.

  10. Karl says:

    That’s simply not true Edward. I’ve been out in stuff stupider than that. and I’ve been out in stuff that stupid in a Musto skiff. And in the Musto it was survival conditions while in a J-24 we were still racing (not that I’d take a J-24 on this course).

    And while the Straits of Georgia can become a very nasty piece of water, once Exiting Johnstone Straight the possible conditions could be much worse with much less rescue available – see the excellent writeup of one of the dangers of the course in NW Yachting http://www.nwyachting.com/2015/06/team-elsie-piddock-marches-inexorably-onward/

    Some of these boats are a lot of fun, but are designed such that in a catastrophe, you swim from them to the beach. That’s not an option up there.

    Note also, that your Core Sound, while lacking a traditional boom still has a boom. it is a wishbone, but that still lets you control leech tension when you ease the sheet.

    The Windrider rave has no such leech control. I’ve sailed more than one such boat in conditions from 5-25. And I can tell you that the bearoff in 20+ becomes really problematic precisely because as you ease the sheet, the upper leach opens and the upper part of the sail not only powers up, but puts a huge amount of forward pitching moment onto the leeward ama.

    They also reported not being able to fully sheet in their jib (which makes sense) but that’s part of what makes it almost impossible to tack, because you start losing headway too soon and end up in irons.

    The only way I’ve found to tack in such conditions is to actually start sailing backwards and tack by putting the helm the other way, but not all boats can do that well, and in the dark in big waves, that’s non trivial to do.

    Which means you are out in conditions your boat cannot handle. and as Paul points out – putting yourself into a circumstance where that is true, is not seamanship.

    I’ve never sailed a Windrider Wave. So I don’t know if the backwards tack would work, or if they could have roller furled the jib, or if they had reefpoints in the main that they didn’t use properly.

    I do know that if I were going to do a race like this in a boat like that, I’d have taken it down to the Gorge for at least 3 weekends of training at Swell City. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AIisNuG7CI

    The problem is that in boats like these Speed is your Friend. but at night in big waves, Speed is your Enemy.

    It just was not an appropriate boat for THIS race.

  11. unShirley says:

    BTW: The boat that won by doing an epic horizon job, Elsie Piddick, has a boomless main. Not sure why one claims you can’t reef them. My Weta has a boomless main, and it looks pretty easy me to set it up for reefing.

  12. Morley says:

    I have to agree with Karl – I used to sail dinghys and small cats as well as keelboats before the cost:speed ratio for windsurfing and then kiting made that my go-to water sport. Although my experience in beach cats and small tris is very limited, so my opinion goes with a lot of salt, I remember having to reverse the rudders and back main and jib to get Hobie 16s to come around in >20 knots. And of course leach twist spills wind at the top of the rig until you are below a beam reach, then it does the wrong thing as Karl has been saying and you are probably better off with a lot of vang and jibing – if you can see. I have been thinking about using kites with sea kayaks recently, and found I needed a drogue because the kayak would drift faster than the inflatable kite and I couldn’t relaunch it. I’m wondering if a drogue or other sea anchor could have been a valuable (and very light/compact) piece of safety gear in this situation? And perhaps could have assisted with tacking even? You could bring the bow straight into the wind or, by running the lead over an ama, angle yourself the right way with the sail flogging, then sheet in to go again.

    BTW, I think the conditions weren’t quite as big as reported here (but this is a race to Alaska after all, so that can be not only forgiven but applauded). The Sandheads buoy, very close to where they were rescued, shows winds picking up around 8:30 to over 15 and increasing til midnight – but maxing at 25-27 knots with gusts to the low to mid 30s
    http://www.bigwavedave.ca/latest.php?site=24
    or look at the ‘archives’ tab on the main bigwavedave page. And we only see 15 ft waves in Georgia Strait during winter storms. All the reporting stations to the north (Ballenas, Sisters, Entrance Island) were quite a bit lower that night than Sandheads, so there just wasn’t the energy or fetch to create truly giant seas; although no doubt they looked that big at night and I most certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be aboard!

  13. Frank says:

    sails STILL up the mast when recovered – including that genniker thing!!!
    I hope they forked out punitive damages to the Coast Guard ……
    Check the reefing requirements for Watertribe events for proper seamanship requirements.
    For any unsupported sailing (as distinct from sailing with rescue craft in attendance) you must be able to reef to less than half sail area – and get down to bare poles in any wind strength.
    IM(not so)HO!

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