Oh Yé

I was looking forward to getting down farther to a more southern part of South America—so much mystique and so many legends from all the sailing lore we had read. It was late spring/early summer in Brazil and Argentina, November 1983, and we absolutely wanted to avoid any of the notorious bad weather that shoots up that way coming from Antarctica. This was a good time to go. Having been many times forewarned about the infamous “Pamperos,” we were determined to avoid one of those erratic, raging evening summer storms, and we did. Yet here we were, tossing around violently like a cork on a wild sea of foam in 50 knots of wind. I was seriously beginning to wonder if Cowabunga was going to get through this intact. This wasn’t part of the dream scenario we had sketched out for our vagabond, tropical life aboard our floating home, especially with two small children, but here we were off the coast of Uruguay. Then, to my dismay, a penguin passed by us in the water below, swimming gaily in this tempest. Where in the world were we? It suddenly hit me that we really were in the southern ocean, not far from the roaring 40s, in some of the most notorious sailing grounds reputed for some of the most violent storms and seas in the world.

We had left early morning, in the company of another French sailboat, Le Gecko. Having been in the southern Brazilian city of Florianopolis for about four months, we were coming to the end of a second tourist visa and this time our allotted time was really up. We had been in Brazil for almost a year, having already stretched out our visas by working around the system as much as possible. Now it was time to leave Brazil for a while. The idea of spending the summer months (November, December, January) in Argentina intrigued us, and in boat travel time it really wasn’t that far away. Just a week or so at sea, and voilà, we’d be in a whole new world!

Buenos Aires…oh the history: Peron, Evita, the “desaparecidos” or the “disappeared," the “Madres de Mayo,” the Mothers of May of the Plaza de Mayo, the horrendous military dictatorship…December 1983 was to mark the inauguration of the first democratically elected president, Raoul Alfonsín, of Argentina since the military junta took over in 1976. We wanted to be present in the Plaza on this historical occasion for this inauguration day celebration. It coincided with the end of our Brazilian visa, so it was a perfect, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We HAD to be there!

It was a little bit daunting knowing that we were actually going to cross into some very southern ocean latitudes, so we did quite a lot of reading about the best time of year to venture south: weather patterns, weather histories, and Pilot Chart wind tendencies. (Well, I’ll have to be honest here, it is a lot to say “we,” since I must give credit where credit is due—“we” was actually more my husband, he being the navigator.) The weather in these latitudes can do an about-face very quickly. Very often there isn’t a wide-open window of decent weather because even once the cold fronts that come from Antarctica diminish with the onset of summer, the summer season holds its own peculiar weather dangers such as sudden evening onslaughts of violent evening thunderstorms known as “Pamperos.” These squalls can hit boats at sea with an incredible tornado-like force. For better or worse, one can see them approaching in the distance and you can’t really get out of the path. The most one can do is “batten down the hatches,” making sure everything is as secure as possible on deck, take down the sails, prepare oneself psychologically, and just wait for it to pass, which really doesn’t take too long—perhaps an hour or so, maybe less.

So it was that we left Florianopolis after a four-month stay, on a calm southern spring morning of November 1, intending our first port-of-call to be Montevideo, Uruguay. Maybe it was slightly overcast, but there were light winds and the weather forecast was decent. The winds picked up in the evening and by the next morning, we were in a full force gale. Being in a storm or gale wasn’t new to us. We had numerous such experiences, especially in the Bay of Biscay off the coast of France. Typically in those cases, the winds would gust up to 30 knots, or about 40 mph. However, now the winds quickly strengthened to 50 knots—something we had experienced only once before—and coincidentally the previous year at almost the same time—off the coast of Morocco. Unlike our last experience however, (the sea having been a huge, rolling mountainous seascape), this time it was a churning mass of white, like breaking waves on a beach, yet we were a good 100 miles off the coast where one wouldn’t expect such a messy sea. It was petrifying.

It was my turn at the helm. Michel had already reduced the sail area quite a bit—having taken reefs in the main and mizzen, and rolled up the roller furl genoa to a size equivalent to that of a handkerchief. I was still having a difficult time handling the wheel, trying to resist the force of the waves, while surfing through the churn. Michel was surveying the breaking waves on our stern when he suddenly and firmly said, “That’s it. ‘ On s’arrête’ (Time to stop).” Unbeknownst to me, (since it was behind me), he had seen a huge breaking wave, taller than the boat, that just about broke on us. It could have put us briefly under water, or caused us to capsize, or be knocked down. In such a case we would have undoubtedly sustained a lot of damage, or even the unthinkable, had to abandon ship.  “Stop” the boat, however, didn’t really mean just put on the brakes and quit sailing, but it did mean to stop making any meaningful headway, just “heaving to” or basically treading water, attempting to stay more or less in the same geographical area and not fight the elements. In such a case, all the sails are reigned in, except for a minimal one up front, which acts as a stabilizer. The boat reacts more like a cork at this point, flowing with the waves and current, and not bucking the elements as it would in trying to capture the force of the wind for propulsion.

Once all this maneuvering was done to put us in a "heave-to" position, there wasn’t much else we could do except stay down below and wait for it all to blow over. Sean and Brendan, (who were only 4 years old and 19 months old, respectively), had been down below this whole time and were actually having a great time, making a fort in the main cabin, and enjoying being tossed about from one side of the cabin to the other. They thought it was great fun. Not wanting to reveal to them how scared we were, Michel put on the 60s French rock song “Les Elucubrations,” as loud as possible, drowning out the outside roar, and got the kids to sing along. The main refrain in the song finishes with an emphatic “Oh Yeah,” only in French it comes out more like “oh yé.” To this day, it is famously referred to in our family as the “Oh Yé” song, and I can honestly say that for a few hours that day, it kept us somewhat distracted from what has happening outside—and kept us sane.

The Morning After

The morning after the deck of Cowabunga was pretty much wiped clean. Whatever wasn’t tied down was long gone—washed overboard—and for what remained, much of it was damaged. We had two strong, 15 ft. long, metal alloy spinnaker poles, lashed on either side of our foredeck, which we used for downwind sailing. One of them was quite bent out of shape from waves that beat over and on the deck. It was mind boggling to see what an enraged sea could do.

However, the most significant damage was to the auto pilot, or more correctly, the wind vane. This instrument was literally our third crew member on board. It was sort of an appendix bolted onto the back of the boat, and through an ingenious system of ropes and cables, it had a wind vane that stayed in sync with the sails, the helm, and the rudder, enabling it to steer the boat by itself, simply under wind power—no batteries needed.

After the storm, Michel was able to determine that a specific tube, crucial to the functioning of the system, had broken and consequently, vital parts fell into the sea. Michel is quite the handyman, good at jury-rigging things, but this was beyond any quick-fix solution he could manage without some proper parts. Along with being a good 100 miles out to sea, we were also following a coastline where there was no viable port where we could put into for repairs. The nearest feasible harbor was at least a week's worth of sailing distance away. We had no choice but to continue, without our “third crew member.”

Handling the boat between the two of us wasn’t the problem—we had already been doing that for several years. The hitch was also manning the helm, maneuvering the boat, keeping watch, cooking, and caring for two small children, all between just the two of us, and getting some time in for sleeping as well. Brendan was still in diapers. Whoever was on duty at the helm, couldn’t rest once that watch was over. The boys would need their meals, or snacks, or drinks, or diaper changed, and dinner to be made, or the daily bread to be kneaded and baked, not to mention the various navigational duties, sailing maneuvers, etc. We were exhausted after the storm not having slept at all for over 24 hours, and now we were looking at least another five or six days without any sleep until landfall. Originally we had targeted our arrival in Uruguay to be the port of Montevideo, just inside the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. The nearest safe harbor we could reach first, given our circumstance, would be La Paloma, still north of the Rio, but a decent place to rest and get our wits about us. But we were nowhere near making landfall in La Paloma. It was going to be a long week.