Trapped upside down in the North Sea
Tom Cunliffe October 8, 2021
Upside down in a small catamaran in A North Sea Storm, John Passmore distracted himself by focussing on the story. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Old Man Sailing
John Passmore is a man unafraid to move with the times. A professional journalist with a distinguished newspaper career, he now hosts a powerful online presence in the guise of his channel oldmansailing.com. The quote at the beginning of his recent book also under the name Old man sailing is from Søren Kirkegaard and it sums up his attitude. ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards’.
When Covid lockdown hit, instead of hunkering down in his office, John, now in his 70s, got on his boat and went to sea. Forty-two days and 3,629 miles later, he was on national radio advising the rest of us about how to live the dream.
In this extract from Old Man Sailing, John re-lives the capsize of an earlier boat as he shares a unique description of what goes through a thinking man’s mind while perched on the bottom – or is it the top? – of his inverted Heavenly Twins catamaran, Lottie Warren, in a North Sea storm. The book is a great read from a professional storyteller who always sees the funny side, even when laughs must have been hard to find.
Old man sailing
Standing at the wheel, I watched the log hit 13 knots – then 16. Looking astern, two white wakes stretched out with the tyres kicking up plumes of spray, and then, behind them, the crest of the wave. It was high, of course, but it was a long way behind so it didn’t seem particularly threatening.
Meanwhile, the little boat continued to track dead straight downwind. I engaged the autopilot, and she continued to thunder along.
I got out the camera and took pictures. Then the boat gave a lurch, flinging me from one side to the other so that I landed painfully on top of the lumpy EPIRB mounted on the starboard bulkhead. I carried on taking pictures, although, I did wonder why the flash kept going off?
But it wasn’t the flash going off. It was the strobe light on the EPIRB – which meant that the EPIRB was switched on. I must have activated it when I sat on it. Now it was firing off distress messages. When this happens by accident, you are not supposed to switch it off – that just confuses everyone. On the other hand, if I didn’t switch it off now, they would launch a full-scale search and rescue operation. I don’t think I could have lived with the embarrassment. I switched it off.
It was too late. At home in Woodbridge, Tamsin received a call from Falmouth Coastguard. They had received one ‘ping’, they said – but then, nothing. They wanted to know if she had heard from me. In the end, they said they would treat it as a false alarm. If it happened again, they would act.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this. Certainly, I didn’t need rescuing. The little boat was flying dead straight downwind in brilliant sunshine with excellent visibility. And so the storm raged and Lottie Warren rattled on in the direction of Bergen or Tromsø or somewhere and I slept and woke, and slept and woke again until I woke to the sensation of going up in a high-speed lift. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the fruit bowl tipping over, spilling apples and oranges across the table.
Out loud, I said, matter-of-factly: ‘She’s going over.’ And she was. The whole cabin rotated – quite slowly, it seemed – and I found myself on the deckhead. Water squirted in around the door, all sorts of loose objects were floating about, sloshing back and forth as the now stationary boat bobbed quietly upside down.
If she had been a monohull, she would have righted herself, the weight of the keel pulling her up, but Lottie Warren was completely stable upside down. This boat would stay upside down indefinitely.
The first thing to do was to activate the EPIRB. I opened the doors. Hardly any more water came in. I plucked the beacon from its bracket. It was flashing already – activated automatically. I brought it back inside. Now it would have to go in the water, floating alongside the boat with a clear view of the satellites. I tied the tether to the freshwater galley pump and pushed the rest out of the window.
Now what? The boat would not sink – that was the theory. She had buoyancy chambers fore and aft – as well as all the air trapped inside. Of course, everything had fallen to the deckhead, including all the clothes stowed in the lockers under the bunk. Multihull sailors don’t need to secure their lockers against a knockdown or a capsize. Once the boat is upside down, stuff falling out of lockers is the least of your worries.
Where’s the liferaft?
I found the dinghy floating in its bag, but the liferaft? No. It did occur to me that the hatch was hanging open. Was it possible that the liferaft had dropped out? Surely not, they’re designed to float, even before you pull the lanyard to inflate them.
After a bit, I gave up looking. For one thing, my eyes were stinging every time I put my head underwater. That must be the battery acid leaking. Nothing to do but wait, I suppose.
Wedging myself mostly out of the water on what used to be the top of the wardrobe locker, I wondered if anyone was on the way to rescue me. Was someone in the Coastguard centre at Falmouth at that very moment saying: “Distress Message from Lottie Warren? No, don’t worry about that one. That’s a false alarm. We had that a couple of hours ago.”
Meanwhile, was there anything I could do to help myself? If there was, I couldn’t think of it. Instead, I reached out for an apple floating past and bit into it. It turned out to be an orange. I can’t tell you how long I stayed like that.
The water sloshing back and forth taking with it plastic cups, a bottle of ketchup, my sunhat. I wouldn’t need that…
Honestly, you would think, in such a predicament, I would consider doing something proactive. Instead of which I think I just became more and more philosophical about what was going to happen to me: maybe someone was on the way to rescue me, maybe they weren’t. Either way, there was not much I could do about it.
This might have been the beginning of muddled thinking. With a flash of recognition, I realised what was happening: The water was creeping up my chest as the boat settled and forced out the air. Meanwhile, I was using up what air I did have. One way and another, if l wasn’t thinking straight now, nothing was going to become clearer by waiting. It was time to get out.
I dived down into the water, found the hatch, through that into the bright, sunlit underwater world below and then, without any apparent effort, found myself at the stern, looking at the name I had so laboriously stuck on back in Chichester. It was upside down. Putting both hands on the underside of the bridgedeck (what had been the underside), I pushed myself up as if getting out of a swimming pool and suddenly I was out of the water and standing up holding onto the stub keel. I had lost my beautiful boots.
It was a different world standing on the bottom of the boat: a brilliant sky and the sea, that deep blue that you get only from an ocean in bright sunshine. And white, of course: white from the breaking waves all around and the long streaks of blown spume. There was a good deal of water in the air as well, flying off the breakers and hitting me in the face like hailstones. I didn’t mind. It felt warm, and this really was the most fantastic scene.
Then a wave broke over the boat and washed my feet from under me. Without boots, my socks slipped on the smooth gelcoat like fried eggs in a pan. This left me horizontal in the water, holding onto the keel while the wave washed over me.
The water drained away, and I stood up. The keel was about the height of the back of a dining chair. I must say I felt very safe up there – the bridgedeck was bounded on both sides by the hulls like a big playpen.
Then another wave came along. In fact, at regular intervals, a succession of waves came along. Each one washed me off my feet and then drained away over the bow, and I stood up again. All I had to do was keep getting up. I could see the tiny yellow EPIRB, its strobe light flashing impotently in the sun. Presumably, it was sending out its coded distress message to the satellite – and then down again to the coastguard station at Falmouth.
And what were they doing about it? Launching a full-scale rescue? Dismissing it as another false alarm?
How long I stood there on the bottom of the boat in the middle of the storm, getting knocked down and getting up again, I have no idea, but eventually I realised I could not stand there forever. I would get tired. Eventually, when a wave came and washed my feet from under me I would let go of the keel. Then I would disappear over the bow as quickly as a child’s sandal off a Cornish rock when the tide comes in.
And that would be the end of me. The chances of swimming back to the boat would be very slim.
I was not wearing a lifejacket, but even if I had been, that would just have prolonged things for an hour or two.
Every survival manual I’d read said that in a situation like this, the most powerful tool is your mind. What you think about is what you get. If I was going to dwell on drowning, then the likelihood was that I would, indeed, drown. So I had to think about not drowning – not dying. After all, I had a family at home. Besides, if I got back in time, I would be there for the church fete.
So under my breath, to myself, so I’d not be embarrassed by anyone overhearing, I said: “I will not die.”
I gave it some emphasis, put an exclamation mark on the end. I lifted up my head and shouted it. This felt good. It gave me strength in my hands, which was just as well because another wave came along and, sure enough, I hung on until it drained away over the bow and I stood up and shook the water out of my eyes and shouted at the sky: “I WILL NOT DIE!”
And somewhere in the middle of all the drama a small voice crept in and said: “This is bloody good copy!”
The day wore on. The waves kept coming, the wind kept blowing, and I kept picking myself up and shouting again.
Until something made me turn round: I don’t know what it was – just a presence, maybe, but there, hanging in the sky above my head was a beautiful big helicopter.
I would be saved! I would not have to hold onto this keel any more…
Except, the helicopter stayed where it was – just hovering in the same place. What was it playing at? I mean, they had come all this way to get me. Surely they would want to finish the job and go home for tea.
“Come on, what are you waiting for?” And still, it hung in the sky.
It was only later that the pilot told me that the waves were higher than the length of the helicopter’s rescue cable. If he flew low enough to reach me, the next wave might come along and swamp him. He had to wait for a calm spell and then nip in and out quick.
I decided there wasn’t a helicopter at all. Extreme stress and the mind-altering effects of exposure had caused my brain to play tricks on me. I wasn’t going to be rescued. The EPIRB wasn’t working, Falmouth Coastguard had put the whole thing down to malfunctioning microchips. I was going to stay on the bottom of my upturned boat until ‘my hands can’t feel to grip; my toes too numb to step’ (who said that? Bob Dylan?) Yes, that was it, I was definitely hallucinating…
And then a small black blob appeared below the helicopter. It dropped fast and became the shape of a man on a wire, dressed all in fluorescent orange. He swooped down like a big bird, splashed into the sea next to me, whooshed up again and then down, falling across the hull. I grabbed him by the legs.
I couldn’t hear a word he said. I nodded vigorously. He put a strop over my head and pulled it under my arms, and we were off. I looked down, and already the sea was far below, another wave sloshing over Lottie Warren.
And then everything went warm and dark and I didn’t have to worry any more.