Crash Course to Sydney

A sailor recounts a dramatic dismasting in the storm-lashed Indian Ocean.
By David Parkinson ,

It is a sailing axiom that bad things tend to happen at night in deteriorating conditions.

As midnight approached, I was at the helm of 73-foot (22.2-meter) ketch Ondine in a bumpy ocean. A loud crash announced that the mainmast had snapped and fallen across the boat’s starboard side. Our skipper, Sven, rushed to the deck within seconds demanding, in his natural Finnish vernacular, “Wotthefock?!” The pitch-black night, icy rainsqualls and stinging saltwater spray made it difficult to assess the full extent of the damage. Pounding into heavy seas, Ondine was losing steerage and rolling freely in the deteriorating conditions. “Bad things” had arrived with a vengeance.

Sailing small boats across big oceans conjures misconceptions of the mind. Tales of big storms beget visions of fear and danger. Flat calms in equatorial latitudes under the burning sun may sound preferable, but those windless days with lifeless sails slapping, thirsting for a breath of air to give them form, will torture a sailor’s mind as the boat goes nowhere—a boundless horizon where water and sky merge in a sphere of ethereal blue. A true sailor prefers the heavy weather … well, most of the time.

We were sailing on an able offshore racer. Ondine was built in 1967 for one of the most revered racers of his time, Sumner “Huey” Long. She was an all-aluminum Abeking & Rasmussen go-fast that was built to win offshore races against the world’s best. In French folklore, Ondine was a water goddess and nymph of legendary beauty who, betrayed by her unfaithful husband, Palemon, placed a curse on him, allowing him to breathe only so long as he was awake. He never slept again. Little did we know that we, too, would face a similar curse with many sleepless nights ahead.

America, here I come, or so I’d thought, stepping off a dock in Greece onto Ondine’s deck a few weeks prior, with all my worldly belongings not quite filling a medium-size duffle. Sven was quick to inform me that we would indeed be sailing to the States, but via Australia and a date with the 1968 Sydney Hobart race. (Decently, he gave me the option of swimming ashore had I desired a more direct route.) It was a crisp, beautiful day with light breezes, benign wavelets and a wine-dark Aegean Sea sparkling in its distinct shade of blue. A mere 10 miles to the east, Poseidon, from the remains of his lofty temple on Cape Sounion, smiled. The gods were at peace. The omens were good. I decided to stick around.

The S/Y Ondine crew in more tranquil times—seven hot-shot sailors and Captain Sven (kneeling, bottom center). The author is third from left.

My shipmates and I—three Americans, two Brits, one Australian and one Japanese—were all experienced sailors. Being in our 20s, we also were under the highly skeptical eye of our skipper. All sinew and muscle with saltwater running through his veins, Sven moved like a cat and bit like a crocodile. No one knew his age, and he wasn’t telling, though we estimated around 50. Chewing through the stem of yet another pipe, Sven had two things on his mind: determining how many times he had sailed around the world (17 in all, but since one had been in the opposite direction, he couldn’t decide whether to subtract it from the total) and deliberating how to convert seven hot-shot sailors into able seamen while getting Ondine quickly and safely to Sydney in time for the race.

Captain Sven—chewing through the stem of yet another pipe.

It had been mostly smooth sailing as Ondine rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean. The gods were smiling. Spirits were high in anticipation of sailing some of the world’s most challenging waters as we headed south in search of the mighty westerlies that live below 40 degrees south latitude to whisk us the remaining 7,000 miles to Sydney. But the barometer was foretelling a more ominous future.

Winds rapidly increased to sustained Force 4 and 5, with Force 6 in squalls. Twin headsails were set with trysail and mizzen. The ocean began to assert its power, delivering a relentless succession of improbably enormous swells high enough to shield us completely from the wind in the troughs, and then expose us to its full fury on the crests. It was frightening, it was awesome and it was beautiful.

Inverting his omnipresent pipe to prevent it from flooding, Sven barked a single order: “Keep looking back, and keep the f***ing transom at right angles to the swell.” We did, and for three days, watch-on, watch-off, enjoyed one hell of a sleigh ride.

The off-watch takes some much-needed rest.
In the Roaring Forties, keeping S/Y Ondine’s transom at right angles to the swell was no simple task.

It was close to midnight when things really hit the fan. With a mighty bang, down crashed the 90-foot-tall mast. Sven was on deck within seconds and gave the order for all-hands. The off-watch sprang quickly and, in various stages of foul-weather gear undress, went straight to work. About 60 feet of broken spar, suspended only by internal halyards and wiring, was swinging dangerously. Despite our efforts to get lines around it and tension them on deck winches, there was still friction and banging between the broken-off spar and the remainder of the mast, and, more perilously, the hull itself. The staysail and headsail were both in the water, dragging and keeping the spar anchored. What seemed like endless miles of stainless steel wire rigging and rope lines lay all over the deck in a tangled mess.

Facing such a catastrophe in raging wind and heaving seas thousands of miles from shore might have shaken the most experienced sailors, but to a man, we were singularly focused. We painstakingly removed all the fixed rigging from its anchor points on deck and cut the rest to clear the broken spar, which continued to pound the side of the hull, prompting the decision to jettison it altogether. It sank like a stone, as I recall, into the depths of the maelstrom below. In an attempt to regain steerage, we turned on the engine, which promptly seized as the propeller fouled the remaining lines attached to one of the submerged headsails. After we cleared most of the remaining clutter, nothing more could be done until daylight. The wind continued to build. The sea was furious. We posted watch and slept intermittently as Ondine, crippled, rolled violently out of control.

The bottom fell out of the barometer overnight, and by 0500, it was blowing a full gale. With everything airborne now traveling horizontally, Ondine was in a persistent state of agitated motion. An artist’s palette of grays painted an infinite landscape of emptiness as Sven and I tried in vain to retrieve the staysail, whose sheets were wrapped around the prop. Nick—one of our American mates and a fearless ex-marine—volunteered to dive on the propeller to cut the tangled lines free. Reluctantly, and with limited other options, we tied a secure line around him and lowered him into the icy water, aware of the very short time he’d be able to function. For almost 15 minutes we waited anxiously on deck before winching him up.

“Crank up the engine,” he muttered as we took him below and set about raising his body temperature.

We were 2,300 miles from Cape Town, 3,500 miles from southwest Australia and short on fuel, and we needed to notify the boat’s New York owner of our situation. Above all, we had to fashion a temporary rig and get Ondine sailing again. Our available resources were a 28-foot mast stump, the remains of the sails we had cut free and various bits of hardware. We managed to rig a storm jib upside down from the mast stump, which, with a strong wind from astern, gave us acceptable speed under sail alone.

A temporary storm jib rigged upside down from the mast stump gave acceptable speed under sail alone in the immediate aftermath

The gale peaked early that afternoon. At last, the barometer began peeling itself off the bottom of the scale, permitting us to begin making new sails from the tattered remains of those we had salvaged. With sailmaker’s needles, palms, twine and knives, we cut and stitched with fervor over the next several days to produce a serviceable staysail and a trapezoid mainsail to work as a gaff rig using the spinnaker pole. Technically speaking, Ondine was now a schooner rig, albeit not an elegant one. At least we were moving and somewhat under control.

Sven aloft, securing an anchor point for a jury-rigged temporary headsail
The jury-rigged mainsail working as a gaff rig using the spinnaker pole.
S/Y Ondine was now a schooner rig, albeit not an elegant one. At least we were moving and somewhat under control.

Nine days later, we raised the tiny island chain of New Amsterdam and sighted a passenger ship approaching from the east. She turned out to be the former ocean liner Canberra, en route from Australia. We raised signal flags on the mizzenmast and hailed her via signal lamp in Morse code. Canberra offered to help and relayed a message to Ondine’s owner that we were dismasted and limping toward Australia under jury rig.

We set course for Albany, Southwest Australia. Pushed by strong westerly winds and ever-rolling swells, we arrived some 16 days later, and a message from the owner informed us that a new mast had been shipped to Sydney. We left again the following morning, having taken on fuel, provisions and a few well-earned beers for the final leg.

Eleven days later, Ondine passed through the Heads of Sydney Harbour on a warm summer night, two days before the arrival of our new mast. It had been 89 days since leaving Greece, and we had sailed more than 14,000 miles. Sitting with my back propped against what was left of the mast that had served us so well, watching the approaching lights of the city, my thoughts drifted to that perfect Aegean day and the many occasions I had sailed around Cape Sounion, paying homage to Poseidon in the Greek tradition with a glass of Metaxa.

Our adventure was over. The omens had, indeed, been good.

Under full rig again, S/Y Ondine races toward Hobart.

Author’s note: With her new mast and rigging, Ondine not only went on to compete in the Sydney Hobart race, but she finished first with a time of four days, 3 hours, 20 minutes, 2 seconds, besting Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin by mere minutes.

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