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For want of a drogue

Solo sailor Nicholas Barham had no way of slowing the speedy Tahiti Belle’s rush to destruction.

Barham was asleep in a darkened bunk aboard his 31-foot trimaran Tahiti Belle, his dreams troubled by the same concerns he had when awake: Can the rig hold up in this gale?

Barham awaits rescue aboard his battered Val 31 trimaran.

The winds had built over two days on this 2008 voyage from the Azores to England, and as the storm matured and the wind shifted direction, the seas had become confused as well as huge. Now, just before dawn July 1, in the cabin where he had cooked up the comfortable smells of curried rice and spaghetti bolognese, Barham had become accustomed to the trimaran hurtling through the darkness, racing down the face of one big wave after another, groaning and creaking in accompaniment to the howl of the gale.

And so he slept, head forward, feet aft, a lee cloth raised to hold him secure in his berth should the boat roll. Suddenly, he was awake. The yacht, which he had recently raced from Plymouth to the Azores in the Jester Challenge, had fallen down the face of one more huge wave, landing in a deep trough and coming to an instant halt. Barham found himself partly out of his bunk. Every loose object inside the cabin had emptied around him. And he soon realized his options were down to two: stay with the boat and drown, or trigger the EPIRB.

This realization would come in a while — the time it took for daybreak to arrive and for Barham to muster the will to climb out of the cabin and look around. What he saw was that the bow of the starboard ama was sheared off. Later, he would learn that he had lost the port ama bow as well, and that both were taking on water, threatening to sink Tahiti Belle.

Barham triggered the EPIRB

It took about eight hours for a tanker, diverted by the British coastguard, to find Tahiti Belle and haul the seasoned sailor on board. In the months since, he has thought of a few things he could have done differently.

The crew of the 607-foot tanker Omega Princess prepares to haul Barham aboard, leaving Tahiti Belle at sea.

“I thought the boat could handle the seas and wind force,” Barham says. “But I underestimated the cumulative buildup effect [that] several days of continuous gale force winds have on the sea state.”

Barham says he should have slowed Tahiti Belle. He should have had a usable drogue on board. What he had instead was a very fast boat with no way to slow her.

Gale after gale

Tahiti Belle was a Val 31, a fiberglass trimaran that Barham says was designed by trimaran pioneer Dick Newick. The boat had been built 25 years earlier, Barham says, and he bought it from the trimaran legend Bill Howell eight years ago.

Although he had done mostly coastal sailing in Tahiti Belle, Barham, who began sailing at age 12, says he his bluewater resume includes three trans-Atlantic voyages: one as crew, one with his wife, Astrid, and one single-handed crossing in the 1988 OSTAR race in a junk-rigged 31-foot monohull. He completed that passage in 47 days, sailing from Plymouth to Newport, R.I. He was the 73rd — and final — finisher out of 95 boats that started the race.

Barham used his OSTAR credential to enter the 2008 Jester Challenge, a single-handed event for boats from around 20 to 30 feet sailing from Plymouth to Terceira, an island in the Azores — a distance of about 1,200 miles. He calls the event a “race without rules … with no winners, no losers and no prizes, apart from the personal satisfaction of having done it.”

Barham receives assistance from crew on the Omega Princess.

Barham, a retired entrepreneur who says his business was the shredding and recycling of sensitive documents, arrived at the event’s start in late May after weathering gales on his trip from Newhaven in southeast England, where he volunteers on lifeboats and is an officer in the local coastwatch organization. Once the race began May 30, it was more of the same, he says.

“I had one [gale] about 60 miles off Cape Finisterre, outside the Bay of Biscay,” Barham recalls. He hove-to, making no progress, for three days until the gale passed, he says. “When that blew through, I had another gale about 60 miles away from the Island of Terceira. That’s when the sails ripped.”

Barham bypassed Terceira to land at a deeper port with the facility to make the repairs Tahiti Belle needed, he says. The whole trip had taken him about 12 days, he says.

In San Miguel, he patched up his yacht and bought T-shirts for his wife. Then, on June 22, he pointed Tahiti Belle back toward Falmouth, England.

“The voyage had been warm, sunny and with light winds. It was a dream,” Barham says. Low-pressure systems that might have caused problems were farther south than normal, tracking up through the southern part of the North Atlantic, he says.

“Then the gale started, and we had about three days when the seas were building up all the time,” he says. The wind direction changed as the blow passed through, causing “quite dangerous cross seas and waves breaking sideways on top of one another.”

In Force 8 winds and with 20-foot seas and larger, “I had been having problems in the conditions keeping the boat speed down to safe proportions,” Barham says. “I was surfing down the front of huge waves with the boom and mainsail lashed low down on the deck and only a tiny scrap of foresail for what might laughingly be called directional control.”

Meanwhile, Barham was doing nothing to control his speed. “I had 130 drogue cups on board but could not find a supplier of the 100 meters of 18 to 20mm-diameter, double-sheathed, nylon-cored warp needed to make the drogue up before I set sail,” he says. “I should have made up the drogue and had it ready set up for deployment during any ocean voyage.

“There was considerable noise inside the cabin from the gale force wind and seas, although one gets used to this,” Barham says. He remembers as well “some unusual grinding sounds coming from inside the hull, which in retrospect may have been caused by hull damage developing.”

The red DSC button

Then it happened. The boat went from an estimated 18 knots to a dead stop, as if it had hit a wall. “Every loose item in the cabin rained down on top of me. They [the waves] are getting bigger, I thought as I tidied up the mess,” wrote Barham in an article for a British magazine after he was rescued.

At first, he avoided going on deck to survey Tahiti Belle — in part because the boat “was giving a passable impression of carrying on sailing,” although a bit labored.

At daybreak, though, he looked out. “It was incredible. A quarter of the starboard float had broken clean off as if it were a piece of a chocolate bar. We were on the starboard tack so the float was well out of the water most of the time,” he says.

“I could not see the front of the port float because it was hidden by the [inflatable] dinghy lashed on deck, but clearly something was badly wrong,” Barham writes in the article. “These floats are normally very buoyant, and in this case it was practically submerged and obviously full of water.”

At this point, Barham triggered his year-old GME EPIRB and began assembling a ditch bag, gathering flares, a flashlight, GPS, hand-held VHF radio, camera, some food and water, and “various bits and pieces, such as T-shirts I had bought in the Azores for my wife with pictures of whales on them.” By the time he had finished, “The bag was so heavy it would have taken me down like a brick,” he says. So he repacked, taking only his passport and cards in one pocket, blood pressure pills in another and the hand-held VHF.

Barham says he pushed the red DSC button on his radio and began sending out maydays. In the several hours that followed, he knew he had but one option should Tahiti Belle slip beneath the waves: board the Avon dinghy. “I could not afford [a life raft] at the time [of the race],” he says.

Fortunately, Tahiti Belle was in the Gulf Stream, where the water temperature was about 70 degrees and the air temperature only slightly cooler. It was just before 3 p.m., Falmouth time, when the VHF came to life on channel 16.

“Tahiti Belle, Tahiti Belle, this is motor vessel Omega Princess, Omega Princess. What is your position, over?” Barham replied with his coordinates, and the ship called back.

“Tahiti Belle, this is Omega Princess. We are on our way to your position and will call you when we get closer. Keep listening on channel 16, over.”

An hour later, the ship called again, telling Barham they could see him. “I looked out of the cabin, and there she was, all lovely 36,000 tons of gleaming tanker,” he says. After two passes, the ship’s crew lowered a line that Barham clipped on to his inflated live vest with crotch straps. As Tahiti Belle slipped back along the side of Omega Princess, the crew hauled Barham aboard.

Barham is now looking for a new boat. “My wife told me that if I can lose two stone in weight, she will support my next [offshore sailing] project. I’ll go right down the small end of the market,” and buy a 22-foot boat, he says.

See related article: What I learned on Tahiti Belle

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.