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Into the storm – Schooner Matsu

Gijs Lock and his wife, Linda, endured the powerful remnants of Hurricane Alex in the North Atlantic during the summer of 2004 aboard their Wittholz-designed 47-foot steel staysail schooner, Matsu.

Editor’s note: Gijs Lock and his wife, Linda, endured the powerful remnants of Hurricane Alex in the North Atlantic during the summer of 2004 aboard their Wittholz-designed 47-foot steel staysail schooner, Matsu. The couple were sailing from New York’s Long Island to Holland via the Great Circle Route across the North Atlantic (the Grand Banks to the Scilly Islands off the English Channel). Dutch-born 62-year-old Lock is an ex-merchant navy officer (eight years) and licensed mariner who worked “ashore” for Philips Electronics for 35 years, mainly in the Far East, where he built and operated factories. In his free time, he sailed. Lock and Linda now are retired and living in Holland, where they continue to sail Matsu. He is currently working on his doctorate, which combines his experiences at sea with those in the business world.

We were attacked by Tropical Storm Alex the day after he lost hurricane status. Alex was following neither the rules nor the forecasts. The day before he “got us,” I contacted my son in Holland on our Iridium satellite phone to find out the latest track forecasts. I did not trust the information I was getting from NAVTEX and the single sideband; it was consistently wrong and late. My son told me the storm was moving from the Grand Banks to the north-northeast at a speed of 39 knots.

Yet Alex decided to go east at more or less that speed and, in fact, went straight over us. On Saturday, Aug. 7, at around 8 a.m., the wind changed in seconds from south-southeast to north-northwest with heavy gusts. It remained more or less north-northwest and increased to a severe gale during the rest of day, the night and the following day. At the time, we were about 400 miles west-southwest of Fastnet Rock.

It was this same night that Alex, now an extratropical storm, smashed the 30-foot ocean rowing boat Pink Lady, sending the four crewmembers into their life raft. They were attempting to row across the North Atlantic in record time and were about 120 miles east-northeast of our position.

With conditions worsening, I decided to drop our reefed sails and see how Matsu would behave in the enormous swell and breaking seas (later estimated as high as 60 feet, with wind gusts greater than 45 knots). I also prepared my parachute sea anchor, but the schooner was doing so well that I kept lying a-hull.

Even with the intensifying storm and seas, I could keep Matsu solidly on course, with the stern taking the waves first and raising her so that most were rather harmless. Of course, we sometimes had heavy breakers on deck, a few in the cockpit (only one leaking through the cabin doors), and a number of hits under the large bowsprit. But after an hour or so I started to develop full confidence in Matsu and her “natural” behavior. Her raised aft deck and hull design (long keel and deep rudder), derived from the renowned Aberdeen schooners, contributed to her seaworthiness.

We wound up lying a-hull for 40 hours and moved 60 miles in the right direction. When we finally set sail again early Monday morning, I thought Alex, apart from its huge remaining swell, would at last leave us alone. Linda and I concentrated on looking for the life raft from the Pink Lady. (I learned five days later from a container ship that the four rowers had been rescued; we were greatly relieved.)

But Alex was the storm that wouldn’t go away. He made a counterclockwise loop around us — northeast to west and southeast — and then crossed almost straight over us again five days later as we both headed for the English Channel. We suffered from this bad and unpredictable weather until we entered the Channel Aug. 14 — a full week later.

I later analyzed the entire track with help from an expert with the Dutch meteorological office, who also gave me the measurements of wave heights and wind speeds from the buoy K1 (250 miles east of us when Alex first hit). Not only is it quite unusual for a hurricane to go immediately to the North Atlantic so early in the season, but its track and lingering strength also were unexpected. Alex was a very powerful storm. It strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane on the evening of Aug. 4, two days before it hit us, with winds of 120 mph and an impressive swell. Late the following day, it began weakening rapidly but was still a very dangerous system, and the heavy swells did not leave us until we were well into the English Channel.

Alex wasn’t our only surprise. During the voyage we encountered weather and current patterns that we didn’t anticipate. The Gulf Stream wasn’t where she should have been, we saw ice farther south than normal, and we found fog at times and in places in the Atlantic and English Channel that were out of the ordinary. In a nutshell, neither the long- nor the short-term weather forecasts proved reliable.

There is a lot more to tell about our voyage, from the seaworthiness of Matsu to the loss of our Perkins diesel — Alex’s waves pushed seawater into the cylinders through the exhaust system — which forced us to cruise the tricky English Channel and North Sea without our engine. We had an inspection in the open sea from French customs, assisted by a helicopter, and we wound up floating without wind in fog and tide in the shipping channels and between sandbanks off Dunkirk. But those are tales for another story.

The good news is that, in the end, our preparations, vessel and equipment made the voyage a success. The radar detector I installed proved a worthy investment. And since we followed the Great Circle Route, we met a number of commercial vessels and had radio contact with the officers on duty to exchange weather forecasts and other information.

One thing that is burned into my heart and mind forever is the great attitude and spirit shown through the most difficult periods by my wife, Linda, who is originally from Taiwan but is now a naturalized Dutch citizen. It took her about a week to get her sea legs, and during our encounters with Alex she became seasick again. But she never complained and she did the right things to keep herself strong: stayed hydrated, ate light foods and rested when possible.

Sick or not, however, she came up frequently to take over duty in the pilothouse and allow me to rest. She also developed a great sense for weather change and impending danger, warning me when I was resting. I will never forget her contribution to our safe passage, and I will never forget our week with a persistent storm named Alex.