Well after 9 years of sailing down here in the south I would have to say that this little blow took the cake to date, and gave me and everyone on board yet another reminder of the fact that we are only children playing around here in the ocean, and if we are not careful, the all, almighty will slap our wrists when ever he chooses to.
We had just entered the eastern reaches of the Striates of Magellan very early in the morning, we had 120 nautical mile to run through the 2 narrows and then into the widening part of the Striates before arriving into Punta Arenas.
Our voyage from the River Plate, Buenos Aires had been overall very smooth sailing, with one other relatively small blow along the way where we stopped, and hove to for just over 24 hours. Well we knew that we were going to have some unsettled weather and potentially some strong northerly winds during the day, all forecasts were similar and we proceeded on with a positive out look of the evening in port after 10 days at sea.
Through the first narrows we had fresh winds and some snow from a NNE wind, in the middle widening stretch between the 2 narrows, winds eased and the sky cleared with winds turning unstable and back to the north. Part way through the second narrows, Audrey first mate woke me after a nap to tell me that it was freshening and that the trend of a constant drop in millibars was continuing at a regular and constant rate.
On deck we continued to reduce sail area as things had freshened, more turns on the staysail (only head sail up at this point) and 4 deep reefs in the main sail. Sneaking around the final corner of the second narrows we had 35 knots of true wind speed from the NW and 26 nautical miles to go. Within half an hour we were seeing wind speeds reaching 50 knots true, but with the amount of sail area up we couldn't reduce it further and still keep our head up to maintain course, Xplore was trucking along with no major issues.
Bright sunshine was pouring through the cloud structures as we were seeing all forms of white fluffy things, cumulous, cirrus, stratus and cumulonimbus. Down below at the nav area there was tension in the air, we all knew the conditions were tough, but we also knew that we were very close to being in port, we were taking a bit of a thumping and the winds weren't easing, 55, 57, and then Serge who was sitting in the companion way under the protection of the new cuddy / dodger called to me at the chart table that he was seeing something ? So what is it Serge ? a ship, the island not far off our port side, give me more information, well in a typical Serge crazy French way he said that he didn't know, well whilst on the edge of our seats and with electricity in the air, I jumped up to find out what the hell he was talking about.
Words cant explain the sight that I saw, but instantly I knew what it was, and there was no doubt, the whole sky from water level up to about 1000 feet was a wall of white, the sky above was brilliant blue, from full left to right there was nothing but a solid barrier and it was coming towards us fast, the tendons in my stomach went knotted and tight as I evaluated our options, it had to be a white squall ! To the left of us was an island which we were nearly clear of, to the right and closer to the main land of South America, but that was to wind ward, behind was the narrows with its turbulent tidal waters that rip through at 6 to 8 knots with not a lot of room to manoeuvre.
We held course for Punta Arenas, if anything we used engine revs to lift our heading and to try to bring us closer and quicker to the protection of the main land and to ease the force of the wind from the sails. 59 knots, 62, 68 I have never seen our wind gauges ever read this high, and we have always known that it reads lower than what we actually experience and see out there on the water. The sheets of the headsail were thumping and tearing at the deck hardware, the winches were shuddering as the whipping forces of wind, sails and sea were trying to tear each other apart, I know there was a lot of preying going on, but everyone remained very calm and matter of fact as these hurricane force winds tested what we and the boat were made of. In the 14 hours up to the white squall the barometer dropped 41.2 millibars, probably about the same, but opposite amount of blood pressure that rose in my veins during this experience.
I look back at the experience and reflect on how it all went, what lessons did I learn and what could I have done differently or better, yes there are points and some aspects that I may change if I ever go through anything like that again, but I do believe that the team of four on board, the boat being very well prepared made the total difference of safe passage or disaster. I didn't feel at any point that we were going to loose, but I know that in anything but Xplore I would not have been feeling safe or comfortable. During the afternoon we all took some photos and video, see this link to some footage that Serge took when the wind speeds were in the high 50's and low 60's, from my experience at sea I estimate we encountered winds over 75 knots. Stephen Wilkins Skipper Xplore Expeditions