Sailing » Multihulls in the Deep Blue

Release Date: 1/24/2006

By Bob Austin

The story unfolds as noted in the archives of Lat 38, June 1999: 'It's unclear exactly how many boats were caught in the core of the June '94 storm, but nine boats with a total of 24 crew issued maydays. One boat and her three crew were never seen again. Seven other boats with 17 crew were eventually rescued. One boat rescinded her mayday and made it to port under her own power. What should make the Queen's Birthday Storm story so interesting to you, .... is that two of the nine boats that issued maydays were catamarans; one a homebuilt 39-footer, the other a Catalac 41. In addition, there was a third catamaran, a 39-footer, on the periphery of the core.

The following is a quick rundown of all nine boats, their crews, and what happened to each of them." Also an analysis of the monohulls condensed: "Five things stand out from the experience of the seven monohulls:

1) Despite all efforts, it was virtually impossible to keep the boats from ending up beam-to the seas, which resulted in five of the boats being repeatedly knocked down or rolled.

2) Despite trailing drogues, two of the boats pitchpoled.

3) No matter if the seven monohulls pitchpoled or rolled, all of them lost their masts.

4) As a result of the pitchpoles, knockdowns, and rollovers, many of the crews suffered serious injuries.

4) Having a ship come alongside to effect a rescue was extremely difficult and dangerous for everyone involved.

5) Perhaps the most amazing thing is how well the seven boats held up to the unthinkably horrible conditions; had it not been for scuttling or collisions with rescuing ships, six of them would have continued to float. The age-old admonition to never leave a boat until it's underwater would seem as true as ever."

Now for the catamarans: "Ramtha, a 38-foot Roger Simpson designed modern-style catamaran from Australia, with a husband and wife crew with five years of coastal cruising experience and some offshore experience: The crew had set a drogue several days before the storm to fix her steering, but had to cut it loose when they were unable to pull it back up. Ultimately, they found themselves in 70 knots of wind and 40 foot seas, conditions so bad that the 4,000-ton ship Monowai, coming to their rescue, rolled as much as 48 in each direction, injuring three of her crew.

Despite four reefs, Ramtha's main blew to shreds and her steering system became inoperable. With nothing but her twin engines available for maneuvering, being aboard her was like "going down a mountain in a wooden box" or being on a "roller coaster that never stopped." The boat slid down waves forward, sideways, and backwards. Several times it seemed as though she might flip, but she never did. Ultimately, Monowai shot a line to Ramtha's crew, but missed. While the line gun was being reloaded, Ramtha's crew began to get strong second thoughts about leaving the boat, feeling he was doing fine on her own despite being crippled. Nonetheless, they attached their harnesses when the second line landed on their boat, and were dragged several hundred feet -often underwater -to and up the side of the ship. After abandoning the cat, the owners gave her up for lost. A week or so later, they were stunned to learn that the boat had been found, upright and in surprisingly good shape! After settling a salvage claim with another yachtie, they eventually sailed her back to Oz where they began rebuilding the cruising kitty.

Heart Light, a 41-foot Catalac U.S.-based catamaran with a crew of four; a husband and wife couple with 16,000 ocean miles, and two crew with no offshore experience: Despite having 16,000 miles ocean experience, the captain and wife claimed to have not steered the boat except near the dock and to have never jibed between the States and New Zealand. Heart Light was a heavy, solid fiberglass, narrow catamaran. Nevertheless, she did reasonably well, surfing at between 6 and 13 knots while dragging a drogue. When the autopilot couldn't handle it any longer, the skipper finally learned how to steer, working desperately to prevent waves from slewing the stern in front of the bow.

Eventually, both engines went down and lines fouled both rudders. They tied off the helm to port and slid sideways down waves. Despite being "captapulted" through the air on many occasions and being knocked onto one hull several other times, she endured. When the rescue ship arrived, her captain noted that the boat "appeared seaworthy and was riding comfortably in the improved weather." When the captain said he couldn't tow the boat, Heart Light's first mate, a New Age visionary, talked the ship's captain into a weird agreement: they would only allow themselves to be rescued if he promised to ram Heart Light until she sank. The woman's theory was that the sinking boat would be a lighthouse guiding the forces of good through seven layers of reality into our currently evil world. Something like that and yes, she wrote a book. The ship's captain complied, and Heart Light sank after being rammed several times.

The third catamaran, a 40-footer, carried a deeply reefed main and furled jib in slightly lighter conditions outside of the core. She experienced no serious problems. There are several interesting things about the two catamarans in the core area of the storm:

1) Neither of them pitchpoled;

2) Neither of them flipped- although the crews thought they came close;

3) Neither of them were dismasted;

) Both of them apparently would have survived - by surfing forwards, sideways, and backwards- had they just been left alone.

Does this mean that multihulls are actually safer in very severe weather than monohulls? We- who own both a monohull and a catamaran- certainly wouldn't leap to that conclusion. After all, there were several other monohulls in the core area of the storm that didn't even issue maydays and survived the storm with very little damage.ile it's much too small a sample on which to base any firm conclusions on, the performance of the catamarans in the storm nonetheless had some influence on our deciding to build a cat for our next charterboat. By the way, most of the factual information presented above comes from Rescue In The Pacific, a well-written and well-documented account of the Queen's Birthday Storm by Tony Farrington.

Regarding a preference between having to bail out of a sinking monohull into a liferaft versus trying to cling to a flipped multihull in raging seas: The survivors of the eight boats listed above pretty much seemed to agree that getting into a liferaft at the height of the storm would have been impossible and in any event a death sentence. The fact that only one of the boats sank on its own is more evidence that getting into a liferaft should be the ultimate last resort. Indeed, when Quicksilver's liferaft was spotted, it was bouncing over the water almost like a beach ball. Staying with an upturned multihull is usually not as bad as it might sound.

In 1993, the trimaran Rose Noelle flipped between New Zealand and Tonga, and her crew survived on her for five months. When finally found, they were in such fine condition that many accused them of having pulled a prank. There's also the famous case of Rich Wilson and Bill Biewenga, who flipped the trimaran Great American in the process of trying to set a San Francisco to Boston record. They were quite happy to be inside the inverted boat off South America, as it was more stable than right side up. Alas, the huge seas flipped the tri back up! The production cats of the recent past have mostly been designed for charter work and therefore are quite heavy and have relatively small sail plans. In the unlikely event you could flip one, the habitation space would probably be quite habitable. But that's not true with all cats. About 10 years ago, the then already old cat Atalanta flipped in bad weather off Mexico. The two crew nearly died of exposure."

I knew several of the folks who were in the monohulls for the Queens Birthday Storm--and the majority never went back to sea... Regards, Bob Austin

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