Atlantic ocean storm and how we lost a mast crossing from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Cape Town.

Storm in the Atlantic.

If you have been following our story then you will be aware that we were asked to fly from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro to supervise and oversee repairs to a yacht, and then deliver her home to South Africa. (See, if you didn’t have the background, you do now!)

After just over 3 weeks of making the boat as seaworthy and safe as possible, we knew it was time to do some sea trials. This boat is bigger than any Captain Mike has ever helmed. Obviously, we are not going to head out into the big blue yonder without testing as much as possible. We left Rio on light fog, tested instruments, disengaged autopilot, all took a turn to helm to feel her out. We did 4-hour watches, 2 crew at a time, I was on at 12, stayed out there until the sun came up, some curious fishing boats got quite close. Loved the feeling of being out on the water again, being in the Rio marina was the most incredibly frustrating time for us, surrounded by water that you cannot swim in! The locals warned us that the water was so unhygienic that we would probably lose a limb if we fell in!! Ok, ok, we get the message, no swimming.

The sight of Ilhe Grande as the dawn broke was very exciting. Loads of tankers to skirt around before we could get closer and head to the little secluded bay we had earmarked.

Dropped anchor around 8 am, grinned at each other with a sense of accomplishment and joy, 2 minutes later we were all jumping overboard (pyjamas, who cares?) and LOVING the silky feel of warm tropical waters. Bliss. Absolute bliss. Swam to the little beach, breakfast on board a bit later, ice-cold beers in the heat, a lilo to lounge on in the water, dinghy engine to repair and then off to do a little exploring in Abraao, locals and tourists arriving via water taxis, the restaurant in the corner starts placing tables and chairs on the sand and the little beach livens up. This was our home for the next 4 days and was one of the best times of my life. To share with my son and new daughter-in-law too- was just incredible.

We sailed to another bay on Saturday 14 December, quite unique. The narrow entrance widens into a large, protected, secluded bay surrounded by beaches and jungle. Saw about 15/16 incredibly expensive powerboats all tied up together in a circle partying their brains out. Music blaring, men strutting, bikini bums hanging out everywhere (did I mention I bought Captain Mike binoculars for his birthday in October? I have re-christened them “pervoculars” after our trip to bikini-bum Brazil!), even a fireworks display later that evening.

We anchored, swam to the rocks in the bay in the dark, laughed, spoke a lot of shit, played music, ate homemade tortillas, drank caipirinhas that we had been taught how to make properly by Gunther in Brazil, you know all the things you are supposed to do when at anchorage! An absolutely brilliant, happy evening which carried over to the next day where we swam into a beach restaurant for a “last meal on land for a while ” lunch. All bubbling with excitement and nervous, cannot wait to hit the ocean and get this crossing underway. Although we haven’t had an opportunity to put up all the sails due to lack of wind, we are raring to go. Tired of the heat and the waiting, let’s get the show on the road. Swam back to the boat, stowed away, cleaned up, checked systems, weather, looking good, let’s go!

Bit of wind leaving, hopefully can get sails up later.

Think we would have been all right if we hadn’t had that last lunch……with the slight swell and rolling, 4 of us were out for the count almost immediately, vomiting and upset tummies, the thought of seafood paella makes us all want to run, even now! Luckily Junior (young yacht master) had eaten steak so he could hold the fort. We watched in awe as he prepared himself meals over the next 4 days, none of us could face food.

So that first night was a bit of a nightmare, I wrote in my log/diary “Night from HELL”. Waves pouring in hatches. Water pouring in the saloon area. All beds wets, all clothes wet, all of us, all wet! Puking and fucking miserable.” I did, however, do my watch with Captain Mike from 10 – 2, terrified and sick as we were. Felt like a real mother bitch from hell waking my son to take over at 2 in the morning but sorry my boy, your mother is finished!

Next day, Monday, we had big swells but the sea was a beautiful royal blue with translucent turquoise peaks as the waves gently broke around us. Tana, Junior and I on deck all day, Captain Mike and Adrian still violently ill.

That night Captain Mike decided to heave to so we could clean up, hang out wet bedding and clothes and of course, sleeeeeeep. That was the best decision he could have made. We felt rested in the morning, although all still nauseous, at least we had slept. (Heave to is when you set the sails so that the boat comes to a “stop” and you are not actually sailing.)

Tuesday dawned clear and sunny. Time to test a sail or 2, set main and jib. Autopilot giving shit, Junior helmed for 4 hours, Adrian did 4 hours, I managed one hour and then told Captain Mike there would be mutiny if he didn’t do some wizardry. He did. Autopilot on again. No mutiny. Pleasant, relatively calm day, all getting settled into boat routine and trying to walk straight down below. Peaceful night watches good, saw a ship or 2 in the far distance. No land in sight, we are on our way. Not feeling settled yet but sure it will get better.

Wednesday 18 December. I went up on deck around 10 to join everyone else, none of us except Junior able to eat much but can manage a spot of tea and a bit of scrambled eggs. Everyone chatting, Adrian and Mike go down below to take a nap, both still feeling queasy. Tana, Junior and I on deck, reading, finally relaxing after 3 days of trying to settle our stomachs, our minds, the realization that this is it, here we go, we are crossing an ocean. Talking about it, reading about it, thinking you are prepared is nothing compared to the reality of miles and miles of waves, churning past you endlessly, relentlessly, will do so until the end of time, no matter what happens in the world, those waves will keep coming, day after day after day.

Anyway, around 2 pm. I notice the sea state has changed a bit, instead of the waves all going in one direction they seem to be coming from both left and right. Ask Junior (on watch) why this has happened and he says he is aware of it, there are 3 signs he is looking for and he is waiting for the third sign as he has seen the first 2….??? At this moment Captain Mike, who had been sleeping, pops his head out and says “what’s happening?” Within a few seconds he was on deck shouting at Junior to “drop the mainsail NOW”, Junior ran forward but the bloody sail wouldn’t drop, Michael ran forward to help and they roughly secured the sail with a rope, lazy jacks were not working. The fact that Michael woke up from sleep because he felt a change in the sea is a testament to his natural sailing ability, his instincts, plus years of experience. It amazed us all and undoubtedly saved us from certain immediate disaster. The wind that hit us 5 minutes later could have knocked us down if we had left the full mainsail up.

I was still, at this stage, comfortably tucked in my corner of the cockpit, starboard side, with my book. Noticed a slight increase in the wind, thought nothing of it. Assumed there was something wrong with the sail. I am so thankful that I did not glance to my left and see the big black wall of cloud and rain barreling its way towards us at a very very rapid pace. I might have lost the plot completely then.

I saw Michael and Junior each calmly clip their safety harnesses on as the wind really picked up speed, start steering down these waves that were coming from all sides. It looked as if they were chasing the boat and almost felt as if it was some kind of game to outrun them. Nothing to worry about……surely it wouldn’t last long, I could see sunshine on the horizon dammit, we would be ok soon. Remember telling Tana not to worry (her first proper sail, the poor kid), we would be out of it soon. Stupidly asked Captain Mike “what do we do if this carries on when its dark”….

At 4 pm I couldn’t cope with the sight of the waves trying to catch us and went downstairs to write in my logbook/journal. It is very clear that I could hardly write because of the movement of the boat.

Some of you out there have read my Facebook account of the storm.

I have posted it again here because it does justice to the event.

” feeling emotional with Michael Friedrich and 3 others at Ilha Grande – Abraãozinho.

December 21, 2019 · Angra dos Reis, RJ, Brazil · 

5 exhausted, emotionally, physically and mentally traumatized (ex?) sailors back in Brazil.
The dreaded ” Pampero” hammered us for 10 hours 3 days ago. Came out of nowhere. We were all lounging around reading, napping, watching movies when the sea state changed within a matter of minutes.
Ten hours of a living terrifying hell started.
Tossed around like a Tupperware container with a leaky lid in a jacuzzi on full throttle.
Winds gusting up to 170 km, up to 6-meter swells, torrential rain slamming into us, wind shrieking and trying to tear the boat apart, drawers opening down below sending tools and other missiles across the cabins. Waves and water pouring into the boat through every conceivable nook and cranny. Bedding, clothes, all of us completely soaked. Never-ending lightning.
Michael and Francois held the wheel for ten solid hours while Mother Nature unleashed herself on us with all her mightiest of mightiest strength.
11.45 pm and the exhausted men came down below showing us a weary and teary thumbs up. “It’s over”.
Mother Nature, however, decided it was not.
With a terrifying loud grinding noise above us, they flew out into the storm again and tried to save the 2 solar panels from ripping away. No luck.
2 seconds later the mast smashed over, broke off inside the boat, ripped off Adrian and Tana’s cabin door and smashed into their cabin. Screaming. Terror. Get the fuck out of the cabin before it hurts you. Lights flickering on and off, don’t think of the bloody Titanic…..
Panic. Life jackets, emergency bag, EPIRB set off long ago, please will someone rescue us from this nightmare, all huddled in one cabin waiting for help to come, the storm to pass and daylight to assess the damage.
4 hours later……a sad sight on deck, absolute disaster. Need to urgently cut off boom, mast, sails, rig. Sent to a watery grave in the Atlantic. Otherwise could have ripped a hole in the hull and we would have sunk.
Save the boat.
Motor on. Thank you, it started!
250 nm to safety. Hole in the deck, please no more rain. Everything soaked. Please, please don’t let the engine die on us.
Reaction set in. Tears, vomiting, disbelief that we made it.
None of us thought we would.
Limped into Ilhe Grande today. The engine finally gave up, we ran out of diesel 0.6nm from our bay, re-fuelled insight of our safe haven and motored in slowly, all of us battered and bruised, not just the boat.
Literally kissed the ground.”

My son and daughter-in-law were adamant that they wanted to get off the boat after the first day back in Ilha Grande. Unfortunately, we still had the unpleasant task of clearing ourselves and the boat back into Brazil. We needed the correct stamps in our passports. What a nightmare! Pouring rain, humid, water taxi to the bay around the corner, ferry tickets, on the ferry for 45 minutes, to the police, they aren’t interested as most of the staff are on leave, port authority not there, however, the most important office, the passport and immigration guys helped us. Took 2 hours, all of us wet and steaming in the heat but we were legally back in the land of the caipirinhas. Back to the ferry, pizza on the island and some cold beers and caught the last water taxi to the boat. Long, tiring, frustrating and very expensive day.

Being close to Christmas it was pretty hard to find accommodation for my son and his wife but we did and they left the boat the next day, I had a huge lump in my throat watching them go even though they were only 15 minutes away in another lively bay! Junior decided he needed a break too and off he went which left Captain Mike and me to clean up a filthy, wet, broken boat. Not fun. Christmas day I took a water taxi to the kids and we had lunch together, Michael would not leave the stricken boat but we spent the evening together. Contact with the owners was scarce. They were waiting for the insurance assessor who was on the other side of the world. There was no offer of assistance to get their crew home, in fact, we were told we must all “make our own way home”! Traumatized and stranded and very very anxious. Eventually got the kids on a flight on 30 December which cost us R32 k for 2 x single tickets, plus hotel costs, food, the bus trip to Sao Paulo to fly home, a total cost of over R 50 k.

We were then instructed to “sail” (with no sails) the boat 200 nm to Santos where there was a cheap marina, we would be paid R25k of the R55k due to us if we did so and then we should find our way home……great! No lights, no instruments, no reverse gear, an engine that starts intermittently, across a fairly busy shipping lane…..Captain Mike was not interested in risking our lives and we stayed put. Things were getting nasty, the owners were refusing to pay the R30 k we had spent on provisioning for their crew for 6 weeks, there was no co-operation from their side.

On January 1st the lovely, quiet bay we were in became overrun with locals and their powerboats. They crowded in really close to us, sometimes 3 big boats tied together within 20 metres of us. We had out 30 metres of the chain so this was quite dangerous. I did a lengthy Facebook post which details the next few days of our, ummm, adventure…..

“Feeling hopeful with Michael Friedrich in Angra dos Reis, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

January 5 · 

Well, time for an update.
Captain Mike got fired 2 days ago!
Gets better and better doesn’t it ?
Scary Navy dudes with guns boarded the boat yesterday …..

The last 4 days have certainly not been pleasant.
On January 1st our little serene bay where we were recovering became invaded by local massive powerboats and yachts.
We had 30 meters of chain out, don’t speak Portuguese and some of the boats were really close so we decided to up anchor and move further out into the bay.
Of course, the anchor decided to play up and we knew we had no reverse. Got a local guy in his little boat to be on standby and a buffer between us and these million-dollar boats, fortunately, I don’t think he realised that!
Captain Mike made a spontaneous decision to get the boat to safety, too many things just not working. Also, a lot easier for the owner, who arrives early next week, to reach the boat if we were back in mainland Brazil. Getting to Ilha Grande involves water ferries and water taxis, hard to do if you don’t know your way around and don’t speak the language.
Made our way towards a marina we spotted on the chart 10 nm miles away for safety’s sake. I am embarrassed to describe my reaction when we crossed this short distance. Any tiny bump or rolling over waves (no stability as we have no mast), set me off into floods of tears, gripping on to the boat until my knuckles were white, at one stage I vomited. Screamed involuntarily once or twice. Over nothing! Ridiculous! So much fear though, the whole ordeal at the forefront of my mind. Horrible.
Gets worse. Arrive at the little marina, try to drop anchor, its stuck and we smell burning again, the trip switch did not work and we fear an electrical fire. On the radio calling ” pan-pan”, the call just before a full-blown MAYDAY! Both of us in a state of mild panic…..try forward gear, just revs, no gear! Shout like mad people to the passing massive powerboats, they smile and wave and merrily pass us by, all half pissed from celebrating the new year. Eventually, someone realizes we are in distress, puts fenders out and comes alongside, huge Rambo type crew member plus the owner of the powerboat come aboard.
Captain Mike and I literally shed tears of relief, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
They try to repair anchor, no luck, suggest they escort us to BP Marinas Verolme about 40 minutes away. This is the largest boatyard/marina in South America where all repairs can be done or the yacht can be shipped home. It’s a no brainer although the owner wanted the boat taken some 200nm to Santos, she just wouldn’t make it in this condition.
With his massive boat leading the way and muscle man helming for us, off we went.
These kind souls tied us up in the marina, in the dark, at the fuel dock after radioing ahead and then said goodbye. Absolute angels, we were completely finished.
Hot, sweaty, manic mozzies but at last, we felt safe and slept for a few hours.
What incredible staff helped us the next day. Pulled the boat to a mooring inside the marina, asked what help we needed, fantastic, sympathetic made us feel that we had support and help at last.
Spent the next 2 days sorting out the mess on the boat, tidying up, packing away in the very sticky, humidity, lots of rain, not pleasant at all, kamikaze mozzies decided Captain Mike’s South African blood is their favourite snack, the poor man nearly got carried away by them.
3 January woke up to a WhatsApp message that POA to act on the owner’s behalf has been revoked.
Yay! No longer responsible for this poor stricken vessel that I feel so sorry for. Hard to explain but a boat becomes a member of your family if you live on her and she was so strong and kept us safe in the storm. Sad to leave her.
The enormous task of packing our belongings, 3 hours of sweat and tears.
The cherry on top, large official tender pulls up as we finish packing and 3 serious-looking dudes with guns arrive, 2 board the vessel. What happened to the boat, how long will she be in Brazil etc, on and on. Google translate helps us tell our story. Official papers handed over, we must appear at naval offices at 8.15 the next day. Although Mike has been removed as captain/owners representative, we realise you just don’t fuck with these guys!
Taxi off to a nearby hotel. Bliss! Heaven! Aircon, hot shower, wifi, space, DRY, watch mindless TV in Portuguese, don’t care, finally feel a sense of safety. Sleep like the dead.
Off to authorities today, aggressive, want to send us to Rio to check-in the distressed vessel, eventually very helpful after we relive the ten hours of hell we went through. Being naval guys they sympathized and understood. All documents stamped and sorted, the vessel may stay at the marina legally awaiting the outcome from insurance.
Back to the hotel.
Same procedure as yesterday!
The owner arrives next week, hopefully, we get air-tickets home and what is due to us.
Missing Cape Town, even the South Easter, will take that wind over this humidity any day.
Thanks for all the messages of love and support, it has helped us so much.
Love from Brazil!

The very last time Captain Mike helmed this boat.

Update a few days later…..

We spent the next week in the incongruously named “Colosseum” Hotel in Angra! Slept with the aircon on 24/7, binged on crap television, rested and recovered. Knew the owner had arrived as we were informed by a local that a broadcast had been put out on all the local groups that we had “pirated” his boat and were busy “stripping it”! I have the messages, just incredible !!! Risk our lives once again to get the boat to a place of safety, for what?

Anyway, things came to a head a very short while later……

“Feeling thankful with Michael Friedrich in Angra dos Reis, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

January 11 · 

I honestly could not make this shit up.
So many details but suffice to say we gave one last chance for everything to be resolved amicably (read my previous posts if you are in a dark tunnel here) and then, on Friday morning, knew we had to go the dreaded route of Brazilian Authorities.
Debated doing this, the language barrier, the heat, the option of rather lazing in the pool with caipervodkas (SO over caipirinhas after 9 weeks) but we heaved ourselves up off our bed in our beautifully air-conditioned room and off we went.
Port Authorities.
Waved the ” Portuguese Paper” we had had Nadja’s boyfriend, Delio, translate for us from English to Portuguese.
Helped because at least they understood a bit, didn’t help too much though as they basically said ” we can’t help” and sent us off to civil police.
More waving of Portuguese Paper.
They can’t help but will put us in tinted police SUV with men with fully armoured gear, land mines in their pockets, RPG launchers on their shoulders, off to the Federal Police, the big boys in Brazil.
Sweltering in the 41 deg heat, again waving Portuguese Paper, a decision made, no, they can’t help us.
Took pity on dripping, dissolving, almost ready to weep and never ever ever stop weeping old lady (yip, me), ushered us inside, called a lawyer on the phone who spoke pidgin English and said he might help us, gave us icy cold water and off we went, back to civil police in the tinted windowed van, quite enjoying the notoriety….locals enjoying watching gringos getting in and out of scary police SUV.
Back at a grotty civil police station, 25 minutes and lawyer arrives.
Wave Portuguese Paper.
He gets it!
We need a court order, a judge ……..
The owner and his Brazilian sidekick walk in! (Have I mentioned that this person put an audio message on a Brazilian sailing group that the crew (us) had ” pirated and were pilfering ” the vessel! and all Brazilians should be on the lookout for her and us…!!)
My heart dropped like a lead ball, right down to my bladder.
3 hours of accusatory hell.
The lawyer, who had just met us, defended us.
The cop who we had (can you believe our timing!!) told our story 49 minutes prior, defended us.
Some other cop dude added his 2 cents worth very vociferously.
We have tickets home, bought by the owner, for Monday!
The rest we will pursue at a later date.
Time to go home.
P.S. HUGE thanks to the many, many people who reached out to help us, strangers in the sailing community and friends. You have no idea how much it meant to us. X
P.P.S someone asked why all the fuss over a few air tickets….well considering the cheapest economy tickets home are 42k x 4, that’s quite a saving….

We left Brazil on 13 January 2020. What a start to 2020!

One of the most emotional moments of our lives, flying over Namibia as the sun rises….we are home, beautiful AFRICA!

We both shed quite a few tears when we saw our glorious Table Mountain.

Will I sail across an ocean again? The jury is out on that one…….

Captain Mike and Nikki.

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