Seychelles, big storm, lee shore: We learned about sailing from this!

Robbie & Bev Collins of sy Mersoleil were lucky enough to survive a horrific storm on a lee shore just after arriving in Seychelles and learned some important lessons. Two other boats were lost in the storm, both went onto reefs.

Published 5 years ago, updated 4 years ago


Pulling into the anchorage at Anse Lazio, Praslin Island, Seychelles, we congratulated ourselves on selecting good shelter from the SE trades that are beginning to develop, bringing constant breezes from the southeast at 10-15 knots along with welcome relief from the oppressive tropical heat that’s typical until early May. Scattered showers of short duration were coming and going around noon under mostly overcast skies. The sky was very dark downwind, to the west, and we were grateful not to be over there!

I dropped the anchor in about 10 meters of water, let out 55 meters of chain and tied on our 3-strand rope snubber which lengthens the chain by another 5 meters and takes the strain off the windlass, the anchor winch. We prefer to use even longer anchor rods, 7:1 rather than 5:1, but there were already 5 other boats anchored nearby with more arrivals anticipated before the end of the day. Nearly all the other sailing yachts in Seychelles are rental catamarans and catamaran sailors are notorious for anchoring very close to shore on short chains (sorry, friends, but it’s true.) The motor directly into shore in very shallow water, right in front of Mersoleil, let out insufficient chain, and once we’re surrounded by cats on short rodes our swing room is severely limited. So I settled for 5:1 scope.

Less than an hour after we settled in, it became obvious that the black sky was getting darker and, despite the winds still from the SE, the storm appeared to be moving east toward our location, not away. Not an hour after that, we were shocked by a sudden 15F degree drop in temperature accompanied by a powerful blast of 20kt winds from the west that spun us 180 degrees putting Mersoleil and all the other yachts close to the classic, dreaded, lee shore. The storm was already fully formed and brought with it wind waves that rose rapidly to 2 meters, then 3, and higher. Winds rose to 35kts and remained there. This was a big storm, not a tropical squall, reporting a diameter on our radar of 20nm, and we were right in the middle of it! I sincerely wished we HAD set out more chain, and also that the snubber was longer because as the bow rose 3 or 4 meters with each rising wave then slammed back down into the following trough, our snubber was taking enormous shock loads.

One sailor, on a cat very close to us, though he could better manage the storm by motoring into the wind and waves, thereby keeping his yacht from turning broadside to the danger and possibly broaching. Captains on the other cats did not try this technique and it was clear that the better choice was to hang without auxiliary power on the anchor rode. The driving yacht was all over the place, quite out of control, and sideways to the wind more than any other vessel in the bay. We worried that he might crash into Mersoleil, tried to hail him on the VHF, in fact, we called to “any vessel at Anse Lazio,” and received not a single reply. We were obviously the only vessel with a radio on.

In skies as dark as dusk, every yacht in the anchorage turned on its navigation lights.

All the vessels that had anchored close to the reef were now within striking distance of the rocks and because they were in such shallow water, where the huge waves were breaking, they bounced violently, both side to side and forward to aft. One by one the captains of these vessels realized they had to run from the lee shore out into the storm or to find themselves on the reef. At least two vessels dragged their anchors, sliding perilously close to rocky reefs before they made the decision to abandon the anchorage. A third dragged past an unused mooring buoy, fouling his anchor chain on the buoy’s mooring chain and several people on that boat huddled at the bow for half an hour in outrageously dangerous conditions debating how to untangle from the mooring. We watched with binoculars – the storm was powerful, even though it had not reached its height yet – and saw not a single person on any other boat wearing a life vest or tether, but many running around on deck unsure what to do. We could feel their panic. Remember, most of these people are not experienced, sailors. They’re nice German couples and South African families who’ve flown here for a one week sailing holiday on a crewed sailing cat. Most of the captains are locals, and we don’t know how much sailing experience they have, but we do know from our own observations that they do not all anchor as cautiously and conservatively as we do.

Mersoleil remained solidly anchored, maintaining her position despite the incredible forces on her chain, snubber, and hull. Doggie was tied behind the boat, about 15 meters away on a towing bridle that we had assembled before we left Seattle in 2011. See the photos below. I thought for certain that Doggie would break free and that we might have to drag him off the beach with a water-filled outboard when all the shouting was over, or lose him altogether, but remarkably he held his own out there, rising high on each wave and plummeting down to the bottom of each trough, getting jerked by his towing line first left, then right, then spinning 360 and snapping to a halt again with his bow toward Mersoleil’s stern. I saw his entire underside more than once flying above the crest of a wave and was amazed he didn’t capsize. We donned our life vests and tethered ourselves to padeyes installed in the cockpit, something we do as a rule on passage, but very rarely at anchor.

We had been seeing another monohull throughout the week, a smaller yacht, full of guys speaking French, laughing together late into the evening and having a grand time. Their boat was much too close to both beach and granite boulders and it was bucking wildly with, apparently, no one on board. They must have gone to the restaurant on shore for lunch. At one point, looking toward land through his binoculars, Robbie said, “There’s something going on at the beach. I think there’s a person in the water!” And then a few minutes later, “There are about six people now standing around on the beach.” We didn’t understand what was going on there, but we had our own fish to fry and returned our attention to Mersoleil.

The storm continued to intensify, showing, according to radar, no inclination to move or dissipate, and we decided to run the engine in case it was suddenly needed. Waves started coming over the bow, big green torrents rushing down the deck and shooting up over the dodger, our windscreen. We were both drenched, first by the torrential rains, now by saltwater, too. About this time, I put away my phone and camera. The pictures I took of the storm were all taken early in the event. As conditions worsened, it was necessary to give our complete attention to what was going on around us and to consider our options should action become necessary.

Someone was on the small monohull now, the French guys’ boat, just one person though, not the entire gang. Dark curly hair and dark skin told us it was probably the local captain. He had started the engine and was trying to motor forward into the waves – without even raising his anchor! The boat lurched forward, then moved slowly until it was fairly close, dangerously so we thought, to Mersoleil at which point we saw him run to the bow (sans PFD and tether), struggle with the anchor, and run back to the helm to regain control of the vessel. After two or three of these excursions, we understood that he was alone on the boat, had no electric windlass with which to raise his anchor, and that he hoped to drag vessel and anchor far enough from shore to buy time to go forward alone and lift the anchor by hand. To our surprise and delight, the tactic worked for him and we gave cheers and a big thumbs-up as he motored past and out of the bay. He was a great hero, we thought, but a hero who had swum to his boat from shore in extremely hazardous conditions. He was, we realized, the person in the water earlier. He had gone alone to climb aboard a tossing boat and save it from smashing to pieces on the rocks. Foolish to risk his life as he did, but greatly heroic in saving the sailboat. We’re trying to find him now so we can buy him a beer!

Mersoleil was the only yacht left in the anchorage. We discussed again whether to run or to hold tight – it’s a tough call under such conditions. Our anchor alarms indicated that Mersoleil hadn’t budged an inch and the storm was still enormous and all around. There wasn’t anywhere to run and surely this couldn’t continue much longer, could it?

After two or three hours of intensifying winds, waves and downpouring rains something changed dramatically. One particularly high wave, it had to be 5 meters, rushed toward the bow. I was on watch tethered in the cockpit and saw it coming, thinking, “oh, man, this is a big one,” as it swamped Mersoleil’s bow with several feet of green water that flew down the deck, up over the dodger, into the cockpit and over the top of the bimini above the helm. With all the bucking and tossing I was concerned about the chain and snubber and whether they were in position over the bow roller or lying in a mess on the deck, something we saw once before while beating in high seas. Holding tightly to the dodger grab rail, I stepped up on a seat in the cockpit in order to get a better look at the bow and I saw a rope, it could only be the snubber, draped loosely across the top of the primary bow roller in a completely unnatural position. Maybe the bow had dipped into the water and picked it up. In that case, now the fiberglass of the bow, instead of the steel backed snubber fitting, was going to sustain the huge forces of a twenty-three-ton yacht being hurled in the air by high waves. That wasn’t a good thing.

Robbie and I agreed that one of us must go forward to inspect the cause of this condition, and perhaps, the damage. Both willing to go, we decided it should be me because I have a smaller surface area, less weight, and I would be slightly less likely to be washed into the sea. Pound for pound I’m probably about as strong as he is, but as a smaller target, we thought I might have a better chance of staying on deck.

We have an excellent system of safety jacklines – specially purchased, cut and installed ropes that run from bow to stern along the centerline of the yacht. We clip multiple tethers onto these lines, allowing us to move the length of the boat, never for a single moment untethered; click one on, move forward, clip on the next before unclipping to first, move forward again to the next change point. It’s a little cumbersome but ensures that nobody falls off the boat when we have to go forward in exciting situations. But, you know, we have never NEEDed the safety jacklines at anchor before! They were carefully stowed in their mesh bag out of the UV and ready for our next sailor passage. So instead I clipped two tethers to the front of my pdf, securing the other end of one to the dodger grab rail, then inched forward to the point where I could clip the second onto the middle shroud, returning to retrieve tether number one so I could advance it to a padeye on the cabin top, retrieving number two and crawling forward to the next secure holding point. When I finally reached the bow a few minutes and several warm salty baths later, it was obvious that the snubber had parted. Its frayed end was dangling in the water like a bushy ponytail and all the weight of Mersoleil was now on the chain and the windlass. Not only that, but the chain had hopped completely out of the guides on the bow roller – this was a first! – and was straining over the port side of the bow eating up the protective Starboard pad that we had installed there to protect the bow from the anchor shank and taking big bites out of the fiberglass as well.

I returned tether-over-tether to the cockpit and explained to Robbie. “We’re still hooked,” I told him, “but now all the strain is on the chain.” The yanking on the chain, now hanging over the side, was ferocious. It didn’t look like the storm was going to end any time soon and our track on the anchor alarm began to extend into new territory further from the anchor where there had been no track before. When we lost the snubber the chain effectively became about ten feet long as slack in the chain stretched out. But it was also possible that the weight and jerking of the boat were beginning to drag the anchor through the seabed. We couldn’t tell which was the case, so we decided to abandon the anchorage immediately.

There is virtually no way to lift the anchor chain back into its proper path through the groove and over the bow roller, the only solution was to release the entire 100 meters of chain and the anchor and depart without them. This we did. It was our great good fortune to have pulled out from the anchor locker the bitter end of Mersoleil’s anchor chain just two or three days earlier and to have removed the twists that build up in the chain over time. Chain links stack up next to one another in a tightly twisted chain, creating a mass too large to feed through the hawsepipe. In order to avoid this problem, which would render us completely unable to ditch the chain in an emergency, we check the last fifty feet or so of chain every so often to make sure it’s untwisted and will run freely in a crisis. This was a crisis and mercifully our chain had no twists in its full length. I untied the small red rope inside the anchor locker that holds the bitter end of the chain to a U-bolt, wrenched lose the nut on top of the windlass and the last 40 meters of heavy chain shot off the bow into the sea in a matter of seconds – until it reached the very end! We had installed a swivel on the bitter end of our chain in the stupid hope that it would allow those twists to rectify themselves, working their way off the end of the chain down in the chain locker. The swivel never accomplished that, but it did catch on something on deck and stop the last two inches of the chain from flying off into the water. With Robbie’s help from the helm, … too noisy to yell to him, so tether over tether I crept back toward the cockpit to ask him to give the windlass a nudge up… “What!? RAISE the anchor?”… “Yes, just DO it! I’ll explain later!” His tap on the windlass button at the helm was just enough to release the swivel from the fitting against which it was jammed and suddenly the rattle of chains was completely gone along with all our primary ground tackle.

Departing the bay was easy, if uncomfortably bumpy, and we motored to the very spot about three miles away that we had departed on Friday morning. There, of course, we had to deploy the secondary anchor which has been ready and waiting for nearly ten years but never been used. Well, actually, that’s not true. We unintentionally used it once, more like a fender, in New Caledonia to spring off a wharf in a 30kt blow, and ever since then our Delta anchor sits on the bow bent and deformed, a testament to the fact that it flicked along half a dozen pilings before we could back off that wharf. The Delta had never been on the bottom before, but it was there and ready and down it went at a calmer safer location with 15 meters of chain and 50 of rope rode and eventually we slept well Friday night.

During the night the winds returned to their benign southeasterly direction, and we rose Saturday morning to return to Anse Lazio to retrieve our Rocna and chain. Before departing the quiet anchorage, we checked on Doggie to see how waterlogged he was and found him completely dry inside! We were flabbergasted! It’s a great testament to Walker Bay that their Genesis 310 RIB can sustain seas like that without shipping water. Look at him in the pictures!

A point in our favor, to our credit I might say, is that because we follow a very strict anchoring and record-keeping protocol we knew the precise location of the primary anchor. Robbie found the end of the anchor chain on his very first dive, he tied around white fender to one end of a long line and connected the other end to the (wretched) swivel at the bitter end of the chain. He returned to Mersoleil, we raised the temporary anchor, and I motored over to the float which he picked up with a boat hook exactly as if it were just any mooring pendant. It was a fairly simple matter then to wrap the rope around the windlass and haul it up carefully until there was a chain on deck again. I snubbed off the chain to relieve the strain while we discarded the swivel, fed the last few meters of chain and its little security line back down the hawsepipe into the chain locker, re-tied the security line to its U-bolt, and begin to raise the anchor in the usual way.

We stopped raising chain with about 60 meters still in the water, knowing the Rocna was stuck well-enough to sustain a 35kt blow, and here we remain a day later telling you all about it! We need a new snubber, which I can prepare in the next few days, but other than that, some relatively minor fiberglass repairs and a few boat bites, all is very well indeed on sailing yacht Mersoleil.

We feel like we spent 24 hours anchoring!!!! And WE LEARNED ABOUT SAILING FROM THAT!!!

Things we did well:

1. Carried the Dog, our faithful dinghy, on a bridle, not on a single rope. Doggie’s bridle was never intended to take a punishing like this, but it survived and protected both dinghy and motor. If we were towing him on a simple painter, he’d surely have been lost. The bridle was an excellent investment in planning and labor. It far exceeded our expectations. See photos.

2. We actively, assertively, firmly set the anchor in the seabed. Robbie hates to hear me say this, but we have never dragged anchor, not yet anyway. Inspection of the anchor on the bottom today confirms that it did not move during the storm. Our slightly enlarged track was apparently due entirely to the release of the slack chain that had been restrained by the snubber until the snubber parted.

3. We had accurate records of our anchor location. Our anchoring procedure has protected us in many situations in which others have fared poorly. We back down on our anchor at 2600 rpm for two minutes every single time we anchor and we record carefully the location of the anchor after it is set, not where it was dropped. Baie Chevalier is huge and has a featureless sand bottom. Robbie would have never found our equipment at all, let alone in five minutes, without accurate coordinates.

4 We maintained a constant anchor watch. We’d wanted to go ashore for lunch, but it is our habit to remain on board for as long as necessary to ensure the safety of the yacht. When we saw the storm growing closer, not farther away, we abandoned the idea of going to Bonbon Plume. In fact, there was no lunch on Friday. No dinner either if I recall.

5. When it became necessary, we made the right decision to dump the ground tackle and depart the bay and executed our escape in just a few minutes. Once the windlass assumed all the strain remaining at anchor was out of the question.

6. We know our knots and when we needed a rolling hitch, we produced one instantly without going to a book or a knot app.


Things we could have done better:

1. For the first time in months we failed to check the weather. There’s no excuse for our not knowing that storm was moving from west to east. We could have been elsewhere! In some locations, the Indian Ocean being one of them, we have found it difficult to obtain synoptic weather charts and forecasts and we have allowed ourselves to become dependent on and PredictWind for local weather. They are excellent tools, but they are not meteorological forecasts.

2. We probably should have replaced our snubber before now. This snubber has been in use about 3 years and was beginning look a little weary. That said, there’s a good chance a new snubber of the same rating would have chafed through, too, in those conditions. It broke at the rolling hitch, not at the thimble, not mid-line.

3. We did not have experience using the secondary anchor. It would have been a little easier if we had ever practiced with the Delta.

4. I allowed myself to be influenced by what other people do. If not surrounded by the less experienced sailors, I’d have let out more chain in the first place. Knowing the anchorage would become more crowded, I limited the scope of our chain as a matter of convenience. And if I had understood that the storm was headed toward us, not away, I would have lengthened the snubber, too. A longer 3-strand nylon rope will stretch more and may not have failed at all. Actually, if we’d known the direction the storm was traveling (and shame on us for not using MARPA radar tools to find out) we would have been elsewhere altogether.

Now (actually Monday 21st) we’re helping the owners of a South African catamaran recover their anchor and chain. Their friends’ yacht, just purchased a few months ago in Langkawi and on its voyage home to South Africa, lies stranded on the nearby reef nearly high and dry. Tides are minimal here and we’re more than a week away from the next full moon that might bring hopes of lifting her off the rocks.

Yep, we learned about sailing from this.

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