Books featuring a Hillyard

Passage Makers Manual
Bill Finnis

The San Blas Reef

The wind continued to be strong but it was blowing in the right direction and we were making remarkably good progress, an average of seven and a half knots, day and night ... one hundred and eighty miles in each of the past two days.

Racing along like this produced a fantastic cacophony of creaks and groans as the fabric of the whole boat moved in response to the great strains imposed upon it. Down below the sound of the water racing past the hull was so great that we had to raise our voices to be heard. With the hiss and roar of the water rushing past the hull, allied to the chorus of protest from the boat, sleep for the watch below became quite impossible.

Seven and a half knots is approaching Didycoy's maximum hull speed. In like circumstances in a fin keeled vessel the helmsman would need to work hard all the time to prevent her broaching. In all the time we have sailed Didycoy, in all sorts of conditions she has never even remotely looked like broaching and that is a great comfort in bad weather a thousand miles from the nearest assistance. Exciting sailing perhaps but when it goes on for a long time it does become very tiring. What is more sailing like this places undue stress on the gear and is an invitation to damage. A passage making skipper has two important points he must keep in mind. His crew's strength must be conserved and he must work to avoid damage to the ship's gear.

After two and a half days of this wild progress, during which the rigging was vibrating with the immense loading that was being imposed on it, we said, "Enough!" The main was stowed and we ran on under a small jib making good three or four knots which was enough to satisfy us and a great deal more comfortable.

I was working on the after coach roof securing the boom to the gallows when the boat gave an unexpected lurch and put me over the side. Thank goodness I was wearing a clipped on safety harness. I was towed alongside comfortably and slowly made my way back to the self steering gear which made it possible for me to climb aboard. I distinctly remember thinking, as I flew through the air, 'I made this harness, I do hope it holds together!'

Later the wind moderated and allowed us to raise a well reefed mainsail and run with that until a seam split. We lowered the mainsail and set the heavy storm trysail in it's place. As soon as this was done the wind dropped still more.

Further offshore we would have removed the sail from the boom and mast and taken it below to repair. It is a big and heavy sail and getting it into the main saloon was always a struggle. Once it was there it filled the cabin and was difficult to manoeuvre into the sewing machine. Cristobal Colon was only two or three days away. It had been a hard trip and we were both tired, so we left it to be dealt with when we were in harbour and rested.

At the time the damage to the main was a nuisance but two days later it was to contribute to our salvation.

On the 8th of April the log reads, 'Working jib and Trisail, four to five knots. Course holding well.' Because land was not far off we had taken a number of sun sights during the afternoon and were reasonably satisfied with our knowledge of our position. We were aiming to pass well clear to the north of the San Blas Islands, about a day's sail from Cristobal Colon on the Atlantic side of The Panama Canal.

At about 0200 Betty was on watch and suddenly roused me with a shout of, "Breakers ahead!" That awful cry must have been the prelude to so many nautical disasters.

I was out of my bunk and into the cockpit in a flash, grabbing a knife en route. Betty was starting the engine that fired at first attempt and I cut the lines that were becketting the wheel.

Immediately ahead of us was a motu, a small block shaped island with the arms of it's horseshoe shaped reef reaching out to embrace us on either hand. Everywhere surf was pounding furiously on the surrounding shoals and as we headed towards the motu so the areas of white water increased in size and frequency.

Spume from the breakers hung suspended in the air like heavy mist. The sea between the arms of the reef was studded with huge clumps of coral that were made apparent only by the vast patches of white water that was bursting over them. With a great roar solid water drove high in the air all around us. With the wind astern we were racing headlong to certain destruction on the rock studded shore such a short distance ahead.

I turned the boat 180 degrees and started to pick our way between the great areas of white water. Everywhere I looked the water was a seething cauldron of foam and roaring waves that broke clear over Didycoy. We were repeatedly laid over on our beam ends and washed over by the seas as if we were a half tide rock.

Three times our long steel shod keel struck bottom and scraped and bumped over rocks but some how we came clear without serious damage.

Twice I looked up to discover that we were heading back towards the motu. Such was the need for me to concentrate on the waters around us that I could only be aware of our immediate survival. As soon as Betty understood the problem she made it her task to warn me if I was turning Didycoy away from our escape route.

Time stood still as we worked frantically, slowly moving out of the worst of the breakers, twisting and turning to find a safe passage around the areas of raging surf that indicated shoal water. Gradually we worked our way into calmer waters, waters where the areas of undisturbed sea were reluctantly becoming larger than the areas of white water.

After a lifetime, or was it only minutes? I shall never know which, we were clear and safe. We both sat in stunned silence for quite a long time before we could bring ourselves to turn to and start to check the condition of our boat and do what was needed for her.

The bilge was full of water and the electric bilge pump took an age to clear it. The heavy galvanised wire shrouds were slack. Immense forces had been placed on the standing rigging as it kept the mast in place whilst Didycoy was literally thrown around like a cork in a washing machine. As a result the rigging wire had stretched; a week later it was back to normal. We were left with a small leak that was to plague us for a long time to come but that was the total damage to Didycoy.

As for ourselves, for the rest of the night we could see islands and breakers where there were none.

Five things made it possible for our own efforts to succeed. There was a cloudless sky and a full moon without which we could have done nothing to save ourselves. If our mainsail had not split it would have been boomed way out and secured there by a vang and a guy making a rapid adjustment to our course quite impossible. With the eighteen foot long boom secured in this way it would certainly have struck the seabed and snapped with the distinct possibility of one or more lines fouling the prop or tethering us to a coral head. Our cockpit is very deep compared with most modern self draining dishpans that masquerade as cockpits these days, if it had not been so I am certain that one or both of us would have been swept into the sea. That great slab of steel ballast that runs the length of our keel doubtless saved us from serious damage when we repeatedly struck the seabed. A fin keeled boat would have smashed the fin off complete with a large part of the bottom. Our engine started and continued to run; with the engine we had then this must be construed as Divine Intervention.

I am convinced that there are not many designs of boat that would have brought us safely through what must be rated as our closest ever brush with death. Whenever I recall that episode I send up a silent prayer of thanks for David Hillyard who designed and built our boat.

Twenty four hours later we entered Cristobal Colon under the somewhat unusual rig of storm trysail and genoa to be roundly abused by a pilot boat for not flying a courtesy flag ... at 0100 in the morning! Later we learned from other yachties that they too had experienced a current of up to two and a half knots that tried to push them down to the San Blas Islands. They were equipped with satellite navigation and were able to detect the current and correct for it. If I had taken some star sights earlier we would almost certainly have known of the current that was pushing us towards the San Blas Islands. I can only feel grateful we were not punished for my laxity.