30 October 2013
About 300 miles from the Belle Isle Strait, northern entry to the St. Lawrence River, we’re confronting a constant wind of 40 knots. The boat’s taking it, and inside Tara the meal is very animated. We have only a vague idea of the wind’s force.
Of course from time to time a wave crashes onto the curved windows of the schooner and a brusk movement obliges you to hold onto your glass, but overall everything is relatively calm inside the boat. However, as soon as you step up the gangway, you discover a raging white-capped sea whipped by winds at 40 knots.
The sea is very regular which facilitates the passage of the slightly rocking boat, slipping between the waves and only jostled occasionally by big, mischievous waves. Everything seems easy for this ship built for extremes. She seems indestructible, and we’re doing more than 10 knots with very little rolling on the port side. The boat is under 2 main sails with one reef and a staysail. We are at the limit of taking up a second reef with occasional winds up to 45 knots. If you want to go on deck, the full force of the elements makes for an acrobatic stroll.
Nevertheless, the engineer Marc Picheral decides to change the silk of the CPR, the Continuous Plankton Recorder that’s being towed behind the boat since leaving Nuuk (Greenland). Outside it’s like war: the sailors shout to be heard, the spray is flying, and the sea is smoking in the wake.
The first challenge is to enter the St. Lawrence before the arrival of a gale from the southwest, predicted for November 1st. So, the more miles heading southwards the better, and at this speed, we’re sure to get there. Some believe that there’s nothing to do at sea, but in fact the days fly by. The mind is alert all the time, trying to identify the sounds and movements of the boat. Looking at the sea, you try to sense if it’s easing up or getting stronger, if the sails are set correctly, if the speed corresponds to the trim of the sails. Of course we’re helped by many electronic devices, including weather reports that give wind strength and direction every 3 hours. The captain, Martin Hertau, is totally attentive to the boat and crew. He never stops moving, all senses on alert.
Suddenly, well after dinner, when everyone is asleep except for those on watch and Martin, a huge crash shakes the whole boat and jolts us out of sleep. Everyone arrives at the gangway. François Aurat, Vincent Hilaire and Baptiste Regnier go check out the deck, while Martin turns on the floodlights. We change direction to calm down the boat’s movements, so that the men are not at risk. The shock was very violent port side, and I thought we’d hit something, or that the staysail exploded. Everyone’s a bit stunned by this sudden blow.
A huge wave had swept the deck, twisting the plate covering the winch, exploding the support of the port side dinghy, bending safety rails supports, unsoldering a jerrycan holder and unwinding the yankee whose edge appears to have suffered. It’s amazing, the power of the sea. How could a wave have twisted this re-enforced sheet-metal to a 30-degree angle? How could a wave have detached the end of the furler wound around a cleat ?
No, the expedition is certainly not over yet — the sea can still surprise us between here and Lorient.
Jean Collet* was the first captain of the former Antarctica, today known as Tara. More recently, he was in charge of preparing the boat for the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition. During this leg between Greenland and Canada, he gives us his impressions.