Winter’s worst

Midwinter 2003

By Bill Southworth
For Points East

We had been warned about the easterlies that batter Nova Scotia’s east coast in January, but nothing we had heard prepared us for the vengeance of a winter hurricane. The storms of the North Atlantic in winter may not have names like the tropical storms of the Caribbean, but they attack with every bit as much ferocity.

On the morning of Jan. 13, 2002, we were tucked into the docks of LaHave Bakery and Outfitters in LaHave, Nova Scotia, at the mouth of the LaHave River. We awoke at the dock with a knock on the companionway hatch from Phil Sharpe of Covey Island Boats, builders of our custom 54-foot Sparkman & Stephens sloop.

I hadn’t checked the weather, thinking that we were snug and safe behind the bakery. We had already experienced gale force winds in this spot without much discomfort, but we were not prepared for the immense storm that was about to pass over us.

Phil suggested that we move upriver to Bridgewater immediately, since local forecasters predicted storm force easterly winds in our vicinity within a few hours.

Sure enough, an hour later the winds picked up from a dead calm to about 25 knots as we motored 10 miles upriver to Bridgewater, where we could tie up adjacent to a retired Canadian destroyer for the night. By noon we were settled in to wait out the storm.

The basin in Bridgewater remained calm all day. Barbara turned in early. At about 10:30 p.m. I felt the wind picking up and went out to check the lines. The tide was rising much higher than expected, quickly approaching the top of the dock. There was barely room to set the fenders.

Meanwhile, after the eye of the storm passed over us in the early evening, the winds backed from east to west, and the wind was already 40 knots. I called Phil to see if he could lend a hand fending us off. By 11:30 that night, when Phil and John Steele, also of Covey Island Boatworks, arrived things had taken a turn for the worse. Although the tide was now lower, the wind was up to a steady 65 knots and pounding us against the dock. Phil and John both felt that our best bet would be to anchor in the middle of the basin and keep a watch. Phil volunteered to stay on board for the night.

We set the anchor, a 110-pound Bruce, about midnight and I took the first watch. Barbara had woken up as we motored off from the dock, and I was glad she had been able to get at least a little sleep. By 12:45, the wind had picked up to well over 75 knots and we were dragging.

I’ve wondered about this a lot over the last year, since this anchor could hold a battleship and we are not a heavy boat. I think we had two problems: We didn’t have room for adequate scope to set the anchor properly, and we had enough windage to sail off under bare poles. The basin is only a few hundred feet wide and is very shallow. No matter where we tried to set the anchor, it would just skip as we bounced around the basin. We reset the anchor a few times, but each time it just started dragging a bit sooner. We had to move but we had no idea where to go.

We considered tying up at the dock again now that the tide was lower, but we knew we’d need a lot of help. When we called John Steele to wrestle up some manpower, he asked if we could motor down the river again to LaHave, now sheltered from the westerlies and in pretty good shape. So we hauled anchor again and tried to turn downriver.

At that moment a powerful gust hit us and we nearly broached under bare poles. We were spun around quickly and pushed to the lee shore, where we ran aground. Barbara Ann’s powerful 150-horsepower Yanmar turbo and 28-inch self-pitching Autoprop saved us. As we lay almost on our side and a wave hit, Phil raced the engine and the prop kicked in. We literally leapt out of the water and were off down the river.

By now it was about 1:30 a.m. I learned later that winds of 83 knots were recorded in our vicinity. We were motoring down the river with the raging northwest wind and against the current. Seas in the river were 6 to 8 feet. The temperature had dropped to about 28°F, and what had been a warm rain turned to driving sleet. Phil had the wheel and I manned a searchlight at the bow to find the channel markers in the winding narrows.

By 2:30 a.m. we had snaked our way through the more dangerous section of the river and were in more open water, surfing over the waves under bare poles.

I moved to the GPS and depth sounder and Barbara relayed directions to Phil at the helm. Visibility was near zero. We were now at low tide and depth soundings were matching the chart exactly in this part of the river. Good chart, and God bless GPS. I kept us at the edge of the channel, where I could navigate by depth if we had a GPS problem. The radar was not particularly useful in these conditions since the radar was inside the pilothouse (a repeater has since been installed at the cockpit helm) and steering from inside was not possible. Also, I could not control the clutter caused by the constant snow and sleet.

As we made our way down the river we periodically saw headlights facing us from the shore as John Steele followed our progress and tried to light up the particularly tricky stretches.

Finally, at 5:30 a.m. we arrived at the LaHave bakery. John called us on the VHF and told us to go downwind, turn, then head directly for the dock. He and Colin O’Toole would be waiting to throw me a fender at the bow with a loop to throw over the windlass. The wind would hold us out from the dock until we could be hauled in under more favorable conditions.

As we turned in the raging seas and winds, we nearly broached again. But we rounded into wind and headed for the dock at top speed. Standing at the bow, I was sure that we’d slam into the dock, but when Phil cut the throttle the wind stopped us in a second. I grabbed the line and hooked it around the windlass. We were safe.

We tied off but made no attempt to leave the boat until some hours later, when we could pull into the dock safely. After polishing off a bottle of port and making a substantial dent in a bottle of rum, we tried to sleep at last.

After weathering the hurricane and finding a window to cross the Bay of Fundy, the Southworths sailed Barbara Ann to her homeport of Portsmouth, N.H. They are spending the winter at Constitution Marina in Charlestown, Mass. Once the rig has been modified and the snow has melted from the canvas, they will move the boat to Booth Bay and begin a Downeast cruise as far north as they can get in the summer, perhaps to the Madeleine Islands or the Gaspe peninsula.


After the storm: Lessons learned the hard way

We’ll be changing a few things operationally and in rigging as a result of this adventure:
We’ll have a small second anchor, more easily deployable. We carry four anchors. I’m going to rig the lunch hook, a 24-pound Fortress, to be shackled to the chain of the 110 lb. Bruce. This will help lower the catenary and help keep the Bruce from skipping. Also, I’m going to have a pair of 1/4-inch nylon snubbers ready at the bow. Once this combination is holding, there will be more time to deploy one of the heavy storm anchors, either a 47-pound Fortress or a 60-pound fisherman’s.

Without sails raised, our large aerodynamic rig has its center of effort very far forward. This causes some lee helm when under bare poles. I’m going to have a riding sail rigged with its luff hanked to the backstay to help with this. I suspect that the combination of our main when reefed to a handkerchief with this riding sail may be more effective than our storm trysail.

Many items are going to be made more easily accessible. In a situation like this, you just don’t have time to dig for anything. My handheld GPS, extra life jackets, the handheld VHF, charged flashlights, and heavy waterproof gloves are all going to be sitting next to the nav station.

Although we did pretty well with items not flying around, I’ve found a few more items to tie down. Particularly, below decks in our storage area some storage units came loose and could have lodged in the steering.

Building Barbara Ann: Is this the ideal cruising boat?

Barbara Ann is a high-tech custom 54-foot S&S sloop launched in 1991 by Covey Island Boatworks in Petite Riviere, N.S. She was designed as a single-handed voyaging boat, capable of crossing all oceans safely and in comfort. The basic concept in her design is that technology should make the sailing easier and that easier is safer when the going gets tough.

Vital statistics are 54.75 feet overall, 53.50 feet on deck, and 46.3 feet on the waterline. Beam is 14.9 feet. Draft with keel retracted is 6.75 feet, 9.75 feet extended. She displaces 37,800 pounds. Tankage includes 200 gallons of water and 230 gallons of fuel for the 150-horsepower Yanmar.

Since launching the Barbara Ann, Barbara and Bill Southworth have reconsidered the radical Aerorig. After discussions with Ted van Dusen of Composite Engineering in Concord, Mass., they have decided to replace it with a carbon fiber rig that will be similarly easy to handle but weigh half as much.

The Southworths advise: “For anyone interested in building a high tech custom boat like Barbara Ann, plan for a year of design, two to three years of build, a year to figure out what you did wrong, and then a year to get it all right.”

To learn more about Barbara Ann and the journeys of the Southworths, see their web site at