In 1805, a British Naval officer named Francis Beaufort devised a system to standardize the descriptions of wind conditions. He defined 13 wind levels, zero to twelve, ranging from no wind (Force 0) to “winds so strong, no canvas sails could possibly withstand them” (Force 12). According to the Beaufort Scale, Force 10 storm conditions exist when the sustained winds are between 48 and 55 knots (55-63MPH or 89-102 km/h). That's a lot of wind.
In the open sea, along with the wind come huge waves. The wave heights for a Force 10 Storm are immense – 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12.5m), with large patches of foam and considerable tumbling. Often the seas are much more dangerous after the worst of the storm passes. As the wind direction changes, the wave direction starts to change as well, causing confused seas and the occasional rogue wave.
Looking back through our passage logs, we have been through five Force 10 storms at sea in our 13 years, and maybe twice that many Force 8 or 9 gales. We saw three storms in the Tierra del Fuego/Cape Horn region, one on a passage from the Chatham Islands to the North Island of New Zealand, and one on a passage to the Cook Islands.
With modern weather forecasts, we usually have ample warning of approaching bad weather even at sea. If we are close enough to a safe anchorage, we will head there, otherwise we want as much sea room as possible and try to stay well away from hard things – rocks, islands, and coastlines. As long as we have time to prepare and lots of sea room, Nine of Cups handles the rough weather pretty well. In two of the storms, however, only Force 8 gales were predicted. We didn't properly prepare for a storm, nor did we switch to our storm sails soon enough. In both cases, we sustained damage – once a shredded mainsail, and once a knock-down with a few broken deck fittings and stanchions, a shredded dodger and some lost gear.
While Nine of Cups, if properly prepared, may handle the rough weather in fine form, we both know that the crew is in for an unpleasant, and very long, two or three days. The shriek of the wind and the noise from everything that is banging about, slapping and sloshing is deafening. When off watch, it is difficult to sleep because of the erratic and extreme boat motion. When on watch, especially in the high latitudes, even with layers of clothing and foul weather gear, we are always cold. We are usually seasick, no matter what meds we take. Everything takes twice as long to accomplish because of the pitching and rolling of the boat, and we can be sure of sustaining half a dozen new bruises. Even doing something as mundane as using the head is an ordeal.
Topsides, it is total chaos. We usually remove the dodger and bimini, so there is very little protection in the cockpit. The sea spray and rain are horizontal, stinging our eyes and making it hard to breathe. We have often donned our diving masks and snorkels, just to be able to see anything. We use safety harnesses, of course, and clip ourselves to the boat, even in the cockpit. If it becomes necessary to leave the cockpit to attend to some problem, even though we take every precaution, it is still dangerous. The harness and jackline may save our lives, but it won't prevent us from getting hurt, and we're invariably totally drenched by the time we make it back to the relative safety of the cockpit.
If anything can be seen, it is the towering waves rushing towards the boat. We can't help but recall all the stories we've read about boats being pitch-poled or rolled, and can't imagine how the boat can possibly survive that next really big wave. But it does, and then the next one and the one after that. We try to focus, instead, on all those other stories we've read, about crews, fearful for their lives, that sent out Mayday calls and were rescued, only to learn that their boats were found a few days or weeks later, floating along peacefully and totally undamaged.
Then, when the storm has passed, the winds have calmed down to a relatively calm 25-30 knots, the seas and seasickness have subsided, and the sun comes out, life is good again. It is always amazing to me how quickly we forget how miserable we were, and how much we appreciate that first fine day following a storm. And at the end of a long passage, what we remember are the wonderful beam reaches, the moonrises, the dolphins leaping in our bow wake and the magnificence of the stars at night. The memory is a funny thing in its subjectivity, and that's a good thing. Otherwise, we would have swallowed the anchor and moved ashore a long time ago.
We have a checklist of things to do when preparing for a storm. We keep a printed copy in a protective cover, stowed in a notebook under the Nav Station. If you are interested in having a copy, you can find it at this link.