Making heroes in stormy South Pacific

Oakville-based sailor John Gayford enjoys sailing in the South Pacific, and has sailed many times between the islands of Tongo, Fiji, Niue, New Caledonia and New Zealand, where he’s based when he is travelling and where he leaves his C&C 43 called The Usual Suspect during hurricane season.

On most of the trips, the retired mechanical engineer from the Ford Motor Company has crew, and apart from the usual endless hours of open ocean sailing, nothing too exciting happens along the way — except for a trip that he took in late 2023.

That trip, through a raging storm, was a real heart stopper.

Gayford, who originally hails from Australia, where he grew up sailing with his brother, has spent many hours at sea, for the past many years sailing a home-built 46-ft. yacht that he ordered as a kit, and which came as 17 large panels of aluminium that had to be welded together.

It took him six years to build that yacht, which he called Falcon GT, named after a Ford car model. He knew that he wanted to be safe on the ocean, and settled on a design that was solid – but also fast.

Some of his friends helped in the construction and they joined Gayford who eventually sailed the yacht to Australia and throughout the South Pacific, enjoying the islands that he’s since frequented many times over the years.

The Falcon GT had a sturdy metal construction, two watertight bulkheads, a pilothouse and plenty of handrails on deck and below. The yacht is sloop-rigged with a staysail and a large main, with a boom 19 ft. long and a main sail with four reefs.

Gayford and four crewmembers left Bronte Harbour Yacht Club on Oct. 14, 2008, and set a course down the Erie Barge Canal to New York City, across the Atlantic to Cape Town and through the Southern Ocean on to Australia. He’s still a member of the local yacht club and, upon first joining, sailed a Contessa 32.

The first leg of the journey in The Falcon GT took longer than they thought, and they spent 69 days at sea, traveling about 8,000 miles. They were loaded and had enough supplies. The second leg across the Indian Ocean was shorter, at about 6,000 miles. In between, they spent 10 days resting in Cape Town and provisioning.

It took them about six months to arrive in Melbourne, without much mishap. They went through three major storms, one in the Atlantic on the way into South Africa, but the boat was steady and they kept going. They arrived in Australia in March 2009.

Eventually, Gayford sold his beloved Falcon GT and was “boatless” for about eight years. But that changed in 2018, when he and a friend bought the C&C 43, another go-fast boat that won the Chicago to Mackinac Island Race in 2011.

The boat was a 71st birthday present to himself. He eventually bought out his friend.

“It was in Fiji as the owner had bought another yacht. Fiji, of course, is a mecca for trade winds cruising circumnavigators, so that was a wonderful tropical paradise to start our adventures with The Usual Suspect,” says Gayford.

Since the purchase in May 2018, The Usual Suspect has visited the South Pacific islands of Niue, Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia four times and was based in Whangarei, New Zealand, during the six-month cyclone season.

During the pandemic, the yacht didn’t leave port for over two years.

“There have been 71 crew, learning, and sharing adventures of ocean passages up to 1500 nm and cruising Niue, Tonga and Fiji.

“Last July, 2023, we sailed from Marsden Cove, New Zealand, to Niue island 1400 nm to the northeast. We got hammered and I thought my essay on that storm may be interesting to your readers,” says Gayford, who has since sold the C&C 43 boat to a friend in New Zealand.

He has again found himself “boatless” after getting rid of his latest boat at the urging of family members, since reaching the age of 77. He says at that age, you tend not to bounce as easily off the winches in the cockpit in rough seas like you used to.

These days, he’s keeping busy working part-time for a local spar dealer, and is a race officer at the Bronte Harbour Yacht Club. He says he may return to the South Pacific again, but on someone else’s boat this time around.

He says the stormy passage last year from Niue to New Zealand was a result of some bad weather reports. He tended to use the sailing app Predictwind and found that the forecasted gusts in some of these passages ended up as usual wind speeds. He credits climate change as a possible culprit.

“We knew we were in for some 40-45 knots of wind but it ended up much higher,” he says. “The maximum winds gusts were actually average wind speeds. The forecast was wrong.”

The following is Gayford’s report on last year’s long slog through rough seas, howling winds, and sea spray coming from all directions. He calls it a “significant emotional event…enjoy.”

“Does anyone know where the love of god goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours…” Gordon Lightfoot.

Alofi, Niue, 1400 miles from New Zealand, South Pacific, Friday July 14, 2023. All crew well.

By John Gayford

For the four crew, this ordeal was within hours of starting a serious ocean passage in a new-to-them, powerful and strong 43 foot C&C Canadian sailboat, The Usual Suspect.

We departed from the New Zealand Marsden Cove marina at noon on July 2, 2023. The Predictwind forecast was for strong westerly winds gusting to 46 knots with consistent winds of 33knots. I figured the gusts are the minimum and prepared accordingly.

At the marina, we pulled in the second reef in the mainsail and sail-tied it completely furled up on the boom. The #3 jib was reviewed to ensure the sheets were running free. The deck mounted extra diesel jerry cans and the dinghy were strapped down tight.

The crew safety briefing had emphasis on personal safety. Put on automatically-inflating lifejackets with integral harnesses and tethers. Lots of tether anchor point in the cockpit. Full wet weather clothing. We reviewed the importance of hanging on with three-point grounding at all times. We reviewed the written safety procedure. It was explained to the crew to stay within the confines of the cockpit, and no peeing over the side..

Four of the five crew had experienced storm conditions, but not for what was in-store for us. While the crew confidence was adequate, no one was acclimatized to the motion of the ocean. The acclimatization process can take two to four or more days, consequently we all knew our minds and bodies were in for super challenging and very uncomfortable times, particularly with the mind games of seasickness. Our agreed strategy was not to talk about it at all, take meds as you see fit and look forward to the challenge with trepidation.

As darkness approached, we were sailing fast with the #3 jib fully deployed and no mainsail. With increasing west winds, the seas built and by pitch black, the wind roared past the predicted gusts, hitting 50 knots, shrieking, to sit on 50 to 55 knots, topping out at 69.7 knots.

As they say, ‘plan for the worst, hope for the best” but the weather was still taking us by surprise. This was unexpected and worrying. The seas were furious, insane …Our saving grace was that the sea and wind direction was 30 degrees off the port quarter, behind us. as predicted.

This was a storm of fury and noises, wind screaming in the boat, seas whooshing, tumbling, and roaring. Talk was limited to brief shouts. It would have been impossible to sail or go in any other direction.. We furled the jib to half area which made absolutely no difference to the boat speed. The Usual Suspect lived up to its great sailing reputation — continually surging over 13 knots topping out at 15.2 knots, with the crew feeling 90 per cent in control of this dangerous and somewhat unknown situation.

By 10 p.m. the moon rose, illuminating a picture of ocean insanity, roaring, breaking waves, white spume driving over the boat, the motion jerky, and obviously dangerous. Full attention to holding on,, bracing oneself and, frankly, being alarmed and frightened.

The danger and risk of personal injury was very high so the best place to be secured was laying down in your bunk. Very difficult to sleep or rest, adding to sickening fatigue. High stress levels unabated..

I tried hand steering but soon found the autopilot paid much better attention with never a broach, or sliding sideways onto the path of a breaking wave, precipitating the dreaded rollover. By 3 a.m. on Tuesday, there was no moderation in this violence, and we were now beginning our trials with seasickness, resulting in no more small talk.

This was serious business, and this is the time the true characters of the crew shows…we were in a violent, dangerous situation with no hope of rescue should disaster strike.

There was continual high stress levels for the crew but, amazingly, Karenza and Rhianna – the Kiwi Sisters said “we are in it, we are taking it, we are going to get through it, don’t worry about us, we know the risks, we will be ok.” Julie and Lukas persevered with absolute positivity, giving communal encouragement and expressing wonder at being part of the scene from a Dantes inferno seascape. This was the making of heroes.

By noon Tuesday, the storm gusts were down to 50 knots with less furious seas, and, unbelievably the Kiwi Sisters served up piping-hot shepherds pie, then later a hearty pumpkin soup and toast. This was a huge morale booster and so essential to the crew level of comfort and security knowing sustenance could be done, and that everybody was looking after each other.

I don’t think anyone was particularly happy, most enduring various levels of seasickness and knowing that this, too, will pass but why not right now! The reality is that this uncomfortable feeling is so slow to dissipate it seems never ending, hence the quotation (by the late singer Gordon Lightfoot) as a preface. And again this tests your character and resolve to get through undeterred from future voyaging..

The storm took its own sweet time to moderate, so by late Tuesday we looked on 30 knots as merely a bit of wind — nothing to even remark about.

We had persevered, came out on the other side of the storm, to feelings of relief but mostly satisfaction at having survived intact with only bruises and no broken bones. A bonus was The Usual Suspect was undamaged and steering with nary a care.. All systems including electrical were 100 per cent.

This experience means that the crew now have enhanced self esteem as ocean sailors and for themselves, knowing they have endured things that most sailors, or anyone, will never experience.

I thank the awesome crew of the Kiwi sisters, Karenza, and Rhianna, and Julie and Lukas, Canadians, for letting me place them in harm’s way and them, by their own efforts, getting through it intact, cheerful, and exhilarated…and becoming heroes.

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