Although in the trade-wind belt, the sea area from the Dutch Antilles to Panama is infamous for its strong winds and nasty cross-seas, and we were having a good sample since two days.
Reading our log-book of the hours immediately before the accident, it’s obvious that the situation was dangerous, more than it appeared thanks to the boat’s comfortable behaviour: the highest waves from the stern were about 5 meters high, and another wave train was coming from abeam.
Several times during the morning our cockpit had been flooded by waves, forcing us to keep the companionway hatch closed to prevent water from flooding the cabin, as it had happened the day before. During the morning’s radio-check, some other Rally boats, including a large Hallberg Rassy, reported of similar mishaps.
During the previous night the wind had peaked at over 50 knots, but during the morning it abated considerably and was down to 25 knots; the boat was sailing under a heavily-rolled genoa alone, doing about 6 knots under windvane steering. We were thinking of letting out a little bit of sail, as our speed was decreasing, and we were quite slower than the waves.
We do not know what happened exactly: I was below decks, and Barbara was leaning over a winch, her back to the waves, trimming the genoa sheet.
What can be seen from the direction of the damage is that the boat hit the water with a great forward speed, in a “corkscrew” motion, as shown for example by the horse-shoe lifebuoy which fled from the port-side pushpit up to the crosstrees (therefore forward and sideways). The same happened below decks, where objects from the galley were found in the forward cabin!
The boat’s bow plunged in the water with a great forward speed, sweeping away or bending everything on the starboard side, and even opening the handles of the sail-locker hatch, which opened letting water in. The rudder must have gone against the stops on one side, pulling on the windvane control strings so heavily that the windvane was twisted!
Everything seems to indicate that the boat started surfing on a wave, possibly a large one, gaining speed until it lost direction, dipping the bows in the water with a violent loss of speed, and then the wave crashed over it and finished the job.
A side wave? Not impossible, there were nasty wave trains coming from the side, but I don’t think the boat was just rolled by a side wave.
A freak wave? Possibly, for sure the boat had showed no inclination to surf until then, and conditions were getting better so our speed was also decreasing, which should have made our chances of surfing even less likely. Still, later in the Rally, we did experience similar conditions and on few occasions the boat actually did start a surf, so after all maybe we did not need a huge wave, but just the “right” combination of speed and angle.
A side remark: all Pilot Books for this area recommend to stay at least 100 miles offshore in order to be less exposed to cross-seas. Our experience, as well as that of some Rally boats that kept more close to shore, seem to indicate that this approach is incorrect, or at least maybe depending on slight variations in the weather conditions.