We don’t like talking about this accident, which could have had much more serious consequences than just equipment damages (although the after-effects of these damages haunted us throughout the rest of the voyage), but that also gives to the whole voyage an undeserved negative flavour.
We could have killed ourselves. Luckily we are always very strict in the use of safety harnesses, hooked to strong points in the cockpit, so even if she wasn’t able to grab the lifelines Barbara would have remained tied to the boat: with no working engine and with damaged rig, I wonder if I would have been able to get back to her if she wasn’t tethered!
I was lucky as well, getting away with a sore eye (probably hit by a can) and a gash on my back caused by a square pan which escaped from the oven. I could have been hit by something heavier, like the cabin doors that went flying around.
We could have sunk. The choice of a metal-hulled boat worked well, with no structural damage and even the rigging managed to keep the mast up even though the middle- and top-shrouds were slackened. Still, water was cascading inside, and if the boat would have not righted herself quickly, we would have been in serious trouble!
We could also have ended up washed on the shores of the San Blas islands: had the wind kept blowing 40-50 knots like the night before we would probably have been unable to steer away from the islands.
Luckily, we were prepared: before departure, the Rally organisers check all boats from various viewpoints, including the ability to withstand a capsize, and in preparation for that we made several modification, like fixing all cabin floorboards, securing the batteries or arranging nets to keep all loose items in position.
Not all worked well, for example I had forgotten to lock the oven door, the nets proved inadequate to hold the heavier objects, and I had overlooked the possibility that cabin doors could slip out of their hinges.
The more serious damages were caused by water, which flooded the nav station and the main switchboard, besides soaking the nautical charts (ratings: french coated charts OK, british Admiralty charts wet but recoverable, american charts destroyed).
Later we discovered that two transceivers for the autopilot’s remote control and for the man-overboard alarm, installed near the companionway, were not watertight and had been shorted by the water, bringing the whole nav system down, although most of the other instruments were in fact intact. Some other instruments, like the spare GPS, filled with water! Unacceptable in equipment meant for marine use!
Was the accident avoidable? Probably yes. When we met similar conditions later in the voyage, we either hand-steered or at least used the powerful electronic autopilot instead of the wind vane, and we stayed at the helm, ready to “help” the autopilot if the boat was starting to lose the straight line.
Had we wanted to use the wind vane, we would probably have had to help it by trailing lines from the stern, in order to reduce the risk of the boat starting to surf; in fact during the long ocean passages, a similar effect was obtained by towing electrical generator’s turbine whose drag was causing a speed drop in excess of half a knot.
In a boat like ours, another option to consider would be to lift the keel: this is supposed to allow the boat to “slip” on the waves, instead of “tripping” on the keel and be rolled over.
At the time of the accident our keel was only half up, because I had the unpleasant feeling that the boat was less responsive to the rudder when the keel was completely up and was afraid of making things worse.
I’m convinced that lifting the keel is the right approach when heaving-to or when trailing lines or a drogue, but I’m still unconvinced of the benefits when running downwind and therefore in need of the maximum rudder effectiveness.
Having to withstand a gale for a prolonged period, I think we would run with the keel up and trail lines to slow the boat well below the waves’ speed, or for short periods we would hand-steer.