We bought an ocean-capable boat not because we were convinced we would round the world, but because we wanted the flexibility to be able to go anywhere in the world if we wanted to. We bought a strong boat not because we were convinced we needed to test it, but because we wanted a boat with “engineering headroom” — we wanted it to be considerably stronger than the worst we were likely to ask it to operate through.
Five years later, it turns out it’s a good thing we decided to accept the various compromises that come with an ocean-capable power boat. Who would have guessed that, as we type this, we’re anchored on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia with dreams of still ranging further afield. And, looking at the other attribute we value so greatly, boat strength, it’s not one we expected to test and it’s certainly not one you want to test. But Dirona has done fairly well by that measure as well. We have seen no survival storms — fortunately they are rare and modern weather reporting can avoid the worst of them except in statistically anomalous situations. But they can happen, so we wouldn’t sacrifice strength for anything. Just two people out in the ocean 1,000 miles from any shore can make boat strength feel like a super important attribute even though it is seldom tested.
We have seen some tough weather but most of it was actually surprising close to shore. Ironically most boat operators are extra-careful in selecting the weather and time of year when making ocean crossings so it’s little surprise that the worst conditions experienced by recreational boats are often near to shore. For us, memorable times are fully developed seas in 40 kt wind in the Gulf of Alaska with gusts as high as 59, the east coast of New Zealand north of Wellington in only 30 to 40 kts, and the east coast of Australia in the shallow coastal waters of the Tasman Sea near Brisbane in around 40 kts. None of these conditions were particular dangerous or even scary but they were onerous and sometimes a bit tiring. Having a good strong boat can transform the potentially scary to only tiring. And, there is no question, compared to the stories you hear from local fisherman and professional mariners that are out there all the time in these areas, we have seen close to nothing on board Dirona.
One notable test of the boat did happen fairly recently in attempting to cross the Wide Bay Bar south of Fraser Island on the east coast of Australia. In all the conditions we had seen prior to this event, we have managed to avoid large breaking seas. It’s in these conditions where weather conditions swing from taxing to dangerous. Massive breaking seas can happen in extreme conditions, but are especially frequent where high winds meet large ocean currents (e.g. the Agulhas Current near South Africa). Fortunately, these conditions are fairly rare and largely avoidable. One place where these conditions are actually fairly common are river bar entrances. In the US, the entrance bar of the Columbia River is particularly renowned for producing harrowing conditions — in fact, the US Coast guard trains rough water small boat handling there — but nearly every maritime country has their example. In New Zealand, the Grey River Bar has really earned its notoriety.
River bars can be dangerous and anyone with sea experience knows to avoid them if the conditions aren’t right. But, estimating when the conditions aren’t right isn’t as straight forward as one might think. For example, we crossed the Columbia River bar where, just 1 hour before, the US Coast Guard had it closed to all recreational craft. At the time when we actually crossed, they were only allowing boats through that were over 50′. We braced for difficult conditions but actually found it an unremarkable crossing.
Recently, when faced with the same decision here in Australia, it was clear that conditions were worse than our Columbia River bar crossing, but with the wind blowing a steady 30 to 40 kts and it being nearly 100nm to another anchorage, there is a clear appeal to crossing the bar. The conditions were not expected to improve for 3 days. Nonetheless, we’ll take 100 nm in rough water over dangerous conditions all day, any day. Before approaching the Wide Bay Bar, we read all we could on the bar crossing and what to expect. We radioed Coast Guard Tin Can Bay to get the latest GPS coordinates since bar conditions can change over time and the Coast Guard often has current bar conditions. They said nobody has crossed that day but they did expect it would be rough and speculated it must be rough out where we are as well. We agreed, it definitely was lumpy. They said we might be happier in than out but neither would be easy right now.
At this point, we felt like we had all the information available on the bar crossing as we approached it from seaward. There are two aspects to sizing up bar condition from sea that make precision difficult. One, is turning around and returning to sea can be difficult and the other is the back side of waves driving onto the shallows always look much smaller than they do when looking from the landward side.
A good data point is to watch the waves beside and just forward of beside the boat. These were towering breaking waves off just 50′ to the right and the same to the left of Dirona. But as we slowly inched into the shallows, there were no breaking waves across the 100’+ entrance path. The waves were big, the water was incredibly churned up further in, but the line of breaking waves had a clear gap along the entrance path. Our read of the conditions were that they were difficult but crossable and we proceeded further in. We were watching behind us as much as in front as we followed the recommended crossing path. Conditions ahead continue to look random and churned up and the waves beside us were breaking and dangerous, but we continued to work in on large but not particularly frightening waves. We keep the boat centered on the entrance path and continud to look both forward and back as we proceed shoreward. A particularly large wave was building behind us and it seems to just keep getting bigger. What was a big concern is the non-breaking section behind us was closing up on this wave and it’s starting to break all the way across. Because we are traveling in the same direction as the wave, there is actually more time than you would guess to watch the non-breaking gap close up behind the boat. The wave just kept climbing as it neared us, starting to lift Dirona at the base of the wave. We rose about 1/3 of the way up the wave as it passed underneath before getting hammered by the break from above. Water power is simply incredible.
Dirona was driven back down the wave by the breaking section fast and, as we headed down, the stern very slowly accelerated more quickly than the bow and started to swing off course to the right. We now were at full throttle and full right rudder, but the stern continued to get driven around the forefoot towards the starboard side by the breaking wave from above. The boat rotated broadside into the wave, the wave continued to drive it down and the boat slowly rolled away from the wave. At this point we could hear the furniture “pouring” into the starboard side of the boat. We didn’t really feel that far heeled over but gravity definitely was creating a mess in the salon behind us. When the wave had passed, the boat was popping up, but the wave’s twin was close behind and also breaking. We turned the boat back towards the shoreward path we were on earlier as the second wave hit hard from above.
As the second wave passed, we are fully upright and back on course. I was pretty confident we could continue through the random choppy seas forward and safely make it through the channel. Essentially, we’re back upright, on the right track to proceed, and it appears we have seen the worst. But, there were now alarms going off all over the place inside the boat. Forward still looked better than backward at this point. I quickly checked both the main and wing engines and both were fine. I briefly though I’d I’ve lost steering but it was just the steering follow-up lever and the steering was fine as well. All mechanical systems were OK and, as I scanned the instrument panel to figure out where the alarms are all coming from, I said to Jennifer I think we’re OK to head in with no further breaking waves appearing to be forward. We could now see that we have many bilge water alarms firing, and I knew the auto-pilot follow-up lever was no longer working. We have an old rule that has stood us well over the years: “if in difficult or dangerous situation and a systems fault occurs, abort the trip and find a safe spot to correct the issues”. The logic here is that most disasters are not a single mechanical or human fault. More often than not, life or property is lost when a chain of failures happen where each builds on the other. So, very reluctantly, I swung the wheel hard over and used the thrusters to rotate the boat 180 degrees and put the bow back into the seas before the next one hit.
Understanding the source of the alarms, ensuring mechanical systems good, and making a decision to leave felt like it was a fairly long process but it was actually only the tiny space between the second and third breaking wave. The third wave broke as we rode slowly up to the top, crested, and then fell deep into the trough beyond. The boat felt perhaps a bit lethargic but, with the waves on the bow, these waves were not really much of a concern.
I also had the hydraulic emergency bilge pump on, since both the high water and the main bilge pumps had run flat out since the knockdown. By now, I’d accepted all the alarms, there was finally quiet, and things had settled down to something closer to normal. I looked down into the salon from the pilot house and the furniture was piled up in the forward, starboard corner of the salon up against the day head. Clearly there would be some damage down there.
The boat now felt fairly secure as we took the 4th breaking wave without issue and the next one looked smaller either because the over-large set had passed or we were getting more depth under us. So, I left Jennifer with the helm and ran down to the engine room to check on the bilge alarms. The bilge was completely full and the water was about 6″ above the engine room floor and about 2″ up onto the bottom of the main engine oil pan. Not good. I was starting to worry about where it all was coming from and whether we might have an even bigger problem. I ran back up to the pilot house to make sure all continued to be well. It was, so I went back down to the engine room and the water. The water was now down below the floor boards, leaving behind a surprisingly large amount of dirt and organic matter. I ran back up the pilot house to find things still under control, and back down to the engine room. The main bilge was now close to dry but the forward bilge drain into the main bilge was plugged with sea-born debris and wasn’t making much of a dent in the forward bilge water levels. I cleaned out the drain from the forward bilge down into main bilge, and the water flowed down in seconds and was ejected just about instantly by the hungry hydraulic emergency bilge pump.
The boat now was fully dewatered by the hydraulic bilge pump. It’s an absolute beast and is able to pump 100s of gallons per minute. In testing, it can send a 2″ jet of water across two slips! It can pump a silly amount of water. I have always loved this piece of safety equipment but my fondness for it grew considerably over those few minutes. It was just wonderful to see the water level falling, proving it’s either not a problem or, if it is a problem, the safety equipment had the clear upper hand.
The boat was now back to 100% operational. There was no water in the engine room or the bilge and even the “failed” steering follow-up lever was back and fully operational. Apparently the follow-up lever always was fine but the aft helm station had “taken control” during the knockdown probably due to sea water closing the “take control” switch contact momentarily. We ran the short distance to the Double Island Point anchorage where we joined three other boats attempting to wait out the worst of the storm. We took a safe spot in the anchorage and cleaned up the boat and inventoried the damage.
In taking stock of the situation, we were surprised to learn that our sat compass system had measured the boat over at 69.1 degrees. It really didn’t feel like that much. And, I suppose, for the old sailing hands out there it really wasn’t all that much — many have seen a knockdown or two. But, as a point of reference, Dirona has never, even in the worst conditions, been heeled over more than 30 degrees so it seems like an awful long way over to us. Because the waves were breaking from so far above Dirona, we took stresses all over the boat.
The dinghy is held down by heavy-duty trailer straps, and the nylon strapping on one had parted and the dinghy had shifted in its chocks. Our aft deck furniture was folded up and attached to the starboard side of the cockpit with the same type of trailer straps. One was stretched so far, the stainless steel latch no longer closed.
The hydraulic pressure was so high in the cockpit and starboard walkway that the forward deck boarding hatch barrel bolt was bent outwards and no longer operative.
Even more surprising, the aft cockpit boarding door latch had completely sheared. The first picture below shows the broken latch, and the second picture is after we replaced it.
Apparently when the door blew open, it then latched open. Then later hydraulic pressures tore that latch out as well.
Two of the five LED strip lights, along the starboard walkway, were destroyed by the water pressure. And the two overhead lights in the walkway filled with saltwater and failed quickly from corrosion.
The galley flower vase, stowed in a port-side basket behind the salon furniture, shattered as it hit the starboard-side settee. And one drinking glass broke. There are three sets of scratches on the woodwork in the salon from furniture in flight. I hate seeing a blemish or two in Dirona‘s woodwork but, in the end, I suppose it’s nice be surveying minor cosmetic damage. There really wasn’t much damage at all.
It’s unlikely, given the location of the engine intake grills (4 or 5 feet above the waterline and set to the inside of the boat in first picture below), that it was ever underwater. But we still managed to take on hundreds of gallons from the onboarding wave through the starboard intake grill. The two engine room cooling fans on the starboard side failed a day later due to sea water ingress but, throughout all this stress, everything kept working during the time of the event.
The boat popped up like a cork as soon as released by the breaking wave, everything kept running, the safety equipment did what it was supposed to do, and as soon as we were bow to the waves again, it wasn’t even particularly difficult to manage even with breaking waves. The list of faults we did take is not insignificant but it feels like a bunch of minor scrapes and nicks.
We feel like the boat did really well and, as we reflect on the situation, the first things that jumps to mind is we are glad we got a strong boat. Money spent on strength sure feels well spent and giving up speed or interior space for strength feels like a bargain. The next things is that breaking waves can happen anywhere and are in no way restricted to bar conditions. Bar crossings produce them with frequency but breaking seas can be found across a wide set of different circumstances. The obvious learning is to avoid them but there may be times when you do find these conditions. Knowing how the boat manages them is important. For Dirona, the boat seems most comfortable bow into the weather in survival conditions so, if we ever do find ourselves in breaking seas in the open ocean, we will get the bow into the waves to ride it out. Looking specifically at river bars where these conditions are common, we have long known that waves appear smaller from the backside than from the landward side. So it’s important to keep this in mind when assessing conditions. It’s difficult to turn around fast enough in a narrow channel between big waves so it’s important to make the decision early enough. And, what we learned in this case arguably we already knew but this certainly drives it home, wave sets vary greatly in size. If there is a respectable period of non-breaking water in a channel, it doesn’t mean that you won’t find a larger set of waves when transiting. We would have been well served by studying this entrance for longer from seaward since breaking seas can be so dangerous.
More than anything, this experience drives home the point that can’t be made often enough. If water doesn’t get into the boat in large quantities, you can survive incredibly bad conditions. And, unfortunately, even very safe conditions can be life threatening if water does get into the boat. I’m an engineer at and I read extensively about engineering disasters mostly because it’s my job to avoid them. Knowing how others fail can help me build systems less likely to suffer the same fault. I do the same thing around boating and read extensively about boat losses and faults. It’s absolutely amazing how many fish boats have been lost to a broken pipe underwater causing flooding, or a house door left open as the trawl door pulls the boat over, or a pilot house door open as the boat gets hit by a particularly large wave.
On Dirona, we have a policy of having the boat sealed up without windows or doors open when operating in difficult conditions no matter how hot it is. If doors were open in this event, the boat clearly may have been lost. That’s the same reason we use the storm plates to protect the larger windows on longer crossings. A broken window can sink a boat in difficult conditions. We did take in 100s of gallons through the engine room air intakes but I’m not sure how I would recommend designing them better. They are very well placed on Dirona and I’ve had many a fisherman look longingly at our engine room intakes commenting they like the placement and height. I’m not sure how to avoid the few seconds of water ingress we did get. What I like is the water was kept away from the equipment and was quickly ejected by the emergency bilge pumps. Having silly large capacity dewatering pumps is a worthy addition to any boat. On Dirona, we have all the standard pumps, and Nordhavn is quite generous in this dimension, and we also have the optional hydraulic bilge pump and a portable Honda crash pump that does double duty as an emergency dewatering pump and fire pump.
Another policy we have, that certainly limited the damaged we sustained, is that the boat is always ready to go to sea. The few large loose items we have, such as the deck furniture, are easily stowed. We have heavy-duty latches on all appliance doors and any heavy drawers—the small push-button latches are fine for moderate conditions, but will not hold in rough seas. When we heeled over at the Wide Bay Bar, several minor items on the port-side guest stateroom berth were launched to the desk on the starboard side, skipping the floor entirely. If we didn’t have the heavy-duty latches on the large, heavy drawers underneath the berth (second picture below) those drawers would certainly have been ejected, resulting in considerable damage.
After a night in a rough anchorage with 3 other boats to sit out the storm, we woke the next day to find our 1″ anchor chain snubber with ballistic nylon anti-chafe had parted in the over 50 kt gusts. But it was likely the 3′ to 4′ swell rolling through the anchorage that loaded the snubber to the point of failure. That morning at high tide, we went back to survey the bar conditions. There was no question they were better than they were the day earlier but, with breaks very near the channel and fairly big water across the channel, we elected to do the 100+ nm run around the north end of Fraser Island.
The Fraser Island and Great Sandy Straits area really is an amazing cruising ground and we really enjoyed our time there. One particularly interesting day, we were anchored for the night just inside the Wide Bay Bar and walked over to the other side to watch the waves pound in from seaward. Over a nice picnic lunch on a windy but sunny day, we remarked how much bigger the waves look from the shoreward side. It was exciting to watch them crash in over lunch.