Steve Suters, John Gowing’s FPB 64-4 captain, has been kind enough to fill us in on some of the details of their recent brush with storm force winds (55 to 65 knots), steep seas, and a breaking entrance bar crossing. We have included the photo above of FPB64-1, Avatar, as a reminder of boat scale versus the waves about which you will shortly read. A the end of the blog are two short videos.
As you go through the following keep in mind one key fact: this was taking place in an area of south flowing current, opposing the wind driven waves, steepening them and causing them to break.
To give this context, here is a screen capture of video shot onboard before it really started to blow (35/40 knots in this image). Note the shape of the approaching wave face.
In the question and answers which follow our questions are underlined. Occasionally we make comments after an answer within parentheses().
1-Can you tell us something about the conditions as you approached the coast and the wind started to build?
14.00hrs 85 miles to Coffs Harbor HDG-284T
Wind- W-SW 16-20.
Bar 998 and just starting to rise.
Outside the conditions were good.
Signs of a few large squalls.
Sea was about 4-6ft from the SW and nicely set up.
Auto Pilot – 3 Gain, 0 Yawl, Stabilizers – Adaptive
Seas 6-8ft from SW
Bar at 1000.
Sea a little choppy but still reasonably organized.
Auto Pilot 3 Gain, 0 Yawl Stabilizers – Stabilizer control in Adaptive.
15-18ft from SW.
Bar at 1003.
Sea still organized swell from the south.
Squalls, and tops of waves starting to break.
Wind SW 50-60 steady, Gusts up to 65.
Bar at 1005.
Tops of waves starting the break.
Auto Pilot – 5 Gain, 0 Yaw l, Stabilizers – Adaptive
It was here that I decided to come away a little from HDG 284T to 295T to try and to reduce apparent wind speed and feel out whether it would be more comfortable. Our angle had moved the waves a little aft and more on our beam and we appeared to be out of sync (“the groove”) at this angle. The waves appeared to push and hit us harder and more square on. The boat let me know this was not the right angle. AP working harder to steer course after coming back from several shunts sideways (nothing vicious but still a fairly large roll compared to the ones we were encountering on previous hdg). Still wanting to make land fall in Coffs Harbor, I decided to come back up (back to 284) as opposed to coming away further. We then seemed to settle back into “the groove” and the steering and motion appeared to be easier on boat and crew. At this point the updated forecast was for 30-40SW with winds decreasing closer in shore. Wanting to be pro active about safety, we set up radio contact with Coffs Harbor Marine Rescue and set a ½ hr position update schedule and continued on.
We did not feel like we were out of control in any sense. It was more like “OK its 65knts and will it get stronger? What can we do to anticipate any problems?” Having someone on shore track our course and position seemed like the smart thing to do.
- Bar at 1008
- Very dark and squalls
- Wind SW 40-45, gusts 50-55
Boat and crew in good shape all things considered. Forecast was showing 25-30 inshore. We figured once we got over the continental shelf, swell and wind would be reduced. This would also take us out of the East Australian Current, which was running against the wind. There was no noticeable difference at this stage
23.00hr 10miles SE of port entrance
Came away to heading 330T and laid the mark.
Swell and wind moved to port quarter
The boat responded to the reduction in apparent wind and swell and it was a “walk in the park” to the entrance. SOG hit 16knts
I had spoken with the coast guard on conditions at the entrance and was told this was a “busy fishing port with good “leads” coming in. The fishing boats come in and out in these conditions quite often”. The only swell which appeared to be a problem was a North Easterly – ours was South – South West. With this information I felt it was well within the capabilities of the boat to cross the bar. Having limited vision inside the boat I decided to drive from the fly bridge.
Even though it was still raining and windy I felt the ability to feel the conditions plus 360 view was better up top. Visibility was still very poor and we lined up approach basically on plotter and radar overlay. With a SOG of 7knts steerage was good. Then I started to notice spray coming off the back of the swell and realized it was a breaking wave. Though about 10ft in size it was only the top which was breaking / cascading. The wind was blowing offshore at 25 knts. Totally committed and still lined up right on the leads I gave the boat full throttle and tried to come in behind this swell. Then the next swell picked us up and we were surfing down the face of a 6-10ft swell (it was totally dark so the size is only an estimate). We got to the bottom and the boat gently slewed sideways. We were now facing the port hand channel marker. Interestingly we appeared to be sliding in an upright position. Correcting the boat hard to STBD and giving full throttle we headed in the other direction and squared back up as much as possible on the leads. Then the next swell came and this time we headed off to STBD. Again, appearing to slide rather than dig in. We then straightened up and did a few more “fish tales” as we got out of the slop.
The whole time I was standing at the helm I had one hand on the throttle and one hand on the steering knob.
Never once feeling like I needed to brace myself or let go to hang on. It was fairly easy on the boat and crew with no sudden righting moments.
Once inside the harbor we proceeded to the inner basin and tied up.
Tank soundings as follows:
(Note: the above equates to full load in terms of weight being carried. SD)
2-Can you give us more detail on the sea state?
Sea state was hard to determine, as it was black.
It probably peaked around 20 – 25ft.
The tops were breaking (about 20%) on some waves. However it was more of a cascading as the wind was keeping the tops blown off.
The swell was from the south and the current was from the north. We were getting set north about 8 degrees north from our heading.
HDG at 20.00hrs 284T
COG at 20.00hrs 292T
Wave period was about 4-6 seconds between waves
Single wave set direction or was there a crossing pattern as well. There appeared to be a set direction from the south. There was some slop as the southerly current went against wind and sea
Wind speed was measured by the Airmar and was deemed very reliable
3-How did Osprey react to the conditions?
Boat had a fairly upright motion. The waves that pushed us sideways had more of a slide than a roll effect. The stabilizers were able to correct / compensate very well. Moving around the boat was reasonably comfortable. Some waves caught us and broke on the bow. The energy and force was dealt with easily with no real pounding or shuttering of the vessel. The waves that broke amidships tended to roll us a to leeward with a fairly quick motion. The correction was also fairly quick (and smooth) but gear was not flying everywhere. The boat felt better (more controlled) with the waves either fwd or aft the beam. Most of the passage we had the sea fwd of the beam. This is where all the waves that hit us came from, and posed no real problems. It was not until 10 miles out that we came away and ran downhill. As mentioned before this was effortless and steerage was not an issue.
4-What RPM setting were you using? How about pilot and stabilizers?
1800rpm SOG 7.5-8.5knts – over 40knots wind
1800rpm SOG 8-10knts – under 40knts
Naiad (stabilizers) were adaptive (control mode)
AP-gain 6 Counter Rudder 0 Yawl 0
The heel angles as the average waves passed by was about 3-5 degrees. 0n occasional impacts about 10-15 degrees.
Why did you pick these speeds and not something faster or slower?
Boat was coping with the speed for the prevailing conditions. We could have eased off a little but we thought if we can punch through this slop there would be less wind and swell closer inshore. (As forecasted) So the speed was to minimize time in system, while not pushing the boat to hard. Did not want to play around with settings too much as we appeared to be fairing quite well and still laying the mark. Boat was OK so leave it alone (but closely monitor) was my thinking.
6-What lead to the bar crossing decision?
Crossing the bar was about the only time we were not in complete control of the boat (but not for long).
As mentioned before I spoke with RCC about the conditions and there was no mention of any wave action (this was
also my first landfall on the East Coast of Australia so my expectations and experience were nil).
7-General impression after this experience?
The boat is well designed for these conditions (it could handle more if need be). Hearing stories of taking potential clients (buyers) out in 30-40knts for sea trials I knew the boat designer must be confident in his product. This was in the back of my mind while conditions got worse. However, as the weather got worse the boat seemed to change very little in its behavior. Steering was never really a problem and we always had the option to run away with the sea should we feel the need.
We were close to the limit in terms of angle of attack (I don’t think we could have maintained speed if we had sailed any closer to the wind – who knows?).
Had the wind got any stronger I think we would have bared off and run before the storm. But remember we were trying to get out of the current and make closer to land where conditions were forecast to be better. Running downwind with wind against current in 20ft plus seas may have been worse. This would also prolong our time in the system. Would I have put out the Gale Rider? Probably not, as I have no experience deploying them and we had not practiced a drill for doing it. It would have meant also crew going out on deck – something I was keen to avoid if possible.
8-How close to the edge of control do you think you were?
On a scale of 1-10 about 7 (10 is where you start to lose control and options)
9-How much more wind could you have handled?
Wind – 80knts plus would not be unreasonable.
Seas – would not like it to be anymore confused
10-Assuming it was blowing 10/15 knots harder, what tactics would you have used? Run off? Head into the seas?
Run off while still trying to get inshore and out of current and less breeze. All depends on what the boat is telling me. Bye that I mean how is it reacting. Does it feel like we are still in control. Are the loads too great at this angle? If not then head to calmer conditions
11-If this were offshore, but in the current, with a frontal passage and crossing sea state, so occasional chaotic seas, what would you have done?
At night I would try and run off with AP. During the day I may have attempted to hand steer and heave too. Again trying to reduce time in the system.
12-If running off with the FPB 64, does the use of a drogue like the Gale rider make sense to you?
Undecided. Had not had a dry run. Crews were fairly new to line handling skills. At night in these conditions the likelihood of failure would be a consideration. And it could also go from bad to worse if there was a catastrophic failure. I really don’t know. Would have to be a judgment call at the time.
13-How did the boat handle the conditions compared to other rides, power and sail?
It handled like a well-balanced sailboat .I.e. when a sailboat has the correct sail plan (right amount of canvas) for the prevailing conditions it feels right (balanced). That is how this felt- right.
It seemed like there was enough pressure on the vessel at all times which kept us in a nice groove.
14-Could you have survived in another powerboat?
You may have been able to survive but at what cost?
We came through with zero damage to the boat and crew.
15-If you had a choice between being caught out in the FPB 64 and any other design, what would you prefer (honest answer please even though I have a vested interest in the answer).
In all honesty unless it was a Pilot Cutter built for the Navy, I could not think of a better powerboat to be caught out in a 65knt blow. In terms of a semi production boat available for the public to buy, I know (limited experience) of nothing better in this category.
16-Suggestions for improvement?
Steering compass at main helm station.
17-Trim: If the boat has similar fuel/water could you tell me the distance of the weld marks above the waterline? From this we can calculate your true displacement and trim.
(Note: 70mm/3″ of aft trim gives better rudder control and helps reduce cavitation from turbulent flow to t he prop. SD)
18-Prop: Can you describe the prop reaction to the sea state. Any noticeable cavitation, or difference n caviation?
There was some cavitation –
Very short about 1-2 seconds.
Not a noticeable amount from other passages we had done
Did not appear to be excessive
19-Engine loading: By any chance did you note fuel burn, % engine load, or EGT from the Deere CPU?
Display on John Deere was not working
Fuel burn around 20-22 ltr-hr
(Note: this equates to about 100HP of which about 15% was going towards hydraulic and electrical demand and the balance for propulsion. Smooth water no wind fuel burn at 1800 RPM is 17L/4.5 Gallons per hour, which means the increase in drag with sea state and windage is modest. SD)
20-Can you tell me any more about the crossing of the bar? I would like to understand better what occurred. Did you sense the bow locking in? Did the boat suddenly run out of rudder, perhaps only for a few seconds? Or, were the waves so steep that the back end just got pushed around?
When you say run out of rudder do you mean no water was flowing over it?. I.e. we were moving as fast through the water as the wave was, causing loss of steerage. The more I think about it, the more I think this was the case. I do not believe the wave was that steep that the stern got pushed around, as I feel we would have heeled over more than we did (which was very little all things considered). The wave did not break like a surf wave (top to bottom). Whilst it may have felt like a 10ft monster, I think it was a couple of large swells with the tops been blown back towards us. We have been picked up by the swell and accelerated down the wave. (I was concentrating more on little corrections and was looking fwd more than rudder angle indicator). This caused loss of steering and we veered off to port. There is no feel for the rudder with this type of steering (tiny little joy stick) – making over correction highly likely. You cannot feel when you have pressure come back on the gear (rudder) so you can only tell you have regained steerage by the reaction of the bow. Bye this time you probably over corrected, but at least you are now pointing in a better direction for when you do regain control. By that I mean you are now heading back into the middle of the channel. (I do not feel we strayed to far off the leads at any time +,- 50m)
22-In hindsight, running the bar again and knowing what you do now, what would you have done differently?
Given that it was very dark the use of the bow light could have been used for better timing. It could not have made it worse as I was only piloting with plotter and radar so night vision was hardly an issue. I also now think that when RCC told us that the bar was OK to cross (though far from perfect) they were right. It was not ideal but I do not feel (as I first did) that they should have told us not to attempt in such conditions. More speed could have helped. With the visibility we had I was more feeling my way in on the initial approach trying to see how the boat would react in the conditions. Overall the best bit of timing would be to do it in daylight.
But I feel you would still have run out of boat speed and had to take 3-4 waves passing you by causing the same issues.
(Given the proximity of the prop to the rudder, increasing RPMs very quickly adds to rudder control. Although it is hard to second guess Steve’s tactics, running at close to wide open throttle as the wave lifted the stern should have helped control. SD)
23-Can you give us some background on your own experience? What sort of vessels have you run and what type of heavy weather experience have you had?
Master (Limited to Yachts 3000 gt)-May 2002
During my 18 year career I have worked on yachts up to 75m, (Katana) and captained a classic 1927 Herreshoff Schooner (Gallant); competed professionally in sail racing teams; worked both private and charter; 10 plus Trans Atlantic crossings – both sail and power; have been actively involved with multi – million dollar refit/yard work projects as Project Manager (USA and Europe); worked with management companies; am an experienced shipwright (carpenter & joiner by trade) and have engineering skills.
I was last employed as Chief Officer on a 50m Feadship – standing in as delivery Captain and Project Manager for yard periods during full time Captain’s leave.
I have had limited experience in wind over 50knots – which could be considered a good thing.
I once took a 34ft classic cutter rigged sloop from Brooklyn Maine to Bermuda. We (3 of us) experienced 50knts for 3-4-days as this low-pressure system stalled over us. Crossing the Gulf Stream in such conditions was not fun. Sitting outside holding a tiller for a few days during these types of conditions is good for your seamanship and appreciation of what well designed and well built boat is capable of.
However what I have learned from sailing (sailboats) and from good sailors is the importance of dealing with conditions as they change. Don’t just sit there. Feel how the boat is reacting. Are the loads too great? If so how can you reduce them? The passage on “Osprey” was like this.
Our angle was good, so the motion was pleasant enough. The boat was steering course. The loads on the boat all appeared ok (we were not pounding).
We still had other options available – heading off, slowing down or heading into the seas.
Never feeling like we were beyond the boats or crews limits.
Now a few comments from our perspective as FPB drivers ourselves with a high degree of interest in this test of an FPB 64:
To begin with Steve Suters does not over dramatize what we are certain are conditions that would be considered extreme by those with less experience.
The skidding of the boat with wave impact is precisely what it is intended to do. The fact that this occurred at full load gives us an excellent reference point for the future.
Lack of familiarity with the Galerider drogue indicates a shortcoming in our training procedures. This will be added to the curriculum.
Our recommendation is the Galerider and its associated rode be carried in the dinghy from where it can be easily deployed if needed when on a passage where weather risks exist.
- We have found the big floodlight on the forward mast most valuable for occasionally checking wave shape and size. Standing off the entrance and studying the wave pattern, would have given clues for what to expect. On the other hand, stopping would have meant substantial rolling around.
The Black Swan event within this story, underforecast storm strength wind (missed by weather routing service Commanders and the Australian Met Service) provides a good example of what can happen, and why we do things the way we do.
Consider this happy outcome from several different perspectives. If they had been several knots slower, and endured additional hours of exposure, would things have been the same? More time at sea means bigger waves, more of them, with higher risks.
What if some item of deferred maintenance or less than optimal quality had resulted in loss of steering or power?
Some of our clients and many visitors to the FPBs think the bunk and salon seat belts are a little over the top. The crew of Osprey are now believers in their efficacy.