Facing Your Fears on the South China Sea

I wrote the following article for Harba this week that answers a question I think most are thinking:

I’m often asked “Are you afraid to be sailing around the world alone?”. Without hesitation I always reply, “Absolutely!”. This takes most by surprise as I feel most are expecting an answer that instills confidence or reassures them that all is well on my passages across the high seas. Yet, as most sailors know, the sea is indifferent to your expertise or knowledge, as she will humble even the most “salty” of sailors who believe otherwise.

I will be the first to admit that I am frightened every time I point Cascadia’s bow West over the horizon. But, fear is a healthy emotion to have when traveling into a world of the unknown. There are so many things that could go wrong, that it is a wonder how things can ever go right, but rest assured they often do. Yet, there are also those days that do go wrong, and remind you that whether you are sailing across a lake or the Pacific; fear is a healthy emotion to have in an otherwise delightful pastime.

Last week I experienced one of those “days” on my solo crossing of the South China Sea. It was on day three, roughly 200 miles offshore the island of Borneo when the winds started to pick up early in the morning. A rather pleasant surprise as the forecast called for a painfully slow 5-10 knots the whole passage. By late morning the winds had stiffened to what I presume were around 20 knots, gusting to 25; I had reduced my sail area accordingly.

We were on a beam reach plowing through the water at a brisk 6 knot clip, an impressive feat for this old 30 foot, full-keeled boat. However, the winds steadily increased and by noon, what was once a pleasant morning had given way to anxiety and concern. But before I could react…Boom! Cascadia was slammed on her broadside, rolling violently to port, so much so, that her boom dipped into the water and everything that was once stowed on the starboard side of the boat found its new resting place on the saloon floor.

I quickly leapt behind the helm and instinctively put Cascadia on a course downwind. My only thought was to get control of Cascadia, at least for a short while until I could figure out what would be the best course of action. However, our new course offered us little relief as the winds quickly picked up to a velocity like I had never experienced.

Heading downwind, I was looking back over my shoulder in absolute terror as a wall of white came screaming towards the stern of Cascadia. The wind was so violent, water was being ripped from the surface and hurled in the direction of Cascadia. It caused me to shield my face with one arm as I gripped the helm with the other. Although I was deeply reefed, it was still too much sail and I was using all the rudder I could to keep her on course. Soon thereafter, the seas steepened to the point where they were breaking across her stern. Some of the waves would land in the cockpit, but most simply heaved Cascadia effortlessly down the face of each wave, surfing into the trough where she was to only be met by the next wave.

Eventually my headsail succumbed to the weather and there would be no way I could keep her on course with the mainsail alone, so I lashed the helm, furled in the remnants of the headsail and took shelter below. With just the main flying, her bow came up into the wind where she then attained equilibrium with the forces around her, and there we sat. For the next three hours we rode out the storm, but this old gal proved that she was right at home, shaking off each wave that landed upon her deck like it was just another day at sea. Yet for me, it was a day that reaffirmed that fear a healthy emotion to have in an otherwise delightful pastime.”


Author: Andrew Stephens

A Pacific Northwest native and recent graduate from Seattle University, Andy is currently sailing his 30′ Cape Dory sailboat around the world. You can find more information him by visiting his website SailingWithAndy.com or on his YouTube channel.

3 Comments on “Facing Your Fears on the South China Sea

  1. An awesome account of a nerve-wracking day ! Very well written, Andy. You brought me into the turmoil early on, and held me there until we scurried below deck, Sorry to hear about the damage to the mainsail. Another unanticipated bill to be paid, But, you are okay, as is Cascadia, What are your plans for the mainsail repairs and/or replacement? Any thoughts of taking on a crew member again? Solitaire gets boring after the first six months 🙂 Stay safe my friend. Fair winds and following seas, Cascadia….

    1. Hi Bruce! My sail is actually getting repaired as we speak. I was rather nervous about finding a sail loft but I found a guy in Malaysia who can do repairs and I should be getting it back tomorrow morning. I will slowly heading up the Malacca strait, but will be taking it pretty slow until I reach Sri Lanka. It would be great to have another crew, but there are just so many variables and difficulties that I am hesitant to bring anyone aboard.

  2. Andy just found youre website. If youre going to western sumatra let me know by e mail and i will send you all my waypoints for surfing and anchoring. I got 10 years surfing and cruising from memtawai to phuket .banyacks are my favorite.
    You can cruise pretty cheap through western sumatra cause there is nothing to buy. Ha ha but fruits and veg .
    its truely magic cruising west sumatra andy and youre a surfer and its the best surfing in the world bro. You can paddle from the yacht to every single wave. All 300 of them or so.
    you can buy a wooden canoe for 30 bucks from a villager.every single person owns a canoe on western sumatra. The people are poor but very friendly.


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