06 June 2013

Caught in a warm eddy!!!

the circles are "eddies" (from www.oc.nps.navy.mil)

Ever heard of a warm eddy? We neither! And before you now think in the wrong direction - Yes, it has something to do with sailing! But let us explain:

When we sailed over from Bermuda to New England we had once more to cross the Gulf Stream. That’s this river of warm water flowing with a high current up the East Coast of the US. But this flow is not between two narrow coasts, it lays somewhere between Bermuda and New England, both landmasses are roughly 700nm apart. Means, you will enter this sometimes vicious current after three days of sailing in the middle of nowhere. And just that you can picture it: the stream of water moves around 30 – 150 million cubic meter water per second depending on its location. As a comparison, all the rivers combined which drain water into the Atlantic are estimated with just 0.6 million cubic meter per second. Guess it's fair to say there is a good amount of energy out there in the nowhere. 

Therefore planning is important: we wanted to enter the stream where the flow was easy and, more important, narrow. In our case, the forecasters named a spot where we would have just a 30nm wide “window” of current to cross and then could sail out of it again. So far so good. But it gets better, there may be a warm eddy on our way. In simple words, that’s a circular movement of warm (or cold) water which could push us even a bit more in the direction we needed to go. Current from behind sounds cool on a sailboat as we all long for some extra speed. We were excited!

Gulf Stream is Red (from http://www.opc.ncep.noaa.gov)

As a matter of fact, the Gulf Stream crossing was easy. Like the whole trip we had almost no waves and the wind was a bit on the light side. Around midnight we supposedly had all behind us and Rahel went to bed leaving me on the “after Gulf Stream Nightshift”. It was a blast: Wind picked up, I put even a bit more sails out and Habibi screamed with seven plus knots into the dark. Until I noticed a sudden course change – we steered off course! That’s when you start to check things: Wind shift? Current? Autopilot? Everything seemed normal but the course change went worse. I hand steered and ended up almost 180 degrees off course – no way I could hold direction!! The sails were now flapping and everything seemed out of control. I needed help - fast! I got Rahel out of her well deserved sleep to help me steering while I dealt with the sails. That’s when it got really strange…

We finally had all the sails down and the engine was running. So we tried to go back on course. But there was no way to steer the boat – it went all over the place. We assumed that the rudder was broken (an almost impossible thing on an Island Packet) – of course, it was not. Sooner or later we realized that we must have been caught in a circular current (or eddy). A quick look on the thermometer proofed the theory; The water temperature in the Atlantic over here is around 13 degrees Celsius. It showed almost 26C! That damn eddy wasn't moving us forward - it was spinning us all over the place!

It was really scary! The engine was running at full throttle, we were doing eight knots in one direction and then boom, the boat turned 180 degrees without any rudder movement and we were doing 0 knots! Whatever we tried, the boat turned with the current and it seemed there was no way out. Of course it was pitch dark, there was nothing to get our bearings – just the compass and the GPS. We tried for sure 10 times – no chance to get out of this mess. The circular current had a firm grip on us and it seemed it would never let us go. Would this really be the end of our trip? Will Habibi and its crew end as a ghost ship like the "Flying Dutchman" and circle the world forever??

Well, not this time. At one point (when the now blank panic on board finally settled) we decided that we had to move with the current and act as soon it would weaken. After drifting for some time with this damn eddy we realized we could now steer again in a certain direction (and believe us, we did not even care if it would bring us to the North Pole at this time). One hour later (which felt like an eternity) Habibi left this eddy behind and was on course again. The crew on the other hand was still pretty shaken. And we still are if we think back…

May this force never be with you!

innocent sunrise after "eddy"


  1. That sounds really very scary, we are very happy to hear that event is history. May you never encounter another one! More admiration for you guys.

  2. Wir sagen uns jeweils in dummen Situation: "Entweder saufen wir jetzt dann gleich ab, oder es wird eine gute Geschichte zum Erzählen. Glücklicherweise für Euch ist es letzteres. Sorry, gälled, but what a great story.