The Smeeton's and the Horn

The trip to Alicante for the start of the Volvo Ocean Race turned out to a little busier than I hoped, what with my triple role as official author, website race commentator and some-time Data Centre worker. As a consequence, I didn't manage to extract much in the way of sailing stories from the book interviewees, but hopefully I tee-ed up a couple of people to get some good ones down the track.

So I'm going to have to fall back on one I prepared earlier, while I was doing a bit of background reading for the upcoming race this past summer. I didn’t want to just read all the other official accounts, so I did a bit of digging on and came up with (amongst others) Miles Smeeton’s book about an early attempt to round Cape Horn in a small cruising boat. And this is one of those tales that's almost been lost - but shouldn't be...

Conor O’Brien’s Saoirse had already been first - the 42 foot ketch departed from Melbourne and successfully rounded the Cape as part of a solo circumnavigation, and O'Brien's book, Across Three Oceans, records his 1923 achievement. It was 35 years before another yacht would clear customs in Melbourne with Montevideo in mind. The Tzu Hang was owned by Beryl and Miles Smeeton. They were the kind of redoubtable British adventurers that belong in Boy’s Own annuals.

Nevil Shute wrote the foreword to Miles Smeeton’s account of their voyage to Cape Horn, Once is Enough. Shute picks out a telling story - when asked if they had had any trouble crossing the Atlantic, Miles allowed for a three day period in bad weather when the damnedest thing had been keeping their eleven year old daughter, Clio, at her lessons. Tsk, tsk, children, really - no discipline these days…

Even before she met Miles, Beryl had done her share of adventuring, travelling on four continents, as likely on foot or horseback as in the comfort of a railway carriage – think rainforests with a pith helmet and an umbrella and you’ll get the spirit if not the letter of Miss Beryl Boxer’s endeavours. Once they had teamed up, they attempted Tirich Mir - a 25,263’ peak in the Hindu Kush - with a young Sherpa called Tenzing Norgay, who went on to greater things.

They didn’t get to the top, but it was the highest altitude achieved by a woman at the time. Miles was a career Army officer, and it was after his service in the Second World War that they took up sailing, beginning with that voyage back across the Atlantic in which Clio had tried to play hooky. They had just bought the Tzu Hang in England - a 46’ ketch, originally built in Hong Kong from teak and copper fastenings - and were sailing her home to Canada. Four years later, in 1955, they sold the farm in British Columbia that had been their home since the war, and took off in the boat. Like so many people before and since, they set off across the Pacific. Unlike many others, on reaching Australia they turned back east, sailed down into the high latitudes and attempted to round Cape Horn.

It all started well enough, Miles Smeeton’s descriptions of life on board are idyllic to anyone familiar with the privations of a modern racing boat. They had the fire stoked up like a country pub on a winter weekend, with the cat curled up in front of it. Beryl Smeeton had taken to knitting jumpers, and her breakfasts of porridge, bacon and eggs, toast and home-made marmalade all washed down with tea, would have shamed most British bed and breakfast hotels. The bunks were real beds, oatmeal cakes were baked, pudding was cooked at any excuse and the England versus Ireland rugby match was on the radio - blissful really, until the 12th February, 1959.

The Tzu Hang was a very slow boat to Cape Horn by today’s standards, where even the mono-hull racers of the Volvo can reel off one 500+ mile day after another – fast enough to almost pick and choose the weather. The Smeeton’s were hoping for an average of little more than a hundred miles a day. At that speed, they were the proverbial fish in a pork barrel - whatever weather came along rolled right over the top of them. And two days before Valentine’s Day, things had been deteriorating for a while.

They had got down to a reefed mainsail and mizzen only, with 60 fathoms of three inch hawser trailing out the back to slow her down and help keep her stern to the breaking waves. The swell was bigger than they had ever seen before – Miles Smeeton described a seascape that was as different from a normal rough ocean as a winter landscape is to a summer one. There was white foam and spume everywhere, showered like confetti by the breaking crests of the huge waves, it lay over the ocean like Christmas snow. And for the first time since the Tasman Sea, the albatrosses had disappeared – this, it turned out, was ominous.

Miles was in his bunk reading when it happened, his wife on deck at the helm. He described what she saw in Once is Enough; ‘Close behind her a great wall of water was towering above her, so wide that she couldn’t see its flanks, so high and so steep that she knew Tzu Hang could not ride over it. It didn’t seem to be breaking as the other waves had broken, but water was cascading down its front, like a waterfall.’

After that, Beryl Smeeton remembered thinking that she could do nothing else with the helm, then the sensation of falling and no more, until she found herself floating alone, in the Southern Ocean, with just the broken tether of her lifeline for company. It was only when she was lifted by the following wave that she saw the boat just thirty yards away, both masts gone and very low in the water - which was unsurprising, when you consider that the deckhouse had been ripped off.

It’s arguable whether Miles Smeeton and their crew mate, John Guzzwell, were any better off down below. They were hurled around the cabin along with everything that wasn’t tied down and quite a bit of what had been. Until the vanishing deck house had allowed the cold black sea to pour in, as the Tzu Hang was rolled over and under that huge wave. They both surfaced into waist deep water, awash with cushions, mattresses and books - and one seriously unhappy cat. Miles made it on deck in time to see his wife swim to the remains of the mizzen mast, from where she pulled herself to the boat on the still attached rigging, and was hauled back on board by the men.

It seemed that they had only saved Beryl for a few minutes – both men felt the Tzu Hang would sink at any moment. Their home was full of water, and there was a two square metre hole where the deckhouse had been. Both masts were gone, as were the rudder, dinghies and the cabin skylights. The rigging, guardrails and stanchions were a mass of twisted metal. There was no liferaft, and no hope of rescue. The men just stood and stared in despair, but Beryl went for the buckets.

She galvanized them all, and their energy was rewarded with luck. John Guzzwell quickly found nails, a hammer and wood in the chaos below. He worked like a demon to make the Tzu Hang watertight again, before another wave took her down for good. Meanwhile, Miles and Beryl bailed, and bailed, and bailed. It took twelve hours to get the water down to the level of the floor boards – had there been any floorboards left. Then, exhausted, they managed to heat some soup, and slept.

The storm abated the following day, and they were fortunate that the sturdy teak hull had not sprung a leak. Slowly, the chaos was cleared - amongst the casualties was the stuffed blue bear they carried as a lucky mascot. Headless, he was thrown overboard, judged to have been no help at all. The boat had been pitch-poled, somersaulted end-over-end. The evidence was a tin of make-up that had slid down a bulkhead as the boat sat on its nose, then slipped into a gap between the deckhead and the bulkhead that had opened with the force of the masts hitting the water. As the masts had sheered off at the deck, the load had disappeared and the make-up tin had become trapped. And there it stayed, proof of their experience.

They built a jury rig and a steering oar, although mostly the Tzu Hang sailed herself, with just changes to the trim of the sails to keep her going in a straight line. Enough navigational equipment had survived for them to take position fixes, along with a pilot book for South America and twenty three unbroken eggs. It took almost a week for the cat to dry off and recover her good humour.

They made a landfall near the Chilean naval yard in Talcahuano, and with a great deal of effort and patience the Tzu Hang was rebuilt. Then the Smeeton’s – alone this time – went back to the south, intending to run into the Chilean Channels and round the tip of South America through the Magellan Strait. There was also a sense that they had some unfinished business down south, and Miles allowed for the possibility of another crack at the Horn if the opportunity appeared. So they sailed west, offshore, to clear the southerly wind and northerly current that tore up the coast of Chile. And they found another storm. This time, they let Tzu Hang lie a-hull – that is, all the sails down and the tiller lashed to keep her bow up into the wind. It was a technique that they had used many times previously, but not in the Southern Ocean.

After ten hours of riding out the worst of the storm, the boat was hit by another monster wave and rolled – this time on its beam ends, tumbling through a full circle with both the Smeeton’s down below. Despite the stove breaking free and being thrown around the cabin, neither of them was badly hurt in the carnage. And so, a year after their first crushing defeat by the Southern Ocean, they found themselves in remarkably similar circumstances – a little further north, but a lot closer to the coast.

The radio, chronometer and barometer were all gone, and so they had much less in the way of navigation aids. Otherwise, the damage was not as bad, the new deckhouse – built by John Guzzwell in Chile - was cracked and crushed, but still in place, and a stump remained of the mizzen, along with the rudder. Their new dinghy, which they had never even used, was gone, but at least the cat seemed a little less disgusted than the first time. They built another jury rig, and once again turned back to the north. This time they were insured, and used the favourable wind and current to reach Valparaiso, from where the Tzu Hang was shipped back to England to be repaired.

When it was all done, Miles Smeeton described the encounters with the rogue waves in his book, and then put himself at odds with received wisdom when he concluded that there are some waves that a yacht is simply not going to survive – ‘whatever she does’. These days, such an opinion is mainstream, but prior to the Tzu Hang’s experiences, yachtsmen had believed that a well-sailed, well-founded yacht was safe in any deep water sea. They were wrong. There are rogue waves out there that don’t seem to belong to any ocean or storm, monstrous waves created by some unknown collusion of the elements. By that story will have to wait for another day…

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