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2010-11-15

Wind makes the boat go




There was a recent thread on a sailing forum I frequent soliciting advice on "heavy weather strategies". Now my experience of big air is both limited and local, although I've spent about two weeks on the Atlantic in the last three years in rather different situations. Anyway, I gave the following account of what I've learned since 1999.

"My strategies, such as they are, are different depending on my proximity to shore, the boat I'm on, whether I'm alone, with crew, or AM crew. Way back when I was an appallingly green sailor, I saw 40 knots solo on Valiente, my 33 footer, and got into trouble when a gust..a predictable gust coming out of a river mouth and clearly visible valley... laid me over on the lee side with no harness and no PFD on. I lost some finger meat releasing the main sheet and learned to be more careful and less caring if a fender rolls off the deck in half-gales. Repeat the mantra: It doesn't matter if it looks sloppy...do NOT retrieve the fender when the boat's on autopilot above 28 knots. Bad things will happen when you are on that sidedeck...particularly if you are concentrating on appearances and not on sailing the boat actively.

I have seen 30-35 knots with my wife and kid aboard on Alchemy, the pilothouse cutter, which has pipe-sized rails instead of lifelines, and which features cambered, dry decks, and, of course, a way to steer in relative comfort. I found in this case that having just a staysail up (hank on for simplicity) drove the boat near hull speed and yet gave plenty of control and balance...if little in the way of pointing ability. So "reduce sail toward the center of effort" is a good one in increasing winds.

Another one not in many books is the idea of preparing hot drinks and soups in thermoses, sandwiches, energy bars, anything you can stuff into your face with one hand quickly. You use up a lot of energy running a boat in big seas and wind, and you will stave off fatigue if you are properly nourished. These days, it is rare to get surprised by bad weather: even local squalls are preceded by signs in the sky that they MAY occur, so it's easy to get together food and drink at the dock if you think you are in for a stretch of heavy weather.

I have seen 30-45 knots as a delivery crew for protracted periods (meaning what they call "fully developed seas" of six metres/20 feet) in the Atlantic out south of Bermuda, and the logic was to keep a bit of jib out and a little bit more main (it was in-mast furling, which was new to me, but which worked well) to continue to drive the boat near hull speed in order to maintain control and to avoid pooping, broaching or the dreaded pitchpoling. This worked very well, generally, except when squall lines would pass with 40-plus knots and confused seas. This is when knowing where the handholds are is essential, because if you break an arm offshore getting thrown into the cabinetry, it might stay broken for a week...so there's no harm in crawling if it gets you to your station. Also, take care with normal life: getting pants on while keeping one hand for the boat in a squall is difficult and like playing blind rugby.

I saw 60-knot squalls in my home waters this last summer as race crew. At some point, most boats will have to suspend racing in dangerous conditions, if only to preserve their sails and rig. How that is to be accomplished is quite individual, as is the decision to slow down or press on. We tore our jib, a Code Zero and an assy. spin in the space of about 90 minutes in three separate squalls. The last time, we furled in most of the jib (we had about 20 seconds warning thanks to the sight of exploding spinnakers in the mist aft of us) and let the mainsheet go as we turned to face the wind. Then we more or less got pinned 30 degrees over in a sort of half-assed heaving to attitude that nonetheless was easier on the gear. This allowed us to resume racing when approximately one-third of the fleet of nearly 200 boats had to retire, many with extensive damage. So that heavy weather strategy was "know when to pause and take stock". Running ahead of wind can work, I am thinking, to a certain point, but that point will vary with one's confidence, the qualities of the boat, and the abilities (and strength) of the crew. A fully crewed race boat can push the issue a lot farther than a cruising couple.

For truly appalling, long-term heavy weather, like getting out of the way of a cyclone or a deep trough of heavy, cold wind, I would carry the Jordan Series Drogue over a sea anchor. My particular boat is better suited to running off at an angle, I think, although deliberate "testing" of this by seeking out loads of wind and trying to heave to or run off in an area where I'm not far from help if I screw up is advisable. Practice whatever techniques you choose before you need them: an example many people do yearly is getting under full sail and then suddenly chucking a hat or a life ring over the side and shouting "Crew overboard!" Whether the boat comes about and to a stop in an orderly fashion or not is instructive, to say the least.

Knowing one's boat seems to me to be key: The method that works on one might not work on the next, but generally, having the proper sails and the bulletproof means not only to reduce but to secure your sails, deck gear and all lines (because if it's sheeting down hail, you can't keep track of where that 100 feet of Spectra furling line went...over the side and into the prop, maybe?) are key tactics. Keep the decks clean and the gear lashed, because then if you have to go forward to deal with something, you won't get smashed or tripped while you're dealing with jacklines and flashlights. Because you secure jacklines at sea and you clip on whenever you leave the cockpit in heavy weather, and whenever you are on watch alone, which will be frequently.

I have much still to learn, but I do notice myself making fewer gross errors than before, which is progress of a sort.