A Brush with Beauforts

30 Jun

I’ve just finished A Voyage for Madmen, Peter Nichol’s excellent chronicle of the original Golden Globe race. In it he recounts an exchange between a young Robin Knox-Johnston and the attending customs officer when Knox-Johnston returns from his round-the-world sail. Asked his port of embarkation and his port of last call he answers, for both, Falmouth, England.
Well, we’ve met no customs officers and only gone a couple hundred miles but last night I recalled this line with a smile as we bowled into Beaufort Harbor under our tiny storm jib alone. Two days before we had left another Beaufort, this one two hundred and fifty miles to the Southwest, and on the way my little twenty-eight foot boat brought us admirably through high seas and gale-force winds, the gnarliest conditions I’ve ever sailed in.

We left Beaufort, SC on Wednesday afternoon, trying to time our departure so that the six-foot tide would take us out to sea against a stiff southerly breeze. We screwed it up though, caught up in last-minute tasks, and found ourselves nearly ten miles from the end of the channel when the tide turned. It took us hours to beat out to open sea. Even with my trusty little Yanmar thudding away the only way we could get some traction against the combined force of incoming tide and ocean swells was to tack back and forth, zig-zagging ponderously across the channel like you might when riding a bicycle up a steep hill.

Eventually, finally, we broke free and turned East for the best part of our trip, a fast and comfortable broad reach under jib and reefed main. As we turned North we let out the sails and by the next morning we were sailing wing-in-wing, which we kept up until late that night. In the afternoon we caught a fine mackerel but were too fatigued and queasy to think about eating it. It went into the icebox for later.

When I came on watch around two in the morning on our second night we were passing Cape Fear. We had earlier dropped and lashed down the jib and were under reefed mainsail alone with a gathering storm to our West. With wind and swells building and the boat running down the face of each wave at eight and nine knots it was getting harder and harder to keep on track, even after I put in the second, and final reef. Still, the wind was building.

We had earlier flown my storm jib for a little while, just to try it out, but had foolishly switched¬† back to the normal one just before dark. Now it seemed we would need that sail again. Although it was late, we were all tired, and conditions were pretty wild on deck it was becoming obvious that even double-reefed the main was just too much sail and that the only way to keep the boat safely under control would be to crawl forward to un-hank and bag up the jib, replace it with the storm jib, and then drop the main altogether. With a forecast of fifteen to twenty knots I simply hadn’t considered that we might end up overpowered even with both reefs in the main and I was about to pay the price of that lack of foresight.

I confess that this photo of a pair of waterspouts is from a different storm we managed to avoid a few days before. Fearful of getting my camera doused I only managed a couple pictures on this leg.

Of course we had jacklines and harnesses rigged but it is still a hell of a job removing and replacing a foresail on a small boat in ten and fifteen foot ocean swells, especially in the dark. Then, just to make things a little worse, I’ve found that the splices on my Dynex Dux rigging make it so that hanks must be added and removed about four feet up the forestay, meaning in order to do the job you have to kneel, or stand, on the bucking foredeck. I roused two more crewmembers and we got to work. Luke and I clipped in and went forward to wrestle the sails while Chris took the helm. By now we were actually sailing away from our destination as the wind was so strong that the only way to manage the helm was to sail close-hauled with the main sheeted out on the edge of luffing.
Eventually, Luke and I were able to get the jibs switched out with no loss or damage. At points we were half-submerged as the boat pounded into the occasional ill-timed swell but aside from the sort of fear which must accompany an adrenaline rush it did not feel particularly unsafe. It was, apparently, too much excitement for one of our inflatable lifejackets- quite a few hours later I was rudely awakened from a well deserved nap as it self-inflated with a terrific hiss, I suppose in protest against this earlier ill-treatment.

When the storm jib was up we moved back to the main, and here ran into a problem of engineering. When I set up my reefing system I used aluminum pop rivets for everything, as they were all I had on hand. Tied up to the dock on a pleasant spring day I was not quite thinking about this sort of moment, but I should have been. As we sheeted the main in to help with flaking (or, more accurately, frantically piling) there was a huge boom and something went slack. I could just make out a block waving around so I guessed what had happened and let go the halyard, yanking down the sail as quick as I could and holding it in a bear hug while Luke tied it off. We later confirmed that all six rivets holding the padeye and turning block for the second reef had sheared off when we tried to sheet the sail in!

I suppose I’ll replace those with stainless steel!

Still, the main thing was done and this was a small price to pay for being back under control. With the mainsail down and lashed and the storm jib up we were done mucking about on deck and able once again to turn downwind and get back on course. Actually, we were flying along! With just that tiny storm jib we were running well above hull speed, averaging six and seven knots with the GPS jumping above ten as we surfed down the biggest waves. I’ve no wind instruments on the boat but judging from the bits of spindrift starting to break we were getting gusts near forty knots. This would be winds of Force seven or eight, to put our run between Beauforts on the Beaufort Scale.

Not counting storms I rode out as a child in the relative safety and comfort of my bunk this was the craziest sailing I’ve ever done. It was exhilarating, sure, and plenty scary at times, but it also wasn’t so bad, really. I’ve a well-found boat, built to take much worse than this and refitted with care. We had all the proper safety gear- jacklines, lifejackets, harnesses, and we used them all, even when just at helm in the cockpit (breathe, mother dear). All the same, it was the first time any of us had sailed in these conditions and they were magnified by the smallness of our boat and the foolish way I had arranged our sails. I know that next time I will be better prepared and will act more quickly- there was a period when I knew we ought to replace the regular jib with the storm sail but I was tired and I decided to wait. I won’t make that mistake again!

The morning after our storm

By the time we were back on course and under control Luke and I were exhausted and went below to pass out for a couple hours. When I came back up to take the helm I was surprised to find that the wind and seas were holding steady and we were still flying along under just that little sail. Over the next twelve hours things settled out a bit but winds remained strong and with the light of day the seas looked mountainous, looming up behind our little craft to raise us into a view of miles of windswept whitecaps before dropping us into troughs which obscured all but the nearest waves. At one point I heard a howling in the sky and looked up to see a pair of military jets burst out of a cloud to dodge and weave around each other. They were firing some kind of flares at each other in a mock battle and it seemed somehow to fit the scene, a dogfight in the air to match our struggle with the sea. We kept on that way, under storm jib and no other canvas until making port in Beaufort, NC nearly a full day later, and all that time we were averaging a good five or six knots. Altogether we ran two hundred and fifty miles in forty-eight hours, a record for the boat, and for nearly half of it we were flying just that one sturdy little sail. Then we slept, blissfully and with dedication.

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder


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