Accelerating the learning curve crewing and loosing the fear of heeling over!
Well, It is time I posted another learning thread with a little sea story of my own.
A couple of weekends ago, my area's yacht club had a great regatta scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. I didn't enter my own boat, rather talked to a neighbor at the dock who was just tying his new Ultimate (u boat) 20, or U20 up, getting everything ready to go.
After a short conversation, he said, "We've only got two, and we need three to fly our spinnaker! Come on and help us crew!"
I was sold. I love sailing, and this was a chance to get out with like-minded crazy people, learn about the racing sport, and have a chance to get wet on someone else's boat without tipping over my carefully stacked books in the cabin, or my fresh pot of coffee on the stove in my 30 footer I was living aboard.
The morning came for the race. It was about 0800, with a start set for 1000. I had a cup of coffee, stuffed some Gatorade and a sandwich into a backpack, wool watch cap, my sailing gloves, a foul weather jacket, and my life vest with a whistle and Davis wind meter lanyarded to the buckles.
Tom and Greg were already there as I opened the companionway and turned on the VHF to get the weather report form NOAA. We were forecasted winds at 30mph with gusts to 40, increasing to over 50 by noon. Needless to say, I was glad I wasn't going to be sailing in my own ship; I don't like singlehanding in strong winds. It racks my nerves and takes the fun out of something that brings me great pleasure.
I helped Greg rig up the sails, get the lines straight, pack the spinnaker into the companionway (we didn't use a sock; there just isn't room on this ship). We tied in a reef gingerly as we laughed about the wind and I heard about how he and Tom "have only knocked her down once before." This was inspiring, as I know this boat weighs less than 1200 lbs and carries around 450 square feet of sail on any given race.
I've been in my dinghy racing around in winds like this before, both singlehanded and with a crew of three. I've seen high angles over 45 degrees of heel, but not in a larger boat. This was a point where I could start easing in to heel angles and handling in larger boats. Some of you are thinking, "Only 20 feet..." but that 20 feet is a lot larger than my 14 footer, and actually a lot more alike in design to my cruiser. I consider it an important step in my process, as you'll see. The dinghy I have is nothing like my cruiser when heeled at 45 degrees. I somehow always get nervous when I go over 18 degrees in my big ship. Today is the day to get rid of that feeling.
Tom returned from the skippers meeting, and we set the outboard on the transom. Casting off, we set the main with a single reef up and secured the motor after we cleared the marina's busy area.
There is an apostrophe shape to the lake we were racing on. The marina sits on the fat part of the top, where it is shielded from wind and the 4 mile long fetch that builds in the long north south stretch. We left the Green and Red buoys and could see the committee boats flying flags.
As soon as we left the green and red buoys in the channel to the marina, we crossed into that area where we were no longer shielded by that mechanical turbulence created by the cliffs, trees, and other boats. It was BLOWING! We re-secured the reef lines, sheeted in, and instantly heeled to 30 degrees.
Sailing over to the race committee boats, we got our course from a white erase board on the back of the boat, and Tom checked his watch to sync up with the time horns and countdown flags. We sailed a figure 8 pattern near the start line, and went over final crew assignments and what I could call Q&A time... I have questions for sailors ad infinitum in any lull of action.
I was on mainsheet and traveler. Tom handled helm (this later proved to be the best spot on the boat, as the crew shields the helmsman from spray and breaking waves, he came out dry as a bone) and Greg was foredeck / foresail trim.
The waves were large in this shallow water to say the least. It had been blowing like this since yesterday, giving the lake a chance to stir the water, form large white cap waves about 2 feet from mean level to crest, and cover us in water constantly. Waves in a lake are generally nasty, as they bounce around and don't follow the wind like I've seen at sea. I could call it confused seas at best.
Tom called out to us, "sixty seconds guys, ready to tack, lee-ho..." "Get the jib unfurled."
We tacked back across the start line, just a few seconds after the horn sounded for our class to start. Our first marker was dead upwind. Bringing out the jib created a problem. The furler jammed with the wind twisting the sheets around and beating them on the deck. Greg shot to the foredeck and managed to fix it all within minutes: re-zip the sail to the stay, and locate a car that pulled right off the jib track from the wind, untangle everything, hang on for dear life, get soaking wet, and all the while not leaving a single butt-pucker mark on the non-skid up there. Impressive.
Besides the amount of waves beating over us (they were forming white caps, but instead of spraying, they blew a mist because the wind was so fast), we managed a single tack to starboard, then back to port to round the first marker. There was a photo boat at the turn, and we all smiled and made it look like we knew what we were doing for the most part to make a good picture.
Swinging downwind, my only instructions on the traveler were to keep it downwind (where the boom was swinging if jybed) or center it to keep the sail from squishing into the spreader too much.
We were in second of five in our class, and the U boat in front of us had a 10-15 boat lead. He was half way to his second marker it felt like. We watched them pull out the spinnaker; it bloomed, and then just as quickly, it went back together as if someone folded it leech to leech as it went back in. We thought he was crazy! Why fly a kite in wind that had us planing at 27 knots in the downwind with everyone sitting as far aft as we could? He already had the lead!
Then the boat in the lead jybed, lurched forward, and you could see the crew scrambling. Man overboard! And then like watching a slow motion video, the mast exploded off the deck, taking the sails, boom, and whatever else it could sweep with the rigging with it. We were stunned, but now in first place.
We tried to figure out which one of the friends of our lost the mast, but the turn was coming up. We had to make two jybes in heavy air. This was a large debate for a minute, "should we chicken jybe (tack through 270 degrees) or try it?" We elected to try it. I turned the traveler down, called ready and watched the horizon for the turn to start so I could switch sides after the boom came over. The boom snapped over like a lightning bolt, and filled the sails again. I saw exactly how dangerous this could be - there was so much force in that boom. "No wonder they call it a boom," I thought.
One more jybe to go. "Ready" and we went over. Greg bumped me back and as the mainsheets and block swung over, my hat and glasses disappeared off my face. It could have been my head. Tom asked, "You ok, that was damn close!" I nodded, and laughed about how the mainsheet must like me and just wanted a kiss.
We were heading back upwind now. The heel was back, with more force than before. The jib could hardy stay trimmed. The main was pulled in tight for max speed. Then a gust caught us.
All I can remember is the boat heeling so far over, you couldn't see the starboard cockpit seats. Everyone was holding on for dear life as the mast went closer and closer to the water. I instinctively had the sheets and traveler out already, so it was only a matter of not falling overboard at that point. The boat righted, we trimmed back in, and tried to get going again.
Not more than a minute later, the gust hit again. Over again. This time I saw tom in the starboard side of the cockpit slide down, and he garbled and yelped. He said, "Pull in the mainsheet, sheet in sheet it in!" This didn't compute immediately, as I was out for the gust, and sheeting in would put us in the drink. This was until I saw his finger was caught IN the mainsheet block. I sheeted in, we stood back up, sheeted out again, and back on course. Tom's hand was not as damaged as I would have thought, but red.
We had three other knockdowns like this during the race. The wind picked up in gust strength. I had a chance to use my wind meter before the start of the second round. 28-32 steady mph, gusting to 50-52.
We got the new race course form the committee boat and were off again when the flag dropped. The tacks were insane from over 50 degrees of heel sometimes, and the jybes dangerous as ever.
The waves picked up as the gust strength and frequency picked up. We had points when heading downwind when the wake from the keel would blanket the rudder and we would loose all steering! Twice this caused us to head up into the wind and tip over, mast in the water, us hanging on for dear life.
We finished the race 3 of 5. Not bad!
On the way back we had to figure out how to handle the now 3 foot curling waves, drop the sails, get the outboard attached. This was scary. We sailed into the wind to get as much room as we could, dropped the main, then turned downwind and furled the staysail, and fueled the outboard in our hands, which was yet to attach back to the transom.
We were making 6.2 knots BARE POLES downwind, surfing waves towards the rocky wall of the dam. "Greg, attach the motor," Tom said, "Greg, we're running out of pond here."
"GREG, please for God's Sake hurry," I thought.
The motor finally got clipped in, and puttered to life with a smoky cough. We headed back towards the shelter of the "top of the apostrophe" where the cliffs and marina would shelter us. Even bare poled; we were pulling 15 degrees of heel. It felt like returning back to the Marine camp after a long patrol in the streets of Iraq with gunfire all around me. It felt safe to get back to the port and tie up.
I was glad I had a chance to help out on this sail, as I learned so many great things, but right off the top of my head: My big sailboat would have been safer, steadier, and drier in the high winds. It has a storm jib and two reef points that could have been employed, and guess what? None of the "big boats" in the other classes had a problem! They in fact, made a pot of soup on one ship on the downwind leg!
The most important thing I think I gathered is time heeled over in high winds in a keel boat. This taught me that it is ok to sail deeper than I normally do, and almost numbed the nerves about going past 18 degrees.
I took my sailboat out later that evening, when the winds were down to 18 gusts to 23 and I singlehanded with confidence.
Thanks for listening to my sea story! Heeling and the nerves can be fought. Just do it on someone else's boat who has been there before. Somehow, my dinghy doesn't compare to larger boats when they heel, but I'm learning and moving on rapidly.
I reject your reality and substitute my own.
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