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Old 04-06-2010
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Twelve foot breaking swells today...

We had an interesting sail today. We begain with a 3 a.m. start from Gosport to Poole, and the night sailing was fun, but it turned into the hardest sail we've ever done with the kids.

The night sail through the Solent was a piece of cake, and we had clear skies and half moon to boot. The red lights in our headlamps were also a plus, and the kids just slept. We had 12-15 knots winds all the way, never had to tack, and never used the engine other than to get out of Gosport. Great experience.

At the Needles channel, at the far west end of the Isle of Wight and the Solent, the wind picked up to 22 knots to 28 from the SW, directly against the strengthing ebb tide, and we decided it would be dangerous to run with the wind up the North End, in shore, because it would put us against a lee shore and we could have had a disastrous jibe with just the main up (which we had). So we decided to do the full length of the Needles channel, thinking the wind would slow down after the headland and we would be well offshore before turning west for 15 miles to Poole Harbor.

The seas were rough-- 10 to 12 swells, and some breaking, and we had gusts to 28 knots. We tacked once on the channel to avoid being blown leeward into the dangerous shallows, and when we were a couple miles off shore and turned to sail west to Poole, the sea state was bad and the wind continued at a sustained 22 knots.

Long story short, the beam wind was so strong that even with the boom all the way out the boat wanted to head up and sail to France. We should have been in the second reef, but the 12 foot swells made going to the mast and putting in a reef seem too difficult. Meanwhile, every body but me was physically ill at least once. The Qwells we took helped me, but not my wife.

We burned along at 6.2 to 7.8 knots all the way to the Poole channel entrance, where the breaking swells were worse than ever, AND we had to drop the main because it was impossible to run downwind with the boom out (the boat insisted on heading up, over powering the rudder to the point that I thought the tiller would snap from the weather helm).

So, we fired up the engine (during all this, I broke off the engine kill lever in the cockpit with my foot). And turned into the 10 to 12 foot swells, some breaking, at 2/3rds throttle with my wife at the helm to keep the boat into the wind so I could drop the main. That also meant diirectly into the swells.

My wife could barely do that even with 2/3rds throttle. I went forward to the mast (clipped in) and started to drop the main when we rode up a swell that literally made the boat feel like it was going vertical (Perfect Storm Style) and for the first time ever i was at the mast when the swell broke over the bow and flushed down the decks and over the dodger into my wife's face. I was soaked, but not scared, and i got the main down and barely flaked (only two ties done), before I went back to the cockpit and took over from my wife, who needed to be sick again.

After that, we surfed under 2/3rds throttle down wind, with the swells, into the Poole channel. The boat really lifted a couple of times and corkscrewed down, but the worst was over. We motored into calmer water, hooked around Brownsea Island, and easily dropped and set anchor at Pottery Pier. We all rested, ate and warmed up for a couple of hours, and then we hiked on the island for two hours before dinghying back out to the boat for fajitas for dinner. Everyone seems back to normal, despite the sickness earlier in the day, and the death threats toward me.. . We're settling in now for a quiet night at anchor, and no getting up at 2:30 a.m.

So, lessons learned-- we should have reefed the main before we were in too rough of seas, but the Solent had been so calm (12 to 15 knots) that the 28 knots of wind at the Needles channel seemed like a short-term fluike. It wasn't. Also, the worst part was the channel swells, and sailing into them or broadside to them with the strong beam wind. It was a work out, but i was happy to have some sea room between us and the shore.

SR handled well, but I don't know how we could have dropped the main more safely. We could steer downwind, and there was no protected waters around to get a break from the wind or swells. I guess it was just one of those grin-and-do-it sort of things..

Next time, reef like crazy, and try to find out what the swell is like first. Its funny, because normally our boat does fine with a full main up in 22 knots of wind, but combining that much wind with the swells was a lot different than 22 knots of wind in protected waters like the Solent.
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Jim H
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Aurora, a mighty Cal 20 (Portland, OR)
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