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Old 06-06-2010
alanr77 alanr77 is offline
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First storm in a sailboat; lessons learned, advice wanted.

Hello all, posted a long time ago regarding getting a sailboat and learning to sail. Well, over the past year I have taken US Sailing classes and purchased a 1977 Catalina 22 (on the advice of sailing friends who said start small and with something you can sail now). Spent three months rebuilding her, upgrading rigging and such, and have now spent the last few months sailing her off the coast of Tybee Island, Ga. Fun little boat and some really relaxing days sailing around. However, yesterday we got caught in our first storm on a sailboat. Let me describe what happened, what I did, what I think I did wrong, and the outcome. Maybe some of you with experience can critique my actions so that I can learn from them.
First off, I fully understand that the Catalina 22 is not designed for any kind of heavy weather or even use in the ocean. After yesterday I may be looking to sell her and purchase something more suited to the area in which I sail. Now on to the story;
Yesterday started out perfectly, marine weather forecast called for partly cloudy, winds 10-15 knots, seas 2-3 feet with a 20% chance of a thunderstorm late in the day. Actual weather was sunny, 5-10 knot winds with 2-3 foot waves. We sailed out about 2 miles from shore tacking every half mile or so trying to make it to Saint Cathrine's island. Somewhere around 1530 hrs we noticed thunderheads a long distance away appearing south. I decided to turn around and run North back to Tybee and the protected inlet of the Savannah River. We were making good speed until suddenly all wind died. The sun was still out and the storm, though closing, was still far on the horizon. After about 35 minutes, the wind resumed at around the same speed as before. Now, I am running a 150 Genoa and a full Mainsail, the only sails I have as my working Jib fell apart from age. After running for about an hour, the storm started filling the sky behind us. The wind started picking up though not dangerously. I started thinking about reducing sail but because we were making good speed I decided to hold on a little longer.
This I believe was my first mistake, because about 10 minutes later, the wind started gusting to about force 3-4. The boat began to surf and seemed to plane. I told the girl to hold the tiller and keep the boat pointed downwind as I went forward to wrestle down the genny and secure it. I managed to do this without to much fuss though the jib halyard broke free and flew around near horizontal for the remainder of the storm. (at this point we could not turn into the wind to take down sail as it would have capsized us)
Once the genny was down the boat became controllable again and we continued to run under full mainsail with the sheet all the way out. I had never reefed the main before and couldn't find any line small enough to do so but I kept thinking that I needed to reef NOW!!!! We were at this point about a half mile from the turn into the Savannah River. Suddenly, the storm winds hit, wind indicator showed sustained 37mph with gusts to 48. The waves became taller than the cabin of the boat and salt water filled the air. Mistake number 2, I should have dropped the main before the winds hit. Though I thought we could make it. Again I told the girl to hold the tiller (which at this time had so much weather helm that it was almost impossible to keep the boat straight. It would round up to port even with two hands pulling the rudder and bracing against the cockpit. She was screaming that she couldn't hold it but I knew I had to drop the main. I waited until we were in between waves and jumped up, released the halyard and wrestled the main down, wrapped it around the boom and secured it with bungee cords. We were now running under bare poles and it seemed to be somewhat more comfortable. Though she still had amazingly strong weather helm and waves were boarding over the transom. (Cockpit lockers are water tight and secured, additional drains have been installed in the cockpit and I had put the companionway boards in earlier so they were draining quickly and to me posed no real threat).
Now, on to my biggest mistake. What I think I should have done is maintain sea room and continue to run as I had control, I was watertight and the storm was fast moving. What I did was try to turn into to Savannah River inlet and make it to the protection of the cove.
First let me describe the inlet. The Savannah River inlet is about three miles wide, has submerged rock jetties dividing it into two channels. A major shipping lane goes through the southern side. Massive sand bars line both sides and run right up to the navigational buoys. The tide was outgoing against the wind and the water depth goes from 40' to 7' very quickly. Basically, 5-6 foot swells become 6-7' breakers very quickly.
By turning to port under bare poles I lost steerage way and began taking large breaking waves on my beam. I started the outboard (useless as it was out of the water most of time) and tried to make some sort of headway. I kept trying to run a bit and then turn to port to make it the half mile or so to get behind the island. After doing this for the longest 35 minutes of my life, and having one particularly large breaker lift us up, roll us over till the starboard windows were submerged and then slide us down the wave (thank god the keel was down) we began to get shielded by the island.
Suddenly, the wind stopped, the waves dissipated and the sun came out.....it became the most beautiful time yet on the water. Dolphins were playing, gulls were circling, it was almost surreal. As if we had just passed a test and this was the reward...
Now, I would like to say it was my actions that saved us that day but I know it was pure luck. I made some near fatal mistakes yesterday that could have cost me the boat and possibly our lives. Though this may seem petty to those who brave mid ocean storms with 40' waves and 60 knot winds. Our little gale with 6-7 foot breakers in a 1900 pound 22' boat seemed serious enough to us...
Now, what could I have done better? I have been in worse storms in a small Boston Whaler that seemed safer than this sailboat. This boat was all over the place, weather helm was so strong I thought the tiller would break.

I have come up with my own conclusions that I would appreciate comments on;

1) If you think a storm is approaching and the weather report confirms this, if you can take refuge in the nearest leeward cove or behind the lee of an island, do it. If you cannot,
2) Seriously reduce sail area well before the winds hit, in a small boat like the Catalina 22 this may be all sails down and secure.
3) If you get caught in the storm, maintain sea room and stay the hell out of harbors and river inlets until the storm passes. Wave heights in these areas are astronomical.
4) Never take waves on the beam, if your running continue to do so.
5) Outboards are useless in a seaway.

Being that we survived this, I am taking this as a stern lesson from the sea. Apparently she is not a theoretical teacher. She teaches you in ways that force you to learn and if you fail, you don't come back.

What should I have done differently?

The situation was very scary in this boat, is this boat really so bad in these conditions that I need to look at buying a different boat?

Would a heavy displacement, 27' boat have made a difference or was it simply my inexperience that made it so scary?

All in all I am amazed at how quickly the sea can become dangerous and though it was quite terrifying, I look forward to the next sail... Alan.
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