I am interested in hearing your suggestions for improvement in how I responded to the below situation.
The forecast yesterday for the Delaware River near Philly was about 70 degrees air temp, with winds peaking at 15 mph around 2 pm then tapering off gradually in the afternoon to about 10 mph. We headed down to the boat around 1:00, and there was a very nice steady breeze. We cast off at 1:30 and headed downriver, beating to windward with the breeze roughly from the SW. The boat was controlling nicely with a heel of only 10 to 15 degrees (our main was reefed, and the 110% genoa was furled a turn or two). We were going out with the current, so that helped us along.
We made faster progress than expected and turned around a littler earlier than planned (prior to slackwater) because we did not want to get too far downstream. Heading back against the current is always a challenge, but doing it with the wind makes progress much better. As we turned to come back and loosened the sheets I noticed that the breeze was now WNW, so we were almost running. I don't like running because I want to avoid uncontrolled jibes, so I altered my course slightly to have the breeze off our stern port quarter in a very broad reach, with the main out as far as possible without chafing on the C250's swept-back spreader. The genoa was also out pretty far as well, and occasionally on the verge of luffing because we were almost running.
After about 15 minutes of pleasant sailing we had a sudden gust from a different direction that heeled the boat over severely. My natural instinct was to turn toward windward. This made the heeling worse temporarily, but once we completed the turn to windward things got under control. After the gust subsided we returned to our previous course with the sails trimmed the same way. However, after a few minutes the same thing happened again, and I responded the same way. This time it seemed to take an eternity to complete the turn, partly because with the mainsail out so far it was depowered and luffing instead creating weather helm to help the boat through its turn. It's sort of a blur now because things were happening so fast, but I believe I had to fire up the outboard to help us complete the turn, and had to throttle up pretty high to gain control. In retrospect, I think that the genoa was creating a strong lee helm that was not balanced by the main because it was out so far, and this was preventing us from turning to windward. We were rattled enough by this that once we finally got turned into the wind we furled the jib (which was luffing and slapping the mast violently) then doused the main (which did not want to come down easily because of all the luffing) and motored back.
While motoring back I had an opportunity to replay what had happened in my head, as well as make some more observations of the conditions. Here are some notes:
Although the skies were perfectly clear and there was no storm, the wind must have really been blowing hard. I do not have a wind speed gauge, so I do not know its exact speed. But when I looked up at the masthead windex while motoring, I could see that every few minutes the direction was changing from directly behind us to our beam, then back again. It was blowing hard enough that when the wind shifted to our beam, the boat would heel over about 10 degrees just from the resistance of the freeboard and the bare mast.
At one point I thought that we might be able to sail back under the genoa alone, but my wife had bundled all the sheets and covered the winches, and she didn't want to sail any more. It's probably a good thing, because if the boat heeled that much with bare sticks, the genoa may have pushed us over even further, and maybe produced an uncontrollable lee helm.
There was a J22 from the nearby Corinthian Yacht Club sailing in about the same direction as us, and they were having the same problem with the gusts that we were. They were under full sail and had no auxiliary power. When the gusts shifted, they did the same thing I did by turning to windward, with a severe heel during the turn. So assuming they know what they were doing, I guess I did the right thing. (I'm sure you all will chime in with your opinions on this.) On the other hand, that boat ran aground earlier over near the Jersey side of the river, which anyone with a chart knows to stay away from. So maybe they didn't know what they were doing.
I had checked weather websites, but not the NOAA weather channel. I had my VHF on 16, and am supposed to get severe weather alerts on the radio, but there were none. I was not aware of any small craft advisories in the area. But interestingly, a web search shows that one was issued for Western NY at 3:45 yesterday, and I think there was one issued on parts of the Chesapeake and Potomac also that afternoon.
I suppose that instead of turning to windward I could have turned the other way and gotten a nice push from the gust. But my concern was that a sudden shift of the wind back to the original direction could have led to a severe jibe, so I was not willing to take that risk. What is the right decision in this situation? Should I have instead turned to leeward and quickly pulled in the mainsheet to prepare for a controlled jibe? And how would I avoid a knockdown with an even greater gust?
After this experience, I think I am going to rig a second reef for next season. Previously I thought that if the wind picked up too much I could just sail under genoa. But now I can envision situations where that might create too much lee helm that might be better balanced with the main on a 2nd reef. What do you guys think? The main has cringles for a second reef, but I would have to install some blocks and install a mast gate to allow the slugs to drop far enough in the mast track.
If you have questions or comments, fire away!