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Old 10-29-2007
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Strapping it on (the boat)... Using my harness for the first time.

I had some time sailing recently at the big ol' lake Mac, with its 100 miles of silty shores and low spots that snagged pontoon boats... I wanted to pass along a story I had about safety harnesses.

Now, let me preface this by saying no, a lake is not like an ocean. However, there are some things that can be similar or even worse. Running aground in lakes are usually more realistic concerns than being out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Fetch on long lakes (the amount of wave action tumbling with the blowing winds) is a little less in some places too. You also get the advantage of "mechanical turbulence" a form of wind blocking created from buildings, trees, cliffs, and so forth. Singlehanded sailing in a lake with "mountain waves", or fast tumbling pressure differentials are more of a hazard because of heavy air that comes in faster than you can believe.

Furthermore, falling off a $150,000 boat in a lake is still devastating; not only to your wallet but yourself. You can swim to it after it runs aground, you can suffer hypothermia, you have no way of contacting state patrol or rangers without a cell phone, or even climbing back aboard if your hull has a lot of freeboard and no ladder extended. Yes, I have insurance, but I also paid out every penny of the cost of the ship on my own checking account. I'm sure this adds to my nerves in bad situations, but I'm slowly loosing that.

All of those dangers and more are some of what I worry about when singlehanded sailing in the late afternoon or early morning when wind storms are more common along the front range of the Rockies.

To my point, and why I wanted to post a learning thread: I finally had a chance to singlehand and strap myself to the jacklines of my boat, and wanted to pass it along. They saved my boat and my life this time.

I was out sailing in about 75 degree weather - the forecast was for clear skies, winds 10-15 until midnight, then becoming 20-25 with gusts possible over 40. The boat was heeling along nicely, making 6.4 knots on a starboard tack, bowsprit jutting into the occasional wave covering the foredeck with chilly mountain water and producing a fine mist. Our 170% Genoa was stretching back towards the cockpit and tightly sheeted. I checked the tell-tales and everything was looking smooth - all blowing aft with a slight lift on the top of the Genny.

The sun was setting and I was planning on getting in some evening sailing while I prepare for a trip out to the Gulf of Mexico with my boat. I thought a trip to Nebraska's greatest lake would not only provide me with some long tacks of about 2 hours, but some valuable trailer sailing time. I couldn't have been more right.

As the sun set, I reached the western side of the chartplotter's "happy spot" for keeping me out of the silt and low spots. Rounding up and pulling the Genny sheet through the new high-side winch, I noticed that there were some ominous clouds on the western horizon by where the sun was setting.

"Noted," I thought, "I could always lower the 170 if I was over canvassed with my newly rigged downhaul line that lets me douse the foresail from the cockpit."

Darkness had settled in for a few hours now, and I was nearing the end of an eastern run on the lake. I was checking my telltales with a LED flashlight, when I noticed the gust rate increase with the constant breeze coming up. I checked the instruments for a highest wind speed recording. 14kts - that's too much for my 170, I should really douse it for a 100% and get ready to toss a reef in the main.

Suddenly it struck me, that dark feeling of the unknown. What we called "fog of war" in the Marines. I just realized in a sobering moment, it is pitch black on this lake, nobody else is out here, and there is no marina or pier to tie to if a storm hits. I'm going to be in deep if I don't get ready for this. The little coves that we could normally dive into to stay away from the wind were only at about 6 feet of water, and gave me a circle of about 75 feet in the largest one.

I'm about to be out in the middle of a dark lake, alone, in a storm, with nowhere to duck out to or tie up if things got too restless. Douse the Genoa, and run for the foredeck to sail-tie it to the lifelines to prevent a tea bag or forming a giant parachute up there. Either situation was not very desirable.

I knew the wind was still below 25 kts because my rigging starts whistling above that speed. I eased the main to buy me some more time to get ready without having a knockdown if the wind gave me a chump check too soon.

Jetting back down below, I grabbed my watch cap, jacket and tethered harness with auto-PFD (we attach strobes and whistles to each vest too).

I quickly ran and set my jacklines to the fore and aft shackles. My lines cross over themselves in an "X" fashion at the base of the mast. My method of thinking was that the last thing I would want is extra play in them and fall overboard, getting drug where ever the boat went without enough freeboard to be able to climb back in. Sapping the foredeck shackles and clipping in, I turned to address the mess of sail blowing around on the foredeck. I remembered at the moment, one of the first things I learned when sailing as a kid: don't step on a sail, you'll fall.

Hunting for a footing in the waves, I did it. I stepped on the sail and the Dacron created the fastest way for gravity to act on a body, regardless of non-skid. I fell hard into the deck, rolling and slipping while lying on the sail to the leeward side of the boat. I could hear that 100 mile per hour sound that Dacron sail fabric makes, as I mentally pictured the cold water and how bad the shock was going to be when I hit that near-freezing water. All of a sudden, I stopped sliding with an abrupt tug. The jackline and my tether held me with my knees in the water, half on the boat and half off.

The wind was picking up more. I could hear the whistling of my rigging in the gusts telling me it was going over 25, and I still had a full main out with a relaxed sheet. I drug myself back to my knees, crawled over to the sail, bunched it up, tied it off, and crawled to the mast to release the halyard so I could drop in two reefs.

The boat seemed to lurch with each puff. I could see a wake behind the boat in the moonlight of frothy 40 degree water and white capped waves blowing spray off of the tops. I ran back to the cockpit to check on "helmer" my ST3000 autopilot. He was having a hard time holding a course of +/- 25 degrees in the waves, so I turned down the sensitivity and went back to finalizing my reefs and securing the bunt of sail left over.

I didn't have a second to think, or rest. The water was getting choppy and the spray seemed to form right in front of my face, soaking me to the bone. I clipped in to the second jackline to work on the other side of the boat with less tension on the tether.

"One last trip" I thought. I ran back to the cockpit and opened the lazarette. Skipping past the white bag "Working Jib" I chose the "Storm Jib / #5" bag which hasn't seen the light of day since this summer back in Colorado. I hoped I folded it up properly for quick deployment. The double reef in the main was about ready to overpower the helm, and I could hear helmer strain with an electric groan to hold her on course. I needed that 50 feet of storm jib out in a hurry to balance things out.

I unclipped the halyard from the lifeline where I secured it to keep it from blowing away. I pulled out the top of the storm jib's wire line and attached it. The sheets clipped in, and the tack snapped its wire line to the deck. I had folded it properly, and it all pulled out of the bag without a twist or foul. Thank goodness for practicing this in the summer!

The wind was now turning the water around the boat to what I would only be able to describe as a boiling look. It was angry. There wasn't enough depth to make those constant waves I saw in the ocean which were far easier to deal with. I was sopping wet from little breakers and troughs of 4 feet or so that crashed over the decks and went airborne with any obstruction in their path. My shoes were still full of ice cold water and my pants stuck to my legs.

It was hands and knees back to the cockpit, where I trimmed the jib and main for a smoother tack about 45 degrees off of the westerly gale, which gave me more "sea room" to keep from smacking into the muddy bottom. This would also set me up to heave-to quickly if I needed to.

I snicked the key into the panel that says,”Inboard Power" by the helm. I turned it over and the groan and sputter of the inboard came to life. If anything, it was like a survivor making a camp fire for morale. My best guess was that I would douse the main if it got over 30 and I would raise the Trysail I have on a secondary mast track for its first time, and use the inboard to hold me in a heave-to until I could balance the sails out. I can't depend on the inboard alone since I am preparing for a blue water trip, so going bare poles is not an option. Running aground isn't one either.

"Now what?" I thought as I settled back into the cockpit on the high side seat by the helm. I could anchor it out, but I can't run the engine, hold a course into the wind at the helm, and drag the anchor up if I get into trouble and start slipping towards shore. Scratch that idea. It was dark; I could see only four lights from a nearby town's highway intersection. I can't possibly take it back to the trailer in this wind. I wouldn't be able to tie it to the boat ramp; there are no cleats in the poorly maintained pond I'm in.

"Ok," I said aloud," if I can't pull out, and I can't anchor, I'm in for a long night on the water. The cold and wetness was settling in to my body as the wind sucked every ounce of heat and strength. The wind was constant, and I thought I could pull her into a heave-to with the double reefed main and storm jib. This would give me a chance to get dry, warm a coffee pot on the stove, grab a poncho and a sleeping bag.

I backed the jib, sheeted the main tight, turned helmer off and used counter-steering to let her slip backwards into her own wake, and things instantly went into that "normalcy" with heaving to - the slight heel and easy rocking motion. I could "feel" for a change while I got changed and dried off, set up the coffee pot, had a shot of vodka, and collected my gear for a night at the helm.

As soon as I started pulling my poncho over my head, I could hear that pitter-patter of raindrops hitting the hull. The barometer had fallen and the chartplotter's alarm wasn't set up to ring like I thought it was. Wet and cold darkness and then worrying about a self-financed sailboat wasn't a good recipe. I was fed up and I sat below while the pot bubbled after sliding the hatch shut and placing in my bottom washboard, making a note to dog it in so if I did get knocked down, it wouldn't fall out.

I turned on my hand held GPS to watch my position without having to sit on the helm. I set a waypoint and then told it to "go to" so I could monitor the drift or forereach of the heave-to. An hour passed with a few checks topside using my hand bearing compass and rangefinder to check the location I was at. The rain yielded to a colder menace, snow.

The wind retreated shortly after 4AM, with three inches of snow on the decks. I clambered up, clipped in, dropped the sails and motored the anchor down for a sleep. 10:1 scope killed almost all of my rode available on the boat, and I drifted off to a deep sleep with the heater whirring away in the saloon.

That next day when I awoke and the snow melted, I managed to holler at another young couple in a sailboat that was trying to launch. They said they would help me get out of the lake, and I thanked them endlessly over coffee and cookies after pulling out and stepping the mast back to its travel position.

Clipping in? Sure saved me - not to mention a few other things like practicing storm tactics in sunny nice weather, preparing sails to pull out of the bags and clip right in without hassle, and learning to heave to.

Hope this found its way to someone's PC screen and made a difference. Talk to you guys soon.


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Old 10-29-2007
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Great story Robert, I'm glad everything worked out ok......

Apart from the lifeline issue, the second major "learning" I got was about taking the time to properly stow the storm jib. If it had been done in a hurry, way back when you last packed it, you might have been in much worse of a jam....

Love to learn "the hard way" when it's someone else "doing the doing", as it were.

Thanks, Fred
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Old 10-29-2007
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Read and noted Devil Dog
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Old 10-29-2007
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Well written Robert, and stored firmly in mind for future use. Thank you for sharing.
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Old 10-29-2007
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Well written...and sounds like all your preparation paid off. BTW, do you have rigging knives attached to the PFDs.. if not, you should. Might also want to look at a two-leg tether, with a long and short leg. Very useful beastie to have around...and is what i use as my primary tether.
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Old 10-29-2007
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I just keep my rigging knife on my belt. I'll go look at my tether and let you know what kind it is. Any advantages for using two legs of different lengths? My opinion is that as long as I don't have to completely unclip to change to another line, I'm ok.
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Robert,
Are you talking about Lake McConaughy just north of Ogallala, NE? I grew up there...from 1950 to 1969. I pretty much know that lake as well as Lake Ogallala like the back of my hand. Gawd, I miss the fishing from there!!

Andy
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Robert-

Sometimes, it helps to have a shorter leg to the tether, since you might want to work closer to the jacklines... when I'm working in the cockpit or on the foredeck, I'll often use the short leg on the tether, so I can use the tether and jackline to help steady me—especially if I need to use both hands to work on something.
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You know what the first rule of sailing is? ...Love. You can learn all the math in the 'verse, but you take
a boat to the sea you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps
her going when she oughta fall down, tells you she's hurting 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

—Cpt. Mal Reynolds, Serenity (edited)

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Old 10-29-2007
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great story well written. lots of lessons learned there for me, thanks.
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That's the one, Andy. It's a terrible spot now, unless you have a flat bottom bass boat and can tool in and out of a 8' trailer, beaching the boat while you park your truck... I hope in May (when I return) the water is higher, as this place looks run down, almost neglected for about the past ten years. No cleats, no piers, no stores open...
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