It's been a couple of weeks since I've added any notes to my learning to sail threads...
Learning to race on a real racing boat!
This had to be the ultimate learning experience for someone like me who is quickly advancing skills of sailing. I’ve always been taught, "Learn to sail in light wind, and you can sail in anything," but this was new. Toss that saying out the window. I’m about to step into an 60 foot boat designed to stand up to punishing 45 foot waves in the Southern Ocean, all without a propeller!
I quickly learned about sailing offshore, currents from tides, and exactly how different the sea is in a long racing boat as opposed to a nice cruiser. Today was a huge learning curve spike, and although I didn’t care for racing sailboats before, I enjoy it now. I even bought a racing video since this day out. Maybe I can watch it a few times and then take it home and trick my wife into betting me on who wins.
This was 15-35 knots of wind in a replica offshore racing boat; full sails, tons of bulb keel, and one extra guy along for the ride of a lifetime. The day-long training cruise was to take us from San Diego to Oceanside, California, and back. Tacks, gybes, spinnaker drills, yelling, people falling overboard, sails whipping across the decks, "Who has the loudest fart" competition, and all sorts of goodies are waiting.
The sun was barely shining through a weird winter mist and the wind was blowing a chill from the South in the noisy San Diego marina. Over the cries of seagulls, the noise from the nearby airport would drown out the traffic on North Harbor Drive with an occasional burst of jet turbines taking off. I could hear the musical clanging of halyards on masts like the sound of wind chimes as I closed the door on my Mercedes and walked toward the piers.
I was excited and could hardly sleep the night before, knowing that "a friend has a friend" who wanted to take me out on his replica of an America’s Cup boat he recently bought. This is the best kind of friend.
"A guy always needs a friend with a boat, a guy never needs to own one," I was once told by a wise old man once, and it rings true from my own personal experience. My holes in the water were back in Colorado under three inches of snow. I drove out to San Diego for the week to sail with my friend for some writing material and happened along this trail which turned out to be outstanding.
Dave greeted me at the locked security gate, ushered me in after punching in the code, and guided me to the very end of the pier, where his boat spanned nearly the entire top part of the "T" shaped dock.
It measured close to 60 feet long, slender, perched to slash through the water at any moment. It looked lethal and ready to pounce. By far, this was the largest boat I have ever been on, much less the most technically advanced with more money on one steering wheel than I had in my entire boating collection.
There were five "paid crewmembers" (how in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks do I get a job like that??), the owner Dave, who enjoyed driving the boat as opposed to watching it on a TV, and me. I was along for the ride, Code Name: human ballast. Position on the crew: Guy to blame stuff on.
After a quick meet and hearty handshake with the crew, I was told to strap on the color matching long sleeve shirt ( a large which hung like a short skirt on my 5’ 9" frame)with boat logo and name, vest, foulies, stow my bag below and meet us back up here, we’re leaving soon.
The sails were already attached. I could see a spinnaker in a hatch ready to fire, Genoa down on the deck ever so neatly and tied (as if it were built there, not a single wrinkle in the folds), and the main attached with huge carbon or black plastic cars which were going up with the assistance of three sailors. The spinnaker pole was just massive. This was almost funny walking the deck on this boat as compared to mine – I noticed a comical largeness to everything.
This was a private boat, the owner bought it to race / sail long distances, and is dreaming of sailing the Vendee (pronounced VON-DUH, I find out swiftly)or similar global challenge in the near future, depending on his budget to rig the boat for single handing or keeping it crewed. The boat is not as much carbon fiber as in something like an America’s Cup Boat, has an actual interior, albeit sparse with no more than a few bunks, simple galley, nav station and a head. It does not feature a canting keel, and is missing a few other items he rattled off as if I understood what they were. I was still in the wow mode. In one ear and right out the other.
I glanced up at the wind meter transmitter on the mast head spinning around busily and got vertigo from the height combined with the rocking motion of the marina’s waves. I had to grab on to the mast to get my footing back. This boat was huge, and the ballast of batteries and generator were probably the heaviest things in it besides the keel bulb.
"You ready to see something cool?" Dave asked me.
"Why do I need foulies; it seems ok today," I replied.
"Trust me on this one."
In just several seconds, I heard the two of the top three scariest things known to the English language.
I think the top one is, "Honey, I think we should sell the Mercedes SLK55 and buy a family sedan."
A trawler - "Heh, maybe 35 feet," I thought - which took our lines from the bow to tow us out and I helped haul up the dock lines and pushed off with the crew.
We were underway. So far, nothing unusual, just besides the boat was so long you couldn’t see over the bow because of the curvature of the earth. It just ended there somewhere off in the distance. As far as I knew, the bow was in the next time zone.
Turns were extra wide. People in other sailboats waived and honked as we left the bay with the main up and ever so slightly luffing. I was given a "safety brief" on what to do if I fall off sometime during the day, where to sit, where to stay clear of and who I could ask questions to when I am sitting there staying clear of things.
"Ok guys, let’s get the main powered up," Dave said.
The tow lines were dropped and hauled in, a toot on the horn and a wave from the tow boat, and we were off. Still nothing too unusual as we put a few miles between us and the shore; I could still see the Naval Air Station and some of the downtown sky scrapers as the haze from the morning sun and foggy mist drew them into the shadowy background like a curtain on a stage closing. The boat crew worked in near perfect sync and cranked the winches holding the main. The zippy sound of the Genoa halyard ratcheting up was heard next. All hell broke loose.
I found out that there is a position for a small hairy man with superhuman balance and grip, called an Orangutan, who is trained in arm waiving and screaming to the tactician, trimmer and helmsman, all the while holding on to the forestay and climbing up the mast to check for clearances and fix problems. He was up there yelling back in a strange almost Italian accent (Portuguese I think) as things were set in place or needed more halyard tightening.
All of a sudden I was teleported into a formula one race car. My world tipped over really fast. Things were blurry, mist was spraying from the stem of the boat and I was teetering on the toe rail heeling over at 25.3 degrees (I could see several of the mast gauges from where I was "posted"). There were no lifelines. This was hang on or get really cold and wet mode. The little raised nubs on the deck that look like speed bumps for my feet didn’t seem to be big enough. People were cranking things, yelling back and forth, peering out at the deck that seem to stretch over the horizon and all the time I was trying to just hang on for dear life.
I’ve been on boats when the initial surge when the sails catch the breeze was a little more apparent, but not one that felt like when it heeled, you were pushed thirty feet out of the water on the windward rail. Not a boat where if you fell, you’d actually damage yourself before the boat got hurt, or even the feeling of an office building on its side. I was thinking this guy has more money than brains. This isn’t fun, this is scary.
A few tacks, and one accidental "just a warm up" gybe, the ride smoothed out as we turned North by North West past Point Loma and headed downwind for Oceanside. We were well offshore; I could barely make out the hills and cliffs of the coastline. The Genoa was wing and wing with the main, and the spinnaker was called out.
I had a feeling this would be another strange, scary thing, so I hung on and watched. There was no way I would dare unclipping from my "you’re a sally" health and safety "nub" I found on the deck and climbing below to get my camera yet. This was too wet, and I needed both hands just to hang on.
The Orangutan motioned "ready". The huge white spinnaker flew up to the top of the mast with a quick ratcheting noise pulled by two others and still several other crew were cranking and easing on the winches and playing the sails in and out with the motion of the rollers. The numbers were huge on it. It bloomed with a POP and we immediately saw the hourglass shape of a twist in the sail. I heard a few oh-shits and some hollering back and forth for a loosened sheet, gybe to port, and FLOOP! The sail filled as we enjoyed the next twenty minutes slicing through deep rolling waves and warming with the rising sun as the haze burned off. The boat heeled to only 5-9 degrees with the kite out, just enough to push some hull out of the water and speed us up when the waves were timed right. Because of those huge numbers on that massive sail, I thought to myself that everyone up and down the coast from Mexico to LA could see our little problem.
The navigator was also the tactician. They still spoke out loud to each other, and you could see him compare notes with something on the GPS screen and talking to Dave. Because the ocean has tides, we were being pushed off course. I was handed a Gatorade and quickly remembered a passage in my sailing school text:
Tidal streams affect the Sailboat's speed, direction, and course.
Also called tidal current, a tidal stream is the horizontal flow of water caused by rising and lowering tides. In navigation work, you need to know the direction and strength of the tidal current at a particular time. If the wind is blowing together with the tide, it will result to a calm condition. On the other hand, there is greater friction between the wind and the water if the tide is against the wind. Expect waves in this kind of situation.
Well, the tide was across the wind. The waves were swelling, but not too bad. They were less "long pop-can on its side" shape and more like riding in a massive ball pit. I’ve never been seasick, so bring it on.
The change of course brought with it a lightning fast gybe (controlled this time) and a pop of the sheets and sail as we came out on the new heading. The interesting part of this was watching the foredeck crew. The spinnaker is much different on this boat versus my little 14 foot racing dinghy or even the 30 footer. This requires a massive pole and a lot of preparation, as well as a Cirque du Soleil performance from one of the crew suspended off the deck changing lines from one place to the next when the tripping line fails, which happened a few times in our trip.
Uphauls, downhauls, active guys, snaps, jockey poles, tripping lines, blocks, halyards, lazy guys, and hot sheets. (I was glad they didn’t refer to them as "hot guys".) This sail is huge, and the mess of associated gear must add a thousand pounds to the boat when including the sail. At least it is pretty, with its blue and white swishes and the large USA-77 on the front. This put the spinnaker on my 14’ dinghy to shame – heck, I only need three lines to control it plus a downhaul!
It was a very interesting process. We would bear off slightly, let everything stabilize for a second, release the pole, clip it in to the new lee-side, then when it was called "READY" both the Main and Spinnaker would gybe together.
So far so good – we’re into a long downwind run, practicing the occasional Gybe with a spinnaker and mainsail. I guess I should share my notes from a visit to each station in order.
The Tactician / Navigator. He’s doing two jobs at once. On a real race, he is called part of an "afterguard", I believe. The race process starts with him. Steven talks to the helmsman (Dave the owner) and Dave carries out the best plan. He watches for wind shifts in the water, uses a range finder and hand bearing compass to find lay lines, and is sort of the boat’s manager. His job is to keep the Helmsman informed of the best direction to drive the boat.
The helm, which just blew my mind, was controlled by Dave. This had two stations, one each side of the boat, and two wheels for each. The larger further away wheel (one closest to the nav gauges at each helm station), controlled the actual rudder. The second, smaller wheel controlled a trimming rudder. I was told that the boat can carry large weather helm on races when the main is held so tight for speed, and the trim wheel keeps everything in line without slowing the boat by using the barn-door sized rudder. To add to the humor of the day, on a zillion dollar boat, there was simple white tape on the top of the wheel, rather than a nifty braided rope which I call a topknot to show you when the rudder is amidships.
After steering the boat for about 15 minutes, I was invited to hang out with Tony D. His job was to trim and play the main sail. Whenever the speed dropped off, I was scolded by the helmsman and tactician for not trimming properly. I kept saying, "sorry there must have been a wind shift!" Dave’s response was always along the lines of, "Tony blames it on the same thing." All of a sudden, I wouldn’t feel so bad with a good laugh afterwards. For the most part on the downwind portions, we’d ease it all the way out, pull it ever so slightly back with the winch, and leave it be. The action would pick up when we would sail upwind.
You’ve got to have the strength of a bull and endurance of a marathon runner on crack to run the main sails when sailing upwind. The sheets are constantly going in or out, and you have to almost lay on the deck to keep looking up at the main to see if it is set right.
I spent most of the trip up to Oceanside either sitting on the rail, joking with the guys about the size of the boat, or below decks making coffee and sandwiches in the sparse galley. The galley below featured a cooler with food, a tiny sink (about the same size as the sink in my 30-footer’s head) or trying to understand all of the readings on the gauges.
The gauges were interesting. They gave more acronyms than I could wrap my head around – TWS, TWA, AWA, AWS, VMG, DNM, BS, DTK, HDG and several others. I figured out a few on my own but needed to ask about the others.
About 15 minutes out of Oceanside, I was invited to hang out with Juan who handles the foresail trim and winch. Little did I know I was being recruited to hang out in a nice place called the sewer, which is a hatch on the deck that leads down to the sail locker. This is a dark place, showing the fiberglass hull and a small passage that would lead back to a nav station or the "human" occupied area of the boat. This was probably the V-Berth on the normal, not racing version. My new position was to help stuff the giant spinnaker back into its bag after the crew pulled it down, unclipped it, and so forth. Juan came down to help me and this went fairly easy considering we just yanked and stuffed close to 1000 square feet of sail in a long sock-like bag.
By the time I came back up, the Jib was set. The wind and waves were too strong to sail with the Genoa out anymore. The seas were getting rough, and uncomfortable. I couldn’t imagine how the people in fishing boats and that Mac 26 trailer sailor that passed us were doing.
These sails were quite "pretty" for a manly racing boat. They were a funny clear plastic with silver/grey strands weaved strategically throughout. I asked if I could feel them since I didn’t know if this is some sort of mythical fabric or what. It actually turns out that they are a sort of plastic fabric! It feels like they should crack or something when folded, but they are thick and durable.
Anyhow, back to the learning. I’ve been in heavy seas aboard the family’s Formosa which is so heavy it almost cushions the waves, but this boat is so long and light in the hull, that it hits solid and hard in the mixed seas. The hull thuds when we crest a roller and cut back into the next wave. The wind had increased, along with sea conditions. I pulled on my watch cap and sailing gloves, and I carefully made my way back up to the foredeck to hang out with the Orangutan.
Up here, you get a real idea of how cold the California Pacific water really is. 50 degrees with spray and wind is begging for hypothermia. I carefully clipped in the double harness as I made my way forward to see what happens up here.
Well, I quickly found out. I was soaking wet, and the view was scary. The waves were tall, and when the bow rose to meet the crest of the roller we were pushed higher. It was like we were flying off of the surface of the water and slamming back into it. There was a tangled line from the spinnaker that bound itself into a turning block, and I was given a line to run back to a winch to help free it. I helped tie on a rolling hitch and carefully made my way back to the cockpit area where Tony D. wrapped it on a free winch and started cranking.
Without too much hassle, it broke free, and the Orangutan waved again. He must have been tired of slipping about on the foredeck, since he joined the rest of us in the cockpit and companionway for coffee. We were all soaking except for Steve and Dave. Again, I got to see it is good to be an owner or helmsman, as your crew shields the spray from you.
One more tack, as we head offshore and back towards the marina. Chips, coffee and sandwiches were handed out regularly. Most of my food got wet from salt water spray, and I had nowhere to wipe off my orange fingers from the Cheetos I was munching from a baggie.
I managed to get down the sloping cockpit closer to the water to rinse my fingers in the ocean, and as soon as I clipped in, BANG! The all too familiar sound of a sail flipping all over the place on the foredeck exploded in my ears. The boat stood up about 10 degrees as Juan and the Orangutan ran forward to investigate as the sheet and halyard was prepared to ease. The sail was flipping wildly and the sheets attached to it looked like bullwhips. We headed further up into the wind to bring the sail back over the deck.
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
Dave responded, "No just hang on."
The sail was still batting and smashing all over. I can still hear the clacks as the sheets whipped the standing rigging, mast and deck. I looked forward in just enough time to see the wind change and Juan was brushed off the deck as easy as if her were a dust bunny under the bed. Trying to correct the broken sail, he forgot to clip in.
"Man overboard!" Dave yelled and tossed him a U shaped floater which Juan swam towards.
Steve ran to the opposite helm and marked the GPS as Dave turned steered downwind. We were pushing past 10 knots with just the main, as the Orangutan wrestled the Jib back to the deck. Juan’s vest has inflated with a dull "BUNT" sound after a few moments, and we could see him only when the waves would put him and us on top of a roller. Because his foulies were over his vest, he looked as if he had just inflated in to a 300 pound man. He was quickly disappearing as we turned back into the wind to complete a figure 8 pattern.
"Antonio, I need that head sail, what’s going on up there," Dave yelled, "We’re having a rough time trying to sail upwind without it."
"The shackle that holds it to the deck is broken," the Orangutan responded in his strange accent, barely audible over the wind and noise of the water.
By now, two others had leapt to the foredeck to help out. I was motioned to handle the main. Tony D. came crawling back and went below to find a new shackle. He reappeared after what seemed an eternity with a replacement as we crept toward Juan under a main only. It was frustrating watching him try to swim towards us, as we would head up, luff in the wind changes, have to fall off, then get speed and head back towards him again. "Ahhhh, my kingdom for an outboard," I thought.
I was trying my hardest to keep the main sheeted in as tight as I could and keep the traveler upwind. The puffiness of the wind and the constant changes were difficult to say the least. The boat would heel to 28-29 degrees, down to 10-15, then flat as we luffed, then back to almost 30. Juan was looking weary in the cold water as we crept towards him. The waves didn’t help much either.
Antonio and Tony D, working with Steve managed to replace the shackle, and made their way back to the cockpit to raise the sail. When tightened, we moved forward now, heeling slightly more, but at a decent speed to retrieve our man overboard. A boathook extended out and with the boat turned to a ever-so-slight forereach / heave to, and we pulled him back on the long sloping transom and over the ledge.
I could see in his eyes, that only a few minutes in that cold weather had cost him a great deal of pain and he is going to be hypothermic soon enough. We ushered him below to put on a new vest and a dry jacket. He was already shivering as I made a new pot of coffee on the single burner camp stove.
Wrapping Juan in a wool blanket I found in a locker near the head, I returned up to the cockpit as I was starting to feel the uneasiness of my first bout of seasickness in my life. It quickly subsided as I got into the wind and water spray, and I turned aft to light a smoke and check I was clipped to my "nub" I found earlier on the deck.
Steve was adjusting the backstay as I was talking to Dave and Tony D. Antonio was busy trimming the Jib. We made tack after tack it seemed as we tried to fight our way back and forth into the Southern wind to get back to the tow boat.
It was pretty rough fighting the seas on the way back. I was afforded the opportunity to steer the boat for about 30 minutes while Dave took a break, "to take the Browns to the Super Bowl…" whatever that meant. When he returned he said Juan was ok and making another pot of coffee.
We were all soaking wet at this point. The only dry things I think I had was my baggie with a wallet, matches and lighter with smokes stuffed into my large pocket. I had a fast scare, as the main was too powerful, and I lost helm control to windward. I yelped to Steve, and he told the guys to ease the sails, and the rudder slipped right back into control. The heel during that moment was insane, I wish I had the chance to see the measurement, because the lee side winches were starting to go under the water.
The wind was starting to subside as we reached the tow boat on the VHF radio. We were still 30-45 minutes out tacking back and forth still every few miles. The tow would meet us by Point Loma where the waves were not as rough. The work of tacking frequently warmed us under our jackets and brought about higher spirits when Juan came back up from below decks with coffee for us all to refill our cups with.
"Hey I know a good way to warm up," Antonio shouted from the rail by the shrouds, and ripped a fart so loud you could just about feel it vibrate through the hull. I’m sure there were whales a few miles away wondering what happened to one of their kin.
"That’s nothing compared to the ones I had last weekend," Tony D. said, as I was laughing with Dave and Steve so hard, I had tears in my eyes. What a crazy day it has been so far.
I spent about 20 minutes working with Tony D. and Paul on trimming the jib and asking lots of questions as Steve gabbed on the radio with the tow boat and Dave steered us back to Point Loma. For the most part, the jib stayed in one spot, but we were still getting wind shifts of around 20 degrees, and we would have to open the jib to keep the boat moving along properly.
Generally, the sails stayed as tight as possible, something I have never seen before. The main was played slightly back and forth, but the jib stayed put. I thought you had to trim the jib to match, so I must have been mistaken in my technique.
The waves were cutting back, we had the main trimmed well to a near constant 23 degree heel and were making great speed. I clicked through some of the screens on the lee side helm’s Raytheon screen, and noticed our max speed recorded was 21.8 knots (probably when we were running downwind, as I noticed we were planning out of the waves on occasion) and we were currently doing 11.3. That’s just SCREAMING along in my humble opinion. I’m happy to get 6 or 7 knots pushing my 30 footer to the limit. Max wind speed recorded was 38.5 if I remember correctly.
"Here comes one," Tony D. said, and his tailpipe sounded the fog horn. Two bursts from him had us all laughing again. I inquired if he would like to have me go get a towel from below to wipe off the overspray from his shorts. Dave told him to wipe the deck instead.
We did a few more tacks and the island started slipping into view. Next, came the Point and then we had more and more boat traffic picking up. We met the tow boat just outside the bay and tossed them the lines, as the crew took down the Jib and tied it to the foredeck. The main furled down and then we were under tow.
We made it back to the Marina without event. The waves are much more pronounced when not under sail but not uncomfortable like the rollers out offshore were. We were tied to the cleats when I heard that familiar music of the halyards clanging on masts which meant to me were back safe "in the nest."
I did a lot of hand shaking, and thanking for the wonderful day, as we agreed to meet up for dinner at the marina’s dual purpose seafood store and restaurant which featured everything under the sun. After dinner and extended goodbyes, I was invited to give them a call anytime I wanted to stop by and go for a weekend sail or race if I get back to San Diego. This is an offer I will be accepting in the near future.
Making my way back south across downtown in my car and parking it near the hotel I had in the Gas Lamp District (a nice, modern part of downtown), I just realized I wouldn’t feel the same spending a week aboard a Beneteau 40.7 after that ride. Of course, that’s another story for another day!
Thanks for reading!
I reject your reality and substitute my own.
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Last edited by Lancer28; 11-26-2007 at 01:52 PM.