Join Date: May 2002
Thanked 52 Times in 50 Posts
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Your question brought to mind the time it happened to me, when I began sailing. It really does happen to almost everyone, because inexperienced sailors can't or don't see the deteriorating conditions early enough to react in time, just as happened with you. But, now that it has happened to you, you'll be amazed at how fast your learning curve increases on that particular point.
The behavior of a sailboat, either gentle or violent, is directly related to the condition of the wind and seas, so you have to watch for changes in the condition of wind and seas all the time, and react to any changes early. We sailors are often reluctant to reef our sail when we see conditions start to deteriorate, because often, just before a storm, there's a calm. You almost feel foolish reefing your sails when there's hardly enough wind to move the boat. But, you have to reef your sails anyway, because the likelihood is that, when the leading edge of the front hits, you'll be hanging on to a heavily heeling boat. When the clouds darken, and begin to pile up high, reduce sail area before the big wind comes, because it almost certainly will come. Prepare for the worst. If it doesn't get that bad, count yourself lucky.
Rig your boat so that you can use either of two reefs, and then practice tucking in those reefs in light air conditions, so you'll be clear in your own mind as to how to do it. A lot of sailors suggest that you reef before you leave the dock, because it's easier. While that's true, I think it's bad advice, because, as you learned, you need to know how to reef the boat in adverse conditions, not just at the dock. Sometimes there isn't a dock available when the weather turns bad and you need to reef, so you should learn to reef efficiently while underway.
If you want to take a sail down first, it should be the jib. You can sail either down wind or to windward with a mainsail alone, especially with a lot of wind, but, in a hard blow, the wind is blowing too hard to use a big jib, and, you can't sail to windward at all with a small jib. But, most beginning sailors are rightly terrified of sailing with the mainsail in high winds, because of the risk of a hard gybe. To make you feel more comfortable with it, you need to learn how to gybe a mainsail in strong winds. After you learn how to do it, you'll feel safer and more at ease.
As the others have said, you did a great job. Once you found yourself in that situation, you instinctively did the right things. You relied on your wits, and they worked for you.