Originally Posted by seb5thman
...The winds picked up to steady 20-22 kts with gusts up to 28 kts coming from behind me (180 degrees) and I was afraid of an accidental jibe. The seas got big (for me) with what I would estimate to be 12-15' following seas. I felt very out of control. ...
During the period (quoted above) when you were running deep, you would have been wise to rig a preventer to the boom. Maybe you did, but neglected to mention it in your narrative.
Running like that can feel a bit squirrelly and takes some getting used to -- many novice sailors do find it unnerving compared to sailing and steering upwind in moderate conditions (when the boat almost feels as though it's on railroad tracks). So what you felt/sensed was natural. With a bit more experience you'll come to realize that it's normal and not necessarily anything to worry about.
For the sake of discussion, based on your description of the situation, I will suggest that the better decision MIGHT have been to press on. That doesn't mean you made a bad decision or the wrong decision, only that it might have been more advantageous to keep going. I wasn't there and don't know the area -- I'm just suggesting hypothetically.
When making a passage, the go/no-go decision point is not necessarily the midway point on the rhumb line between your start and intended destination. That is because if your destination is downwind and your departure point is dead upwind in heavy air, often times it will take far less time and difficulty to reach your destination than to return whence you came. In other words, you may have travelled as little as 1/4 or less of the charted distance, but be well beyond the half-way point as far as time and difficulty for returning are measured.
As others mentioned, sailing downwind in those conditions is well within the capability of your boat. With reduced sail area and preventer set, it would normally be considered a good ride. On the other hand, sailing upwind in those conditions would normally be considered an arduous slog -- undesirable if a downwind alternative existed. Also consider, what you would have done had the motor quit on you? Heading to a destination downwind should have been an option in the back of your mind, even if it was further away.
I think you did pretty well, all things considered. Don't let this incident spook you at all. You got your family back safely, and are taking the time to think through and ask what you might have done differently. Sounds like you're on the right tack.