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post #1 of 81 Old 06-06-2010 Thread Starter
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First storm in a sailboat; lessons learned, advice wanted.

Hello all, posted a long time ago regarding getting a sailboat and learning to sail. Well, over the past year I have taken US Sailing classes and purchased a 1977 Catalina 22 (on the advice of sailing friends who said start small and with something you can sail now). Spent three months rebuilding her, upgrading rigging and such, and have now spent the last few months sailing her off the coast of Tybee Island, Ga. Fun little boat and some really relaxing days sailing around. However, yesterday we got caught in our first storm on a sailboat. Let me describe what happened, what I did, what I think I did wrong, and the outcome. Maybe some of you with experience can critique my actions so that I can learn from them.
First off, I fully understand that the Catalina 22 is not designed for any kind of heavy weather or even use in the ocean. After yesterday I may be looking to sell her and purchase something more suited to the area in which I sail. Now on to the story;
Yesterday started out perfectly, marine weather forecast called for partly cloudy, winds 10-15 knots, seas 2-3 feet with a 20% chance of a thunderstorm late in the day. Actual weather was sunny, 5-10 knot winds with 2-3 foot waves. We sailed out about 2 miles from shore tacking every half mile or so trying to make it to Saint Cathrine's island. Somewhere around 1530 hrs we noticed thunderheads a long distance away appearing south. I decided to turn around and run North back to Tybee and the protected inlet of the Savannah River. We were making good speed until suddenly all wind died. The sun was still out and the storm, though closing, was still far on the horizon. After about 35 minutes, the wind resumed at around the same speed as before. Now, I am running a 150 Genoa and a full Mainsail, the only sails I have as my working Jib fell apart from age. After running for about an hour, the storm started filling the sky behind us. The wind started picking up though not dangerously. I started thinking about reducing sail but because we were making good speed I decided to hold on a little longer.
This I believe was my first mistake, because about 10 minutes later, the wind started gusting to about force 3-4. The boat began to surf and seemed to plane. I told the girl to hold the tiller and keep the boat pointed downwind as I went forward to wrestle down the genny and secure it. I managed to do this without to much fuss though the jib halyard broke free and flew around near horizontal for the remainder of the storm. (at this point we could not turn into the wind to take down sail as it would have capsized us)
Once the genny was down the boat became controllable again and we continued to run under full mainsail with the sheet all the way out. I had never reefed the main before and couldn't find any line small enough to do so but I kept thinking that I needed to reef NOW!!!! We were at this point about a half mile from the turn into the Savannah River. Suddenly, the storm winds hit, wind indicator showed sustained 37mph with gusts to 48. The waves became taller than the cabin of the boat and salt water filled the air. Mistake number 2, I should have dropped the main before the winds hit. Though I thought we could make it. Again I told the girl to hold the tiller (which at this time had so much weather helm that it was almost impossible to keep the boat straight. It would round up to port even with two hands pulling the rudder and bracing against the cockpit. She was screaming that she couldn't hold it but I knew I had to drop the main. I waited until we were in between waves and jumped up, released the halyard and wrestled the main down, wrapped it around the boom and secured it with bungee cords. We were now running under bare poles and it seemed to be somewhat more comfortable. Though she still had amazingly strong weather helm and waves were boarding over the transom. (Cockpit lockers are water tight and secured, additional drains have been installed in the cockpit and I had put the companionway boards in earlier so they were draining quickly and to me posed no real threat).
Now, on to my biggest mistake. What I think I should have done is maintain sea room and continue to run as I had control, I was watertight and the storm was fast moving. What I did was try to turn into to Savannah River inlet and make it to the protection of the cove.
First let me describe the inlet. The Savannah River inlet is about three miles wide, has submerged rock jetties dividing it into two channels. A major shipping lane goes through the southern side. Massive sand bars line both sides and run right up to the navigational buoys. The tide was outgoing against the wind and the water depth goes from 40' to 7' very quickly. Basically, 5-6 foot swells become 6-7' breakers very quickly.
By turning to port under bare poles I lost steerage way and began taking large breaking waves on my beam. I started the outboard (useless as it was out of the water most of time) and tried to make some sort of headway. I kept trying to run a bit and then turn to port to make it the half mile or so to get behind the island. After doing this for the longest 35 minutes of my life, and having one particularly large breaker lift us up, roll us over till the starboard windows were submerged and then slide us down the wave (thank god the keel was down) we began to get shielded by the island.
Suddenly, the wind stopped, the waves dissipated and the sun came became the most beautiful time yet on the water. Dolphins were playing, gulls were circling, it was almost surreal. As if we had just passed a test and this was the reward...
Now, I would like to say it was my actions that saved us that day but I know it was pure luck. I made some near fatal mistakes yesterday that could have cost me the boat and possibly our lives. Though this may seem petty to those who brave mid ocean storms with 40' waves and 60 knot winds. Our little gale with 6-7 foot breakers in a 1900 pound 22' boat seemed serious enough to us...
Now, what could I have done better? I have been in worse storms in a small Boston Whaler that seemed safer than this sailboat. This boat was all over the place, weather helm was so strong I thought the tiller would break.

I have come up with my own conclusions that I would appreciate comments on;

1) If you think a storm is approaching and the weather report confirms this, if you can take refuge in the nearest leeward cove or behind the lee of an island, do it. If you cannot,
2) Seriously reduce sail area well before the winds hit, in a small boat like the Catalina 22 this may be all sails down and secure.
3) If you get caught in the storm, maintain sea room and stay the hell out of harbors and river inlets until the storm passes. Wave heights in these areas are astronomical.
4) Never take waves on the beam, if your running continue to do so.
5) Outboards are useless in a seaway.

Being that we survived this, I am taking this as a stern lesson from the sea. Apparently she is not a theoretical teacher. She teaches you in ways that force you to learn and if you fail, you don't come back.

What should I have done differently?

The situation was very scary in this boat, is this boat really so bad in these conditions that I need to look at buying a different boat?

Would a heavy displacement, 27' boat have made a difference or was it simply my inexperience that made it so scary?

All in all I am amazed at how quickly the sea can become dangerous and though it was quite terrifying, I look forward to the next sail... Alan.
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post #2 of 81 Old 06-06-2010
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I think you learned your lessons well.

Your summary nailed it.
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post #3 of 81 Old 06-06-2010
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Some thoughts

I think that both your description and analysis indicate that you have a really good handle on things. I agree that with sailing the exam often comes before the lesson. I think most experienced sailors (I have been doing it for 40+ years) can well remember such scary experiences.

I think your conclusions are valid. Perhaps your two biggest mistakes were not having the reefing gear setup beforehand (and not practicing with it) and trying to enter the inlet at the worst possible time. Were you listening to weather radio? Might they have had reports of advancing T-storms that would have given you more notice and time to duck into cover?

A bigger, heavier boat would be more comfotable in sich an experience but chances are you could still encounter slightly worse conditions in a bigger boat because you might push it harder and be a bit less careful. Buy a bigger boat if you want it and can afford it, but basically keep doing what you are doing - sail a lot and analyze your experiences.

After the refit we have decided to sell Ainia. We want something smaller that would be could for the light summer winds of Lake Ontario, although we plan to spend at least a couple of winters in the Caribbean before heading north.
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post #4 of 81 Old 06-06-2010
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Alan, You did well, considering the limitations of your boat and sail inventory. I sail a C22 and have found it more seaworthy than I am.

Good that you battened down your hatches, secured your lockers, and installed the bigger cockpit drains on your boat. I learned that lesson the hard way.

I would recommend investing in a new 110% jib and a heavy weather sail. I have used the heavy weather sail to good effect in high wind when I've needed to maintain control and a degree of comfort. You definitely need a smaller headsail when the wind is more than about 15 knots. Where I sail, I'm usually off the water before I would need a second reef in the main, but you might consider adding a 2nd reef to yours.

You probably would have done better to run off, as you said. In a small boat like the C22, big beam-on waves are a bigger concern than the wind. But there are lots of C22s sailing in coastal waters like yours, and a fair number sailing to the Bahamas from Florida, given a good weather window. So don't rule out your boat as inadequate for your waters. Just be aware of what it's capable of and what it is not.

Good summary.

Sailing isn't a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that!
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post #5 of 81 Old 06-06-2010 Thread Starter
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K sailor, thanks for the reply. Yes we received the weather warning but I figured based on an average run speed of 5 knots I could make it into the inlet before the storm hit. And I almost did, 35 more minutes and we would have made it. You are 100% correct, we hit the entrance to the river at the worst possible moment. Funny how that happens. Next time out we are going to explore the three sounds in our sailing area so that I am familiar with places to hide. I'll mark good spots on my charts along with notes regarding the channels leading into them. If I had decided to do a beam reach into Wassaw Sound we would have been comfortably on the lee side of Wassaw Island when the storm hit, relaxed with two anchors out, but then I wouldn't have gained any experience....I am working on a reefing system today. Though I think even a reefed main would have been to much. I think the lessons learned in a tender, light small boat will pay off immensely if applied to the bigger boat that I will get eventually (would really like to stand up below deck...) In addition, I'm going to have my sailing instructor teach me how to heave to during my next lesson. I think the ability to do this is paramount. Though I am unsure if the Catalina 22 will heave to properly. I don't think there is enough keel under the boat but we will see..Alan
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Smile Storm Management

What a great experience! Welcome to the world of sailing. If you spend time on the water you will get in caught in bad weather and have to deal with it. An approaching storm requires constant attention.

You closed up the boat in preparation for the storm. That was perfect.

The outboard is a major problem. In large waves it has a tendency to get submerged and stop. This is a problem I have experienced as I have a 25 foot O’day with an outboard. Only real solution here is to get a sailboat with an inboard. I have been able to manage with my outboard OK, not great but OK.

Here are my recommendations:

Reef the sails prior to the storm (Your item 2). I would never strip my poles. If and when the engine quits you have very little control without sails. A fully reefed main will provide plenty of control even in high winds.

Start the engine prior to the storm.

Don’t go into a channel during a thunder storm. (Your item 3)

Don’t ever strip you poles when going into a channel.
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post #7 of 81 Old 06-06-2010 Thread Starter
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She needs new sails anyway so I may get three reefs installed in the new sail. Definitely need new headsails including a storm jib. The area I sail in is quite volatile and it is very likely that this is not the last storm I will get caught up in.
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post #8 of 81 Old 06-06-2010
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So will your companion go sailing with you again? Great story that you will be able to retell over and over.
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post #9 of 81 Old 06-06-2010
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I think you did well and where you made mistakes you recognized them and learned from them. You can't expect much more of yourself than that.

One of your comments about having small enough lines to reef does give me pause. The main is reefed in a number of different ways on different boats but ultimately there is a cringle on the luff (reef tack) and one on the leech (reef clew) that are pulled down and in the case of the reef clew aft. The small grommets in the sail between the reef cringles only have the function of allowing you to thread small lines ("bunt lines") through to secure the rolled up bunt (the part of the sail pulled down by the reef. In no way are they intended to actually hold the sail down into the reef. In fact, a common cause of major sail tears is a failure of the reefing line that holds the reef clew down and aft which loads up the bunt lines and tears the sail.

As I recall the C22 I spent most weekends one lovely summer on with the quite lovely owner the reefing is straightforward. You ease the halyard until the reef cringle is down to the boom. Put the cunningham hook in the reef cringle and take up the halyard. Pull down on the cunningham. The clew reef I think was a line cleated on the boom. Pull that in tight as you can and cleat it back. Done. You can practice on a light-air day in your slip. You should be able to get the time down to about a minute at the dock. In real life while you are bouncing around it will take three or four minutes. Reef early.

In point of fact tying up the bunt is not critical on most boats. It's tidy and reduces the chance of snags. If reefing in extremis I wouldn't bother - get off the cabin top and back in the cockpit.

sail fast and eat well, dave S/V Auspicious

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post #10 of 81 Old 06-06-2010
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Apparently she is not a theoretical teacher
Nope, but think about all the money that you saved in classroom time!

A few comments:

1. You did great. The crew was uninjured, the boat was not broken, and you didn't hurt another boater. A successfull and entertaining cruise by any measure.
2. Don't sell the boat. While a heavier boat will be more comfortable, this one (and her crew) proved their worthiness. You gained enormouse experience is a single day. You now have vastly more experience in weather than 95% of the powerboaters on the water. Not to disparage them, but a powerboater's method for dealing with weather is to run.
3. Never, ever think that you can outrun a summer squall. You can't. It's also very difficult to gauge their direction. I have been sailing for 42 years, offshore, racing, etc, etc. and last summer I though that I could slip below a squall line. Couldn't, didn't, and I scared my guest crew. Prepare for heavy weather when you first think of it. NOT after it hits.
4. I didn't see anything about putting on lifejackets. If you don't have an auto-inflatable jacket, buy one and put it on before you reef.
5. You already learned this the hard way, but you need to practice reefing. We can execute a reef on Victoria in under 5 minutes. Many years ago, off Montauk, my father and I were in 25kts surfing 8'-12' seas in his Catalina 30. We should have reefed but weren't very good a it so we didn't. We did an accidental gibe and blew the gooseneck apart and tore the mainsail luff 4'. I learned to reef and sew that day.
6. You need a preventer for the main. When you said that the main was way out, I pictured an accidental gibe and someone being injured. Buy a boom vang kit and attach one end to the bom and the other to an eye at a stanchion or on a eye on the genoa track.
7. LAST BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY... you started the single most important habit of boating. A post-incident inspection of your actions. You will have more of these experiences. This is why we go on the water in the first place. Learning from each incident makes you a vastly better boater.

Ya done good.
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