October Night Sail, 2009
In the north east, the sailing season is coming to an all-to-rapid close. The weather this past weekend was great if you like heavy air (and I do) but I had too many other items on my to-do list to get out on the water. But, at 6:00PM Sunday I was irritated and cranky at having done other things all day, so I (mentally) said "the Hell with it" and went sailing.
Sunset was at 6:17Pm, so I would be sailing at night. No problem, I like sailing at night. It was supposed to get chilly. No problem, I have enough warm clothes. It was supposed to be windy. OK, I'll start with a reefed main and take it from there.
I arrived at the marina around 6:30 and was on the boat soon after. The sun had set and the sky was a brilliant orange color that was soon fading. In the harbor the wind was 15kts from the WNW, dropping to 10 and gusting higher than 15. Fortunately, the tide was ebbing, so the wind and tide were in the same direction and this would keep the waves down.
On the boat I mentally reviewed everything I needed to do. Sailing solo, at night, in a decent breeze, requires some care. I don't believe it is dangerous, but it can be if you are not careful. I was sure to wear my inflatable vest, with a handheld radio attached. I had a flashlight in my pocket and my sailing knife in another. I started the engine and let it idle while I uncovered the mainsail, placed winch handles in the cockpit, moved the dingy from the rear of the boat to the mooring pendant, connected the electronics, and otherwise prepared.
Since the wind was going to be above 15 kts I put in the first reef at the mooring and raised the mainsail. Since it was getting dark I turned on the nav lights before I left the cabin. It was now or never so I dropped the mooring lines, and I was off.
The water in the harbor was calm, but the wind was not. Motorsailing with the main up, headed close hauled, the wind meter was showing 20 kts. Oh boy, this was going to be interesting. I motorsailed close hauled due west for a short time, easily going 5 kts with the engine just idling, turned the corner in the harbor to head north and then I was out to sea. Once clear of the fishing pier I shut the engine down. The wind was 15-20 kts and I was going 3-4 kts with just the main up. I wanted more sail, so I unrolled the headsail to the first reef, making it about a 100% jib. Sailing close to due north I was zooming along at over 6 kts. I had no destination in mind, I just wanted to sail.
There was not another boat in sight as I headed out. The conditions were not too bad: 20 kts of wind, 3 - 5ft waves (not closely spaced), not too cold, and no other boat traffic to worry about. I trimmed the headsail as best I could. Since the headsail was reefed I needed to move the jib lead forward, but that was not going to be possible with the block under load, and I didn't feel like tacking over to change it. I did lock the wheel and move forward to adjust the other block, which would be helpful for the trip home.
Now I tried to relax and enjoy the sail. It was scary at first as the wind would gust over 20, hitting 23 kts a number of times. During the gusts the boat would heel over to 40 degrees and try to round up. The main was in too tight and I had too much weather helm. I went forward and lowered the traveler half way and the weather helm got better. I also eased my course off the wind a little more. Boat speed was pretty fast - over 6 kts for most of the time.
It got completely dark and the stars came out. It was a very clear night and I could easily see the Big Dipper sitting low on the horizon. The two pointer stars led me to the Polaris, the North Star, which has guided mariners for centuries. I could see the Milky Way pass through the Summer Triangle, the Great Square, Pegasus, and many other constellations. Looking at the stars got me thinking about that poem: "All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by?" [as I was writing this I looked it up:
Sea Fever by John Masefield - published 1913
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
Anyway, I had the ship (although not so tall, but tall enough for me) and I had the star. So I ignored my glowing chartplotter, equipped with GPS sensor that could place me within 10 feet anywhere on the globe. I stopped looking at the compass, and I even tried to ignore the wind meter (which seemed like it just kept climbing), and sat down on the low side of the cockpit, and placed Polaris just to port of the mast, and tried to keep it there.
The tension of the day had melted away. Wedged securely into the low side of the cockpit, I concentrated on keeping the boat going in the right direction. I also was looking for large waves, trying to spot other boats, listening to the VHF (report of a boat taking on water in Jones Beach inlet, any mariners in the vicinity keep a close watch), and enjoyed myself. The Yankees were playing the Twins in game 3 of the ALDS, but I would catch up later. I thought of turning on the radio to listen, but it was too rough in the cockpit and too windy to hear anyway. So I continued sailing. The wind was moving north, so I moved more north east to keep the same wind angle. To the west I could see the lighthouse at Middle Ground. To the southwest the 4 stacks at Northport were easily seen. To the northwest was Bridgeport, and I saw an inbound ferry, lit up like a small cruise ship. To the North east was some other CT city, maybe New Haven? I didn't know and I didn't really care.
It was now around 7:30 and I needed to think about turning around. I looked at my fancy chartplotter, looked at the where I was in the Sound, and decided to turn around at 7:45. I was about 6 nm north of Mt. Sinai, around 1 hour from port. That would put me at the channel entrance around 8:45, off the boat around 9, and home by 9:30. So I reviewed the steps to tack the boat: Ease the leeward traveler line so the main would self tack down, move the winch handle from the loaded winch to the unloaded winch, and then one last look around. After a mental "Ready About, Hard Alee" I slowly turned the wheel and then freed the jib sheet when the boat was head to wind. As the helm fell off on the new tack the mainsail blew across, then the jib. I threw a few turns of the jib sheet on the new winch and started to grind the line in.
Wait a minute, something is wrong - the jib did not tack over to the correct position. What was wrong? Was the lazy sheet stuck? No, I freed it from the winch and it was slack. Something was wrong though because the sail was backwinded. Something was holding it to windward. I would have to go forward and find out what was wrong. Fortunately, with the sail backwinded, the boat was almost in a heave too position, and was quite stable. Still, I was very careful as I moved forward; one hand for the boat, one hand for me, do not fall overboard in these conditions. The problem was easy to find, somehow, the sheet had gotten looped over the main halyard winch on the mast and then led back to the sail. The loop was holding the sail to close to the wind (difficult to describe but easy to see). The sheet was loaded so there was no way I could just pull it free. Now I needed to figure out how to free it. I thought about jibing, as the sail blew over I figured the sheet would get blown off the winch at the mast and then I could pull it in. However, there was no way I was going to jibe in 20ts of wind. I thought about just removing the sheet from the primary winch, letting the sail flog while I moved forward and freed the sheet from the mast. However I didn't want the sail to flog that much. What if I used the laszy sheet to take all the strain off of the loaded sheet? That would allow me to free the line from the mast. So that's what I did, I threw some wraps of the lazy sheet on the other winch, brought the line in until it was tight, moved forward, took the loop off the mast winch, and then freed the sheet. When I released the lazy sheet the sail inflated with a loud pop and the boat took off.
It took maybe a minute to free the sheet and complete the tack but I was now disoriented. I looked at the shores and I didn't know if I was looking at the north or south shore of the sound. I looked at the instruments and saw that I was headed west. OK, turn to port to head south and home. Visually, the shore seemed to be way too close but that must be right because all the instruments agree and make sense. OK, then turn to port. I turned the wheel, but the boat did not obey and continued west. I turned the wheel some more, no difference. What was going on? Then I realized that the sails were trimmed way too right and the rudder was overpowered. I lowered the traveler more and eased the sheet. The rudder magically worked and the boat turned to the correct heading. Now I used my chartplotter to direct me to the harbor entrance. Disance: 5.5 nm, course: 212M, Bearing 212M, Speed: 6.5 kts, ET 39 minutes, etc. Modern electronics are wonderful!
Since I had tacked and the wind had turned more North, my heading was a deep reach and quite fast. With the wind and waves on the rear quarter the ride was much easier. The wind was down to 13 kts (apparent and I was able to relax. With the sails trimmed as best as I could guess (it was too dark to see the tell tails) the boat speed was over 7 kts for most of the time with some runs over 8 kts as I surfed down waves. At this rate I would be back at the harbor in 30 minutes. I tried to stop looking at the instruments and paid attention to the shore. I spotted the red and green lights that mark the entrance to Mt. Sinai harbor and headed there. Soon (really too soon for me, but enough was enough) it was time to furl the headsail and drop the main. It took a lot of effort but I was able to furl the headsail without using a winch. I started the engine and headed into the wind. With the wheel locked I quickly dropped the main and put one sail tie on it. I motored into the harbor, picked up the mooring without problems and properly put everything away. With the boat closed, I got in the dink and rowed to shore. As I rowed away I thanked Day To Remember for being a good boat.
I was very glad I went sailing.