Spinnaker sailing antics
22 March 2009 | underway
The story below was written by our good friend and current fellow Zen crew member Don James. We met Don in 2000 while on our last family cruise. Don was sailing to the Caribbean on his boat Enterprise and we were doing the same on Uliad, our last cruising boat. We sailed together for more than 3000 miles and have remained close friends ever since. Don joined us back in Panama to experience the canal passage. Well, it went so well that he is still with us 2 months and another 3000 miles later. Below is a note Don sent to some of his motorcycle racing buddy's back home in Denver Colorado. In his note he adeptly describes some of the more humors aspects of passage making. In particular, he describes some of our spinnaker sailing antics from a couple days ago. Even if you have never ridden a motorcycle I think you will appreciate the comparisons Don uses to help non sailors comprehend the situation on Zen during that fateful spinnaker flying episode. Although we did not snap any shots during the events described below the picture above will help you appreciate the size of Zen's spinnaker. This will become more relevant as you read on....
For the past several days, I had been patiently avoiding counting the days and hours left to go - until last night, when I let myself recognize and enjoy that there was less than 48 hours to go, only 1 more night watch, one more sunrise, etc.. Turns out my celebration was a little premature. The weather reports have things deteriorating around here, and instead of going to Fatu Hiva for our first landfall, as originally planned, and then sailing up to Nuku Hiva (125 miles away) a few days later to check in and pickup the package of repair parts and spares, we're going to go directly to Nuku Hiva, which means another 48 hours, 2 more night watches, etc..
In the long run, it's probably a good call. After we had made landfall and had a night or two of sleep at Fatu Hiva, we were going to have to take off for an overnight sail up to Nuku Hiva anyway. This change of plans takes that bit of unpleasantness out of that plan. Now we'll go up there and hang out for a week or so, waiting for the package to arrive, and then work our way down through the Marquesas, ending up at Fatu Hiva, where we'll then depart for the Tuomotos.
The down side is instead of arriving tomorrow, we still have 48 hours to go and won't get in until Sunday. Depending on wind, we could get in as early as 10am Sunday morning.
Speaking of wind, today was fun. At one point we were sailing under spinnaker alone (meaning we have no way to cover it up to get it down) in 30knts of wind, doing 14-18knts. And I'm not too proud to point out that the first time this afternoon we took the spinnaker down in 25+knts of wind, went surprisingly well - all things considered.
It does however, raise the question...you did what? Well, things that seem really clear and simple on land, aren't always quite so easy to identify out here on the water. In fact, I've noted that there seems to be an inverse correlation between your reasoning skills and the amount of time you spend on a passage.
By way of example, Tom and I are in the habit of having some fairly entertaining conversations, when we switch shifts at night. Earlier in this trip we had a long and deeply intellectual discussion about which of the two cross formations in the night sky was the real "southern cross" (imagine two second graders having a serious discussion about the theory of relativity, and you'll be getting close). It's 3am, we're sitting in the cockpit, traveling due WEST, looking at each other over a COMPASS and next to a COG readout that is flashing 270, and trying to decide whether the cross formation on our BOW or the one off our port BEAM is the real southern cross. After an extensive discussion about the relative angles of the cross formations, their movement across the night sky, and their positions relative to the milky way, etc., we agreed that we needed to do further research in the morning before we could come to a definitive conclusion. Not our finest hour, but fairly representative of the degradation of your mental powers that long passages seem to bring on.
Now for my motorcycle riding/landlubber friends, I'm still struggling with a way to put these boating experiences in terms that you can really appreciate. But I'm going to try. Imagine that you're riding along a desert trail. It's your first time on that particular trail, but it's going really well, you're riding great and your confidence is high. That little mental conversation you have with yourself while you're riding is going something like...that's it keep those knees bent and elbows up...excellent...now, a quick left then right...alright...weight back over these bumps...damn I'm good...lift that front end....perfect...Bubba Stewart's got nothing on me today...quick stab of the back brake, slide that back end and back on the gas...fantastic...maybe I should ride A this year after all...up on the tank, around this sweeper...awesome...maybe it's not too late to turn pro....
Back on the water...
We've been sailing along all night on the Code 0. After a few days of strong winds and fast days (we had just completed our 2nd 200 mile day), the winds are lightening and we decide to go back to the spinnaker.
Motorcycle equivalent: things are going so well we shift up to 5th gear...we're flying and feeling really strong.
Over the course of this trip, we've had a number of squalls come through, most with only a smattering of rain, none with any wind. So our confidence is high this morning when another squall approaches. This one just glances by us, but for the first time, there's wind in it.
After it passes and we're wallowing in the wind hole behind it, watching our eta stretch into an after dark arrival in the anchorage, Tom decides we should gybe around and try and catch the next squall, already approaching from the stern, and ride it as long as we can.
Motorcycle equivalent: you're blasting along, doing great, but see a faster trail running parallel to the one we're on...yeah, it's right next to a cliff, and you are in 5th gear, riding faster than you ever have before, but that other trail is definitely faster.
With two of us sitting in the cockpit, we are feeling reasonably confident about our decision to try and use the squall to our benefit, when the wind hit. Apparent wind quickly goes from 12knts to 14knts (the agreed upon max for the spinnaker) to 16 then 18 and ultimately 20.
At that point it was a little late to do anything about the spinnaker, so we thought we'd just sail on through it. Again, based on our prior experience over the past 16 days, we were (again) feeling pretty good about this being a 10 minute event. Unfortunately, after 10 minutes the wind was up over 30 true, way beyond the nominal limit for the spinnaker (a very delicate light air sail that looks an awful lot like a big parachute hanging off the front of the boat).
Now we're consistently doing 12 knts (still very comfortably) and feeling pretty smug about our sailing prowess. Our concession to the conditions are that I'm hand steering and Tom's watching the chute intently for signs it's about to rip apart. About five minutes later, while the ride was still very pleasant, the true wind hits 30, the apparent is passing twenty, and we are doing 16-18knts. It was time to do something. Do ya think??
Motorcycle equivalent: you're blasting along in 5th gear, along the cliff, when all of the sudden the bike throttle goes to wide open and sticks there. That's exactly what it would be like on a motorcycle, if you're motorcycle were a 4 bedroom, 2 bath house, that weighed 22,000lbs, and didn't have: brakes, clutch, transmission, or a kill switch. Things are now happening really, really fast and that little mental conversation you're having with yourself evolves into....Holy shit, did you see that rock...mental note-order a new front rim on Monday...Ok, so I didn't intend to do a superman, I'll bet Jeremy McGrath didn't intend to do a knack knack the first time he did one either...Wow, I can't believe my feet came down on the pegs, AGAIN...why's my headlight the only thing I can see right now?....Oh Shiiiiiiit!
So it's time for action and we come up with a hasty plan - blow the sheet, yank on the sock and drop the halyard. It's a relatively simple plan, but it does have a few weaknesses. First off, about 2 seconds after you dump the sheet, this 2300 square foot sail that's been pulling a 22,000lb boat through the water at 18 knts is going to be attached to the boat primarily by the 180lb guy in shorts and sunglasses, standing on the trampoline. Consequently, there's a better than even chance that about 10 seconds after beginning the execution of our plan, Tom is going to be 75' off the water 100' out in front of the boat, flapping in the breeze at the end of the spinnaker. There's also the nagging question of when to start letting down the halyard - my responsibility. Once you start letting it down, you're done getting the spinnaker in the sock, meaning there's a good chance it's going to refill, and you're back to Tom doing an imitation of a noisy wind vane. If you hold on too long, the odds that the sail is going to refill go up astronomically, with the same, undesirable result. So as we begin the process, I'm trying to envision when I'll know it's time to ease the halyard.
Motorcycle equivalent: the best plan you can come up with, as you hurtle, out of control, along the cliff, without any brakes, and the throttle stuck wide open, is to take the chain off the rear sprocket - by hand, at speed.
We let go of the sheet, Tom yanks on the sock, and I grab the halyard. Only moments later, it becomes incredibly clear to me that it's now time to lower the halyard - Tom's feet leave the deck. He gives a big pull on the sock, the sail gives a big pull back, and off he goes. Thankfully, 200 square feet of trampoline gives us a few seconds, and I got the sail (and Tom) started back down to deck, before things get too messy. Amazingly, the plan worked.
With the spinnaker back on the deck, we rolled out the jib. 10 minutes later, we were back rolling around with no wind, again. So what would you do (with diminished mental capacity)? Of course you would, so back up with the spinnaker. This time, the wind kicks up to 20+ within seconds of setting the chute. Unbelievable!
We do the same routine again, although not quite so gracefully this time, but still manage to keep the sail and Tom on the boat. And back out with the F&^#*ing jib. Of course, the wind immediately drops back to 5knts. And we decide to give the Code 0 a try. Thankfully, it was dinner time and Monique had cooked up another fresh tuna that we caught this morning, so we rolled the jib back out and gave up for a few hours.
The wind remained incredibly inconsistent all night. Basically we're rolling around inside a giant squall. The wind comes and goes from all directions and velocities hourly. So we motored all night. This morning, with the two of us back in the cockpit, and our mental powers back at (an adjusted) 100%, we'll no doubt start the spinnaker games all over again.
More to come.