Wednesday, 8 September 2010

An angry Zephyrus visits on the Long Weekend

Sailing across the lake to Barrie for the Hawkestone weekend, I was worried that without a whisker pole or my biggest sail, I would come away from the long weekend with nothing but a sunburn and a long face to show for my trouble. I was hoping the party would at least be good enough to offset the looming race results.

Chuck and I sailed across the lake then motored up Kempenfelt Bay to Barrie Yacht Club, tying off to Newfie Screach shortly before midnight. The sky was overcast and the air was cool, but there was no rain. Hardly anyone was out on the docks, and it didn’t take long for us to retire to the boat. I slept lightly, not tired enough or calm enough to really get much rest, and then it was morning.

On Saturday morning the folks at BYC put out a breakfast not to be trifled with, and we ate our fill and then some. It was great. The usual suspects had trickled in through the night to compete in what looked some real sailing weather. We sat with crew we would soon do battle with, and discussed sail choices and tactics over hot coffee while flags snapped and whipped and whitecaps were tossed around the bay. The wind had arrived, delivered by Zephyrus, and it wasn’t letting up anytime soon.

At the skippers meeting the usual warnings and announcements were made. There were to be 2 races, the first, a windward, leeward course would take us up and down Kempenfelt Bay from BYC to the fountain in the public park twice. The second race would start shortly after the first, and be a race from BYC to HYC where a corn roast awaited us.

I grumbled about how poorly Iris did in windward leeward races as I prepped the boat. In these conditions though, at least the torn genoa wouldn’t be pressed into service, and I would be able to get away with not using the pole. I rigged the 110% jib, set the motor in gear and backed out of the marina.

Since BYC is a tight marina, and there were a dozen boats trapped behind me, I figured I would simply continue in reverse right out of the yacht club and into the bay. Big mistake. As soon as Iris met the waves out in the bay, the engine cavitated, and the force of the waves against the transom pushed her toward the breakwall protecting the yacht club.

I fiddled with the engine for a few seconds trying to get some traction in the waves. No luck. Try going in forward back to the club. That didn’t work either. Frantic messing with the throttle and still headed for the breakwall. Only one choice left.

I handed Chuck the tiller and told her to steer us away from the wall while I grabbed the halyard and pulled up the jib. The wind grabbed the sail, and Chuck held tight. Iris carved a beautiful arc in the water and sailed away from what would have spelled an early end to the weekend.

Iris move through the water beautifully, and was quite manageable under jib alone, but since this was a windward leeward course, we needed some kind of mainsail in order to get a better course upwind. After a few seconds thinking about it, I decided to go for it. I threw the tiller over, putting Iris hove-to, and asked Chuck to drive. “Whatever you do, don’t let the boat start sailing.” Holding a boat Hove-to is pretty easy. You simply keep the sails facing the wind so that they are backwinded. Anytime the sail starts to fill you shove the rudder over and show it to the wind, pinning it against its proper direction. By having the sail filled in the opposite direction to how it is supposed to be, the boat is stalled out, unable to sail, but moving at the same pace as the waves it is riding. It is a very comfortable way to sit out a blow.

Chuck held the boat hove-to without so much as a blink, and I went forward and shortened sail for the race.

Shortening sail, or reefing, means you make your sails smaller so the boat isn’t overpowered. In the wind we were facing, I wanted to be sure I was shortening sail as much as I could. Our racing mainsail has 2 reef points, which means you can sail with it fully deployed (when the wind is lightest), with a single reef (in medium winds), or with a double reef (for strong winds). Today I definitely wanted it fully reefed. The wind was whipping spray from the wavetops with such ferocity it stung when it hit your cheeks.

Once I had the reef set in the mainsail, I hoisted it up the mast, and we sailed away, making very good time, but still having good control of the boat. I was happy with my decision, and we started circling, waiting for the start sequence.

It wasn’t long before the committee boat arrived, and the “cat in the hat” flag went up. I reached for the countdown timer that we have used since we got the boat – a kitchen timer from Lee Valley. It was waterlogged from spray, and showed a series of strange symbols. I tossed it aside and reached for the GPS. It too had water in its display, and its batteries were dead. I turned on the radio hoping the race committee would be broadcasting the start. It squealed and made strange noises, then went dead.

Dammit. We were sailing without electronics.

We hovered near the line, depending on the other boats to get a good start, and went when they went. It worked out OK. We started with the pack and headed for the first mark, zigzagging toward Barrie, looking for the best route. Picking the route was tricky. If you went to the wind lines, you could be flattened by its ferocity, but if you stayed away, you got passed. We clued in quickly that by playing the mainsheet, and staying about centered on our target, we could hold a respectable course and minimize the times we got pushed down hard.

In the first leg we were pretty close to our usual group, fighting off Canadian and Newfie, holding on ahead of Icarus, and really just hoping for the best. WHAM! We’d get hit by gust and lay the boat down, then we’d see folk behind us lay down their boats. We were outpointing the folks who were sailing more conservatively, and we were being outpointed by folks who had better skills and gear. Regularly waves broke over the hull spraying the cockpit, and we watched the lee rail get doused lower and lower into the water as the wind picked up. Windows went under water. The winches were doused. The cockpit coamings went under. Iris refused to give in.

Canadian stumbled behind us, righting herself, then getting hit again and again. Newfie fought on behind her. We were leading our pack, and doing OK. Rain set in, hiding Barrie even though it was only a mile away. We struggled up wind, then sped downwind surfing the waves. The wind rang through the rig, not just humming or whistling. Ropes creaked and moaned, and the shrouds looked like steel bars they were so loaded with the wind.

It was on the second upwind leg that we were tested.

First the wind caught us unsuspecting, and threw Iris from a wavetop into a trough, holding her down hard. A wave broke and filled the cockpit. The gas tank floated up out of its locker, and the smell of gasoline filled the air for a moment. Chuck and I were both standing in water up to our knees. Then Iris struggled for a moment, swore at Zephyrus, stood up, and raced off.

Behind us, Canadian faced the same condition. Since his boat has less freeboard, when his cockpit filled, so did the cockpit lockers. When his boat righted itself, he took down his sails, turned on his engine, and headed home. He had almost lost his crew (I don’t think he uses tethers) and his crew had lost its nerve. Chuck and I were more resolved to continue on.

Zephyrus wasn’t very pleased though at Iris’ audacity. He decided to teach her a lesson. Not long after our knockdown, another puff took the boat to a new level of dismay. The 110% jib was overloaded. I didn’t see it, but Iris knew she had to spill some wind and spill it fast. The jib sheet suddenly rocketed forward, ripping the sheetlead out of its track. The pulley flew out ahead of the boat, dangling on its rope out over the water.

The wind at this point was clocked in the neighbourhood of 45 knots (+/- 80 km/h). I handed Chuck the tiller.

How many 13 year old kids are there that could sail a damaged boat in that sort of wind, and hold their course? How many could you trust to keep things together while you crawled out on the foredeck of a boat heeled at over 45° to the horizon, with spray and rain and a flotilla of other boats in close quarters? Chuck amazed me, and what happened next amazed me even more.

I crawled forward and retrieved the sheave, returning it to its place on the deck, then returned to the cockpit. Chuck refused to let go of the tiller. She pointed to the mainsail. “Dad,” she yelled over the wind, “You need go fix the main now, I think it broke too.”

Looking forward I saw that the mainsail had been torn from its track. Every sail slide holding it in place had snapped in succession, and all that was holding it to the boat was the headboard and the reefing line. Chuck had held us on course while the slides had broken, pelting her with plastic shards. Holding the course in that fierce wind with so badly deformed a main must have taken loads of strength and concentration.

I brought down the sail, lashed it to the boom, and headed back to the cockpit. While I lashed it down, I noticed that not only had the slides all broken, but the strength of the wind had torn the sailcloth 2/3’s of the way across the sail below the headboard. Since we were still on course though, and ahead of everyone else, there was no way we were going to quit.

One last tack brought us to the weather mark. Newfie was behind us. No one else was still around. We rounded the mark, and headed downwind to the finish. Sailing with only one sail, we had a hard time keeping ahead of Newfie, but managed to hold our lead. Canadian had retired. Icarus was noplace to be seen. We surfed and raged and fought to hold course while the wind shoved us toward the line. Then it was done. We had crossed the line. Newfie was still back there. We had done it.

Iris limped into BYC, and we radioed th ecomittee boat that we were doing repairs. They should start the next race without us if we weren’t out in time. Chuck and I high-fived each other, and I looked things over. If I just took off the boom, we might be able to get back out in time for the next race. She set off to visit friends, and I set to work.

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