Gusts and Puffs

June 24th

After two weekends away from the water, I’m back on Long Island Sound in Grey Fox.  I was in the Dominican Republic doing some volunteer work with #BridgestoCommunity, along with a small group of fellow travelers/volunteers from the Bank.  It’s Global Volunteer Month at the firm, during which all employees are “encouraged” to spend an afternoon volunteering with any of a wide range of charities and non-profits.  Our pick-up group of volunteers went the extra mile, each individual using a week of their precious vacation time and spending a substantial portion of their own money to make the week-long trip to the D.R., where we built housing in a remote (and fairly primitive) village in the central highlands.  Don’t tell Elizabeth Warren, it’s not consistent with her narrative that all Wall Street bankers are evil.

Back to the log of Grey Fox…

After two weeks of landlubbering, I was anxious to get back on the water.   Saturday’s forecast was for strong and gusty winds out of the Northwest.     Windfinder.com, the oracle of weather prediction for kitesurfers,  windsurfers and small boat sailors, predicted 12 knots with gusts to 22 throughout the day.  That’s on offshore breeze in my stomping ground, and the perfect direction for a reach up the coast to Great Captain Island in Greenwich, Connecticut and then a reach back home.  

I hit the water at about 7:30am with a plan to sail solo to Great Captain, 7 ½ miles away, drop the hook or beach the boat and take a breakfast break, and be home before noon.   From the cove, the wind looked modest.   Even though it would be stronger once I got a little further out of the lee, it felt pretty manageable.  So I tied in one reef and was on my way.   Crystal clear sky, bright sun but only 70 degrees, and smooth water made for great sailing.  I sailed about a mile with shifty and puffy winds, but even the puffs only got up to maybe 12 knots, so I hove-to and shook out the reef.

Sailors are a superstitious lot, and I’ve seen them go to elaborate lengths to try to rustle up wind.   When I was on the Esmeralda, the Chilean Navy’s 310-foot tall sailing ship, back in my younger Navy days (i.e. 1985), we became becalmed off of Tierra del Fuego while trying to round Cape Horn from Atlantic to Pacific.  Yes, BECALMED off of Cape Horn.   THAT never happens.   But it did.   After about 24 hours of flopping around, and in the middle of the night, the powers that be mustered the entire crew on the afterdeck (“la popa” in Spanish) and proceeded to make an offering to Aeolus, the god of wind.   Aeolus was played by one of the senior chief petty officers of the ship, who was dressed the part and from shouted through a bullhorn from atop the mizzen boom shouted that the required offering was that the youngest cadet onboard be tied to the mizzenmast and flogged with a cat ‘o nine tails.   Fortunately, it was all for fun, the cat o’nine tails was made of yarn, and the flogging was not real.  But Aeolus declared his satisfaction and promised wind before daylight.  

Lest the reader think that the complete digression in the prior paragraph is completely made up, or maybe a semi-true story as I am known to occasionally tell, (1) I have photos to prove that it’s true, and (2) it was a just a lead-in to the following:  If shaking out the reef is a strategy for getting more wind, it really worked for me today. 

Completing the digression, the cadet sacrifice worked, and by the morning we had 20 knots and growing.   Even better, the wind was from the east (not the prevailing wind) and pretty soon we were flying around the Horn with 40+ knots of wind.  In fact Aeolus overdid it, and we managed to bend a spar and blow out several heavy canvas sails during the next 24 hours. 

Grey Fox’s skipper (then a lowly midshipman) rounding Cape Horn aboard Esmeralda after Aeolus delivered mucho viento… June 1985

A little gratuitous flashback there. Besides, I needed an excuse to throw a photo into this post and I sure didn’t get any sailing today because my hands were kind of busy. Back to Long Island Sound…

Within ten minutes of shaking out my reef, the wind was up to 12 knots and the gusts were getting a lot stronger.  Ten more minutes of struggling to hold the boat level, and I hove-to again to tie that reef back in.   With pretty strong gusts as this point, tying in the reef was trickier than I remembered. My reefing rig requires me to put a reef hook on the forward end of the boom through an eye in the tack of the sail – pretty easy – but then to do the same thing with the clew of the sail to the hook on the after part of the boom.    You can only do that with the sail more or less amidships, and with the gusty wind, the boat didn’t stay bow-to-wind.  Even with the mizzen sheeted in tight, and with the drogue I keep in the bow thrown into the water, it wanted to tack back and forth.  As soon as the boat would veer off the wind, I would have to let go of the boom or otherwise I would serve as a human cleated-down-mainsheet.  And we know (see prior posts) what happens with a cleated-down mainsheet in gusty winds… a swimming party.   Having a strong interest in avoiding swim practice today, I had to let go of it several times before I finally got the reef hook seated in the clew.   

Another two or three miles of exciting and truly athletic sailing – hiked out over the windward rail and with both hands working the mainsheet and the tiller constantly – the gusts got to the point of being a little scary. Unable to hold the boat up with the sail full, I was forced to half-luff which knocked my speed down significantly.  I estimate that the gusts were getting up to 25 knots.  I decided that discretion is the better part of valor.  Off of Playland in Rye, about 2 ½ miles short of Great Captain but still almost five miles from home, I decided to head back. 

The ride home was a hoot as it was enough of a beam/broad reach that I could carry that amount of sail, even though I had to spill air frequently.   In the big gusts I would try to bear off enough to minimize the healing moment, and the boat actually got well above hull speed.  The GPS showed above 8 knots during those surges.

If I had had to make any headway on a close reach, I would have had to tie in a second reef and furl the mizzen.  I probably should have anyway, but I was managing the beam reach as is – barely – and didn’t want to stop to reef. With wind that strong I would have had to drop the main all the way to put in the next reef (I wasn’t going to risk trying to do it with the sail still up) and it felt like it would be more work than just manhandling the boat the last couple of miles.

In no time at all I was back to Larchmont. That was an exciting sail… But with never any hair-raising I-almost-capsized moments.

Author: Larchmont Jim

A 50-something investment banker from Larchmont, New York (about 15 miles from midtown Manhattan). Amateur small boat sailer, boatbuilder, kayaker, musician. I grew up spending summers sailing the New England coast on my grandfather’s beautiful 47’ 1952 Sparkman & Stevens wooden yawl. I’ve lived in Larchmont, a major and historic sailing center on Long Island Sound, for 25 years, but career and family obligations kept me off the water for all of my 30s and 40s, and only about 7 years ago did I get back on the water, first in sea kayaks, and then in small boats.

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