“A man’s got to know his limitations”Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry) in Magnum Force
I am preparing for a 200-mile, 24-hour bicycle ride coming up on September 13th from London to Paris, with a ferry crossing of the English Channel in the middle. It’s a charity ride sponsored by my Firm. I really need to be training up for that instead of messing around in boats. So I spent half of yesterday getting in some major miles on the bike. With 65 miles under my butt by lunchtime, I didn’t have the energy to go sailing in the afternoon. So today I am really antsy to get on the water.
The problem is it’s been blowing like stink out there since last night, so it may not even be doable. At my house a mile inland it’s pretty blustery, and Windfinder is predicting 21-25 knots out of the northeast all afternoon. When it blows out of the northeast, there’s at least 50 miles of fetch for the wind to whip up some serious waves to funnel into the Western end of the Sound.
I head on down the cove to take a look and decide whether to give it a try. When I get there I see the boats on the moorings porpoising madly, and whitecaps everywhere. There are a few larger boats sailing out on the sound, and they’re bouncing around pretty well also. But… the wind will be on the beam for a reach straight out and then I can reach straight back. I really want to get out on the water. I also want to see how Grey Fox manages with the sail shortened to the max. I get up my courage and rig up. Besides, Dave, one of our club Laser sailors, is there rigging up, and if he can go out in this, I can go out in this.
I tie in the third reef on my mainsail, which shortens the entire sail by 6 feet off the bottom. The foot of the sail is about 11 feet long, so that takes ~60 square feet out of my 105 sq ft foot mainsail. I also leave the mizzen mast sitting on the dock; I only have two hands, for mainsheet and tiller. Grey Fox will be a sloop today with only around 45 square feet of sail instead of its full rig of 122.
In the Northeast breeze, even though it’s howling just outside, the cove is wonderfully protected and I’m able launch the boat and then rig the sail dockside, jump in and go on a beam reach. No rowing required. In fact there’s such a wind shadow that it takes me a while to get the 75 yards to the mouth of the cove and clear the lee of the point. Then – BAM! THE FAN IS SWITCHED ON. I’m immediately on the windward rail and hiking for all I’m worth. The greatly reduced mainsail is manageable on a reach, although I still have to luff it a bit, but the boat is moving well. Immediately outside of the cove, I’m in the full blast of the wind but still benefiting from some wave protection from the Larchmont breakwater a quarter mile upwind.
Sailing out further, I get out into the full waves and they are big! 4 or 5 feet with some of the tops breaking. With only my 150 pounds as movable ballast, the closest I can sail to windward is a sort-of-close reach, and with that the waves knock down my speed and occasionally the top of one jumps into the boat. There’s also a steady stream of spray coming over the bow and collecting in the boat. But my two hands are too busy sailing the boat to bail.
Falling off onto a beam reach, the boat speed is exhilarating but the waves roll the boat pretty severely. On one big roll the leeward rail dips under for a split second and a couple gallons of water join me, a sign that I don’t want to stay out here. It only takes about 3 seconds of water coming over the rail for the boat to just fill up and go horizontal. It doesn’t sail well in the horizontal position.
As detailed in prior posts, the Calendar Islands Yawl has plenty of flotation to allow for self-rescue from a swamping in not-crazy water. This water is crazy. The guy in the Laser knows that if he capsizes, he can just right the boat and sail on. Not so in Grey Fox. Were I to swamp the boat in these waves, there is no way I could self-rescue. It’s also too rough for a rescue boat to come alongside and help pump out my boat. And even getting a tow with the boat full of water in these conditions would be dicey and dangerous. At least it’s warm water and warm air, so I wouldn’t have to worry about hypothermia – for a while. . .
Having satisfied myself that the triple-reef works well and would be manageable but still tricky in 20-25 knots of wind but smooth water, I’ve recognized by now that all I want to do is get back to my dock in the little protected cove without a disaster. As my salty old grandfather drilled into me as a kid, “Discretion is the greater part of valor.”
Because I can’t point the boat close to the wind and keep it upright, it takes me three tries to execute a tack from a reach and carry enough way to get the bow through the wind. Once over on starboard tack, it’s a hair-raising but exhilarating sail. I even get confident enough to bear off and get a couple awesome surfing rides down some of the waves.
Once behind the breakwater, it’s a pretty easy sail the rest of the way in. The wind is still howling but the waves aren’t breaking over the rail. On the way in and just about when I gain the lee of the cove, a friend on the dock snaps this picture of me and the Fox. Note the mainsheet in my teeth, in true dinghy-sailor fashion.
Moments later I was alongside the dock and able to relax.
Note to self: It was good to learn what the boat can handle with max-shortened sail in case you get caught out in some wild conditions, but if it’s that wild before you start out, you’re better off just staying on land for the day.