Battered or becalmed... a complete lack of weather can be just as bad as too much
Ask most cruising sailors what their most challenging experience has been and they’re likely to describe a brush with ugly weather: “Struggling to claw our way around Portland Bill against a westerly six and a foul tide.” You know the sort of tale; dramatic in content and designed to elicit both awe and sympathy from the audience – particularly non-sailors.
And, yes, of course we have all probably experienced it. There are few cruising sailors that haven’t confronted such challenges – sometimes capitulating and slipping into some cosy anchorage, there to wait for better times.
This is the heroic stuff, of course. But sometimes quite the opposite conditions can pose frustrating challenges. Yes, robust weather can make for bruising passages but I’ve come to believe that the absence of wind can be worse. Back in 1978, in company with friends Bruce and Martha, Chele and I were delivering Vaquero, Chele’s somewhat elderly Cal 40, from Texas to the Leeward Islands.
Designed by Bill Lapworth in the early 1960s, with a keen eye towards performance, we couldn’t have asked for a more suitable boat for the passage. Except that is for a couple of minor flaws: the sails were tired beyond redemption and the four-cylinder petrol engine had convinced itself that it was unseemly to run for more than a few minutes before overheating.
We opted for a simple passage strategy. It was late October – the tail end of the hurricane season with the meteorological risks reducing. The pilot chart for that month indicated prevailing easterly and north-easterly winds of no great hostility, and the dodgy engine was a powerful discouragement from marina hopping around the coast. We therefore decided to sail directly from Galveston to The Florida Keys – nearly 800NM in a generally south-easterly direction. The voyage started encouragingly. We departed Galveston and for the first couple of days threaded our way through the inevitable shrimp boats and oil rigs, there to sail into what was to develop into a persistent calm. It took 12 days to reach Key West; tantalised by the occasional puff that would gain us a few miles.
In our search for wind we courted every cloud or rainstorm that might have some under it. We were conscious of the anxiety that must be rising among friends and family back in Texas, not least my mother who was to bring the children out to us. Given a competent crew and a sprightly boat, the expectation was that the Gulf crossing would take no more than a week!
Just over a decade later found us in the Mediterranean – more specifically in Mallorca participating in a Classic Boat Rally, one of the features of which included a race around Palma Bay. We were crewing with the owner aboard his Laurent-Giles designed cutter Fairlight, built in 1938. We made a poor start but, in very light conditions, we managed to claw our way through the fleet only to have the race officially abandoned as the sea subsided from a light chop to mirror glass. Light winds are great levellers.
The photo here is of Poole Bay, shortly after the start of a race. The boat in the foreground is Hope and Glory, a 50-foot Ron Holland design and certainly no slouch around the cans. With very little energy to be harvested from such tranquil conditions her size and weight are a handicap, calling on great skill to wring whatever propulsion could be gained.
You’ve probably observed that there’s a total of five boats in the shot. Note further that although Hope and Glory’s spinnaker isn’t drawing as lustily as it might, it’s doing rather better than the others and there’s even a feeble wake.
It’s my belief that the greatest and most intriguing crew challenges arise when the wind is light – not when there’s an excess of it. Yet you rarely hear tales of how people cope with paucity rather than plenty. I once met a man who in decreasing strengths had spent 60-odd days (he’d lost count!) sailing a 20-odd-footer from Bermuda to the Azores. With food and water having run out, he survived by eating the goose barnacles encrusting his hull.
I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of his decision but it beats my own wind starved whingeing into a cocked hat.
Robust weather can make for bruising passages – but the absence of wind can be worse
Even racing yachts can struggle to make way when breeze is lacking