Some­times when you push your boat too hard, your boat will push right back

SAIL - - Contents - BY ERIC SAN­FORD

It’s zero-dark-thirty in Simp­son Bay, St. Martin, and my wife, Deb­bie, and I are try­ing hard not to run into our friends on Why Knot IV as we fight to get our an­chor up in 40-knots of wind. We fi­nally get away, raise the double-reefed main, turn down­wind and head for the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands, 90 miles west. The wind is right on our tail, and the au­topi­lot strug­gles to keep Indigo, our 46ft Leop­ard cat, un­der con­trol.

Of course all our cruis­ing friends, hun­kered down in the bay as the wind con­tin­ues to howl, tell us we are nuts to head out when there is noth­ing but more wind and big­ger waves in the fore­cast. But em­bark­ing on “ill-ad­vised” pas­sages is what we al­ways seem to do. After all, if we were to wait for perfect con­di­tions we’d be sit­ting at an­chor for an­other month. And re­ally, how bad can it be?

An hour later the hori­zon is be­gin­ning to glow, and we can just make out the huge rolling swells that are pick­ing Indigo up from be­hind and ac­cel­er­at­ing her to 13 knots as she surfs down­wind. The wind is com­ing di­rectly from the east and the swell from the north­east, so while it isn’t al­to­gether ugly, it isn’t par­tic­u­larly com­fort­able ei­ther. We’re cruis­ing along at 7 knots, with oc­ca­sional bursts into the teens.

Around 1000 I come up with the bril­liant plan to put up more sail. Fast is good, and with an­other 75 miles to cover be­fore dark and lots of wind to use, I fig­ure we should go for it. How bad can it be?

Rather than turn back into the howl­ing wind and 12ft seas (not a pleas­ant thought) I de­cide that we can shake out the reef and hoist the sail while go­ing dead down­wind. Now this can ac­tu­ally work when you’re go­ing 10 knots in per­haps 12 knots of wind, but with 30 gust­ing to 40 it’s, well, in­ad­vis­able.

Still, I drop the main a cou­ple of feet and Deb­bie—har­nessed to the mast—strug­gles to re­lease the cringle from the reef­ing hook. Fi­nally, she gets it loose, and the sail, now free of its con­strict­ing luff ten­sion, im­me­di­ately fills like a de­formed bal­loon as

elec­tric winch, but it’s tough go­ing with so much pres­sure on the sail. Tough for the winch that is, not for me.

Slowly the sail goes up the mast, but then a mas­sive swell catches Indigo from astern, and we be­gin surf­ing down its face. The good news is that as we ac­cel­er­ate it takes some of the pres­sure off the sail. The bad news is that when we reach the bot­tom of the swell our boat­speed sud­denly goes from 13 knots to five, just as a 40-knot gust hits us from be­hind.

WHAMMO! The oddly shaped main­sail, half­way up the mast, fills with wind and slams for­ward into the shrouds. Two bat­tens come fly­ing out of their re­in­forced pock­ets as the sail con­torts into a bil­low­ing ex­plo­sion of Dacron. The leech, now un­sup­ported, starts to tear. I, of course, am com­pletely un­aware of all that’s go­ing on, be­cause I’m at the helm try­ing to keep the boat un­der con­trol. Deb­bie, how­ever, is per­fectly po­si­tioned to watch as the fi­asco un­folds. Within sec­onds the leech is shred­ded as the wind claws at the stitch­ing. Deb­bie yells back at me and points sky­ward: “The sail is rip­ping!”

I peer up­ward and sure enough, sail car­nage is in the works. Now if this were just a small sail and we were in small seas with small wind, there would be no prob­lem. But this is a big sail, weigh­ing over 250lb, on a big boat, with big wind and seas. We also need the main­sail to keep the boat from wan­der­ing all over the place, so I keep on hoist­ing.

Even­tu­ally, I get it up, and al­though the bat­tens are pok­ing out in front and the tears in the leech are mak­ing the sail look like we just picked it out of a dump­ster, at least we have some con­trol. As I had hoped, our speed also picks up a notch as we once again set­tle into the pas­sage, keep­ing a wary eye on the tat­tered main­sail.

Since the jib is oc­ca­sion­ally flap­ping around as the main blan­kets it, I de­cide to rig the lazy sheet to a cleat on the side of the lee hull to keep it from vi­o­lently flog­ging when­ever we ac­cel­er­ate down the waves. This is one of the great things about a cata­ma­ran: you can lead the jib sheets to the out­board moor­ing cleats with­out the need for a whisker pole. How­ever, as I’m rig­ging a Shockle to re­duce the load on the lazy sheet, there’s yet an­other loud BANG!

Look­ing up at the main I now see it is once again bil­low­ing out in a warped dis­play of po­ten­tial car­nage. The out­haul has bro­ken. No, the out­haul has ex­ploded, and the clew end is dan­gling from the boom as the out­haul grom­met flies up and out into the screech­ing wind. Now what?

I pon­der my next move. Some­how I need to get hold of the clew, rig a line through it, bring it back into place, rig a new out­haul and, as if this weren’t enough, ten­sion it while the main­sail is fully pow­ered up. Sure, no prob­lem.

Grab­bing a line, I climb up onto the end of the boom and try to gather in some of the flut­ter­ing sail. No way: so I wait un­til Indigo goes on an­other one of her surf­ing ex­pe­di­tions down a mon­ster swell and the pres­sure is off the sail. Then I snatch the clew and fran­ti­cally try to thread the line through the out­haul grom­met and tie it off. Yeah right, like that’s go­ing to hap­pen.

After three more at­tempts—each one more fran­tic and dan­ger­ous—I fi­nally man­age to tie the line and snug it up as much as I can as the boom creaks and groans un­der my weight. With the clew se­cured, I then grab the spare out­haul that I had rigged to use for the third reef­ing point and run it through the grom­met and down to a strop. Then I hop down and run for­ward to the mast to tighten the out­haul. What a sham­bles.

Deb­bie has been ey­ing me the whole time like a snake watch­ing a rat, mak­ing sure my har­ness is se­curely clipped in to some­thing more solid than a twig. She is not about to risk me fall­ing over­board in the mid­dle of the ocean like I had a cou­ple years ear­lier. But that’s an­other story.

Back at the helm we watch as the oc­ca­sional 15ft wave rum­bles by and Indigo skims, lurches and rushes over the seething ocean. The wind peaks at 43 knots, feisty but not the 52 knots we had seen a cou­ple of times be­fore.

Twelve hours later we turn the cor­ner, drop the sails and limp into Great Har­bour on Peter Is­land in the BVI, where a hot shower and a bowl of chicken soup never tasted so good. Just an­other day on Indigo. Just an­other day... s

Some­times sail­ing re­ally is what it’s cracked up to be (above); Eric and Deb­bie on a calm day (in­set)

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