Monday, June 15, 2009

Sarasota Bay and the Gray Columns

Last Sunday I went sailing with Wyatt, a poker buddy. It was high time I tested out the new genoa and see how she handled. Wyatt volunteered as he’d never been sailing and wanted to try it out.

It had been a while since I last went out and it’s amazing how many lessons one forgets.

I got to the boat a little early to prep her. This mostly meant I planned on stowing things that would fall about once we started heeling. However, once I got on the boat I started looking at the dock lines and tried to figure out a way to disengage them that would make it easier to pull them in when we got back. I still need to come up with a good system that will let me tie up single-handed.

One would think this shouldn’t be to tasking. I’d seen Andy, a neighbor of mine who owns a Morgan 32’, successfully dock while so drunk he could barely talk. If he could manage a single-handed docking in such a state, then surely I could.

Wyatt arrived while I was working this out still, so I gave up on the planning action and just cast off. Time to do some sailing!

The engine still starts up like a charm. I’ve had a couple of mechanics tell me that the engine alone is worth the price I paid for the boat.

We motored out of the marina and as we were in the channel out I decided to test the furling genoa. Untie one line, pull on the port genoa sheet, and the sail unfolded beautifully. The boat jumped forward and she was really hauling! The forecast had said the winds were going to be 5-10 mph, but I think they were a tad higher than that. I’m pretty sure we were already moving near hull speed and I hadn’t even raised the main yet.

Which brings around forgotten lesson number one: raise the main first if you are going to do so at all.

Boats don’t sail well towards the wind with just the genoa up… the genoa tends to cause the boat to bear away from the wind. However, to raise the main sail I needed to turn the boat into the wind. Catch-22 here. Grr.

I went forward to raise the main anyway. The wind was still light enough and we were on a Close Reach and I figured I could man-handle it up. This where I discovered the second lesson I’d forgotten: check rigging before you get underway.

The shackle I use to attach the halyard to the head of the sail was nowhere to be found. I’m guessing that it get removed or misplaced when the sail-maker was installing the furling genoa. Fortunately, I knew I had a spare so I went below to get it. Unfortunately, it was not the right size shackle. This new one was too large to fit through the holes on both the sail head and the halyard. Sigh.

Well… no big deal. The wind was improving and we were well into the Bay now. We headed north under the big bridge and relaxed.

After about 20 minutes of sailing I chanced a look behind the boat and noticed a dark column advancing from the gulf towards shore. Nasty looking rain storm there. It’s interesting in Florida that you can actually see these storms as individual things, almost like large tornadoes with less wind and lots of rain. This one, I judged, would miss us. We were now a couple of miles north of the bridge.

Sure enough, in about 10 minutes we saw the storm hit the bridge. One minute the bridge was clear and big behind us, and the next minute it was gone—devoured by a gray blanket. There was literally no sign this massive structure ever existed. The sky above us was still nice and clear although the breeze was really picking up now.

Out of the blue Wyatt came up with an idea. He asked if one of the padlocks I had sitting around would fit in the halyard, and if so, could we use it to raise the main. Good idea! I wish I had thought of it. In fact, I was a little flustered that I didn’t. I grabbed a padlock and tested it out… it fit perfectly.

And thus came the third forgotten lesson: remember lesson one. I started to hoist the main and had Wyatt turn us into the wind. Several things happened… none of them good. First, as Wyatt turned into the wind we hit a radical new point of sail which called for an adjustment on the genoa. We heeled *way* over very quickly. Secondly, I heard all sorts of crashing from inside the cabin at which point I recalled I never did get around to securing everything inside. And finally, it was all for naught since, as lesson one told us, you can’t turn into the wind very well with the genoa alone and there was no way I could raise the main with the wind.

I gave up on the idea of getting the main sail up now. We kicked back and relaxed again (I’d deal with the mess in the cabin when we got back to the dock).

After another 10 minutes of very nice sailing Wyatt spotted another storm approaching, only this one was going to hit close to where we were and definitely in the area we were sailing toward. Time to turn about and head back to the now visible bridge behind us.

Unfortunately, there had been a slight change in the wind and sailing back to the bridge mean sailing close hauled. This was going to be hard without the main sail up. We did the best we could though by falling off the wind a little and settling into a close reach.

However, this dark storm heading towards was getting larger by the minute. I kept a close on eye it over the next several minutes and came to the conclusion that we were going get drenched. It was just too big and we weren’t sailing as fast as we were. When the gray blanket covered the windward shore and completely obscured it from view I knew the time was upon us. I secured up the genoa (Woot! Love that roller, baby!) and started the engine. 30 seconds later we were completely drenched.

When this baby hit us it was like stepping into an episode of The Twilight Zone. Our world was immediately reduced to a 60’ circle around us. The rest of the universe was gray and empty. I’d been steering by sight and now I had nothing to steer by at all. If I had been less occupied with engine and genoa I might have glanced at the compass to get a heading but, alas, I hadn’t. Wyatt volunteered to go forward and extend my visual range by 25’ or so.

Every so often the gray would thin out and we could see as far as 150’. While I couldn’t see land or any channel markers, it did let me spot a boat that had been under sail and also headed towards the bridge just before the storm hit. Those folks were still under sail although they seemed to be having issues with their genoa, but their heading was far more to the starboard than mine, so I adjusted my course to match theirs before the visibility dropped off again.

Finally, we got close enough to make out the bridge ahead of us and the storm eased up a little bit. By the time we hit the channel markers to the marina the storm had let up to a soft rain and visibility wasn’t too bad. However, we were definitely done. Both Wyatt and I were very soggy and the breeze was more than just a little cool.

Docking went very smoothly. I’m not certain I could have pulled it off single-handed yet, but it went very well and I was glad I planned it out before hand.

Once the boat was tied up properly I looked into the cabin to see what the earlier commotion was. Egads. It was a huge mess. And a bit soggy too. I straightened up best I could and offered Wyatt a towel and some dry clothes. (The clothes were quite funny on him. He is easily half my weight although about the same height. Thank god my shorts are mostly draw-strings.)

Once again I had turned a leisure sail into an adventure. Wyatt was entertained and wants to go again. I’m not sure I can promise him another adventure like this one, but odds are something will pop up.


Jeff said...

sounds like quite an adventure. I will have to figure out when I can come out there and take a ride.

Darrell said...

A pilot friend of mine was showing us the plane he flies...and when he enters the cockpit, the checklist he goes thru EVERY time he flies....just a thought, captain, but perhaps you should take some of this fine writing skill and put it to a "checklist" that you look at every time you sail...then your adventures will be more of the "I was able to get out on the ocean for hours before having to head back" kind!

Your wise friend, Darrell :)