Mar 15

First Storm

Tag: routemattholmes @ 12:14 pm

(post dated–this post refers to events on 3/7)

Before leaving Ensenada I pulled in a weatherfax over the SSB (our shortwave, long distance radio) and noticed that we would be heading out into a developing low pressure system with a cold front moving over our position–i.e. a small storm.  The wind speeds were predicted at 25-35 knots and seas 12-18 feet–these sort of conditions are fairly substantial when you’re offshore in the dark, but not the sort of thing that need be dangerous if you’re prepared for it.  So Karen and I discussed the forecast and decided that we were game for it.  Personally, I was interested in testing our mettle.  Also, I thought it would be good to get our first storm experience under our belt, as a confidence-building exercise.  And really as far as storms go it was a small one, not too crazy.

As it approached, the wind shifted around from behind us–where it is convenient for the wind to come from—to directly ahead of us–not so convenient (though expected).  Still keen on making forward progress, however, we started beating into the wind.  For the first five hours or so of windward sailing we were ecstatic to discover that it was our most comfortable point of sail so far: the wind waves had not yet built, so were were sailing smoothly into the wind with a following sea.

As the winds increased, we progressively decreased sail area.  We had been sailing for hours with a full main and full jib.  First we took one reef in the main, then took two reefs in the main, then switched down from the jib to the staysail.  With the staysail and double-reefed main we beat upwind in increasingly shitty conditions for a number of hours. Here’s a really crappy little picture I just drew and took a picture of to illustrate:

This is the position we found ourselves in–beating upwind in the darkest night with double-reefed main and staysail–when the worst of the storm came upon us.  The “worst of the storm” involved 30 knots of wind, an immense quantity of driving blinding rain, occasional ambiguously located flashes of lightning, and reasonably sized obnoxiously pounding wind waves.

Beating upwind is not an advisable thing to do in a storm, unless you are trying to deliberately subject yourself and your boat to the strongest forces possible.  You can sit there and say that we should have changed things sooner, before we found ourselves in the situation of being over-canvassed beating upwind in a storm that is.  Three weeks ago I probably would have said the same thing–but I have learned some things since then.  One of those things is that if something is working well enough, then leave it well enough alone.  Too often I fall victim to experimenting with sail changes and modifications, only to find myself needing to change everything back–and exhausting myself in the process.  When there are only two of you, and sleep becomes a high priority, you must eschew the textbook sailing setup for one that is working well-enough to leave well-enough-alone.  So even though beating upwind in the storm was not ideal, we were still “fine”–fine in the sense that I judged neither us nor the boat to be in any immediate danger.  So, despite the increasing ridiculousness of beating upwind in those conditions, I still found myself wondering whether we should bother taking any measures to alter our situation.

Well eventually of course conditions deteriorated to the point where we needed to modify our situation.  Ahhh now the tricky part is what to change and how to do it, in the middle of the storm, isn’t it?  Trying to get something accomplished in those conditions–i.e. two steps shy of “worst conditions imaginable”–is touch and go.  If you mess something up with the sail, it will promptly flog itself to pieces before you have a chance to save it.  If you make an honest mistake with steering, you’re liable to find yourself on your ass, which in a boat means “knocked down”, which means getting your mast to touch the water–not cool.  Basically, you don’t have many chances to get it right.  Whatever you do, you want to pull it off right the first time.

We decided that we should heave to, and we also decided that we should get it right this time.  The last time we tried to heave to while experimenting in the dark prior to entering san diego, I was dissatisfied with our setup.  Specifically, I was annoyed that we were unable to completely stall the boat.

This time it worked out perfectly fine for us.  We hove to under double-reefed main and staysail, the motion of the boat became relatively calm, and we slept the night away (in turns).  The boat still fore-reached at about a knot, so I still want to work on that a bit, but as it turns out the hove-to position was still stable and calm, so perhaps I was being a bit perfectionist about it before.  If we ever experience a real storm we’ll see.

Perhaps that was an anticlimactic conclusion to our storm story, sorry about that, but we were safe and fine so that’s a good ending right?

5 Responses to “First Storm”

  1. phil says:

    Excellent ending to the storm story. Much better than a story about how you were dismasted and floundering for hours until you saw the lights of the Coast Guard Helicopter…
    We like happy endings.

  2. Bruce (valiant 40-Tatoosh) says:

    Well done and well told. I’m sure you know the saying to the effect that “rough weather is 5kts more than the worst you have been in”…. Good that you are now more confident in the boat and more importantly in the crew. I’ve heard many valiant owners ( and other solid offshore boats) say that the boat can usually take much more than the crew.

    Fair winds!

  3. mattholmes says:

    hey thanks bruce, did I hear by chance that you are also currently somewhere in banderas bay?

  4. Bruce (valiant 40-Tatoosh) says:

    Nope!…wish I was. Unfortunately I’m still here in the Great White North waiting for spring to arrive.
    C’est la vie


  5. Mike says:

    Interesting reading guys. Glad everything turned out OK with the storm. Looking forward to following along with more of your adventures.


Leave a Reply