One Night at Sea

It’s never just one thing going wrong that gets you in trouble…

Sailing along the Florida coast south from St Augustine, we had one of the most delightful sailing days ever, and the forecast was for continued clear skies and 15-20 knot favorable winds. As the sun set we took down our spinnaker and sailed with the more easily controlled “screecher” (a big forward sail, that can be rolled up with minimal fuss if the wind gets too heavy).

After sunset the wind shifted aft, until it was almost directly behind us. In that situation the mainsail “blankets” the forward sail, causing the latter to lose its wind, collapse, and then fill with a jarring crash. So we rolled up the screecher and sailed with just the mainsail. As the wind continued to build on Bill’s watch, he put in a reef (decreasing the exposed sail area), and he gybed the boat to head offshore to clear Cape Canaveral.

At 11pm I started my four hour watch, after not much sleep due to the now rough conditions. Bill briefed me that in the course of gybing, our apparent wind indicator (a sensor at the top of the mast transmits the wind direction to a display on our instrument panel) apparently was partially damaged. It still “worked,” in the sense that it was consistent, but it showed the wind from astern as though it was from ahead! So he was ignoring the instrument display, and looking at the vane on the masthead to determine the wind direction (tough on the neck!).

Not long after Bill turned in, it seemed to me that we had made enough distance off from Cape Canaveral, and we should gybe back to run parallel to the coast. It’s a bit of a process to gybe, especially when you’re not entirely clear-headed. I first checked the instrument that reads the true wind speed. It read 15 knots. This seemed much lighter than what we had been experiencing, so I decided it was a good time for the maneuver. Out in the cockpit the wind seemed much stronger than that, but I still figured that if it went down to 15 even for a moment that was a good sign to proceed. I sheeted the main traveler in to amidships. With the mainsail pulled in that way I could tighten the “lazy” starboard running backstay, to support the mast when the sail/boom comes crashing over to the new/port side. I left the running backstay tight on the port side also, figuring I would release it after the sail came across. Then I switched the autopilot to “standby” and turned the wheel to starboard. The big mainsail did its expected crash over to port, and in the big seas I did 30 seconds of erratic steering to find the right new course, and set the autopilot back to “Auto.” Then I eased the starboard side traveler line to let the sail out on the new side, and went back into the pilot house to see if our new course would allow us to sail parallel to the Florida coastline.

Then there was a JOLT and a BANG in the rigging!

Hurrying back outside, I initially couldn’t find anything wrong, but a quick survey revealed that the port side running backstay had disappeared. I had neglected to ease it before I eased the traveler out on the new side. Thus the entire force of the wind in the big sail was pushing against that runner, until something gave way. The good news: on the new gybe we didn’t need the port side runner. The bad news: if we needed to gybe back later, and the wind was still blowing hard, the mast wouldn’t have the protection provided by the runner, and we could potentially be at risk of losing the entire rig!

Let’s review what has gone wrong so far… We expected the more moderate winds as stated in the weather forecast, and weren’t really prepared for a rough night. Bill’s first gybe had somehow damaged the apparent wind indicator, making it difficult to set/hold our course relative to the wind. I had believed the true wind speed indicator when it showed 15 knots, without putting two and two together — that in order for the instrument to compute the true wind speed it factors in the apparent wind angle. The damage to the apparent wind indicator was causing it to “think” the wind was coming from ahead (and thus it subtracted out our boat speed) when in fact it was coming from behind (so it should have added our boat speed). When it read 15 knots, it was really blowing close to 30, and my thought that there was a lull had no basis. Then I omitted a step in the second gybe, resulting in breaking the port side running backstay.

So what to do next…?

In order to sail parallel to the coast, the wind and seas were now coming from almost dead astern. The seas were building, and we were surfing at speeds that we hadn’t experienced before. At one point the knot meter indicated a boat speed of 17 knots! Fourteen knots or more was becoming common whenever a big wave lifted our sterns and the boat accelerated downhill. But this was not fun; it was hairy. The seas push the stern of the boat this way and that, and the autopilot can’t respond quickly enough to keep the boat on a steady course. If the boat “yaws” to starboard, it doesn’t much matter, except that our course goes closer to shore. If it yaws to port we risk an “accidental gybe,” where the wind gets on the wrong side of the big mainsail, and it and its heavy boom come flying across the stern of the boat out of control, potentially breaking something more serious than the runner!

In most situations we would reduce this risk by setting a course a little closer to the wind, so the boat would have to turn further before it would gybe, thereby giving the autopilot time to respond. But such a course would point us in to the Florida coast, and before long would force us to gybe out to sea again — a dangerous prospect without the port side runner. But if we didn’t change course that way, we risk the even greater risk of an accidental gybe. The heavy weather spinnaker would have allowed us to sail our desired course with no risk, but rigging the spinnaker is too complex to do in the dark. Some line would become tangled and create a new set of problems. The working jib alone would have provided enough power to keep us moving fast, but I had two concerns about that solution. First, it is not easy to get the mainsail down when sailing downwind. I certainly could not do it alone; I was very reluctant to waken Tim or Bill in the middle of my watch; and I wasn’t even sure that two of us could safely do it in these conditions. Probably we could, perhaps with some assistance from the engines, but the second concern was that we really should have both runners in this wind when flying just the jib.

Although “hope” is a poor strategy, it was my hope that we could hold the course parallel to the coast at least until the wind eased. I rigged a “preventer” line, holding the boom out to port, so that if we did gybe accidentally it would not fly across the stern with damaging force. We sailed very close to the desired course for the next hour and a half.

During this time I learned to interpret the apparent wind angle shown by our instrument. Although it was wrong, it was possible to compute the correct angle from it, and doing the mental adjustment was easier than constantly looking up at the masthead vane. But then a “funny” thing happened. The instrument showed that I could bear off a little further away from the wind, and thus away from the coast, which was good. And then it indicated that I could STILL bear off a little further. I believed that the wind was changing, allowing us to more easily sail the course we wanted. It seemed that my hope was realized, and I felt deep relief. And just then the boat gybed! At the time I couldn’t understand why this happened, but now the wind was on the wrong side of the mainsail, with the boom/sail held there by the preventer, which had prevented any dire consequences. The boat was effectively “hove to,” with the wind blowing over the side, and the boat drifting sideways. It was relatively peaceful, except for the waves, and my mental wrestling with not understanding what caused the gybe. Maybe we were getting a new wind in my hoped-for direction, as I had thought, but were still getting gusts from the old wind. In any case, what to do now? Normally one would ease the sail over to the other side, which would start the boat sailing again, and then make whatever adjustments needed. But I didn’t want to do that without the port side runner, and with no forward movement through the water, we couldn’t steer to tack or gybe. I decided it was time to wake Tim and have a second brain pondering the situation.

In fact our solution was simple. Start an engine and get enough way on so we could steer downwind and gybe back. Could have done that myself. Oh well, it was a relief to have Tim say he would start his watch early and I should get some sleep. Tim managed to sail along the coast with just one time of rounding up into the wind and again having to start an engine to get going again. The “hope” strategy did in fact work out.

In the morning it became clear why we had gybed. The apparent wind indicator had frozen up entirely. So I was making mental wind angle calculations based on a display that no longer had anything to do with the wind! Also in the daylight we retrieved the running backstay, and found that it was a shackle that had broken. Easily replaced.

So in the end, no problem — just another night at sea.

8 thoughts on “One Night at Sea”

  1. Yikes! This is why you are preparing to sail around the world, not me. As a non-sailor with a teeny bit of knowledge, I think I followed what you described pretty well, except that I spell “gybe” “jibe”. FYI – Hallie made your request at Thanksgiving for us to “follow” your blog, which I have been doing for a couple of weeks, since your posts come to my in box. However, apparently this was not being recorded in a way that you can see it…. so I am “following” your blog, and enjoying every word (and photo!). We missed you at Thanksgiving!

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  2. Glad you figured everything out successfully and are safe. It sounds like a four hour shift can feel like 12 hours of hard physical and mental labor!

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  3. Eeek sounds like a real drama, and at night things always seem so much worse than they appear in daylight! So glad that it was an easy fix once you figured it out. Happy sailing!

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  4. Seems to me you have a habit of fixing things with hope and a prayer (have you given up prayer) and gybing at odd times is not new to you, is it?

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  5. What a story Zeke! You are on such an amazing adventure and glad you’ve brought both mental strategies AND Hope along for the trip. All these other comments ran thru my mind too. thanks for taking the time to write so descriptively that it feels like I am out there on the watch with you…. do i sense a movie coming after this adventure?? Who will play Zeke the Sailor?! holiday love for the journey, V
    P.S. Robert would happily tell you stories of what a crazy jiber I have been so glad you’re obviously much better at it!

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