Sailing a new boat is always stressful. Sailing a new boat in 20+ knots is… well… stressful. And we’ve managed to do it twice so far. Up to now, our sojourn into boat ownership was seemingly fated to resemble that of a skinny powerboat with a big stick sticking out of its middle — there had been that little wind — and we hadn’t really given a lot of practical thought to sailing our new toy.
Now for those ’not’ in the know, a knot “is a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile (1.852 km) per hour, approximately 1.151 mph.” You judge your preparations for, and the safeness of, boating on any given day on the speed of the winds.
Marine Wind and Weather Warnings
Weather advisories are based on the following five categories. Only the first two are considered safe for boating.
Light Winds: Light winds are defined as winds with a wind speed less than 12 knots.
Moderate Winds: Moderate winds are defined as winds with a wind speed of 12 to 19 knots.
Strong Winds & Small Craft Warnings: Strong winds are defined as winds with sustained wind speeds in the range of 20 to 33 knots.
Gale Warning: Gale winds are defined as winds with a continuous speed of 34 to 47 knots.
Storm Warning: Storm winds are defined as winds with a continuous speed of 48 to 53 knots.
Although the Never for Ever seems quite small in comparison to the ships we regularly share the seaways with, she comes in at 38’9″, or a little under 12 metres, and is not considered a ‘small’ craft — that would be more of an open aluminum fishing boat or a kayak. Our Hunter, while not properly equipped now, is perfectly capable of crossing oceans. This means that the small craft warnings don’t particularly apply to us. Having said that, 30 knots would be quite a ride, but 20–25 is merely exhilarating. Or at least that’s the theory.
There is an inclinometer mounted on my binnacle. It lets me know the amount of heel (the angle the boat is tilted over at) in degrees. It’s a fairly useless measurement. I think some thing like Mild, Worrisome, Scary, Terrifying, and Insane might be a better scale.
It is also important to note that heeling is generally only a problem when sailing close hauled. This is the point of sail going as directly into the wind as possible. And since it’s axiomatic that in the Pacific Northwest you are always going into the wind, it seems to be a fairly common point of sail.
20 Knots: Need a Reef
So a sloop, which is the sail configuration most of us have, consisting of a foresail and a main sail, can easily become overpowered in strong winds due to the large surface area of the sails. So most (all?) of them have a way of reducing the square footage of sail; this process is known as reefing.( As a side note, the reef knot we all know and love is used to tie in the reefs, hence its name.) Reefing a traditional main sail is accomplished by lowering it about three feet and tying down the excess sail at the bottom. If you wish to put in a second reef, you lower the main sail another three feet. The overall effect is to make the size of the triangular sail much smaller, thus reducing the power it generates and the amount of heel it causes. A boat can only go so fast, according to the math, so extra power just makes for a more uncomfortable sail without any speed gains. The two reef points are generally predetermined, with handy grommets to facilitate the process of tying the sail down. Most modern boats have fancy reefing systems using lines that lead to the cockpit so you don’t even have to go out on deck.
This has been the only system we have ever used. In other boats we have, on average, put in the first reef around 15 knots of wind and the second around 19 or 20. Having said that, we have only sailed in 20-plus–knot winds once before.
Alas, the Never for Ever has a roller-furling main, something I have limited experience with and have never reefed. A roller-furling main has a hollow mast and the main sail rolls in and out like a projector screen. In theory (and generally in practice) this is much easier to handle. But I would suggest the first time you try to figure out how to reef, you don’t start with 20 knots of wind. It adds a bit too much spice.
One of the issues is that there are no set reef points. You roll the sail out to a point that is comfortable and engage a ratchet to prevent it from coming out any further. The ratchet, however, is on the mast and comfortable is hard to judge if you are heading straight into the wind with the sails flapping and waves bouncing and you have never done it before.
Eventually I figured out we would have to let the sail out all the way and then bring it back in. I also arbitrarily chose to bring it in about four feet from the end of the mast. At some point I am going to have to break out the Pythagorean math and figure out equivalents.
So we sailed in a diminishing 20-knot wind that eventually settled at 15–16 knots and then dropped to 10. At that point we hove to and let the rest of the sail out and had a nice calm sail. At first the inclinometer should have read Scary–Terrifying, but I wasn’t pointing too high, so that took a lot of pressure off the sails and reduced the heel. We eventually all calmed down and enjoyed the sail. I never actually looked at the inclinometer. It was a bit of a baptism by fire, but we persevered and eventually had fun.
If There Are Two Boats Then It’s a Race
Never for Ever under motor
Two days later in Smuggler Cove, we finally hooked up with R Shack Island, who were to be our traveling companions for the next month or so. When we cast off to head up Malaspina Strait it was dead calm and we motored for a few hours. But as we rounded a small point on Texada the winds came up, and with 11 or 12 knots showing, we decided to sail. Since the winds were racing straight down the Strait, we would be beating to windward: zig-zagging back and forth, trying to point upwind as much as possible to make actual distance.
Never for Ever just starting to heel
About three minutes after we got the sails out, the winds built even more and started to exceed 20 knots; the boat leaned over like a competitive professional yogi doing downward dog. This, needless to say, put us quickly at Insane on the virtual inclinometer, and we immediately hove to. We talked over the reefing procedure first this time and then brought the boat around directly into the wind. Or tried to. The wind kept catching us and swinging us around again every time we tried to take pressure off the sails. We spun in a small circle three or four times before I finally got the sail reefed — about five feet in from the end of the mast this time. It was a bit of entertainment for any other sailors who were watching.
The race is on
By this time the Shack had blown past us and had a hefty head start. So I pointed high. And the wind pushed us over. At one point we had over 30° of heel, which is Terrifying to Insane. The rail, which is the edge of the topside, was slightly under water and we were screaming along. I started to catch the Shack slowly and was pointed a few degrees higher. We might just catch them. Of course this we at the expense of the cleanliness of my shorts and the brewing mutiny of both Leslie and Artemis. The poor cat was very discomforted by the sideways boat. So I eased off a bit, slowed my heart rate to something only excessive and continued in a long, slow chase of our mates.
The first tack was a disaster in sailing terms, although I’m not ashamed of it. We lost all way and had to really crank the jib back in, but we got the boat turned and back on course without an incident and just a loss of distance to the Shack. After that, it was matter of finding a good point and getting used to it.
We were still overpowered on the port tack for most of the afternoon. I could probably have taken a couple of feet of sail back in to increase the reef. But the starboard tack was more comfortable and I really didn’t want to stop again.
There was also a Hunter 35 ahead of us and we slowly reeled him in, in a what was now a three-way race. Leslie and I got more and more comfortable and I started to point higher and higher trying to catch the Shack by shortening the distance of my tacks. I never did pass him, but we were almost alongside at one point.
We sailed at a 20–25° heel most of the afternoon (Scary–Terrified), occasionally exceeding 30°. Leslie learned to perch on the side of the cockpit combing like it was a seat and ride comfortably with her bum 12 feet (basically the width of our boat) in the air.
This is us taken from R Shack Island
It was mind-lockingly terrifying and exhilarating and eventually we made peace with it. Not the easiest way to start our sailing experience in the new boat, but we are unlikely to ever be that scared again. Until we hit 30 knots, I guess.
Stowage Leasons Learneds
Stowing gear for sailing involves putting things where they can’t fall and making sure things won’t slide over the fiddles (the lips on the edge of counters etc.). On our first sail we learned through a series of crashes and bangs that stowing for 20 knots is not the same as stowing for 12 knots. On our second big day we learned by way of even bigger crashes and bangs that stowing for 20 knots on a steady port take is not the same stowing for a long day of beating in 20-plus knots.
I think by the third trip down after a big crash everything — and I really mean everything — was on the floor, in the sink or, in the case of the poor cat, wedged between something like the pillows and our headboard.
The cockpit wasn’t much better. Cushions, charts, cameras, water bottles and binoculars were strewn across the floor of the cockpit. But eventually everything was wedged or shoved in a corner and the crashing ceased. That probably went a long way to reducing our heart rates right there.