Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Do dogs have egos?

I hadn’t been sailing for a while, fickle winds and autumnal seas giving a big thumbs down every time I thought about readying the boat for an outing. On the plus side this gave OB a chance to dry out thoroughly—the forward and after lockers both harboured damp from water that trickles in down the masts. Not a significant amount of water comes through the tight fittings, even in a capsize situation, but enough to maintain a permanent state of sogginess. On the down side I didn’t capitalize on the boat being dry to address the pending repairs. Lack of organization saw us back on the water without more epoxy on the skeg or reinforced scantlings for the thole pins and oars.

With a pleasant force two blowing over a flat sea I found OB’s sweet spot by juggling with the sheeting angles and adjusting course with the oars until, with the rudder raised, she sailed herself close hauled. One long push on the windward oar being sufficient to bring us about we sailed short tacks, for a couple of hours, to and fro, towards the horizon.

Comfortably reclining on the forward thwart, I drank a beer and ate a sandwich then, not having to attend to the tiller, fell to musing. I won’t detail the labyrinthine route that my brain took through varied topics, suffice it to say that along the way I briefly ruminated on the subject of the title of this post.

Just a few kilometres off-shore but a world away from the worries of the land time slowed as OB bore me over the water, her bow rising to each wave and her sails balanced and drawing.

Well on the way to Neverland it took an act of will power to raise the centerboard and sheet out the sail for our long run home. I didn’t lower the rudder but unshipped the mizzen instead and OB sailed herself dead down wind.

I watched the land as it crowded towards us and judging there to be no hazards in the form of unmanageable breaking waves let Onawind Blue sail herself up the beach.

On the unyielding sand I thought about what we’d just done; sailed for three and a half hours without touching the tiller—the rudder had come home dry.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The hangover cure

Too blurry to feel much like sailing I couldn’t resist the strengthening wind. After a week of feeble puffs and pants from all directions it brightened my dull eyes just to see a steady, force three onshore breeze. Unable to miss a chance to further test Onawind Blue’s new rig I quietly prepared her for the water.

An easterly swell crossed seas with the southerly wind-blown chop and the afternoon sun reflected searing spears of light over the water. Keeping my back to the optical onslaught I rowed out, hoisted main and mizzen and sailed away on a close reach, my plan simply to try OB on all points of sail.

The limitation of not looking at the light meant that I favored the starboard tack and steadily we went out to sea tacking or gybing now and then for a short run on port.

I experimented balancing the sails on all points and found that she sailed herself best close hauled—good news for a boat that does plenty of windward sailing. Further off the wind I kept the sheeting angles equal and OB bowled along on the rising breeze. Going broad I raised the centerboard and kept my weight central trying to encourage OB to plane. On the verge of taking off she entertained me with an in-board water fountain that pumped thick gouts of sea up through the centerboard case.

Coming back up to weather the heavier tiller told me that we were over-pressed. But as we crashed over the water I found my face fixed with a wild grin. We reached back and forth carving a wide, frothing groove over the sea. I had to wrestle her round the corners as the larger seas smacked into her bows, slowing her sometimes to standstill. I sailed towards the beach remembering Allard Coles’ lines about the best heavy weather tactic being the avoidance of strong winds and seas. But at the point where I normally strike the sails and ship the oars I tacked and charged back out to sea thinking, ‘Just a couple more runs.’

I’ve learnt from windsurfing that last runs can be fatal and I knew that the longer I was out the heavier the seas would grow. Rowing in would be challenging but I didn’t want to think about that right now as I sat out on the side deck with spray cascading over the bows.

Then a gust hit and before I could release the main sheet the lee rail was buried and the gushing water forcing the port oar off its pin. With the main sheet released we came head to wind in a mass of crazy flapping canvas.

That hadn’t been a gust, just the wind notching up to a solid force four—and rising.

The sun disappeared behind clouds as I got back underway. The breeze was too strong for normal sailing and I had to spill wind to stay comfortable. The waves, at three to four feet, signaled it was time to head home.

Anchored well off I struck the sails and baled. While head down to the task in hand a mass of water crashed over the boat. I watched the wave’s back as it thundered on towards the shore—that one was definitely too big for us. Looking at the scene before me I was none too clear about how I would reach the beach. And then my family appeared. Only one thing would bring them out on an overcast windy afternoon and that was apprehension—an apprehension that I found infectious.

Reckoning that seeing their father and his boat getting trashed in surf would put my kids off boating, I decided it was more important than ever to land safely.
To that end I set off rowing down the coast away from my normal landing place.

Out walking the day before I’d seen a spot where water gathering behind the dunes during the recent rains had broken across the beach. The freak river had eroded the beach and a channel out to sea. This would be the ideal landing spot. There was a slight rip tide in the narrow channel and with the whistling crosswind it was difficult to stay on course. But the important thing was that the waves were barely breaking here and I landed without mishap on the low stretch of beach.

The spontaneous jig that I danced upon reaching dry land rather gave me away although I behaved as nonchalantly as ever in front of the children.

My partner kindly enquired after my hangover. ‘What hangover?’ I replied and looked back out at the sea; in four months of sailing Onawind blue I reckon I’ve had larger doses of adrenaline than in four years of windsurfing.

I know that I go on a lot about the issues of launching and landing in waves. It’s part of the reality of my sailing spot and is something that all craft from Onawind Blue through Optimists, Lasers and Hobbie Cats to speedboats and jet skis have to deal with. At one time or another I’ve seen all these craft come to grief in the waves (seeing a jet ski getting worked is a joy indeed) and I don’t think OB is any less suitable in these conditions than any other small boat.

The more I take her out in testing condition the more I learn and the faster my confidence in our abilities grows. On the open sea I’m beginning to suppose that her limit is around the top end of a force four. On sheltered waters she promises to be very worthy indeed.

Just to give an idea of the conditions we can get on the north-western Mediterranean here’s some footage of me fooling about on the windsurfer in an easterly force 5.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Roll, roll, roll yer boat

Slightly perplexed by articles I’d been reading regarding stability, I decided to capsize OB. Maybe perplexed isn’t the right word; I was aware that nothing I read would tell me as much about OB’s initial stability, righting moment or angle of vanishing stability as actually rolling her over in the drink. I turned her empty hull in the shallows hoping to beach her if she proved reluctant to right.

As I had suspected from her flaring lower chines she had a lot of initial stability. I struggled to tip her through the first 45º but she rose quickly through the second 45º and continued over. To right her I put a hand in the daggerboard slot and a big toe on the gunnel and that was enough, she flipped happily. OB came up less than half full, lower in the water for it and slightly less stable.

Had I been more scientific about the capsize I no doubt could have learnt more. It would have been interesting to take her half way over and then let go to see which way she’d fall if left to her own devices. I could have totally swamped her too.

In the face of my scientific failings I can only say that capsizing and swamping one’s own boat intentionally requires a psychological effort that I could not maintain.

However, while the camera was still running I had a little row and practiced coming in to the beach a few times. The waves were small and on the last run I tried my new technique.

The videos are of a quality that long suffering followers of this blog must be getting used to. In this case I didn’t have the correct cable to transfer the film from the video camera to the computer and had to resort to filming the images direct from the television screen with my coolpix stills camera. However, the light that afternoon was good so the colours are alive and the general effect reminds me of old super 8 films.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Leaving Tamarit

I’ve had an opportunity to sail Onawind Blue with her new rig on all points of sail but in very light airs. I couldn’t get her to sail herself efficiently in these conditions but going so slowly it hardly matters. I’m very pleased with OB as a yawl and with the smaller rudder, though I now think that my issues with the previous rudder may well have been solved (to a degree) by a balanced yawl rig. She’s still short of sailcloth but maybe that’s a good thing given the gung-ho situations she gets herself into.

After last week’s successful and immensely enjoyable cruise to Tamarit and back I’ve come down with an intense bout of daydreaming. Blissing out on the anticipation of adventures to come my plans take me all over the western Med. And while food burns in the pan as I stir it, I merely smell the dying embers of a beach campfire, lie back and let my eyes drift across the heavens. At this stage my family has to pick me up off the floor and rescue lunch, while I explain that I’m fine, absolutely fine, just thinking…you know…‘bout my boat.

Here is a short video of Onawind Blue leaving Tamarit cove last week.

As so often happens in films and photos, the sea doesn’t look quite as large as it seemed to me from in the thick of it. My experience of rowing out that morning was almost certainly intensified by worries about how the sea would develop over the day and how I would manage the journey home.

The unsightly fenders tailing behind are used to move the boat on the beach. Were I to pause to stow them before I started to row I’d quickly find the waves pushing me up against the beach and flooding the boat. Towing the fenders also thoroughly de-sands them.

I’m grateful to Pep for filming me, for getting right out there on the rocks to do it and for finding such a good angle. It’s good to see the castle coming in to shot as I forgot to get a photo of it myself.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Surfing again

The weather system that started on my journey back from Tamarit took a long week to develop and diffuse. Standing on the beach in the rain watching the wind and the waves I shivered to imagine Onawind Blue in the thick of it.

But anxious to learn more about handling OB in adverse conditions I took her surfing again when the sun finally reappeared. With conditions similar to those on our previous sortie I rowed out, taking a while to make myself comfortable in the aft rowing position. I find rowing from the forward thwart more comfortable, with decent legroom and at a beamier section of the boat I can stretch out and get a more efficient stroke. But for rowing in waves I wanted my weight further back, hopefully to slow the stern as it gathered pace on the wave.

As nobody could be duped into filming, my first run unfortunately went unrecorded. If every run were like that I would indeed be considered the dude on this beach. We avoided the bigger waves and I rowed hard to catch a smaller one. OB surfs easily on the right wave and with three strokes she was up, charging but stable. I stowed the oars and sat on the sternsheets facing forwards. The wave brought us right up the beach and I ran to the bows, hopped over and grabbed OB’s deadeye just as the wave receded. We were high on the beach and completely dry. I was amazed.

The second run was a total disaster. We started to surf, turned side on to the wave, went onto our beam ends, came upright half full of water and the next wave flooded over the stern leaving us brimful. I jumped out and used the force of the white water to try and beach her, but she was too heavy and the backwash dragged her into the sea. I dug my heels in.

A man stopped to help and after a long struggle we pulled her out and drained her. I know what I should have done though. I should have let her go back into the sea and then walked her over to a buoy, baled her from there and then come back into the beach dry, for another attempt.

Back in the garden I took her off the trolley, which needed some repairs, and had a look at her bottom. I haven’t seen this part of her anatomy since the launch and wasn’t surprised to find a significant amount of wear. Scratches, rubbings and fading paint, but worst was the end of the skeg which has lost its epoxy fillet and taken a few bashes right on the plywood.

Also achieved this week were a new pair of thole pins. Whittled from green olive and carrying no protection I wonder how long they’ll last. The epoxied oak pair that supported the oars on last week’s mammoth row now sport deep grooves where the rope has bitten in. I have repaired a couple of pins that broke but wouldn’t trust them to row with.

From left to right, repaired, oak, olive and the raw material for the next ones.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Adventures with Onawind Blue

The end of September loomed and my camping/cruising plans looked doomed. The cove, El Waikiki, would remain unexplored until next year. But despite the first signs of resignation I maintained, as always, an interested eye on the weather forecasts.

The Mestral had returned. Boisterous as ever after its summer break, it brought flurries of leaves, a change of air temperature and left no doubt that autumn had arrived. And after the Mestral easterlies threatened with their big seas, low clouds and general malevolence towards small boats.

But there was a weather window. Between Friday lunchtime and Sunday morning south, south westerlies were on the cards. Perfect for cruising down the coast. But on Friday night friends were coming for dinner. I didn’t feel justified in postponing the engagement, though Lord knows I’ve scuppered enough family plans for the sake of windsurfing. I looked ruefully at the weather forecast and went back to finishing off the repairs in the workshop. Onawind Blue wouldn’t have been ready anyway so what was the point in getting flustered.

Friday lunchtime the Mestral breathed its last and a gentle on-shore breeze set up from the south right on cue. Then my friend called canceling dinner. I was free to go. The only problem was OB—the epoxy was under 24 hours old on the rudder and it still needed varnish. But what the hell, this was probably my last chance and, in a whirlwind state of mind, I prepared the boat and sorted out my gear.

I called my friend Pep, arranged to meet for the night at El Waikiki and dragged a loaded Onawind Blue down to the water’s edge at 5.30pm. It was late, only three hours of daylight left but the wind had gone more southerly and had strengthened. I pushed out into perfect conditions—I could get a tad offshore and then reach all the way there. Three hours should have been enough.

I hoisted the sails, anxious to play with OB’s new rig. I sheeted in the main as for a close reach, then adjusted the sheeting angle on the mizzen so that as the bows started to drop away to leeward the mizzen would fill and force them back up to weather. This worked well and the smaller rudder felt much lighter but did I even need to touch it? The boat was balanced but when I let go of the tiller the latent rudder movements interfered with the work of the sails and we came head to wind. I got back on track, tied the rudder off amidships and settled back to see what would happen. The bows paid off, the mizzen caught the wind, we turned to windward, then the mizzen lost power and the bows paid off again. Onawind Blue was sailing herself. I tweaked the sheeting angles of both sails so that she sailed in a straight line and sat back in the boat, ecstatic to be freed from the tiller.

I baled the water that we’d shipped while launching and tidied up. I knotted the end of the mizzen sheet to my life jacket, reckoning that if I fell out of the boat the mizzen would sheet-in and bring us head to wind, then I opened a celebratory beer. This was the life—my boat bowling along on automatic pilot while I sipped a cold one and admired the view.

But that wasn’t exactly the view that I expected to be admiring; I should have been looking at the coast but the sea spread before me. OB’s sails were trimmed to sail close-hauled. We seemed to be bearing away but we obviously weren’t. No, it was the wind that had shifted, moving west and coming foul.

Now it would be a long slog to windward. For a moment I thought about turning back but I felt committed, ready for adventure and prepared to revise my plans depending on the weather, but that didn’t include going home. I made myself snug in the bottom of the boat for the evening was cold and continued out to sea.

I went further offshore than I’ve ever been, far enough to raise Montserrat—a mountain to the northwest, 1200 metres high, 60 km inland and Mont Caro at 1500 metres high and 120km southwest. Then I tacked and came on course for El Waikiki.

We had the lowering sun on our bows and an hour and a half of daylight. Punching over the waves I moved my cosy nest forward. My weight up front evened up the boat for working to windward or, perhaps more to the point, Onawind Blue rode more comfortably through the waves, slamming and jarring far less even if it did mean an occasional earful of water. I’d discovered another advantage of letting OB sail herself, when tied to the tiller I could never get far enough forward to trim the boat on a windward course.

As night crept up from the east I reviewed my position. Still a long way off shore—too far to reach anywhere before darkness I scrapped the El Waikiki plan (the easing wind put it at least an hour an a half away) and looked at the nearest port, its entrance lights winking invitingly half an hour downwind.

While I lowered the mainsail and lashed a light to the peak I thought about going to the port. I’ve had minimal dealings with the one of the harbour officals and consider him a first class prat—when I’d asked him where I could moor OB should I happen to come in to spend money in the restaurants or chandlers he told me that I wouldn’t be allowed access without ‘mechanical propulsion’. I railed at this seemingly ridiculous response and the abyss between two people worlds apart became glaringly apparent—I’d have to be in a real fix before I pulled in there. I hoisted the sail and looked west. There, 45º off my starboard bow shone my old friend and landmark Tamarit castle gleaming under spotlights. I adjusted my course and made for it.

Night crowded around us and I looked up at our diminutive light drawing tight ovals on the starry sky. The first slice of moon rose behind us, unrecognizable in a deep red guise. I blurted, ‘What the hell is that?’ before reason gained a footing and the moon rose higher revealing its curves and flecking the inky water, that slapped and gurgled down OB’s sides, with orange. This was beauty, all the more piercing for being threaded with cold and fear.

I turned my gaze to our destination. Landing in the dark wouldn’t be easy, I’d never landed at Tamarit before but I’ve been to the little beach by land and looked at it from the sea on two occasions. The cove is small but protected from the southwest by a rocky outcrop surrounded by large flat rocks just below the surface. The water is deep by the rocks and gets shallower towards the castle on the other side. Well at least that was the score when I was last there. With sands shifting all the time I could expect anything.

I called Pep and told him I was making for Tamarit but would wait offshore for him. When I saw his torchlight on the beach I would head in and he could help land OB—she was noticeably heavier with my gear aboard and if the beach was steep or I got a wave over the stern it would be a challenge to get her high and dry single-handed.

Remembering a buoy just off the rocks I picked a point in the night and headed towards it giving the odd pull on the oars to help us on the dying breeze. Soon I could hear the waves and make out the rocks by the light from the illuminated castle. As I came closer I nervously scanned the black water for the buoy. Too close to the rocks for comfort I was about to turn around when it appeared right on the bow. I had a rope prepared and fumbled to drop a bight over the buoy as it bumped down our starboard side and fell astern. I sheeted in the mizzen and rowed us round on to the other tack then tried again. I eventually lassoed the buoy on my fifth attempt feeling not a little exasperated with my clumsiness. Seeing no light on the beach I stowed the sails and prepared the boat for landing.

A light flashed by the rocks, I flashed back, (this was straight out of Arthur Ransome) untied and then rowed in, keeping to the deep channel. Pep met me at the water’s edge and we pulled OB ashore then put her on the fenders and rolled her to the back of the cove by a little cave that would form part of our shelter, elation apparent in my speech and in my every movement.

Under an improvised boat tent we supped on Catalan pan con tomate, Spanish omelette, ham, cheese and red wine, then yarned over whisky and chocolate until too fuddled to get into our sleeping bags without bringing in heaps of sand.

I slept comfortably but woke suddenly to the sound of thunder. It was 6am, dark and cloudy. I saw no lightning but heard the thunder again. And again. No, that wasn’t thunder, but waves—large ones bashing into the hollows under the rocks with such force that they shook the beach. And that other noise? Oh, that was the rain. I put my head under the pillow and tried to make my mind go blank.

But my mind, like a train on tracks, was reviewing the options. Waves like these came from the east, the fore runners of the weather expected for Sunday. The predicted weather pattern had jumped forwards 24 hours. There would be no sunny Saturday with southwesterly force threes. Tamarit is unprotected from the east and the pounding waves brought urgency to my thoughts. Could I leave the boat here until the easterlies passed? No, I couldn’t bear to. Maybe I could launch and, if the weather became adverse, slip into the port, then try and borrow a road trailer and a towing vehicle and get her home that way? No, that was too complicated for me.

I woke Pep; a large puddle accumulating in the tarpaulin above his head threatened him with a wet awakening. I asked if he could hear the thunder, he said yes, I said, ‘That’s the waves.’ He looked worried. The plan had been to sail back together but I excused him. He was far from easy about me setting off into dubious conditions and I must say that my stomach was behaving in a way that I associate with my youth—like when I was due for a beating from the headmaster. Bricking it, basically.

We ate breakfast and talked through the options again but I was decided—if there was wind coming I wanted to get away long before it arrived. We tidied up, rolled OB to the water and then I set off into the green and white waves under a murky grey sky.
Outside the waves I set the sails, the east wind was right on the nose and too light to make any headway. It was going to be a long row.
I set off parallel to the coast keeping the wind slightly to port; this kept the sails full and to starboard giving me room to row. Every now and then a large lump of wave passed under us and the dip and splash of the oars was accompanied by the relentless surge and crash from the shore. I didn’t want to think about how I’d land when I got home—at this point it was still a question of if I got home.
The sea became more difficult to handle as the beach gave way to cliffs and the waves were reflected back making a mess of jostling peaks. The wind started to rise and, although this may have been the harbinger of worse weather, at least Onawind Blue gained stability with the sails drawing and I could rest from rowing.

I was nearing the port again. I tried to persuade myself that it might be better to pull in there (I’d had phone calls updating the forecast—rain and thunderstorms but no confirmation of big constant winds) but I couldn’t justify it, especially as a healthy flock of Optimists hurried out, a flurry of sails flashing white over the green sea. I trimmed my main and mizzen and, rather than tying the tiller as I’d done the day before, simply raised the rudder out of the water. I found that I could tack very effectively by rowing round with one oar; I could also forereach and gain a little ground to windward.

I fell in with the Optimist fleet also hacking up wind and had a pleasant sail with them. The sailing instructor buzzed over to me in his RIB to ask what boat I was sailing—the yawl rig is a very unusually one out here, especially on a small boat. ‘What, no rudder?’ he shouted, ‘No, she’s balanced.’ I yelled back.

Leaving the Opi crowd behind I took a beat inshore. I failed to weather the port and had to come about again. We’d covered little ground in the past hour. Above the fading wind I could hear distant rumblings, which I immediately took to be waves, but coming from seaward they could only be thunder. As clouds thickened in the west I took up the oars again and aimed at the eye of the wind. Improvising lewd shanties I rowed hard and watched the weather.

The storm grew rapidly off my starboard quarter, a bruised sky shot through with veins of lightning hanging low over a poisonous green sea and a horizon flecked with white caps.

I’ve sailed in a Mediterranean thunderstorm before, in 42-foot aluminum blue-water cruiser, and the violence of that experience is branded on my memory. To turn back towards the port would be to turn towards the storm so, unable to out run it, I could only slog on and hope the storm would expend its wrath out at sea. I watched two sailing boats on the horizon disappear into the dark smudge and felt for them as the cloud fizzled with lightning. Then the wind dropped completely.

I didn’t want to waste time stowing the sails so sheeted out the main completely knowing the wind could suddenly spring from any direction. The storm was moving fast and passing to starboard. Relieved, I looked back at the port to find that it had disappeared.

A huge grey swathe had erased the western horizon, I could only watch as it raced up behind us with sickening inevitability.

The hail hit like a ton of freezing marbles. The sea, pounded flat by the downpour, boiled. The world closed in about us and noise blotted out thought. The hail turned to icy rain and intensified. It poured off the sails and into the boat, it beat on my face till I was forced to shut my eyes.

‘That’ll teach me to sing.’ I wryly mused. And then it passed.

I watched it go as I baled the boat. The storm had overtaken us and turned inland and the sea, subdued by its beating, rolled gently. Landing would be easier now than it had been all day and I pressed on for home arriving at my stretch of beach 45 minutes later.

I stowed the sails and rowed in judging the waves so as to let the bigger ones roll under us. Arriving at the beach I got one over the stern which half filled Onawind Blue. I had a long job pulling and baling the boat up the shore as successive waves tried to fill her. But I was on dry land; home in time for tea and smiling from ear to ear.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Under the olive tree again

The Invisible Workshop was back out of the cupboard the other day and what a pleasure it was. The mess, the muddle, the umming and arring, the f-ing and blinding, the insolent whine of Bertie belt sander and the distinctive smell of epoxy. A few jobs done to my satisfaction and the day finished off with cold beer as I sat on OB’s bow.

It’s enough to make me want to start on another boatbuilding project. To put into practice all those skills acquired in the construction of Onawind Blue before lack of use dulls them.

And I know which boat I’d build now, given the chance. Given a decent indoor space, no wind, no rain, no neighbours and a constant temperature. Given the time and the money I’d build the Light Trow again.

I could do it justice now. I’d change a few things, I wouldn’t use cleats on the frames for example and I’d box in the centerboard case for more storage and buoyancy. But more than anything I’d just like to improve on general build quality. Like many aspects of life that really matter, building a boat isn’t so much about the finished article (though of course that is the goal) as about getting every aspect, every detail just right no matter how difficult or time consuming that may be. It is a mistake to see one job as less important than another simply because proportionally it adds little to the boat’s general advancement.

The next one will be much better.

Personal criticism aside, I have started on some pressing jobs. First the rig, which I’ve managed to complete by making a mizzen with the top half of an old windsurfing sail. The colours are lurid but the size is right. I asked a professional for a quote and he came back with a whacking 700 euros for two sails. So the possibility of having pristine white, professionally made sails drops back under the horizon. OB will still be slightly underpowered with her new rig but at least we’ll be able to play around with balance—I’m hoping she’ll sail herself.

I’ve sawn off a chunk of rudder and reshaped the remaining blade; it now needs a couple of coats of epoxy and some varnish. I’ve made a new mastfoot adaptor (the hole in the mast step is too large for my present mast) and I’ve experimentally screwed some Perspex onto the oar supports to stop them wearing.

In a couple of days we should be afloat again.