Sunday 5 August 2007

The capsize test

I thought that it would be a good idea to capsize the boat. The logic being that a capsize would almost certainly, at some stage, spring out of the blue. I reckoned it as well to turn her over in controlled conditions to see how she behaved and how I could right her. Given that I was wantonly prepared to put Onawind Blue and myself through this potentially traumatic experience I decided it would be worthwhile to capture the event on film. I spoke to a camera toting friend and arranged a day for the filming, the idea being to go out in separate boats and purposefully roll OB.

But before the big day arrived, in a rush of wind, noise and white water, a capsize sprang out of the blue.

It was regatta day at the local beach and after talking to the judge he agreed to let Onawind Blue compete in the open class. Being the only entry we were sure to win in our class but I was interested to see how she would perform against the Lasers, Europas, Vauriens, 420s, 470s, Hobbie Cats and Patins Catalans. And, of course, I entertained the fantasy that, due to superior sailing on my part and blistering performance from OB, we’d thrash the lot.

In the event I had to retire rather ignominiously even before the start.

With one good sailing day following another throughout the summer I, rather typically, have had my nose to the grindstone making up for all that boat building I did over the winter and spring. I’ve been getting out at every feasible opportunity but it hasn’t amounted to more than four times since my last post, and mainly pleasurable evening row/sails in unchallenging conditions. Nothing to prepare me for the conditions on race day.

My main agenda, when a few days off work showed up, was to organise a mizzen sail. I adapted an aluminium mast and rigged a 2 square metre children’s windsurfing sail on it with a short wishbone boom and attached the sheet to the transom. It looked slightly odd, but I could live with it. The problem was with my orange main sail.

I had made a mistake when I first calculated its area and when I re-measured the sail I found it to be 4 m2—considerably smaller than the 6.5 m2 that I had thought. The boat plans put the mizzen at one third the size of the main so I had to aim for something similar, which meant digging out the old green windsurfing sail that I had originally rigged for my first outing. This sail measures 5.8m2 and is cut very full. It’s a baggy sail.

I didn’t have an opportunity to test this set up before the regatta and, in what now seems a rather foolhardy rush, I pushed out through the waves and set sail into a south westerly sea breeze just as it was hitting the top end of a force 3.

Onawind Blue dug in and galloped off among the sparkling white horses in a manner that brought a spontaneous whoop from the skipper. But my elation was replaced by a gulping chill when the lee rail dipped under and we shipped a large packet of briny. OB swung up into the wind and we sat drifting backwards while I baled and got my breath back. With the yawl rig she stayed pointing dead to windward and I backed the mizzen to turn her off the wind and start moving.

We shot off again, bucking and kicking and my issues with the tiller reasserted themselves.

A normal tiller is pulled and pushed across the width of the boat; the long lath tiller is pulled and pushed along the length of the boat. I find this fine in calm conditions the tiller is easy and light but in what was now a solid force 4 (a windsurfing buddy buzzed me at speed with a 6m2 sail) it was almost impossible to exert any leverage over the tiller.

These were not conditions in which to be testing an unfamiliar rig. A large fleet of dinghies were zipping about to windward of the starter buoy and as I charged through this mêlée—an unusual (for these waters) prototype boat with a weird, Heath Robinson rig and a wildly grimacing skipper—I knew that we were over-powered and that I wouldn’t be able to hold on to the tiller for the duration of the race.

Onawind Blue was screaming at me to hike out. By hooking my toes under the central thwart I got my torso outboard and, for a few seconds she felt more settled before shooting up into the wind and madly flapping her sails—from a hiked out position it was impossible to maintain a firm grip on the tiller.

I got her off the wind again, now on the port tack whizzing back through the other boats. I sheeted in the main, the 50% carbon windsurfing mast flexing away to leeward and the great baggy sail pulling like a cart horse. I eased off the mizzen sheet hoping to achieve some sort balance to lighten up the helm but what I really needed was a reef. And both the sails were unreefable.

I toyed with idea of going back to the beach and changing sails but it would have been too complicated and time consuming.

Instead I de-rigged the mizzen, and planned to take the boom off the main and wrap some of the sail around the mast to effectively reef it. I should have anchored while I did this as we were drifting downwind fast. If I wanted to start the race I had to get back upwind. I stowed the mizzen in the bilges and began the beat to the start buoy. I could see the flags on the official race boat and the fleet crowding the line. I tacked and OB came head to wind, then stopped. With the main in the forward mast position she wouldn’t tack. The first starter horn blew, Onawind Blue started going backwards, I put the tiller over and reversed her on to the new tack. But it was useless, I couldn’t sail the four mile course like this and, what’s more, stampeding over the sea from windward were more white horses and dark, fiercely rippled water signalling stronger gusts. I headed back to the beach, spilling wind and playing safe.

I anchored some distance off and rolled up the main sail then rowed down the buoyed channel towards the beach. Bathers in this part of the world don’t respect (or even know) the laws regarding navigation channels and it’s not unusual to find the beach end of the channel full of unsuspecting holiday makers. This makes bringing the boat in a potentially dangerous operation at the best of times, but today, after a long morning of plus 15 knot winds there were large waves as well.

I turned the boat just on the outside of the breaking waves to check that the channel was clear, it was and I brought OB round and headed in.

I know what I should have done to avoid what happened next. With the benefit of hindsight I’d still have a mobile phone and a cool pair of shades.

No sooner had I committed to the Hawaii 5-O style run in to the beach than a large wave came rolling up behind me. I rowed long, strong strokes attempting to stay ahead of it, willing the wave to break before it reached me but, steepening, it came on fast and lifted OB’s stern. Here I should have dug the oars in to slow the boat and let the wave pass under us but the oars were flailing about in mid air. The wave was lifting us out of the water and as it peaked we sat atop it as if we were a see-saw.

Then the wave broke, throwing us forward. The bow dug in, the stern rose and slewed to starboard. And over we went. I hit the water amid a cascaded of oars, rope, fenders and other kit.

I swam deep under the boat, expecting it to drop down on my head at any moment, and popped out the other side. Onawind Blue was on her starboard rail down sea from me, the mast had prevented her going right over, but more waves were coming in and she was nearly out of the channel and in amongst the bathers.

I swam to her with the desperation of a parent chasing a child that's about to step off the pavement and into the traffic, arriving at the same time as some other misguided folk who told me I couldn’t come in to the beach here. ‘Yes I can’ I shouted, ‘Help me turn the boat!’ She came upright easily enough and, half full of water I pushed her on to the sand while the waves washed over her stern and filled the cockpit. I caught a glimpse of the oars getting churned and a friend rushing to retrieve them.

Loaded to the gunnels with water we had a job getting her high enough up the beach to drain her but eventually, when she was high and dry, I could regroup and assess the situation.

What I should do when this situation arises again is drop into the water outside the waves and guide the boat through the breakers, my body acting as a sea anchor. I’ve seen it done and although the crew gets a fair dunking the boat comes in safe.

Onawind Blue seemed fine, water had found its way into the lockers drowning my phone and, I suddenly noticed, one thole pin had broken clean off. It must have taken some force to break that but otherwise everything was intact.

The skipper had some mysterious cuts and bruises. The cut on my leg I imagine was done on the jagged edge of the sheared pin. But I can’t begin to think how I grazed the length of my nose.

There are no photos to accompany this post, if I’d taken the camera with me it would surely have gone the way of my phone and glasses. The images I would like to have displayed would be OB with her full rig charging off on the first reach, OB amongst that fleet of pristine white dinghies and finally the boat perched on the wave just before it broke.

Towards the end of August we’ll film the official capsize. Not that I feel particularly like doing it now, however there’s still plenty more to learn and at least we should get some decent footage of Onawind Blue on the water.