Tuesday 29 January 2008

Foot steering and pinching

I had intended simply to go for a row. The sea was flat, the sun shining, there were no clouds on the blue backdrop and not a whisper of wind disturbed the palm tree whose branches have become my anemometer. All was as forecast but at the last minute, on impulse, I rigged the sails and stepped the masts.

I had rowed a few hundred yards off-shore unhurriedly weighing the left-right or straight-on-to-the horizon decision when I saw a gust carrying a cloud of sand down the beach, Sunday morning families enjoying the warm sun turning their backs to the wind, scooping up children and making for home.

I looked over my shoulder and saw a wind line about half a mile away coming from the southwest. This was the Garbí or Llebeig wind our prevailing on-shore thermal sea breeze and it was arriving with a bang as is normal when there’s a steady build up of still, hot air over the land. A couple of years ago a day like this would have seen me cancelling Sunday lunch and frenziedly rigging a 6.5 square metre sail on my windsurfer. Luckily I’d excused myself from lunch and I was already on the water.

Ripples forming and air stirring I set the main and mizzen, lowered the rudder and dagger board and then, as the body of wind pressed upon us, set off with a whoop from me and a chortle from OB as the water rushed down her sides.

The joy of sailing on the first gusts of a new wind is that the sea is still flat and, though the novelty of the GPS has worn off and I am freed from its tyranny, I tried to maximise our speed reaching out to sea. The wind settled at a solid force four kicking up a familiar foam-crested chop and I finally made up my mind where to go; I would beat up the shore and then enjoy a long downwind run home, it’s like climbing a hill for a toboggan ride—hard work but worth it.

I sheeted in the sails and found our course. I am more familiar with OB’s behaviour now and felt at ease as she heeled to leeward and chucked packets of water at me from the bows. A while ago I would have wanted a reef in this wind strength but now I tied a line from the tiller to the port forward thole pin and positioned my behind squarely on the side deck beside the opposite pin. This has proved the best position for trimming the boat on this course, it’s wet and bouncy but the forefoot stays in the water and I’m well placed to lean out in the gusts.

The balance of the boat was such that after a while she turned slightly to weather and started to pinch. I found that from where I was sitting I could hook my foot under the line from the tiller and, by curling up my toes, tweak the rudder and bring us back on course.

I will soon change the steering set up. Using blocks and cleats and a toggle at the end of the line I hope to achieve comfortable steering from anywhere in the boat and the option to cleat off the line whenever necessary. For the present my method of dropping clove hitches over the thole pins is somewhat clumsy, the hitches being difficult to adjust and to release under tension. Clumsy but functional and I was able eat as we sped along and I steered with my foot.

After a while on this wet point of sail a considerable amount of water was sloshing about the bilges. Moving my body weight to leeward to bale is, I think, asking for trouble so I usually heave-to to get the water out. But now I over tightened the sheets unhooked my foot and let her come up into the wind, OB slowed and pinched. I baled while she comfortably gained ground to windward.

With an empty boat I turned for home, a two-mile downwind ride before us. On this course the best place to sit is on the sternsheets, leaning against the mizzen mast. It’s very comfortable and, hoping to plane, I experimented letting OB take the waves on the stern or on her quarter, but the chop had such a short frequency that the bows were still buried in the wave in front as the following wave met the stern.

I came upon a kitesurfer, an old windsurfing buddy who’s moved on to kites while I’ve moved on to boats. I followed him to the shore where he passed the kite to his girlfriend then waded out and hopped aboard. We had a pleasant sail, he commented on how well OB sailed and told me he’d measured 15 knots of wind.

The GPS had spent the trip in the forward locker, when I came to look at it I was pleased to discover a new top speed—8.2 knots. A peak for sure, but it brought a large smile.

Foot steering and cold leftover spaghetti for those who forego Sunday lunch in favour of sailing.

Saturday 26 January 2008

Of jibs and drogues

I’ve had a brief affair with a small jib. With a suitable triangle of Dacron in the cupboard I couldn’t resist trying it out. I stepped the mast in the aftermost position and rigged the jib from a pulley at the masthead to the deadeye on the stem. I lead the sheet back to the cockpit and tied it off with a clove hitch on the thole pin.The headsail worked after a fashion; while it was too small really to pull I found that in light airs it did make half a knot’s difference to our speed. I didn’t, however, notice any significant change in pointing ability. In stronger winds, although I banged tension on the halyard, the luff was unstable. The sail thrummed and hummed and wouldn’t settle. In the end I struck it and undertook the tricky operation of changing the mast position at sea.

The original idea behind the jib was to move the centre of effort slightly further forward to achieve a tad more lee helm with the mainsail, which could be compensated by sheeting in the mizzen more tightly. However, the reason that more lee helm seemed desirable was because I was sailing OB with the rudder raised. Having given up this practice in favour of the more conventional method of tying off the rudder amidships I’ve obviated the need for more lee helm.

Onawind Blue sails herself fine like this though she is slightly more inclined gradually to change course. I think this tendency can be eradicated by finding a better method of tying off the rudder.

I’m afraid it all sounds impossibly technical—I perceived a need for a jib due to a technique that I was using. But changing the method rather than the sail plan proved the more effective solution.

What this incursion into rig dynamics has made plain is that OB is still under canvassed. She’s about 25 sq ft short of the prescribed amount. This extra sailcloth, which represents 20% of the total area, will make her far zippier in light airs and faster still when the breeze is up. Getting a set of the right sized sails has moved up my list of things to do.

Now I still have a useful triangular piece of sailcloth in the form of my ex-headsail. I’ve tried rigging it as an awning and it works although it is rather slim for decent shade. Ideally, if it’s to stay on the boat, it should perform two functions so I’ve thought about attaching the luff to the leach and thus making an open ended cone which can be used as a drogue.

Drogues look like windsocks. Used in extreme conditions they are deployed via a long rode from the stern of a boat to slow it when running downwind under bare poles and thus lessen the dangers of broaching and capsize. I don’t think I’ll be doing much running downwind under bare poles but a drogue may be very useful for returning to the beach in the, not uncommon, event of the waves having increased while I’m out sailing. Rowing towards the shore through breakers, a drogue should slow us at that critical moment when OB starts to surf and a broach and capsize become imminent possibilities. Although I have gained practice at returning to the beach through waves and can control the boat with a degree of confidence, I’m all too aware that there are waves over a certain height that ice my stomach and dry my throat.

Sea anchors

And drogues got me thinking about sea anchors. Also known as para-anchors they are small parachutes that function underwater and are deployed, again via a long rode, from the bows of a boat. Their function is to keep the boat head to wind and waves. They differ from drogues in that they should stop the boat in the water.

One day I may be caught out by the weather. With successive reefs, I suspect Onawind Blue can take quite a lot of wind and on small bodies of water with minimal fetch I don’t think she’d have much trouble. The Mediterranean, though not a huge body of water, virtually tide-less and often calm, can become blisteringly violent with little or no warning. The western Med can throw its entire gamut of conditions at you in one 24-hour period but luckily, unless you’re in the Gulf of Lions and the Tramontana or Mistral is blowing (or in the Straits of Gibraltar with the Levanter), nothing lasts too long.

Marauding thunderstorms roam the seas in late summer and conditions that would seriously compromise my little boat can quickly grow from nothing. What may be a fresh breeze for a 52 footer is a gale for OB. Judging from what I’ve seen while windsurfing in strong winds, and knowing that this light, narrow, shallow hull is tender, I think that somewhere around a force five the waves will get too big for Onawind Blue to continue sailing. A breaking wave will capsize a boat that is broadside to the weather if that wave is as high or higher than the boat’s beam. In our case that’s 1.2m or
4ft. Not very much.

I could heave-to or try keeping OB’s head to wind with a scrap of mizzen, she would move downwind backwards, punched about until she swamped or rolled. It would be tantamount to lying ahull, which, although once accepted as a heavy weather tactic, is now considered to be courting disaster. In the drink with strong winds and large seas we’d have trouble recovering.

Of course my primary heavy weather tactic should be to stay on the land when there’s a poor forecast and my secondary tactic should be to sail sufficiently near the coast to give me time to run for cover. But, as Web Chiles, who sailed many thousands of miles in an open, 18ft Drascombe lugger, said, ‘Land is a mixed blessing’. Meaning that many boats have been wrecked on the same shores on which they hoped to find shelter, when they may have been safer keeping to the sea. In a force five or more a dash for a beach, cove, headland or port would still be the first option, but it would depend on the beach, cove, etc. in question. In a strong winds OB’s home beach rapidly closes out with up to ten lines of surf forming and a vicious current running parallel to the shore much in the manner of a swollen river. An unfamiliar beach could bring all sorts of unquantifiable problems in the form of rocks, reefs, shorebreak and currents. A port on a lee shore can also be hazardous. The waves created by an easterly force six break across the entrance to the local marina and once the Guardia Civil, rather embrassingly (for them), were rolled while putting to sea. The boat was wrecked on the rocks but fortunately there were no casualties.

Sea anchors generally form part of the serious offshore cruiser’s heavy weather armoury and this is reflected by manufacturers who don’t make sea anchors for boats under seven metres (23ft). Obviously I’m not thinking about serious (or lighthearted) offshore cruising in Onawind Blue but if I’m lucky enough to have the time then prolonged coastal cruising is on the agenda this spring. If my destination is 10 or 15 miles away and the wind isn’t favourable I may well be beating three or four miles offshore—and I’ll admit I do like to get some distance on the land. Were the weather to deteriorate dramatically and the sea state to preclude sailing, were a dash for safety not an option, then I could only hope to sit out the weather. In this worrying scenario I could deploy a sea anchor and crouch down in the bottom of the boat with a baler in each hand, praying that the blow would be short lived. But at least knowing that Onawind Blue could reliably sit head to wind taking the waves where she’s best designed to receive them—on the bow.

Another use would be that of simply stopping at sea, to bale, to picnic, to effect a repair or to reef without losing any of that valuable ground made to windward as one does when hove-to.

But lets hope that however far a field OB and I go I always double check the weather forecasts, the signs in the sky and sea, and that I never get into a situation where I may need to use a drogue or sea anchor. But, for cruising, I still want to carry both, just in case.

Here is an interesting article on reefing small boats.

And here are some general ones about heavy weather tactics. Though they refer to
larger sailing boats the principles apply.
Fitz Henry Lane, "A Smart Blow (Rough Sea, Schooners)," 1856

Thursday 24 January 2008

I went rowing…

…with the boat stripped of all superfluous material. No masts, sails, centreboard or rudder, no picnic, no thermos. Just the hull and the oars. OB is a joy like this, light and manoeuvrable on her trolley, on the beach and in the water.

Inevitably, on the flat calm sea, I tried to better the top rowing speed and pulled hard on the oars. But when I came to look at the GPS it had run out of batteries. This was a godsend, I could have a gentle, relaxed row for once—I’ve had enough of this competing with myself.

I rowed to El Roc, a holiday town about 2 miles east, deserted at this time of year. From the sea it looks quite pretty but unfortunately a new marina is being built beside it, which not only ruins the view but has also interfered with the natural ebb and flow of the currents in such a way that sand eroded from the beach in storms is no longer being replaced by the daily action of the waves.

A favourable breeze interrupted my negative musings on humankind’s blunderings and I turned for home. Rowing with the wind I seemed to make a very healthy speed indeed but the GPS was mute. When I eventually inserted new batteries it revealed that on my earlier sprint I had hit a top speed of 5.1 knots.

Onawind Blue on the beach after an afternoon’s rowing.

Monday 21 January 2008

GPS junky

Gone are the days when with a dying wind I could drift, sprawled across the thwarts listening to the lap-splash-gurgle, drinking beer and absorbing the view. Now I am a slave to knots and overall average speeds. There’s no leeway for idling if we’re going to post fast times on the GPS.

With a light wind from the east I went for a sail. After only a short time sailing I decided we were going too slowly to make a decent average overall speed so I started rowing. Soon the wind died to nothing.

Five and a half hours later I’d covered 13 nautical miles at an average speed of 2.3 knots, with a new top speed under oars of 4.8 knots. Moving time 5.34 hours, stopped time 2 minutes.

Luckily I had the sense to take some gardening gloves with me, my hands would not have survived otherwise. Weak-armed and knackered I was in bed by 9 o’clock that evening dreaming of the possibilities that these GPS times open up for cruising.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Tea and toast

I thought I might have been able to sail through the winter months wearing a selection of old clothes, bobble hats, and anoraks but then I discovered that my anorak was just a grotty cagoule with a large tear and that however careful I was the clothes got wet and I got cold. I tried my windsurfing wet suit but apart from being too tight (I looked like Blackpudding Man) it gets rather sweaty, and OB’s cockpit is not the place for rubber-clad men anyway.

In the interests of prolonged, comfortable and safe winter sailing I spent some money on some decent gear.

Some little neoprene booties, some waterproof, lined dungarees, and a waterproof smock with Velcro cuffs and neck. I geared up with plenty of underclothes and, toasty warm, went sailing.

Under an overcast sky a force three wind kicked up the odd white cap and Onawind blue bowled along. I went broad and soon the GPS was marking speeds of 4 and 5 knots. I sailed 3 miles offshore before tacking and sailing a more upwind course back towards the beach. As I neared the coast I bore away hoping to mark a healthy max speed. I gybed and headed back out then looked at the GPS. At some moment we’d hit 6.3 knots.

I sailed a windward course out to sea again. I’ve abandoned my method of sailing with the rudder raised. It may be comfortable but the GPS shows that I neither sail as straight nor as fast a course as with the rudder down. So now I tied off the rudder amidships, balanced the sails and found that OB sailed herself very well indeed.

I dug out my food bag and discovered that I’d absentmindedly packed bananas. I scoffed them down before any misfortune could befall us and pulled out another new piece of kit—a thermos flask.

Sitting on the forward thwart gazing at the empty horizon to weather sipping piping hot tea I ran into that common problem of not wanting to turn round. But eventually I did. Again after a long beat towards the beach I went broad. There was slightly more wind now and at 5 knots the sole was vibrating under my feet. I cured it by raising the centreboard and our speed increased. Watching the waves coming at our stern quarter I tried to eek out an extra knot. Then, getting very close to the beach, I went for a gybe just as a larger wave loomed behind us. OB accelerated down the wave but didn’t plane and we came round smoothly and charged out to sea again. This time we’d hit 7.4 knots.

I celebrated with more tea.

I sailed home broad always going for speed but never topping 7.4. Arriving at my launch spot without mishap it rapidly became apparent that the thermos of tea was now in my bladder.

The only way I could relieve the pressure was by hopping up and down but this was untenable for more than a few minutes. Jogging stiff-leggedly towards the dunes it became evident that the dunes were unreachable. My hands groped for my fly. I couldn’t find it. The dungarees had no fly. I pulled off my anorak, my jumper, my shirt, my tee shirt. Why had I put the trousers on first? And eventually peeled down the dungarees and opened the floodgates in the middle of the beach. Shuddering with relief I realised that but for the dungarees round my ankles I was naked and that the old couple coming towards me walking their dog were faced with a social dilemma.

Friday 11 January 2008

First sail of the year

I’ve been fiddling about adapting a tent for OB. It actually fits quite well and will only need a couple of long seams sown in to eliminate the wrinkles. It was very simple to set up in the garden, whether it’ll be so straightforward at anchor remains to be seen.

I’ve also been over the boat applying thickened epoxy to various grazes particularly the fillet on the skeg, which had been worn down to the wood. And with the resin cured I went for the first sail of the year.

I now have a GPS and was very interested to monitor our speed and distance travelled. With five to six knots of wind and flat water OB made 2.5 knots. When the wind dropped and her speed fell to 1.7 knots I row sailed hitting a max speed of 3.8 knots.

I sailed down to the local marina where I picked up my friend Pep for the return journey. The wind and light were fading as we left and we took turns to row. We inevitably had a macho contest to see who could score the fastest speed. With the centreboard and rudder lowered and the sails set but not drawing, two people and gear in the boat, OB made 4 knots.

The overall figures were: moving time 3.30 hours, trip 7.4 miles, moving average 2 knots.

Sometime ago I put OB’s measurements into an online hull speed calculator which gave me back 4 knots. But I reckon that unloaded and with no drag from the rudder and centreboard she’ll do more than that. I can’t wait to see.

Able seaman Pep.