Friday 12 September 2008

Cala Prona to Cerbère

Out of the cove, going broad, I hoisted the sails double reefed. Not so long ago double reefed conditions seemed fairly extreme for Onawind Blue, but having seen her perform well in diverse weathers over 500 sea miles by sail and oar (this year), my confidence in our combined ability had grown such that I rushed, from the lee of the land, into the main body of the sea and the south easterly wind as relaxed as if under full sail in a force two.

So relaxed in fact that, despite doing six knots, I took the opportunity to get on with some housework. I swilled the dried salt off the decks and sponged out the bilges. Then, as I raised my head to check that OB held her course, we gybed—my first involuntary high-wind gybe in this boat. The boom caught me squarely on the forehead and, dazed, I threw my weight on the windward rail as OB swung to weather and water gushed over the lee side decks. I paused to recover, sails flapping, then meekly backed the main and got back on course now soberly paying more attention to the helm.

The wind was building. It looked like the forecast breeze had arrived and, aware of not having lived up to expectations that morning, was zealously making up for lost time, vigorously blowing the gate-crashing Tramuntana back into the mountains.

I held the increasingly heavy helm while OB hit seven and eight knots. Flying to France like this the journey would be over in little more than an hour. But the wind continued to rise and as the swell rolled up behind us OB started to surf.

Onawind Blue doesn’t plane; she can’t with a heavily rockered aft section and a narrow stern. To plane she would need a straighter, broader, flatter run aft. With such an underwater profile she would zip along, riding on top of the water at nine knots and more. In strong winds I could probably average an extra three knots. The trade off would be that she wouldn’t row as well or as fast. But I would rather have a one knot gain at slow speeds than a three or four knot gain at higher speeds.

She can surf however, and she does this by snuggling her flared stern into the wave face. Like this she can surge along with her backside half buried in foam until the bow starts to dig in and she slows down, settling for a while before catching the next steep wave.

On the first wave we hit ten knots. On the second we maintained ten knots for the whole rollercoaster ride. On the third and fourth too. On the fifth wave OB tried to broach. The helm was almost too heavy to hold and the long lath tiller bent into a great curve close to breaking point. I hove-to and had a think. We seemed to have reached a tipping point. Even with the centreboard raised the weight on the rudder had been extreme as OB tried to turn to windward. The thin rod that is the tiller and connects to the rudder could not take the strain. One option was to replace the tiller with a thick oar, this could be achieved quite easily with a few lashings, but the strain on the rudder and its fixings wouldn’t be lessened. The other option was to shorten sail. I struck the mizzen sail and got back on course.

Soon we were surfing again and the tiller rod flexed worryingly as I pushed against it trying to hold our course. Removing 1.2 square metres of double-reefed mizzen sail hadn’t made much difference. I stopped again. We were four miles from Cala Prona, five from Cap Cerbère and three from the main landmass to port. We had plenty of room and time and OB lay-to comfortably on the rough sea though the wind fairly howled—probably somewhere between 25 and 30 knots judging by the surface of the water. I felt calmer and more confident than ever and, I realised in the small moment I had to analyse my feelings, deeply happy.

But I wasn’t going to lie-to all afternoon, blissing out in a force six. I carefully lowered the mainsail, wrapped the cloth tightly round the yard and boom then made the package fast to the windward thole pins. (The oars were already in their strong-wind position, tied across the thwarts.) Then I shook the reefs out of the mizzen sail and hoisted it on the mainmast. I turned off the wind and away we hurtled again at seven and eight knots.

But the wind hadn’t finished rising yet and it wasn’t long before I lay-to again and put the reefs back in. With a mere 1.2 square metres of sail, as much cloth as you might find in the average pillow case, OB was comfortable a last. The tiller felt light again, although the boat still ran at 6 knots.

As I settled down to enjoy myself I noticed that clouds were gathering to the north. I remembered what Jaume had said about clouds, rain and the return of the Tramuntana and took the reefs out, urging us on. As the rain began the wind eased and backed to the east. I quickly reset the double-reefed main and put the mizzen back on its mast. 30 minutes later, now under full sail, the GPS marked a miserly three knots. The rain had stopped, just over a mile remained and the wind continued to fail, backing into the north. I started to row, just making three knots with the wind coming foul. But I could reach Cerbère on one tack and was determined to make port before the Tramuntana could gather its strength.

In the evening light I turned west round Cap Cerbère, stowed the sails and rowed into the harbour where I tied up alongside a medium sized RIB. At sea the white caps were racing south again.

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