Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I Learned about sailing from that: Carrying the Mainsail Downwind Too Long

I apologize if you have seen this post before. It ended up with the wrong date in Google Reader, and therefore was invisible to anyone who uses that tool to see this blog. As a correction, I am re-posting it and deleting the old version
In 2004 we made a trip up to Desolation Sound. Because of the path we chose, we had to cross the Strait of Georgia at its Southern end, and then sail most of its length from South to North. The Strait of Georgia is a large body of water, and can experience some prodigious wind, which can produce significant wind-driven swell.

We will join our log, picking up the thread as we were leaving Silva Bay:

We were excited about crossing the Strait of Georgia.. we both woke up before the alarm, and it was set for 06:00. So we got off pretty early - the log shows 06:40. We motored out of Silva Bay and into the Strait, and found a 10 kt SE breeze. Great! We hoisted all the sails, but soon found that our course was forcing us to choose between the yankee and the mainsail - the main was blanketing the yankee, and it was impossible to keep it filled and stay on course. So we rolled up the yankee.

As the morning wore on, the wind built. It had been forecast as 10-15 kt, but those darn Canadians! After it went over 20 indicated, we had to get more sail off as the boat was getting severely overpowered... steering was becoming difficult. Clipped into the jackline, Jane went forward and gave a mighty effort. To no avail.
Now, Eolian's mainsail is 391 ft2- a 1XX lb woman is simply no match for it when it is full of 20 kt of wind. So - there we were - barreling up the Strait of Georgia, the mainsail winged out, too much sail on the boat and steering becoming more and more difficult. Driven by the rising wind,the swell was rising too, contributing to the steering problem.

What to do?

It was obvious that we needed to turn the boat into the wind to take the wind out of the main. But the swell was high enough now where that was becoming a risk in itself. Here's what we did: I started the engine so the prop thrust would make the turn as quick as possible. Then I tried to time the turn so that we would be most of the way around by the time we were seeing the next crest. This meant that we had to start the turn as a wave was beginning to pass under us.

It worked, more or less. It was a wild ride, but we didn't broach, we didn't dip the boom into the water, and Jane quickly got the main down (hooray for lazy jacks!). But the cabin was a mess. Lots of things got loose from their sea rails and found their way to the floor. Books, for example. It seems like most of the paperback books we had on board were on the floor. However, nothing was broken.
We finally dropped the sails (just the mizzen and stays'l... the two sails I have always regarded as somehow "extra" - and here they had powered us most of the day) and put into Ballet Bay, at the entrance to Jervis Inlet. Even there tho, the wind continued to plague us, swinging us back and forth on the anchor until very late.


  • Sailing downwind can be deceptive. Wind speeds are higher than they seem, and you can become lulled into a false sense of the real situation.
  • A mainsail full of wind cannot be dropped. A yankee can.
  • A strategic error was made early in the voyage when we dropped the yankee because it was being blanketed by the mainsail. We should have dropped the main.
  • Reduce sail early. It is easier to add sail in a dying wind that it is to get it off in a rising wind.
  • When to reduce sail? When the thought crosses your mind. If you are thinking about it, you probably should be doing it.

Years ago when I was a kid, I used to read Flying magazine. I particularly enjoyed a long-running series of articles entitled "I Learned About Flying From That." Each article was written by a pilot, who humbly admitted to having made a mistake, and then having lived, told about it in the hopes that others would not have to make the same mistake. I thought then that it was a good format, and I still think that now. This series of postings is my attempt to recreate that article series with a new subject and new technology.

(If you would like to help others to learn from your mistakes, please send your article to: WindborneInPugetSound at gmail dot com)


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