Monday, January 26, 2009

The best bad idea...

...I've had in a while. Or maybe it was the worst good idea. Either way I spent a good chunk of the day sailing a 50 foot Cat in the ocean. I found one of those tourist type party boat companies, the ones where they load up 50 or so, ply on the drinks, crank up the music, and pretend to go "sailing." In reality they spend most of their time motoring around the bay, peering at homes of the rich and famous, and hanging out at a beech.

But instead of 50 there were only 5 of us, and two of those were the crew; Captain Larry and new Captain Noah. When I arrived at the slip Larry, Noah and two other guys were welding up a broken stanchion in preparation for a Coast Guard inspection. Before you know it I was kind of a part of the gang just working on the boat. Work done and equipment put away it was decided that we should go on a short sail anyway, even if it was just me. (Normally they don't go with less than 5 paying passengers on board.) At the last moment a woman and her daughter showed up but they were not really interested in the "tourist" thing either. So we slipped the lines and headed straight for the Atlantic. Five minutes out of the slip, in the middle of the ICW with boats of all kinds going in all directions, Capt. Larry offered me the helm. He didn't get it back for nearly four hours.

We timed our motoring to reach the 17th street draw bridge for the on-the-half-hour opening. I learned the procedure for checking in on the radio and got my first look at an open draw bridge from the helm of a boat. Going through we cozied up to a power boat in front of us. Working the helm with twin throttles under my right hand actually felt kind of natural and judging the energy state of the boat was the same as what I do in the jet. Things just happened a little slower.

It got a little bouncy after we cleared the bridge and turned east into both the harbor channel and the breeze. Hoisting the main was a two man job; big freaking sail on a 50 foot Cat! The jib was on a roller so setting it was a matter of pulling on one rope. Clear the channel we turned north on a broad reach, set the sails and watched the speed build to nearly 9 knots in the 12 - 15 knot ocean wind. The waves were running 3 to 4 feet and for the first time in my life I had the helm of a sailboat in saltwater.

Impressions? I set the sails on the Cat just like we do on Nomad, the only real difference is the rigging being much more robust on the bigger boat. The self tacking head sail made changing headings mostly a matter of turning the helm. But leaving the head sale to its own devices when tacking though the wind meant giving away nearly all of our momentum. It helps if one backs the jib a little, letting it push the bow through the maneuver. We do the same on Nomad. Mind you, watch for the boom and main sail sheet while doing all this. Nomad's boom will put you in the water in a heartbeat. I think this big Cat could launch you into next week.

The Cat certainly takes the waves with a different motion than the mono-hull; stiffer in some ways with a quicker lateral motion instead of an easy roll. But there is not a doubt in my mind, at least on this day with nearly perfect winds, Deb and I could have easily two-handed the big Cat out on the ocean. I make no claim of doing so in 15 foot waves and 30 knot winds, or of getting in and out of Ft. Lauderdale's commercial harbor without some help. That place reminded me of Chicago's O'Hare on a busy afternoon.

As the day was ending and I was working us back into the channel, winds and waves now squarely on the twin sterns, the Captain asked me how much ocean experience I had.

"How long have we been out?" was all I could think to say. This morning I had none. Tonight I have some. That's a pretty good day and made this a good idea. But it was sure hard to step back on the dock knowing it might be a long, long time before I get to do such a thing again.

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