On the one hand such a trip seems an easy thing to do. Exit the West End channel, pick up a heading of 335 degrees true, stay on board for fifty hours or so. When land appears the trip is near over. We are often on board for days at a time, and we like sailing. We had already waited a day for the weather to settle down, and would have gladly waited more. (Is anyone ever in a hurry to leave the West End?) But the weather guessers agreed that the winds would be light though workable, the seas benign, and the window good for several days. Cruising means moving. It was time to move.
The main sail went up after we cleared West End but there was barely enough wind for it to hold a shape. That meant keeping the Beast in the traces. Unfortunate that, since Henry, our Cape Horn Wind Vane Steering System, only works when there is a true wind to work the vane. Wind provided by the Beast pushing the boat doesn't count so, when the Beast is at work, someone has to hand steer the boat.
Cruising boats absolutely need an auto-helm that works with both sails and the motor. It is a critical bit of missing equipment that we simply have to rectify during this summer's work. Don't even think of buying a cruising boat unless it has a fully capable auto-helm proven to work. That, or figure on digging up big bucks to add one.
We soldiered on through the day. Just before sunset we crossed paths with a small catamaran heading west. Her crew had changed their destination to Port Canaveral. They simply didn't carry enough fuel to get further north without wind. Kintala carries 80 gallons, which should be good for nearly 500 miles. We could, in theory, motor all the way to the St. Marys Entrance, though the crew would be toast long before then.
Normal precautions for night sailing on Kintala include the mandatory wearing of life vests and the use of tethers. No one goes out on deck unless the other person is up and at the helm, and we always put a reef in the mainsail if it is up at all. Should one reef already be in, we will put in the second. So we set the first reef and hoped for some wind. What we got instead was a large swell. Large, as in the tops were at eye level to the person sitting at the helm. A three foot swell in Forecast speak looks to be near eight feet in Kintala speak. It was enough to set up a throw-things-around-the-boat, gunwale to gunwale thrash that went on for hours. Shelves were emptied and I tried not to think about the load on the Beast, the drive train, and the rudder. This morning secured at anchor, we did a long, careful inspection of the machine spaces. The Beast needed a sip of oil, the steering cables needed a turn or two of tightening, and as a bonus we found the small water leak that has eluded capture for a couple of weeks. Other than that all appears to be ship-shape.
Come morning the seas had eased just a little. Deb worked the hardest through the night and was asleep on the cockpit floor. It is a secure place, like sleeping in a bath tub. Not the most comfortable but one can't fall out. (And you thought cruising was glamorous.) I wanted to let her rest some more, she had certainly earned it. But I was literally falling asleep STANDING at the helm, my toast completely burnt.
Around 1600, back at the helm and a little less burnt, I noticed the true wind had filled in to a constant ten knots on a workable point of sail. I woke Deb. We added the jib to the still reefed main and the sails finally found some purchase. The Beast went to sleep with a sigh. Even better than the silence was Henry taking over the steering duties. Thirty-two hours in and we were finally free to move about the cabin. Having pushed through a bad night it was time to enjoy the magic of passage making. We were feeling pretty good about things, but it was too good to last.
A reefed main and jib are a modest sail combo for less than 20 knots worth of wind, but the swells returned, setting the jib to flogging its little fabric heart to death with each passing trough. We (I) tried to set the pole, but a badly sleep deprived deck monkey and a wildly gyrating deck are a poor match. Abandoning the attempt before anything, or anyone, got broken, we ended up rolling in the jib and setting the main far out to starboard riding a preventer. That is an unusual sail set for Kintala. With the wind well aft of the beam we almost always fly the jib alone. The boat likes it. Henry likes it. And, truth to tell, I like it. All work on the mainsail is done forward standing on the cabin top or hanging onto the boom. It is a big sail, deeply roached and fully battened. Just the thought of it getting out of control is enough to make the skin crawl. But with a gentle breeze filling just part of the sail, a breeze forecast to fade by morning, there should have been nothing exciting creeping up on us.
Remember what I said about putting in a second reef at night if one was already in? Yeah, well, I should have remembered it myself. It was after midnight. Deb was at the helm once again and I was asleep on the cockpit floor. I think Deb and the motion of the boat both woke me up at the same time. The 7 to 11 knots of wind had turned into more than 30 in the space of just a few seconds, clocking to provoke a crash jibe, preventer or no. What happened next was every adventure story teller's dream come true, and every middle aged coastal cruiser's nightmare. Even though I was there, I can't really describe what happened. Included in the melee was a back winded stay sail with a sheet jammed in a block, tangled with a wayward reefing line. In there somewhere the starboard rail was deep under water, Kintala dangerously over powered, with me hanging head down across the cabin top tangled in heap of life vest, tether, and flogging sheets. I was out there trying to free the preventer that was tangled in a rat's nest of its own. Then there is this hazy bit of standing on the dink pulling down a thundering main sail one armful at a time.
Eventually, like coming out of a bad dream, I realized the stay sail was set and pulling, the main was tied in a heap on top of the boom, and the baby stay was secured. Somehow we got it done without broaching, ripping a sail to bits, tossing the deck monkey (that would be me) over board, or breaking any bones. Adrenaline-charged and spray soaked, I crawled back into the cockpit not entirely sure what had just happened. But we were safe and sailing, making a steady five knots toward the St. Marys channel entrance, with an estimated time of arrival some nine hours in the future.
Those nine hours were the only enjoyable part of the 50+ hour sail. I was just too exhausted and beat up to fully appreciate them. Still, even in that fragile state of mind that often comes with a serious thrashing, I was content with the decisions we had made and our ability to deal with the conditions. Every single weather guesser had missed the swell of the first night and the wind gusts of the second night. I was out there and those 30 knot winds blew in from a perfectly clear, moonlit sky. There were no clouds, frontal boundaries, dry lines, or developing lows to portend the burst of energy that washed over the bit of ocean we were in. The barometer was up and stayed up. The air was cool and dry and stayed cool and dry. But something tickled the sky and set it to thrashing. Kintala was just in a bad place when it happened, with the wrong sail set and a very tired crew. (Never again will I fly the main sail, particularly at night, when one of the head sails will get the job done.)
We had hoped that Fernandina would be a nice place to regroup, gather some provisions, get fuel and a pump-out, find time for some sleep, and get back our definition of normal. But it hasn't worked out that way. In the middle of last night we had to up and move the boat. Somehow we were too close to another anchored boat, the competing winds and currents had us stretched out on our rode in one direction, the other boat facing its anchor from a different direction. The cold front forecast to mostly wash out and amount to little has brought with it 30 knot winds and painted the anchorage with white caps. Compared to the Islands this place is dingy, the water murky, and the air smelly and cold. As soon as we get the chance, Kintala will be heading back outside and on the move once again.
So there may be a bit of blue water sailor in us after all.