Weather Helmed

an adventure in renewing the spirit and living the dream…on a sailboat

Weather Helmed

Wind and waves and …. remind me again why we’re doing this??!?!

March 15th, 2010 · 7 Comments · First Mates, Introspection, Learning to Sail, Life on the Boat, Mexico, Our Route, Passages, The beginning

Matt and I have read books and articles about cruising and have tried to talk to those who have gone before us.  I have searched the web for cruising blogs and forums and Matt has consulted various websites on his own.  Not one of the resources we’ve come across has ever mentioned how horribly uncomfortable and downright miserable downwind sailing can be in certain conditions.  The “classic” fair-weather cruiser generally experiences 5-10 knots of wind with minimal swell.  In this situation, one can safely throw up a spinnaker or other light-air sail, or even fly double headsails for a sweet, balanced, gently lulling ride.  When the wind kicks up and the swell increases or gets too jumbled up, downwind sailing can be awful.

And by “awful” I mean that the CIA could use it to torture terrorists.

We, as (bad) luck would have it, endured said torturous conditions for almost half of our 9 day passage down Baja California from Ensenada to La Cruz, Mexico.  For FOUR DAYS straight, the wind ranged from 20-30 knots all day, with a 15 foot swell interspersed with choppy short-period wind waves.

The boat would.not.stop.rocking.

A gentle rocking would quickly escalate to violent pitching back and forth.  You’d stand up in the salon, only to be thrown back onto the settee, legs swinging up over your head.  Cooking on the stove was an adventure.  While the stove/oven is gimbaled and your pots and pans are ok, try stirring your leftover pasta while stretched full-body across the galley, feet braced against the cabinets, hands grasping for something else to hold onto, while the boat rocks and roll beneath you.  And sleeping?!?!?!  Sleeping in this environment is almost impossible.  Not only does the motion of the boat make   you want to shoot yourself (think the worst head-spinning hangover you’ve ever had times ten), but the NOISE is unreal.

When the boat heels opposite its proper tack, the sails collapse and the sheets slap wildly against the deck.  Everything in your cabinets slides and rolls frantically, banging against the doors and each other.  Seconds later, the wind and waves knock the boat back to the other side and the sails fill with a cracking BOOM! as they pull taut. Everything in your cabinets rushes back to their original places. Wires and ropes inside the mast start flapping around, causing that portion of the mast in the salon to sound like a discordant orchestra. Floorboards creak loudly, scupper drains whisper secrets through the hull, and even the tiniest flutter is magnified down below.  Potentially the most difficult of all to endure, though, is the horrific sounds of the sea as heard in the cabin.

Early one morning, I awoke to the ocean waging a war against our hull.  The image that instantly came to mind was of a circus trainer standing up on two horses, straddling their backs, as he galloped at full speed, chased by hurricane force winds, while being fired upon on all sides by heavy artillery.  Seriously.  it sounded as though Syzygy was hurtling through the waves, under full attack.  Imagine my surprise when I went on deck to find the boat barely moving, just gently getting pushed around by some waves.  Yet, I had been convinced that there was a full-blown gale trying to take us down.  It’s astounding how different the world can seem when you’re down below.

The constant, uncomfortable motion of the boat definitely takes a toll on one’s emotions.  Ok, namely MY emotions and my sanity.  Matt somehow found a way to be productive on the boat, working on all kinds of projects, washing his face, reorganizing the lockers…  He says it was the coffee.  Whatever it was, it made me feel like a real wimp when it was all I could do to change my socks.  I refused to cook any meals for the better part of the passage because I just didn’t have the mental strength to negotiate the stove/oven and the icebox while trying to not break a leg or bash my head against a cabinet.  I think I wore the same underwear for a week because taking off all my layers, even while sitting down, was just too much.

The day when the boat finally.stopped.rocking. and we had less swell and more consistent winds was almost the best day of my life.  For sure, it was one of the best days of the passage.  Pretty much this whole sailing thing got significantly better around day 6.  Of course, after the initial relief of having calm seas, we sighed heavily when we realized the wind had died for good and we had to motor halfway across the Sea of Cortez and all the way into La Cruz.  (I say “had to motor” because God knows if we had rocked and rolled and bounced around for much longer, I would have gone on some psychopath killing spree and Matt probably wouldn’t have been too happy about that).

I am SO PROUD of us for making it through nine whole days of offshore sailing, though, seeing as how we went from 0-60 overnight:  Prior to this, the longest passage we had done on the boat was three days, with crew, and the longest passage Matt and I had done on our own was only an overnight!  And, more than that, after those 9 long days at sea, we still love each other and want to spend time together.  🙂    (I do have to say, though, that aside from “How’s the wind?” the most frequently used phrase on the boat has been “I’m sorry.”)

There was one day when we had really fun conditions.  We had about 20 knots of wind and high seas and the boat was speeding along.  One of the great things about sailing downwind is that you can surf the waves as they gently lift you up and then fall away beneath you.  Because of the amount of weatherhelm on the boat, neither of our self-steering devices was strong enough to keep the boat from rounding up into the wind each time the boat came off a wave.  So, Matt took over the helm and had a huge grin on his face as he surfed Syzygy over the sea, reaching speeds up to over 13 knots.  When he needed to go down below to get a weatherfax, he asked me to take over the wheel.  I was a little nervous, but it wasn’t the first time I’d sailed like this, so I assumed command.

As I’m standing up there, feeling the rudder and the boat moving beneath me, the wind blowing my hair in my face, my body shifting back and forth as I counteract the boat’s weatherhelm…..  I think to myself, “WHO IS THIS PERSON!?!?!?!?!”

Who is this woman out here in the middle of the ocean, steering a BOAT in 20+ knots of wind, totally unafraid, and feeling like it’s the most natural thing in the world for her to do??

Who am I???

And, what’s kind of exciting, is that I don’t really know anymore.

I did know going into this adventure that we would probably be meeting a lot of cruisers and getting to know so many other people…. but I never thought one of them might be myself.

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Nikki

    Amen Sister. Age may be my high seas….. I’m right there with you.

  • eydie

    Hi ho Silver – ridem cowboy

  • Stephanie Preskitt

    Karen, I feel all that you are saying…I worked on an Albacore boat which only cruised between Santa Barbara and Monterey and I was the Galley Cook! First tip: SECURE ALL KNIVES! I had a big fillet knife come at me and I ducked just in time but it stuck in the wall! We had this material on all the counters and in the cupboard that resembled a lacy puffy kind of spongy liner but it kept things from flying around as much. I got it at smart and final and it really worked. Tip 2: Be careful in the shower in that kind of weather really be careful you could fall. Have you gotten the sensation yet of getting off the boat onto land and feel your body still rolling with the swells? It’s even worse in a shower on land so be careful there too! Have fun and keep you posts coming!

  • Lara

    Glad to hear you guys made it through the 9-day adventure. 13 knots – wow! I have a little stash of dramamine in case we face any conditions like what you described in the beginning of the post. I am fine up top, but there is no way I could cook down below with that much rocking!

  • Amy

    reading your post made me seasick… 🙂

  • Jodi

    What a character building experience to say the least. The descriptions you send over the computer are amazing!

  • Scott

    Hi Karen, Great post! You’re bring us right along on your adventure. We met up with Jon in Denver. He’s so psyched to join you guys. Cheers

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