Monday, August 25, 2008

You bring the weather with you

Remember that great song by Crowded House, You Bring the Weather with You? It pretty much applies to most of the sailing I’ve done during this summer of relentless thunderstorms. A couple of weeks ago we went out to try one of those funky Parasailor spinnakers, the one with the wing that extends in front of the kite and generates lift. The importer had flown up from Florida with this complicated sail and only had one day to show us how to use it, which is why we went sailing on the same day the Marblehead NOOD regatta was cancelled because of weather warnings.

We went out of Salem harbor early and found the wind was indeed blowing from the south, which put us on a lee shore and meant we wouldn’t have much room for error if we mucked things up with the kite. By the time we’d got ourselves sorted out and motored far enough upwind to have a reasonable run, it was blowing a good 20-25 knots under a hard gray sky. We only had time to do two spinnaker sets – one with the main up, one with the main down – which were actually pretty easy, on account of the well-designed snuffer the kite was packaged in.

Things went amazingly well. The kite was a monster, a bit too big for our 34-footer, and it filled instantly and dragged us off downwind at a hell of a pace. At times nudging 8 knots, the old girl was throwing out a serious quarter wave and starting to get a bit squirrelly while the kite wagged from side to side. I was impressed, though, with its docility; we would have been balancing on the edge of control with a conventional kite, but the Parasailor just seemed to shrug its broad shoulders and pull us along behind it. There’ll be more on this intriguing spinnaker in an upcoming issue of SAIL.

But we were talking about weather; no sooner had we got the kite down than our phones started ringing – anxious spouses passing on the weather alerts. . A band of thunderclouds sixty miles across was about to descend on us, allegedly bringing tornadoes and 50-mile-an-hour winds. When the going gets tough, the tough run for shelter. We picked up a mooring in the lee of an island and waited for the fun to begin.

As so often happens, the actuality didn’t live up to the possibility, and even though the sky looked as blue-black and threatening as anything I’ve seen, we got no more than 30-knot winds and torrential, horizontal rain. When it eased a little we motored the five miles home and repaired to a nice, cozy bar to dry out a little.

Fast-forward a week or so, to the Buzzard’s Bay regatta. Along with SAIL’s Managing Editor, Amy Ullrich, I was crewing on a sweet little Alerion Express 33 expertly helmed by Cape Yachts broker Rich Barker. We were there to check out the new Expressly For Fun class at the regatta. The EFF is a low-key class aimed at newcomers to racing; it was pioneered by the Huguenot Yacht Club on Long Island, where it is run as a pursuit race.

The BBR took a different approach, employing Tufts sailing coach Ken Legler to give the neophyte racers some hands-on instruction that started with a Friday seminar and escalated to on-the-water coaching off Marion on Saturday and Sunday. It was all hugely entertaining and we thoroughly enjoyed our two races on Saturday, in which the little Alerion showed a clean transom to the rest of the fleet.

As we started back towards Padanaram, the wind went light and on the nose so we reluctantly doused the sails and fired up the engine, thinking that we would outrun the predicted afternoon thunderstorm. Wrong. We were about to witness Murphy’s Law in its unadulterated, natural glory. The sky turned from blue to gray to purple to black, and as the wind ratcheted up through the teens and into the twenties we could see the front line of the rainsquall flattening the waves to the west. It hit fast, horizontal rain pelting us with a ferocity that I’m sure we didn’t deserve.

In the middle of the chaos a warning light blinked on and Rich immediately cut the engine. One-nil to Murphy. But hey, we’re sailors. With the 100 per cent jib out we jogged along at a respectable 6 knots, which was fine until the wind started to drop and our course was taking us closer to Cuttyhunk than Padanaram. It was time to hoist the mainsail, an easy job with the Alerion’s powered winches – until Murphy stepped in again, with the main half up, and threw in a nasty override in the self-tailer jaw (a first for me) that looked impossible to clear without the aid of a knife. There was just 12 inches between the winch and the main halyard’s rope clutch, not enough to even attempt to pull the main up by hand. We got out of it pretty easily though, by using the tail end of the jib halyard to tie a rolling hitch around the main halyard as close to the clutch as possible, and then using the other primary to pull the halyard a few more inches out of the clutch. Soon we had enough free halyard to clear the override, and up went the main.

As the sky slowly cleared we tacked towards Padanaram, fighting the tide as well as well the now fickle and fluky wind. We were off the harbor mouth when Rich decided to give the engine another try, and realized that what he’d thought was the low-oil light was in fact the alternator light. You’d never run an engine with no oil, but a non-functioning alternator is another matter. Soon we were purring up the harbor, sails flaked. The sun was low in the west, but hot, and wisps of steam rose from the shore. We’d certainly earned our cocktails, but I was more in the mood for a Guinness. Thanks, Murphy.

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