Leaving Antigua, W. I.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Season's End

“The wind howled in the rigging like a chorus from hell until her head went underwater.  There was a hollow silence as Dani held her breath and braced her feet against the bulwark; she maintained a death-like grip on the handrail as she waited for the wave to recede.  When it did, she snatched another breath and resumed her crablike progress along the windward side deck toward the bow, taking care not to tangle her feet in the tether to her harness.  She timed her movements to the rhythmic rise and fall of Vengeance as the overpowered yacht crashed through the storm-tossed seas.

As she paused again to wait for the deck to shed the knee-deep water from the next breaking wave, she spared a glance back at the cockpit to check on Liz.  Satisfied that her partner had the helm under control, she inched her way forward again.  It was a rule of nature that sail changes always happened at the worst times, usually in the wee hours of the morning, but this predicament was the result of her own impatience.  She knew better than to trust a weather forecast this time of year, particularly when heading north from the tropics, and she had known there was a problem with the headsail furling system before they set out.”
These are the first two paragraphs of my latest novel.  Most of us who have sailed much in open water have had the experience of reducing sail in stormy weather.  That’s also when we discover weaknesses in our equipment and our technique.  I just wrote those paragraphs a few months ago, sitting aboard Play Actor as she rode placidly at anchor in the calm water of Simpson Bay Lagoon in St. Martin.
We left St. Martin on May 25, prepared to beat into a 15 knot east wind to St. Barths, 15 miles away.  It took us four hours to reach Anse Columbier in St. Barths, thanks to the usual foul current, but the trip was uneventful.  We spent a relaxing afternoon and evening, resting for the long day from St. Barths to Antigua.  It’s a little over 70 nautical miles, and we have made the trip in as little as 12 hours when conditions were just right.  More typically, we take about 14 hours, given that there’s often a foul current holding us back for about half of the trip.  If we leave at dawn, we usually arrive at Jolly Harbour, Antigua, a little after dark.  The wind was forecast to back to the northeast over night, which would make for almost ideal conditions.  Optimistic about tomorrow’s sail, we went to bed early, noting that the wind was already backing around as we dropped off to sleep.
When we got clear of the wind shadow of the island of St. Barths on the morning of the 26th, we discovered that the wind had indeed backed to slightly north of east, but it had also weakened to the point where we would have a slow trip.  Eager to get to Antigua and begin the process of laying Play Actor up for the hurricane season, we decided to motor-sail with the main and staysail.  There was enough wind to help counteract the effects of the westerly setting current, and the sails contributed stability in the somewhat confused seas.  We were having a pleasant trip, passing through occasional rain showers that lasted for a few minutes but had no effect on the wind.
Late in the afternoon, we passed into another shower which did have some 40 to 50 knot winds.  We had the first reef in the main already, as that’s our normal motor-sailing configuration.  Based on the previous showers, we decided to ride the wind shift for a few minutes in the hope that the wind would abate.  If it didn’t, then we would reduce sail.  We were both tired at that point, so taking another reef in the main for what we expected to be a few minutes of squally wind wasn’t attractive.  The wind continued to build in gusts, blowing the tops from the already confused waves.  Play Actor is what’s called a ‘wet’ boat in heavy seas.  She sits low in the water and provides a smooth, stable ride, but under conditions like these, windblown seas wash over the deck.  We decided to take that second reef.  Leslie was wearing a foul weather coat from the last shower, but I had been below decks since then and left my coat there.  Since I was already soaked, I opted to go forward to the mast and reduce sail.
I clipped a tether to my harness and started forward along the windward deck.  Once I reached the mast, I locked my legs around it, holding myself in position against the wild motion of the boat as the wind drove her leeward rail under.  We had released the main sheet, so the sail was fluttering in the wind, making a deafening racket as the waves washed over me periodically.  I thought about Dani taking down her big Yankee jib as I tied in the reef with the speed and skill born of long practice.
Wet and cold by now, I made my way back to the cockpit and sheeted in our now much smaller main.  As Leslie began to come up on our course line, I first saw and then heard the rip of canvas as the main tore near the reef cringle at the juncture of the mast and boom.  I eased the sheet and Leslie fell off the wind, reducing the load on the main as I went forward to drop it before it was damaged beyond repair.   I repeated my crablike scramble up to the mast and dropped the sail.  The wind continued to howl and fight my efforts to get the unruly, wet sail bundled up along the boom.  Without the wind resistance of the main, the motion of the boat became ever more erratic.  My focus narrowed accordingly.  Hands, feet, arms, legs, the boom, and the next handful of slippery, wet canvas.  Those things became my entire world for what seemed like hours.  I finally had the sail roughly folded along the boom, and the boom centered and lashed down in its gallows.
I crawled back to the cockpit and got in position to trim the staysail as Leslie revved up the diesel and brought us back to a course hard on the wind.  The wind had subsided to about 20 knots, but it had also clocked.  It was blowing directly from our destination.  We were 20 miles from Antigua; we resigned ourselves to several more hours of beating directly into the wind with the engine and the staysail – something we’ve done before, but not one of our favorite points of sail.
“How long did that take?” I asked.
“About three minutes,” Leslie said.
“It seemed longer…”  I was experiencing mild hypothermia by now, clumsy and disoriented.  Leslie sent me below to dry off and warm up.
I recovered in 30 minutes or so and put on my foul weather coat, returning to the cockpit to discuss our situation with Leslie.  Our main is old – 34 years old – which to most sailors is ancient beyond belief.   We would need to fix it to get us to a good place to buy a replacement when we came back to the boat after hurricane season.  It’s been patched many times.  It started as the very highest quality sail that money could buy, but it’s finally reaching the end of its life.  We had already decided to replace it the next time it gave us a problem.  That would be now.
We’re safely in Antigua, beginning to ready Play Actor for her summer vacation.  We patched the main one more time yesterday; we’ll use it next fall to get us back to St. Martin, where we’ll  take advantage of the duty free port to order a new main from Lee Sails in Hong Kong , the makers of our current, battle-scarred but still functional sails.


  1. I love your blog Charles!! And I have to say you are getting me excited to pick up one of your books this summer for a wet and wild read! After all blue is my favorite color, and water is my favorite sport. Keep blogging and I look forward to your next installment!

  2. Thanks, KJ! How's your book coming?

  3. Just finished your book - enjoyed it very much. It is my ambition to buy a yacht once the house sells and participate in a similar life-style. Got to make the "leap" soon as year 67 is fast approaching.

  4. Good luck with the "leap." Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you enjoyed the book -- which one was it?

  5. Nice read crawling around on deck in heavy seas is definitely like that.