Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sailing in Extreme Weather

There have been some extreme weather systems around the coast of South Africa in the past week or two. The weather around this very inhospitable coast, from Cape of Good Hope (aka Cape of Storms) through to Richards Bay, teaches the locals to be very hardy sailors who are able to handle their boats in sometimes wild conditions. This is justifiably one of the three Great Capes of the world and many circum-navigators tell of their passages through these waters being the most scary periods of their voyaging.

The first storm was from a deep depression and cold front that had come in from deep down in the South Atlantic. It hit the Cape Town area and produced very intense gales and heavy rain, unfortunately not enough to break the long-lasting drought that currently plagues the Western Cape.

The other storm was from a cut-off low in the Indian Ocean off Durban, 1000 miles from the first storm. It produced gales that broke numerous large ships free in the port, with a large container ship lying broadside across the entrance channel. It also wrecked the marinas in the yacht basin, with some yachts sinking on their moorings.

Two boats of our design sailed through these two storms. Both were in the hands of very capable skippers. Survival of any boat and crew in extreme conditions is through the partnership between a capable boat and an equally capable crew. Put the most seaworthy boat in the hands of an inexperienced or irresponsible skipper and that good boat may be doomed. On the other hand, a capable and experienced skipper has the best chance of bringing an inadequate vessel through tough conditions.

The yacht in the first storm was the steel Dix 38 Pilot "Spailpin" (ex "Bryana"), on delivery by Jeremy Bagshaw. Jeremy and wife Anita own the bigger sister Dix 43 Pilot "Jerrycan" and have sailed many thousands of miles in her in the Indian Ocean. Jeremy has written of his experience in this storm on his blog entry titled Some Thoughts on Big Weather.
Dix 38 Pilot "Spailpin" in much calmer waters under her previous owner.
The yacht in the storm off Durban  was the fibreglass Shearwater 39 "Ocean Spirit". Her owner, Neville Bransby, was out sailing on her in that storm by choice, single-handed. He wanted to prove himself and his boat in storm conditions. He did that effectively, losing only his anemometer in the process, when it blew off the masthead. Meanwhile, the catamaran moored right next to his normal berth sank on its moorings. You can read of it in a blog post authored by Richard Crockett, titled A Case of Sound Seamanship.
Shearwater 39 "Ocean Spirit" racing between Durban and Port Elizabeth in less extreme conditions.
All of us who go to sea in small boats have to accept the strong chance that sooner or later we will be caught by extreme weather. That chance goes up with every mile that we sail. If we sail trans-ocean or long coastal passages with safe havens separated by miles of rocky coast then we have to know how to handle our boats to come safely through whatever it is that is being thrown at us by Mother Nature in a foul mood. We cannot learn how to handle these conditions only by reading how in books and magazine articles while snug in a soft armchair next to a winter fire. We have to experience these things to know what we need to do to safeguard boat and crew, to have confidence in the abilities of ourselves and our boats.

I don't mean that you must go sailing in the meanest weather that can come your way, I mean that you must not only sail on those idyllic days when it is all sunshine and cocktails on flat seas. Those conditions teach us nothing, unless we are novices just getting into sailing. If you have plans to sail across oceans or offshore coastal then you really have a need to go sailing in 35 knots, to know that your reefing systems work in strong winds, that you know how to set your storm jib and storm tri-sail, that your jackstays allow free movement from bow to stern while always tethered in your safety harness, that you know what your boat likes if you have to heave-to or lie ahull, how it will behave, how fast it will drift or at what speed and direction it will sail under different sail combinations.

There are so many things to be learned by doing this, things that will stay logged in your brain as experience rather than knowledge, to be called into use with confidence when needed.

Lets go sailing but lets also be safe.

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