Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Getting Knocked Down - A Response to Bad Weather 222 Sept 2007

A reader responded to my offer to tell of a knockdown and asked to hear our story.  Our story is even more important following the deaths of two sailors during the Chicago to Mackinaw race in Lake Michigan, our home body of water that we cut our teeth on and eventually logged over 20,000 miles in.  Lake Michigan, or any of the Great Lakes really aren't lakes - they are inland seas.  Lake Superior is known for it's fall storms of tremendous fury that last for days most often remembered in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  These fall storms come to Lake Michigan also, but most recreational boating is over by then.  The danger of Lake Michigan is in the summer Thunderstorm.  Every weekend the weather service puts out warnings of possible thunderstorms on the water.  If you are going to sail Lake Michigan, you are going to eventually run into a storm.   It began as a calm day, the returning final day of a four day extended sailing weekend.  We had all our sail up and were moving just enough to maintain steerage.  It was so hazy, that even though we were only several miles from our next stop, White Lake, we could barely see the harbor entrance, like being stuck in a high school shower room.  Our only warning was a soft, low rumble that seemed to come from right over us.  I was acting captain at the helm, so I called preparations for wind and the girls and Deb went below and we put the companionway boards in and closed the hatch.  Our boat at the time, an older model Catalina 27 is now considered a heavy boat.  The only weakness against the Cat 27 crossing oceans is the cavernous companionway opening that is just begging for a big wave to swamp the boat.  Our first step in trouble was always to close that weakness up.  Rachael and I stayed above, clipped on our harnesses and furled our big Genoa which was just hanging limp as the wind had completely died.  I felt sorry for my wife below in this muggy heat as Rachael went to the mast to begin lowering the main.  WHAM !!!!!! It was like the entire sky fell on us.  I have been in verified 70MPH winds and this wind made 70MPH feel like good kite weather.  Our keel was completely out of the water, our spreaders and main were in the water and all 7000lbs of our sailboat was literally skipping along the water sideways.  Rachael was right next to me and could not understand me even if I yelled.   We pulled out our sea drogue and Rachael monkey crawled to the bow with our double clipped tether, clipping and unclipping alternating clips as she moved on our nearly vertical deck.  She tried throwing the drogue to windward and in doing so stuck her head over the narrow bow and into the wind.  She had her hair in a bun and as soon as she was in the wind it undid the bun, and tore out the tie holding her hair in place.   I will forever have the image of Rachael struggling with our Sea Anchor/Drogue and her hair streaming perfectly horizontal from her head like it was being tugged on by some invisible presence.  Rachael figured out that she was only going to get the drogue in the water by throwing it downwind and finally got it to fill with water.  It was as if we had been a bucking bronco subdued by a lasso.  Our boat swung bow to the wind, righted itself and even though the wind was screaming through the rigging, the water was actually being blown flat.  Less than a minute later the wind completely died again.  I checked our GPS.  In five minutes, we had gone just under 1 nautical mile.  The storm crawled its way up the dunes and left us sitting becalmed, hearts pounding.  I really feel for the families of the two sailors that died.  I have heard a lot of nonsense about the excessive risk they took sailing when they did.  I was back in West Michigan last winter and one of the biggest culture shocks I had to re adapt to was the incredible speeds we all push our little tins with wheels.  These two deaths are the first in the 100 plus years of the race.  I wonder if an 300 mile automobile race that ran for over 100 years could claim that safety record?  This brings me to my final point.  We don't sail in a race boat.  Our Catalina 27 is considered a heavy boat compared to what is called a modern sailboat coming off the assembly line - but our Bristol Channel is only three feet longer but weighs three times as much.  Over 22,000 lbs.  Everything is built at least twice as strong as it needs to be.  Not to say that it is immune to the sea in any way.  We just are not sailing in a boat that we are pushing to the limit.  We sail like big chickens that reduce sail or heave to immediately and use ALL the safety gear that we have (and practice with and know how to use that safety gear).   If you want to go fast, you have to start making things lighter, and sails and rigging taller.  The modern thought is that with professional weather routers (which we heartily recommend) and a fast boat you can avoid bad weather.  We don't buy it. Bad weather will eventually find you.  Prepare for it. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It's very important to use a instrument to measure wind speed while and before sailing. Nothing is more precious than life.So it should be nurtured and saved in every situation.