Three Sheets to the Wind

I've been a bad blogger lately.  It's been a couple of weeks since I last posted anything.  I could go on about how I've been oh so busy, but we're all busy, right?  So it's a lame excuse, I know.

I will tell you this much - I believe in signs.  Omens.  That kind of thing.  I believe that God/The Universe/Providence/Fate (you can choose whichever label you prefer to package the concept in) will give us signs that point us towards our personal destiny.  Does that put me in the category politely termed "Eccentrics"?  Maybe.  I really don't mind.  All I know is the more I look for signs, the more I find them.  So that's what I've been doing these last few weeks - following signs and working towards my personal destiny.  I'll let you know how it goes  ;)

In the meantime, how about another sailing post?   I know I've been plastering my blog with sailing posts this summer, but can you stand just one more?  I promise it will be the last sailing post of the season and it's a real doozy.

Before I begin, I have to warn you that this story contains some nautical terminology so I'd like to first give you a brief lesson so you can make sense of my story.  I know it's asking a lot from you, but bear with me.  I'll try to make it short and painless.  Here goes:

Main sail - the triangular sail that is attached to the mast.  The bottom of the sail is attached to a metal pole called the boom.
Jib sail - the sail attached to the front of the boat.
Main sheet - the rope that attaches the end of the boom to the cockpit.  When the main sheet is pulled in tight, the sail is pulled in to the middle of the boat, and when the main sheet is let out, the sail swings out to the side of the boat.
Jib sheets - two ropes attached to the free corner of the jib sail that run back either side of the boat to the cockpit where they are tightened or loosened and work much like the main sheet.
Halyard - the rope which run up the mast and raises or lowers the sail.
Port - left / also a place for boat docking.
Starboard - right

Okay?  Still with me?    Good!  Because this story is quite a ride!  Trust me - I was there!

Three Sheets to the Wind

Being novice sailors, we entered a race the other weekend with the personal goal of actually crossing the finish line before timing out.

Throughout the very long race with barely any wind, we could hear thunder rolling off in the distance and saw an angry purple cloud bank forming upwind of us.  We were in last place and the other boats had finished the race and returned to port.  The wind was picking up and the finish line was getting closer and closer - but so was the storm front.  It wasn't a race against the other boats, it was a race against the storm.

We were coming in downwind, with a the main sail out full to starboard and the jib sail out wide to port.  Going downwind is always slow sailing, and it was taking forever.  I kept looking over my shoulder at the approaching storm clouds then glancing ahead at the finish line.  We considered playing it safe and lowering our sails, but we were closing in on the finish line and determined to cross it. 

The wind started to pick up.  We went from travelling at one knot, to two knots to four knots to five until we were absolutely flying towards the finish line with the storm front nipping at our heels.  We reached our fastest speed ever of  five and a half knots as we sped across the line.  And then the gale-force winds hit.  

We were heading quickly for shore and needed to come about.  Dan tried to pull in the main sail, but the wind was too strong.  It caught the main sheet and carried it whipping and bucking into the wind with only the knotted end still caught in the cleat.  The sail was pressed back against the spreaders, as full as it could be.  We had to get turned into the wind so we could bring down our sails.  Dan turned the rudders and we started to come about to port, but as soon as we were broadside to the wind it hit with a furry that threatened to capsized us.  We were heeled over as far as I ever want to experience again.  I threw myself against the high side, bracing my feet against the side of the cockpit bench.  The deck was nearly perpendicular to the water and I saw the mast tilted over at a crazy angle.  Normally, the boat will correct herself and round up into the wind but the force of the wind was too strong.  I'll admit, I had a moment when I though, "this is it, we're going down."

But I pushed my fear down and focused instead on what we needed to do to save ourselves.

"We have to roll up the jib!"  I shouted over the wind to Dan, who was at the helm.  He grabbed the line & pulled.  Nothing happened - there was just too much wind in the sail.  I grabbed a hold of the rope and together we were able to wind it a couple of turns around but then it jammed.  That's when I understood what I had to do - I let loose the jib sheets and let the jib sail fly free.  The sheets immediately took flight, bouncing and flying through the air and the sail was whipping back and forth like a flag in a hurricane.  So there we were - three sheets to the wind (now you know where that expression comes from).  It was a strange feeling, relinquishing all control of the sail to the wind, but it immediately rounded us back up to a more acceptable heel.

Dan leaned over the back of the boat and quickly yanked the pull start on the outboard motor.  With the motor running he was able to get us turned us into the wind and pulled the main sail in tight.  But the sail kept filling with wind and knocking us from side to side.  The lake had turned into a washing machine and we were being bounced around like crazy.

"Grab the boom cradle!"  he yelled.

I jumped down to the cabin below, retrieved the metal stick that the boom rests on, and tried to get it in place.  But we were being tossed around so badly, I couldn't get it into the hole and Dan had to put his hands around it and help.  With the boom cradle in place, we tried to secure the boom on top of it, but it just kept jumping and bouncing off it.  Grabbing hold of the boom with one hand and the steering wheel with the other, Dan tried to hold the boat steady into the wind while I tackled the daunting task of securing the billowing main sail into submission.

It did NOT want to lower!  It was whipping fiercely from side to side and I had to muscle it into submission, grabbing handful after handful of canvas, fighting and pulling it down as it fiercely struggled to fill with wind and blow out of my arms.    

I got the end corner gathered in my arms then used a bungee cord to tie the sail to the boom.  I continued working this way up the boom towards the mast, muscling the sail into submission as I advanced.  Once at the mast, the sail made it's last attempt at freedom and refused to lower any further.  With the top corner of the sail still part way up the mast, I knew it would fill with wind as soon as we altered our course, so I grabbed the last bungee, bunched the sail up tightly and attempted to secure it around the mast.  But by this time, I had used every ounce of strength in my arms and fingers.  My hands shook and I'd lost all dexterity in my fingers.  It took several attempts and much determination to hook the ends together, but I managed to subdue the sails.  

From the first hit of the gale until I had the sails subdued took only three, maybe four minutes.  All that time, Dan had been gunning the engine, struggling to keep the boat into the wind.  If he veered off even a little, the sail would have caught the wind and the boom would have swung around, knocking me off the boat.  He did a great job - but it wasn't over yet - he still had to get us through the channel which was rolling and swirling and heaving with the most confused water I've ever seen.  Panic was ensuing amongst the powerboats who were all trying to get off the lake as quick as possible.  Some threw common courtesy to the wind, not waiting their turn but racing ahead of others.  Others came in much too fast.  A wave hit us broadside, almost swamping us, but Dan manoeuvred us through it.  Then past the south pier, into the river, and a giant sigh of relief.

We must have looked like quite a sight as we came limping into port!  Our jib sheets were wound and tangled together around the main halyard making a knot the size of a basketball.  A length of the main halyard had flown off the boat and was bouncing along on the waves.  Our jib sail was half unfurled and flapping loose.  Our main sail was half-masted and crudely bunched up and tied to the boom and mast.  And us?  We must have looked a fright!  Dan's hair was standing up on end and mine had blown loose from my clip and hanging in my eyes but I lacked the strength to reach up and brush it away.  I'm sure we had the stunned and distinctive look of people who had just battled the sea and were surprised to have won.

As we pulled into our slip, a fellow sailor was waiting to offer a hand and pass us our lines.  I will never forget the concerned and questioning look on his face.

"It was a battle between us and the storm," I said by way of explanation.

"Ah..." he said, "but you won."

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  1. Holy Crap! That is precisely why I do not sail! Now, to Hubs, that was just an exciting tale that he would love to have been a part of. Me, no thank you...I could hardly read it! LOL

    Oh, and the signs? Yep, me too. And I think it's those who don't believe in them who are crazy!

  2. BodaciousboomerSeptember 13, 2011

    Better you than me on a sailboat my young friend. They give me a case of the uneasyzeeeeees.

  3. I believe in signs too.... without them my life would not have been half as fun as it has been till now. I do the same, I follow signs.

    And I'm glad you do too :)

  4. I believe in signs but I don't know what they are saying most of the time... so it gets a little confusing!

  5. I used to sail. That story scares the crap out of me.

  6. It scared the crap out of me too! But the truth is, we were in no real danger - even if the boat capsized, it wouldn't sink and we could have hung on until rescued or swam in the warm waters to the nearby shore.

  7. Oh! Don't let my story scare you away from sailing! It was our own fault we were caught in weather like that - we certainly had enough warning.

  8. Hmm.....I think if you don't understand a sign, then it's not really a sign - I think they're meant to be obvious. But what do I know?

  9. I think it's one of those "love or hate" things.