Tavish and the spinnaker
Marine forecasts aren’t like other weather reports. We listen to the weather at home to decide, should we plan a picnic, take a raincoat, pack our sunglasses? Marine weather is not concerned with such trivial things. No, there is only one thing marine forecasts care about. Wind. How much of it and from what direction, whether it is building or dropping off. And its effects: wave swell and height. Whether it is going to be rainy or sunny is not even mentioned.
As we are still close to shore (20—70 miles) we can get weather reports on the VHF radio—a monotonous drone updated four times a day, by a faceless employee, I imagine sitting in a regulation grey room with fluorescent lights at a coast guard station. What does he think about between the endless repetitions of wind speeds and wave heights at scores of coastal stations and offshore ocean buoys? Is he tempted to read it in a seductive voice or with a Russian accent?
The ultimate weather report is something called GRIB (still trying to find out what the letters stand for). Almost everyone, except the determined luddite, makes sure they can get these files (usually through a single side band radio)—pictures of the ocean scored with little feathered arrows (the feathers corresponding to wind strength). You can scroll through the short and long term forecast to see a virtual picture of the wind moving over the surface of the sea in time. GRIB files help you to find the winds you want, and avoid the ones you don’t want.
Our single side band isn’t up yet but we get a verbal summary of them from a sailing friend Tavish calls each day to report our position. And we always download GRIB in port.
You may recall our last stop was just north of Cape Mendocino, where very high winds were promised. We ducked into Eureka to watch and wait. The GRIB files showed the winds downgraded to moderate—a little energetic in places, but dropping off.
Tired of days of motoring we set off looking forward to a free ride down the coast on northwesterlies, which would push us along from behind. One of the amazing things about sailing downwind is that, though the wind may be blowing 20 knots, the boat is also going forward and the winds magically cancel each other out. So, if you’re sailing at 10 knots, you’ll only feel a gentle 10 knots on your back. If you turned around and tried to sail upwind, you might go 8 knots, and would face an unnerving 28 knots on your face.
By dinner the wind was blowing 25, gusting to 30; by dark, 30 gusting to 35. Circadia was flying only a handkerchief of mainsail, moving at 10 knots. The only good thing about night falling was that I could no longer see the sea, which seemed to be moving in all directions at once. All I could watch was the water lit up by our stern light—waves the size of box cars racing towards us, lifting us up then tearing on past as we surfed down their faces (clocked one at 17.1 knots before we fully reefed). It was a long night, with all the crew taking short turns steering, which required constant concentration to keep the boat on course while it was being spun on the wave tops: readjusting the wheel moment to moment, sometimes having to throw your whole weight into it, with legs braced wide.
Down below the sound of the water rushing past the hull was deafening. “It’s like sleeping in a waterfall” shouted Angus as he tried to catch a quick nap.
By early morning the wind was down to 25 again and dropping. The crew spent most of the day taking turns sleeping. I can’t imagine better sailing companions than Tavish and Angus—dependable, unshakeable, and cheerful even in the tough moments.
In the end it was good to have experienced the storm (actually, technically a “near gale”). We found out what the boat could do and what we could do (or didn’t do, ie., in my case, curl up in the fetal position below, something I wasn’t absolutely sure of before).
The next few days brought the dreamed of perfect winds, 15-20 knots. We hoisted the big blue spinnaker and didn’t take it down for almost two days. The nights were full of stars and dolphins shooting by in sleeves of light. My favourite sight: a flying fish, shooting out of the face of wave, lit up, silver in the morning sun. It flew and flew and flew, just like a bird, then slipped back into the water and was gone.
Arrived in San Diego at 4 am Saturday morning.