Surefoot’s Gale

October 9, 2019

Days at Sea: 305
Days Since Departure: 373

Noon Position: 38 59N  125 37W
Course(t)/Speed(kts): SExE 7 – 8
Wind(t/tws): N 35
Sea(t/ft): N 10 – 14
Sky/10ths Cover: Clear 0
Bar(mb): 1019+, falling slowly
On-deck Temp(f): 64
Cabin Temp(f): 66
Water Temp(f): 60
Relative Humidity(%): 68
Magnetic Variation: 14.0

Sail: Working headsail 2/3rds or more rolle up.

Noon-to-Noon Miles Made Good (nm): 157
Miles since departure: 38,840

All night I let Mo run SSE so as to stay on the outer edge of the low. Winds here will remain under 30 knots and allow me a solid sleep before tomorrow’s long day and difficult decision. But at a little before one o’clock, I’m still awake. Winds are on port quarter and increasing hour by hour; the number two headsail, all we’ve had flying since before sundown, is already rolled to three reefs; Mo is beginning to hum.

Suddenly I notice that we have come dead before the wind and are not correcting. Then we gybe; the sail jerks to port and Mo lurches wrong-way to the seas. I grab a flashlight and dash on deck. Monte’s wind paddle is hard over and bent in the wind almost to breaking. The tiller is amidships and motionless. I give it a big shove. Nothing. It’s locked solid.

I climb to the stern and look over the side and here I find that Monte’s red trip line has fouled the water paddle. In Dutch, I installed a new type of clevis pin that should make disengaging the paddle in an emergency a quicker operation. But the pin is long, too long; it is shaped like a key and its ends stick out. They have grabbed the line as it swirled in Mo’s wake and are holding it fast. The water paddle can’t move, and this has jammed the tiller.

I work to free the line but there’s too much tension; it’s bar taught and I can’t understand how it hasn’t already snapped. I reach for the yellow knife and in a moment the line is cut. Monte eases back on course. The jib slaps back full. I move the line well out of danger and lash it to the rail.

6 am. For two days we’ve had mostly cloud and that cloud has been mostly squalls. But now the sun comes up into an open, white-blue sky. Good, I think. However hard it blows today, at least it will blow steady. I watch the seas for a long time. They are high, to the rail and then higher than the rail by the height of a man. But the break isn’t strong yet; the crests collapse at the top of the wave and fall backward. Only occasionally does a plunger throw its weight forward.

I think it’s worth the risk. Surely we’ve seen worse in the south. I reach for Monte’s tiller line and change our couse to ESE and direct for San Francisco 180 miles further on. Now seas are just aft of the beam. The gale isn’t due to peak until early afternoon.

At the noon log, I note: “On the edge. One knock to windows in green water. Took in more sail.” Now there is but a pillowcase of canvas forward. Mo makes 8 knots and surfs frequently to 11 knots. The rig’s moaning sound is so dire, so ghostly it takes an act of will to remember the sound itself isn’t indicative of danger. It does have meaning, though: winds are topping 40 knots.

By forecast, this is to be a quick blow, less than 24 hours of hard wind localized to a short run of northern California coast. Wind won’t clock around; it will just be N and it will be flowing over a current that is also from the N. All this has led me to risk cutting through the low; to think that winds will have neither the time nor the space to create the kind of steep, crashing and confused seas that we are now getting.

The higher sets are to the spreaders, two stories above the waterline. Sometimes they roll gently by, giant and benign, but more often now they contract vertically as they rise and their tops collapse heavily forward in a roar of surf. Sometimes the white water rushes straight down the wave; sometimes the crest falls at an angle to its train, sending a large sea off to the SE or SW as it collapses. The water is streaked with white.

That I have chosen to put Mo in harm’s way so close to home, that having been through so many gales, I could mistake the power of this one–this angers me. But the anger does not cover a low and gnawing fear. Could we fail to make it home at all?

Again and again Mo is pushed over by a crasher. If it catches her on the flank, there is the sound of a cannon and then green water flows over the house. Many times the leeward windows go under and the cockpit scoops up a sea. And each time Mo rights herself without trouble; each time Monte puts Mo quickly back on course. The boat seems merely to dip, to bend, to shrug and then to sail on.

And then I think that boats have many names and one of Mo’s is Surefoot–she can be pushed, but she won’t fall. Then I relax a little. I prop myself into a corner and watch. By evening the barometer is still dropping but the wind has come down. The rigging no longer wails. I have unrolled the jib. We fly homeward over dark seas licked by moonbeams.

10 Comments on “Surefoot’s Gale

  1. Not only can you sail, but you can write!
    I’m in awe.
    (And I’m also thinking you’ll likely make it home, finally.)

    • Wow! Randall and MO and Monte!!!! What a wild ride on the back stretch to the finish line!!! Fantastic descriptions of what you three are sailing through. Thank you for your wonderfully vivid descriptions! I was holding my breath while reading what you have been experiencing!!!!

  2. Mo is just like a daruma doll – always willing to get up after getting knocked down. Keep on trucking…

  3. What an amazing finish! Your description of the waves is chilling, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

  4. Hang in there Randell. Almost hone. Can’t wait to see you. Uncle Gary.

  5. This is one of your best blog entries yet. You have kept us intrigued, excited and engaged all along the way with your excellent writing. Thank you for sharing your journey with all of us.

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