Modern weather forecasting is so good that we aren’t often caught out, but we all take a chance once in a while, especially when we’re under pressure to be somewhere else. Coastal sailing in near-gale conditions isn’t the same as ocean storm survival. Instead, we have to think hard about possible shelter and local dangers. Different boats have varying abilities. So do crews. Here’s a hypothetical scenario with three boats facing the same dilemma. They start together, heading for the same destination, but end up in three different places.
It is before dawn one day in August and three boats are anchored in Fort Pond Bay, just inside Montauk Point on Long Island, New York. They have something in common. They’re each manned by male crews who have agreed to meet their wives on Martha’s Vineyard the following morning. Any gentleman readers with partners who don’t sail will understand that if this were them and they failed to turn up, they won’t be able to come up with excuses that hold water. This means the pressure’s on, big-time.
Our guys haven’t left themselves much in the way of slack. They’ve around 70 miles to make good to Vineyard Haven via Block Island and Vineyard Sound, but they’re experienced and they don’t mind a few night hours, if that’s what it takes. Besides, the forecast looks almost perfect, with 15 knots of breeze out of the south nicely abaft the beam. There’s a front hanging around out to sea, but the forecast implies that this will stay put, at least until the following night. The weatherman hints that the dirty stuff may make its move early, but the boys are optimists. Besides, they’re in a deep hole if they don’t arrive, so there’s only one decision: Go for it, and soon!
The three boats are very different. The smallest is Tiny Tot, a light displacement, 22-foot sloop with a lifting keel and an outboard engine. Her sailing performance is better than average for her size. Her two crew are young and fit, and are experienced racing sailors.
Next up comes Minnie in the Middle, a 35-foot charter boat, with big cabins, a huge freezer, a powerful engine and sails like flour bags. To be kind to her crew, they are healthy middle-aged guys, but they spend most of their year earning their keep in offices and don’t trouble their personal trainers too often. They’ve been ashore the night before celebrating the last of their freedom and are somewhat the worse for wear.
The final yacht is Big Bopper. She’s a 45-foot S&S-designed cruiser-racer from the Golden Age of seaworthiness, the mid-1970s. Her skipper is a tough egg in his fifties (he’s the one with the wife most likely to hammer his credit card) and the crew are his son and son-in-law. All are veterans of several Bermuda races.
Big Bopper is confident he’ll make Vineyard Haven in one shot. With this breeze he might manage to carry his asymmetric, but even if the angle’s too shy, he’ll manage the best part of 7 knots on the reach. He should be in by Happy Hour, and he hasn’t given much thought to what might happen if it should turn rough.
Minnie in the Middle also hopes to be in by dark, or at least before bed-time. Because of the prevalence of an east-going stream, so long as they catch the early tide past Montauk Point, they’re in with a good chance of a push up Vineyard Sound at the other end. If it wasn’t for the ladies, they’d have stopped for another night on the tiles in Block Island. But it’s not to be.
Tiny Tot is more concerned about the weather. Being small, her crew have considered the options of Block Island or even a run for Newport if the front arrives early and backs the wind to the southeast. They have given little consideration, however, to contingency plans for heading off the retail therapy session if they don’t show up in time. To get the full benefit of the tide rips, they are going to be first to leave.
In case the breeze should back, all the boats wisely opt to get upwind by going south around Block Island.