Cruising

Weather Tactics Page 2

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The action and the bad news

Tiny Tot heaves in her light anchor, pops her cruising chute and whizzes off into the rising sun just as Minnie’s boys are putting the coffee on. By the time she’s east-southeast of Block, Minnie is in sight and slowly narrowing the gap, perhaps motorsailing. The Bopper is hammering up fast, well heeled over, with a bone in her teeth. They’re 30 miles out now, and the radio issues a new forecast. It isn’t what any of them want to hear.

Block Island Sound and Martha’s Vineyard are expecting the front early—in the next two hours in fact, with winds backing southeasterly and increasing to 35 knots, gusting to 45—a whole gale, with rain and poor visibility. The front is forecast to take four hours or more to pass through, after which the wind will veer southwesterly and drop to 20 knots.

Already, the sea is showing signs of building and the cloud is thickening dramatically. Aboard Big Bopper, the barometer has fallen 0.18 inches in the previous two hours, so there’s no doubting what’s coming. The boys are out of luck.

The options

Here are three boats, all confronting what on the face of things is the same situation, but because of what they are and who is on board, their dilemmas are very different. All are under pressure to continue, but the conditions, as forecast and backed up by observation, will be more than uncomfortable; they are potentially dangerous. The water is not deep and the seas will lump up rapidly, possibly becoming steep enough to cause a knockdown. The boats are going to have to work to weather to make their destination, and it has to be said that their ability to do this varies enormously. Here’s what each crew made of its situation.

Tiny Tot

The breeze is already heading Tiny Tot as the boys shape up to decision time. One thing’s obvious. There’s no way they can press on into a potential 40 knots of wind. They aren’t powerful enough. Their outboard engine will be out of the water as much as it’s in, and submitting a 22-footer to what could easily end up as a 15 foot beam sea just to meet your wife on time is madness. The Tot must change her plan, pronto.

Block Island is closest, but to get there she must take the rising sea on the beam. The entrance to Great Salt Pond is narrow too, and if the wind has backed she’ll be going dead into it. Her crew decide to head for Newport, 25 miles to the north. That way, they’re running away from the weather and delaying its arrival.

The entrance to Newport is easy, even downwind, and they’ll be doing what their boat likes best. She virtually planes, given a good helmsman and the right conditions. She’s got both now. They square away onto a broad reach and scorch off into the scud. On the way, one of the boys plots a double-checked GPS waypoint in the middle of the entrance. As visibility cuts down, they steer for this, checking log and course carefully as backup.

The front arrives when they’re 8 miles out. They douse the main, gybe and run in under jib, making shelter an hour later. Then it’s into the Black Pearl for a bite and a well-earned stiffener, four hours of sleep, and then back out again at midnight in a decreasing sea, a southwest breeze and bright stars. They carry their spinnaker most of the way and arrive just in time to meet the better halves of their relationships who have just arrived on the Vineyard ferry.

Minnie in the Middle

It never occurs to Minnie’s crew to head for Newport. In truth, it wouldn’t have been such a sound option for them anyway. They aren’t feeling too good; in fact one is horribly seasick already. With their furling 150 percent genoa, there is no way they are going to make the Vineyard without motorsailing. They wisely realise that although it seems strong, they do not know how the engine would behave under pressure.

Perhaps the tanks are dirty. A long motorsail in heavy going would stir them up and stop the engine for sure. Better not take the chance. Instead, they decide to keep the engine in reserve. It has plenty of power, so the Block Island entrance wouldn’t hold the sort of horrors it did for Tiny Tot. They decide to turn round and nip into the Salt Pond. They’re anchored just as the first big gusts come hammering over the island.

Unfortunately for Minnie’s crew, once they have the hook well dug in, they can’t resist going ashore to celebrate their salvation. They have a frightening time of it clambering back on board from the dinghy in a gale of wind and lashing rain. No one fancies putting back to sea when the wind eases, so they spend the night in their bunks instead. They finally make the Vineyard the following afternoon. Alas, they are too late. As they tie up, the bags of designer clothing are piled on the dock alongside the black looks.

Big Bopper

No prizes for guessing what she does. A well-found boat of her description was born for this sort of thing. The crew won’t enjoy bashing on, but the boat won’t mind a bit. Her skipper also knows that if the weather guys are wrong and more wind turns up than she can handle, all he has to do is douse his headsail completely, triple-reef the main, start his well-maintained engine and steer up into the seas at slow ahead.

This old fishing boat survival method works every time, so long as you’ve got the power to keep the head up to the seas. The vital thing is not to fall beam-on and risk being rolled. The Bopper can do this all day if she has to. She won’t run out of fuel because the front will pass in a few hours, and the knowledge that she has this technique up her sleeve gives her crew total confidence.

As it turns out, she doesn’t have to do this, and she arrives in Vineyard Haven in time for a late supper. All hands enjoy the sleep of the just and the skipper gets up to take Tiny Tot’s lines as the coffee’s brewing. His wife is still on the mainland waiting for the ferry.


I don’t know what you think after assessing the situation these captains faced. We reckon all their choices were sound, even though one got in trouble with his wife. The fact that only two of them made it, and in wildly different ways, shows that boats vary as much as the people that crew them. The important thing is to understand your own ship, not to ask more of her or her crew than they have to give, and to stay quietly off the statistics lists. – T.C.

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