An Unexpected Windshift Teaches Some Painful Lessons

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CATALINA-KNOCKDOWN

“Jib alone is never a good idea,” our sailing guru Jerry told me. (Everyone should have a sailing guru).

“Why’s that?” I asked. “It’s so much easier than putting up the main.”

“You can only sail off the wind,” he said. “No upwind capability. What happens if someone falls overboard?”

“I guess you roll up the jib and start the motor,” I offered.

“Catastrophic failures seldom occur at the dock,” Jerry replied. He has a habit of spouting sailing platitudes.

Jerry has been sailing for 70 years, racing, cruising, resurrecting old boats. He’s a very conservative sailor. He didn’t put a roller furler on his bow for 40 years. “I don’t trust mechanical work-arounds when a simpler, proven device is functional. Jib hanks are better than friction-filled slots, and gravity seldom fails.”

Jerry’s distrust of furlers and jib-alone sailing was at the back of my mind, at least momentarily, as we bucked and tossed and struggled with a flailing genoa and a jammed furler in erratic gale-force gusts and a 5ft breaking chop.

We were on the penultimate leg of a 600-mile cruise to the Broughton Archipelago of British Columbia on Satori, our 1997 Catalina 320. For three weeks, we had traveled north from our home in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. When the wind blew, it came out of the north. So we motored. When we got to our northern turnaround point in Johnstone Strait, so did the wind. It blew from the southeast the rest of the time. Except for one day.

When traveling between the Salish Sea and the interior of British Columbia, crossing the Strait of Georgia is a major hurdle. Twenty miles of short-period, steep cross-chop on the beam is the norm. We’ve sat for days waiting for things to calm down, so on that Friday, leaving Desolation Sound, we were pleased to hear Environment Canada’s prediction for the strait being diminishing winds on Sunday and light and variable on Monday. The next day, on Saturday, we motored halfway down Malaspina Strait to Westview Harbor into rain and 20-plus knots of bumpy headwinds. Malaspina Strait is a four-mile-wide slot between mainland BC and 30-mile-long Texada Island.

Sunday’s forecast for Georgia Strait and we assumed nearby Malaspina Strait as well, was 5 to 15-knots winds from the southeast and diminishing, with a possible shift to the east. We left Westview in the rain, heading southeast, bound for Secret Cove, just east of the Strait of Georgia. The wind stayed light and did in fact move a little east. I decided to unroll our 135 percent genoa and maybe pick up a half knot while motoring.

A while later I noticed disturbed water ahead below a line of clouds a little darker than the incessant gray. Good, I thought, we’ll get a little more wind and maybe turn the motor off and just sail on the genny.

Wham!

That dark line brought a 180-degree wind shift and a blast of easily 30 knots. The genoa came up hard against the mast, pushing us over as I tried in vain to bring the boat up into the wind against the backed headsail. I shouted to Judy to release the starboard jib sheet, and when she finally got it free, the engine gave us just enough headway to bring the boat up into the wind.

By now 5ft waves were breaking over the bow while the genoa and its sheets thrashed and flailed with a series of resounding cracks as they struck various parts of the boat. Bracing my knee against the wheel, I managed to uncleat the furling line in an effort to wind up the jib. Nothing. I jerked at the line. Nothing. “I can’t furl the jib,” I shouted.

“Fall off and fill the jib a little,” Judy shouted back, much slower to panic than me. No, I thought. The jib won’t fill until we’re broadside to the wind and then we’ll be clobbered with too much sail up and waves breaking over the side. Meanwhile, the wind continued to increase, as did the rain.

We bucked into the breaking waves and wind and rain as best we could with the genoa and its sheets flailing away for what seemed like an eternity, though it was maybe half an hour. Finally, the wind dropped a little and I fell off until the jib started to pull enough to harden the sheets. By now I’d given up on furling the sail and was just hoping the engine didn’t fail and we didn’t hit a log or meet a tug and barge. After another half hour, the wind dropped enough to head up again and take some of the pressure off the jib. This time the furler worked flawlessly.

After another hour or so of bucking into the waves, I looked up and saw that the spinnaker halyard, which we use to raise the burgee, had broken away from the burgee and was now snaked around the topping lift and backstay, so that we couldn’t have put up the main had we wanted to. The burgee and its rain-soaked and now-tattered Canadian flag were lying on the deck, tangled in a jib sheet. I guess I should be grateful it didn’t go overboard and into the prop.

A short while after that, Judy reluctantly took the helm while I went forward to assess the damage, including where the gyrating jib sheets had busted out a side panel in the dodger and put a hole in the windshield. As I was doing so, Judy, who is always more depth-conscious than me, shouted, “The fathometer says zero feet.” Which immediately brought me aft again. A panicked glance at the chartplotter had us over 488ft, although the scale was too great to show nearby land. “I think we’re OK,” I shouted, zooming out on the plotter. As land appeared, I didn’t recognize where we were, nor the direction in which we were headed. Finally, it occurred to me that we were now going north, off Grief Point.

“Let me replot a course,” I said. “We’ll go to Pender Harbor. It’s closer.”

Unfortunately, zooming in and out and moving the cursor around, I had no luck finding it. (“Yes,” Jerry told us later. “It’s not labeled on the electronic charts. You have to look for Charles Island or Garden Bay.” Thanks, Jerry).

I, therefore, picked what looked like a large indentation on shore and told Judy to steer for it, as I went below to get out the iPad (hats off to Navionics) and finally locate both us and Pender Harbor. Unfortunately, we were nowhere near the latter but were instead headed for Jervis Inlet, 90 degrees off. I shouted to Judy to change our heading, came up to replot a course and took over the helm again.

When we finally cleared Charles Island, I was soaked from water pouring down the front of my foulies. During one of my breaks, I went below and started hailing some of the local marinas—everybody in those parts answers on 66A. I hailed three different marinas and nobody answered. Strange. It then occurred to me that the radio had been very, very quiet for some time. I tried calling Victoria Coast Guard for a radio check. They didn’t answer.

“I don’t think the radio’s working,” I shouted up to Judy, trying to not let my concern show as I wondered what I would do if we had needed to send a distress call.

“Try the cell phone,” Judy said. As I said, she’s less prone to panic.

Dialing up John Henry’s Marina, they answered immediately and told us they had a slip for us, where we tied up for the night and immediately encountered crew from a half dozen other boats all making an unscheduled stop and complaining about, “the worst damned weather” they’d ever seen. “Wasn’t it supposed to be five to 15 and diminishing?” they all said.

At this point, we were still both drenched, and because of the previous days of rain, the interior of the boat was damp all over as well. I was resigned to just being wet when Judy asked, “Don’t they have a laundry here?”

“Yes,” I answered, “But I’m cold and wet, not dirty.”

“I’ll go use the dryer. Do you have any loonies?”

Like I said.

A disabled depthsounder was troubling, but we had bought a smaller, “portable” backup at Judy’s insistence. Unfortunately, upon unwrapping it, I found it couldn’t be simply dropped overboard, but had to be mounted when the boat was out of the water. We decided the rest of the trip would involve deep harbors with mooring buoys. Hopefully.

A reboot thankfully brought the radio back up and also brought a stern rebuke from Victoria Coast Guard for doing a radio check on 16. “Please use 83 Alpha for radio checks in the future, sir.”

Those Canadians, always so polite.

Monday’s weather forecast was for light winds and an end to rain “by noon.” A six-boat convoy left Pender Harbor, everyone still on edge. It stopped raining at 1150, and we could have water-skied across the Strait of Georgia.Our apologies to Canada for not flying a courtesy flag the last couple of days out. 

Gene Helfman and Judy Meyer are retired conservation biologists with 40 years sailing experience in Hawaii, the Caribbean, Florida and the Pacific Northwest. They live on Lopez Island, Washington.

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February 2019

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