It’s zero-dark-thirty in Simpson Bay, St. Martin, and my wife, Debbie, and I are trying hard not to run into our friends on Why Knot IV as we fight to get our anchor up in 40-knots of wind. We finally get away, raise the double-reefed main, turn downwind and head for the British Virgin Islands, 90 miles west. The wind is right on our tail, and the autopilot struggles to keep Indigo, our 46ft Leopard cat, under control.
Of course all our cruising friends, hunkered down in the bay as the wind continues to howl, tell us we are nuts to head out when there is nothing but more wind and bigger waves in the forecast. But embarking on “ill-advised” passages is what we always seem to do. After all, if we were to wait for perfect conditions we’d be sitting at anchor for another month. And really, how bad can it be?
An hour later the horizon is beginning to glow, and we can just make out the huge rolling swells that are picking Indigo up from behind and accelerating her to 13 knots as she surfs downwind. The wind is coming directly from the east and the swell from the northeast, so while it isn’t altogether ugly, it isn’t particularly comfortable either. We’re cruising along at 7 knots, with occasional bursts into the teens.
Around 1000 I come up with the brilliant plan to put up more sail. Fast is good, and with another 75 miles to cover before dark and lots of wind to use, I figure we should go for it. How bad can it be?
Rather than turn back into the howling wind and 12ft seas (not a pleasant thought) I decide that we can shake out the reef and hoist the sail while going dead downwind. Now this can actually work when you’re going 10 knots in perhaps 12 knots of wind, but with 30 gusting to 40 it’s, well, inadvisable.
Still, I drop the main a couple of feet and Debbie—harnessed to the mast—struggles to release the cringle from the reefing hook. Finally, she gets it loose, and the sail, now free of its constricting luff tension, immediately fills like a deformed balloon as the wind increases. I start cranking in the main halyard with the big electric winch, but it’s tough going with so much pressure on the sail. Tough for the winch that is, not for me.
Slowly the sail goes up the mast, but then a massive swell catches Indigo from astern, and we begin surfing down its face. The good news is that as we accelerate it takes some of the pressure off the sail. The bad news is that when we reach the bottom of the swell our boatspeed suddenly goes from 13 knots to five, just as a 40-knot gust hits us from behind.
WHAMMO! The oddly shaped mainsail, halfway up the mast, fills with wind and slams forward into the shrouds. Two battens come flying out of their reinforced pockets as the sail contorts into a billowing explosion of Dacron. The leech, now unsupported, starts to tear. I, of course, am completely unaware of all that’s going on, because I’m at the helm trying to keep the boat under control. Debbie, however, is perfectly positioned to watch as the fiasco unfolds. Within seconds the leech is shredded as the wind claws at the stitching. Debbie yells back at me and points skyward: “The sail is ripping!”
I peer upward and sure enough, sail carnage is in the works. Now if this were just a small sail and we were in small seas with small wind, there would be no problem. But this is a big sail, weighing over 250lb, on a big boat, with big wind and seas. We also need the mainsail to keep the boat from wandering all over the place, so I keep on hoisting.
Eventually, I get it up, and although the battens are poking out in front and the tears in the leech are making the sail look like we just picked it out of a dumpster, at least we have some control. As I had hoped, our speed also picks up a notch as we once again settle into the passage, keeping a wary eye on the tattered mainsail.
Since the jib is occasionally flapping around as the main blankets it, I decide to rig the lazy sheet to a cleat on the side of the lee hull to keep it from violently flogging whenever we accelerate down the waves. This is one of the great things about a catamaran: you can lead the jib sheets to the outboard mooring cleats without the need for a whisker pole. However, as I’m rigging a Shockle to reduce the load on the lazy sheet, there’s yet another loud BANG!
Looking up at the main I now see it is once again billowing out in a warped display of potential carnage. The outhaul has broken. No, the outhaul has exploded, and the clew end is dangling from the boom as the outhaul grommet flies up and out into the screeching wind. Now what?
I ponder my next move. Somehow I need to get hold of the clew, rig a line through it, bring it back into place, rig a new outhaul and, as if this weren’t enough, tension it while the mainsail is fully powered up. Sure, no problem.
Grabbing a line, I climb up onto the end of the boom and try to gather in some of the fluttering sail. No way: so I wait until Indigo goes on another one of her surfing expeditions down a monster swell and the pressure is off the sail. Then I snatch the clew and frantically try to thread the line through the outhaul grommet and tie it off. Yeah right, like that’s going to happen.
After three more attempts—each one more frantic and dangerous—I finally manage to tie the line and snug it up as much as I can as the boom creaks and groans under my weight. With the clew secured, I then grab the spare outhaul that I had rigged to use for the third reefing point and run it through the grommet and down to a strop. Then I hop down and run forward to the mast to tighten the outhaul. What a shambles.
Debbie has been eying me the whole time like a snake watching a rat, making sure my harness is securely clipped in to something more solid than a twig. She is not about to risk me falling overboard in the middle of the ocean like I had a couple years earlier. But that’s another story.
Back at the helm we watch as the occasional 15ft wave rumbles by and Indigo skims, lurches and rushes over the seething ocean. The wind peaks at 43 knots, feisty but not the 52 knots we had seen a couple of times before.
Twelve hours later we turn the corner, drop the sails and limp into Great Harbour on Peter Island in the BVI, where a hot shower and a bowl of chicken soup never tasted so good. Just another day on Indigo. Just another day...
Eric Sanford and Debbie Lynn have cruised on Indigo since 2013
Photos courtesy of Eric Sanford