The Face of a Squall

Author:
Publish date:
Uh oh! Here we go again

Uh oh! Here we go again

They are the worst of times, they are the best of times

There’s a fabulous line from an old Paul Simon song that I often sing to myself while sailing: I can gather all the news I need from the weather report. It is part of the magic of sailing, this ancient process by which we propel our vehicles through and with the environment that surrounds them. In conjuring that magic, the only thing that really matters is the weather. What is also magical, of course, is how accurate our modern weather reports have become, how much further into the future they can see, and how easily we can access them, even when sailing in the middle of nowhere.

Still, even the best weather report can’t tell you everything. It may, for example, warn you that squalls are more or less likely at a certain time and place, but it can never describe what those squalls will be like. The very local granular turbulence of a squall is always random. It cannot be anticipated. It can only be experienced in the present moment.

It truly is terrible, the games they play with us. I have seen squalls that looked like almost nothing—mere white smudges in the sky—that suddenly unleashed, without warning, winds of near-hurricane force. I have seen oncoming inky black walls of seeming certain annihilation that held nothing more than a gentle drizzle of rain and a faint breath of air. I have been in squalls that lasted for hours. I have been in squalls that lasted only a few minutes. They have pelted me with hailstones. Stabbed at me with bolts of lightning. Given me buckets of freshwater when I had nearly run out. They have stolen all my wind and left my sails slatting against the rig. They have ripped my sails to pieces with unthinking fury.

It is impossible to state any hard and fast rules for coping with squalls, but I have developed some general guidelines. Though it can be hard to predict what a squall will do by looking at it, you can often see the rain in them. If the rain is canted at a sharp angle, there will certainly be a strong wind coming with it. The strongest wind may not be in the middle of a squall, but along its outer edges, and it will often come from a different direction than the wind preceding it. In the tradewinds, in particular, I have noticed that squalls tend to run in series. A weak squall is often followed by more weak squalls. A strong one will likely be followed by more of the same.

Tactically, your options are necessarily limited. If you reduce sail well in advance of any squall’s approach you will inevitably spend a lot of time wallowing about under too little sail waiting anxiously to see what happens next. Then, when the squall arrives, you may well find you need not have reefed in the first place. If you play a bolder hand and wait for the squall to show its cards before taking action yourself, you will inevitably sometimes be caught out with way too much sail up. If you have sea room, you can usually compensate for this by simply running off with the squall. This will reduce the apparent wind speed and allow you to bury your headsail in the lee of the main. You can then douse your headsail much more easily and carry on under main alone.

Dealing with a line of squalls can be one of the most frustrating aspects of sailing. However, it can also be one of the most rewarding. Dancing with squalls efficiently—with the least amount of unnecessary sailhandling, with the least disruption to a vessel’s intended line of progress—is always a gratifying experience. It leaves you feeling you have communed with the elements and are a sibling of universal things. Once you have achieved this state of grace, you will also realize that squalls do, in fact, have a purpose. They keep us honest and remind us of the two great truths of sailing: weather is your life, and your life is never certain. 

August 2019

Related

Radome

Ask SAIL: Some Random TLC

Q: I recently removed my radar’s white radome, which covers the internal rotating antenna. I gave the radome a light sandblasting to clear it of years of grime and discoloring. Should I paint it, too? — B. Anderson, Aberdeen, MD GORDON WEST REPLIES Stop! First, make sure the ...read more

L42-Sea-Trails-3728

Boat Review: Leopard 42

Sticking with its proven design formula, but also cherry-picking popular features from its recent models, Leopard Catamarans has launched a “best of” package with this new boat that sold nearly 30 units before hull #1 even touched water. Like a greatest hits album, the Leopard ...read more

01-LEAD-Cut8

Know how: Reinforcing Engine Stringers

If I were to ask, “What are the top five parts of the engine you want to be able to easily access?” How would you respond? Would it be the dipstick? The overflow coolant? I’d wager the raw water pump and its impeller would also make the list. Am I right? The reason we want to be ...read more

Sail-VOE-4-a

Experience: Under the Eyes of the Bar Bunch

Sitting quietly at the bar of a local yacht club, I gaze out over a rambunctious Lake Michigan on a sunny but blustery spring afternoon. I am enjoying watching a small sloop approaching the marina and recognize it as belonging to one of our newest members. “Pretty little thing. ...read more

01-LEAD-Bocas_Marina2

Cruising: Hurricane Heaven

As I write this, another hurricane season has passed. In hundreds of harbors and marinas, sailors are breathing a sigh of relief. I know the feeling since I rode out eight spinners aboard my sturdy 30-footer. I can recall the precise moment when I said, “No more!” It was in ...read more

J45-Podcast-vert-600x-02

Point of SAIL: J/Boats Inc. President Jeff Johnstone

In this episode of Point of SAIL, sponsored by West System Epoxy, Principal Editor Adam Cort talks with Jeff Johnstone, president of J/Boats Inc., the company that has brought the world such iconic designs as the J/24, the J/105 and the J/22, to name a few. In their ...read more

100719BTSC-9304

Boat Review: Catalina 545

Catalina has long been the largest All-American family cruiser company, building what sailors might call “standard” boats. Moving up from the popular 30ft to 45ft sizes puts the company into “yacht” territory, and the new Catalina 545, winner of the SAIL magazine 2020 Best Boats ...read more

01-LEAD-Rosie-G-under-bag

Portrait of a Boatbuilder

A couple of winters ago, I set a new course for my life by following my passions and interests. This in turn led me to boatbuilding. The reason why is I simply needed a change after working in a retail kayak shop a number of years. It was a great job that allowed me to develop ...read more