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Voice of Experience: Halyard Jam

With the wind gusting into the low 20s and some very ominous-looking clouds on the horizon, I knew it was time to get back to dry land. I was out sailing with my two good friends, John and Jack, and we had crossed most of Great Bear Lake in no time.

With the wind gusting into the low 20s and some very ominous-looking clouds on the horizon, I knew it was time to get back to dry land. I was out sailing with my two good friends, John and Jack, and we had crossed most of Great Bear Lake in no time. Now we were bearing down on the lee shore with the spinnaker on Improv, my Capri 22, still flying. 

“Time to unfurl the headsail,” I announced. “Let’s get this chute down.” 

We rolled out the jib and started dousing the spinnaker. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, until John, our bowman, started yelling frantically to clear the halyard. As Improv careened down the backsides of the building waves, I struggled with the tiller to keep the half-hoisted chute in the jib’s shadow while Jack, who was working the mast, searched frantically for what might be caught. 

“Keep it out of the water!” I called.

 The sail was dangerously close to shrimping, or worse, dragging John overboard while he fought to keep it dry. 

Looking up the mast, I saw that the usually green spinnaker halyard had mysteriously turned white and looked a lot narrower than it did before. Then it dawned on me: the halyard had frayed and the chute was flying on the line’s core. The sheath had been stripped back and was bunched up inside the mast and had jammed the sheave. 

To make matters worse, a wall of white nastiness was now rapidly approaching. One of the scattered thunder squalls in the area had come to call and was whipping the water into a maelstrom. The rain stung as the wind began blowing harder and harder. 

With the shoreline rapidly approaching we were running out of options. We tried pulling at the halyard as hard as we could, but it was clear there was no chance of it coming loose. There was also no way we could head up and away from the shore with the chute flying. Should we climb the mast and try to cut the halyard? Not in a 22-foot boat; it would get knocked down in a second with an extra 200 pounds up the mast. Start the motor? I figured my 4hp outboard would do nothing in this wind.

 “I got an idea,” I announced. 

Honestly, we probably shouldn’t have gone out that day. John and Jack weren’t that experienced, and we were threading the needle with the scattered storms in the area. But after a solid week of light-air sailing, there was nothing that could keep us from taking advantage of a good breeze. Studying the radar earlier it looked like we had a pretty good window—a solid two and a half hours, I figured, to get in a few good runs and get back to the dock before any squalls hit.

I had lived and sailed on this Minnesota lake my whole life, watching the weather religiously, and I was confident we’d be alright. I’d spent the past week showing John and Jack how to run the boat in mild conditions, and today I thought we’d see how well our training had paid off. We had been doing great, but of course it’s not until all hell breaks loose that you see how much you’ve really learned. 

“We’re going to furl it into the jib,” I yelled. 

I headed up on to a reach, and the chute went nuts. Fortunately, the spinnaker on a Capri 22 is a pretty manageable size, and John was able to wrestle most of it onto the windward side of the jib. Then we started furling the jib, and the wild fighting animal slowly disappeared into it. Even the boat seemed to sigh in relief, and we all paused to enjoy that moment of calm that comes after a luffing sail is finally silenced. 

At least we weren’t going to crash into shore anymore, but we still had work to do. We were only on the edge of the storm and there was no sign of lightning, but with a three-mile beat back across the lake ahead of us, it wasn’t time to play around. Fighting against the building wind and waves, it was clear we weren’t making much progress to windward. Without a headsail, the boat was unbalanced, and it was hard to keep it moving

forward. We needed some pressure on the rig up front. 

“I got this,” said John, moving forward. 

I could tell he was planning on climbing the rolled-up jib so he could pull the chute’s quick-release shackle, which was conveniently poking out of the rolled-up sail about 10 feet up. All I could think to say was, “Put on a life jacket first.” We needed that sail and if he was confident he could pull it off, I wasn’t going to stop him.

Like an islander climbing a palm tree, up the sail John went, swinging back and forth to the waves. He popped the shackle open, then he hung there, smirking down at us as he relished the moment. The slippery nylon chute slid easily out of the rolled-up jib, and then it was go-time. We unfurled a small bit of the jib, the boat heeled hard, and off we went. I was steering and playing the mainsail like I was racing a Laser. 

It was probably some of the most fun sailing I’ve ever done. We screamed through the pounding wind and water, all three of us hanging straight-legged on our makeshift hiking straps. No, they are not class legal, but I’m a dinghy sailor at heart, and when you grow up with your butt over the rail, it’s hard to sail inside the lifelines. 

Everyone was grinning as the spray and rain drenched us to the core. After a while John went forward. Clutching the lifelines he rode the bow up and over the waves, relishing that moment of weightlessness that comes each time the boat falls from under you. This was his first time sailing in any kind of weather, and I could tell by the look on his face that he was hooked. 

After about a half hour the wind started to subside. Then the sun peeked through the billowing clouds, and we quite literally sailed off into a sunset of distant glowing thunderheads.

 “This is what it’s all about,” said John.

Thinking back, lucky is the word that comes to mind. Even though the chute got stuck in the worst possible place, we managed to stay calm and muster a little ingenuity. We were especially lucky that the passing storm was devoid of lightning. Improv, like many small inland boats, doesn’t have a grounded mast and lightning can be a serious problem. It would have been easy to quickly get to safety on a small lake with plenty of docks, but we were happy to have a chance to battle the storm. It was one of those times that remind you how much fun a little challenge can be.

Ben Markhart races dinghies, scows and small keelboats around the

Midwest every summer and loves getting out on the Great Lakes or

down to the Caribbean for a charter whenever he can.

What We Did Right

I spent time familiarizing John and Jack with the boat in mild conditions. Though they were inexperienced, this gave them the confidence they needed to confront the challenges we faced in stronger weather.

We all stayed calm and worked as a team to solve our problems.

Rolling the spinnaker into the jib proved to be a very effective sailhandling technique.

What We Did Wrong

I had failed to maintain the boat’s rig. The spinnaker halyard was not the only line that needed replacing.

We should have all been wearing life jackets from the start. At least I thought to have John put one on before he started climbing the rig.

I called the weather wrong and took too much of a chance trying to get in some sailing between the thunderstorms. Radar can tell you how fast squalls are moving, but not whether they will speed up in the future. 

I did not pay attention to how fast we were going downwind or how long it would take to beat back to our starting point. 

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