A weekend regatta on a mountain lake turns into a grim ordeal
As I tried to drop the mainsail on my Laguna 26 Sailvation in the midst of a howling hailstorm, I remembered the story of Ulysses being lashed to his mast. In my own case, only the death-grip I maintained on my mast kept me from being tossed overboard like a rag doll. Who would have thought that such a beautiful weekend race could suddenly turn so bad!
Like many sailing clubs, the New Mexico Sailing Club on Lake Heron in northern New Mexico hosts races over holiday weekends. The club’s 2011 Labor Day weekend proved to be particularly memorable. There was a competitive day of course racing on Saturday, and on Sunday we were scheduled to run a “long race.” These usually start at the club marina with first a 4-mile beat across the lake to Heron Dam, followed by a reaching leg and then a run back to the marina for a total course length of 10 to 12 miles.
Saturday night we camped out in a different area and arrived at the club on Sunday to find we had missed the skipper’s meeting. The fleet was already out on the lake preparing to start the race an hour earlier than I expected. I was with my wife, Diana, and two friends, and together we rushed down to the marina, prepped Sailvation, and then quickly cast off lines and headed out on to the lake. We were the last to cross the starting line, but we quickly began passing other boats at the back of the pack.
Heron Lake is a mountain reservoir lying at an elevation of 7,200 feet. Winds tend be from the west and southwest, even when generated by the frequent afternoon thunderstorms. As we beat toward the dam in a moderate 8- to 10-knot wind, we could see the clouds building to the north, but they appeared to me to be moving north away from us, rather than toward us. Diana felt otherwise, but I repeatedly dismissed her concerns.
The clouds continued to build as we rounded the first mark, and soon after we rounded the second mark the wind began to build quickly from the north. By this time we had passed about half the fleet and were gaining on the next boat ahead. Faced with the dilemma of whether to abandon the race or tough it out, my instinct was to keep racing. We broke out the lifejackets and ponchos and furled the genoa, but chose not to reef the main, as we hoped to stay in the race and keep passing boats.
Very shortly thereafter every sailor on the lake had his or her skills tested to the utmost. The fast-moving front, unlike any I had ever experienced, hit like a freight train. The wind jumped from 15 to about 45 knots in a matter of seconds, with fog and horizontal rain blowing so hard and thick we could no longer see the boat 20 yards ahead of us. With the genoa furled we managed to keep Sailvation on her feet, but with the full main up we were still dramatically overpowered.
My initial concern was avoiding the boat we knew was right in front of us. There was also an island we knew was directly downwind, but it too was completely obscured. The windward shore was just 30 yards to port, but even in that short distance 6-foot waves instantly built up and started thudding into us.
I soon felt it was imperative to get the main down, but the halyard did not run back to the cockpit. I moved forward in my poncho, holding on tight as I tried to time each step between the pounding of the waves. The wind quickly blew my poncho and my shirt over my head, and then hail started battering my exposed back. I had to cling to the mast with both arms and both legs while simultaneously fighting to see. My back was being beaten to a pulp by the ever-growing hailstones, but eventually I managed to wrestle the main down and creep back to the cockpit, bruised and shivering uncontrollably.
After dousing the mainsail, we were able to lower the outboard motor into the water and start it up. However, due to Sailvation’s windage, our maneuverability was limited and turning into the wind was impossible. I was also rapidly becoming hypothermic. We were unable to see in any direction, so my crew headed for what we hoped was open water and kept a close watch while I tried to recover in the cabin below.
Though it tapered off somewhat after the initial blast, the storm lasted about an hour in total. It was longer and much more severe than our typical mountain storms, which are usually over in just 10 to 15 minutes. We later learned that the front had packed winds of 40 to 50 knots, with gusts to over 80. There had been no hint of this in any of the weather forecasts. As the storm finally subsided, the club began the difficult task of counting up boats and assessing damage.
My mainsail was missing three battens and I’d lost the main halyard up the mast, which ended my sailing season. The welts on my back from the hail took over a week to heal. Amy told me later she had been praying fervently as I tried to drop the mainsail while clinging to the wildly swinging mast. Out of the club’s fleet of 12 boats, only one was blown aground, fortunately on a muddy shore, but still the pennant on the boat’s swing keel was broken. The leaches on the expensive composite sails of the two boats leading the race were badly shredded. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt. We were very luck no one had fallen overboard, as the mountain lake water is frigid cold, and it would have been very hard to maneuver back to an MOB victim.
As the boats trickled back to the marina, nearly every sailor look dazed and shell-shocked, and all were grateful that they were safe. This would be one holiday regatta none of us would ever forget.
What We Did Right
What We Did Wrong
We all donned lifejackets at the first sign of ugly weather.
I let my urge to race, rather than the safety of my crew, drive my decision-making. I should have reefed the main right after we furled the genoa.
We furled the genoa early.
I should have been wearing a tether when I went forward to lower the mainsail.
We succeeded in staying clear of other boats and obstacles, in spite of the high wind and poor visibility.
Our inexpensive ponchos are okay for gentle rain, but they became a liability in the storm. We now carry proper foul-weather gear onboard.
No one panicked, including our two inexperienced friends.
I should have listened to my wife’s concerns about the weather. (Yes, dear, you were right!)
A life-long desert rat, Tim Turner started sailing and
racing on sailboards. He now sails in the BVI and races
his Laguna 26 on Heron Lake when there is water in it
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