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Clewless in the Pacific

Not good: the author retrieves his errant clew

Not good: the author retrieves his errant clew

Squalls are well known to sailors who cruise the middle Latitudes. Eventually, you become complacent to their bluster. But squalls vary in magnitude, and while crossing from Tahiti to Oahu, our 47ft Custom Stevens sloop paid the price for carrying too much canvass as we were batted over by a sudden punch of wind and a hammering of rain that damaged our headsail.

It was a star-filled night, and I had failed to notice the clouds creeping up from behind us. Salubrious trade winds became instant mayhem. My wife, Ivy, and I rushed to disengage the windvane steering and douse our headsail. Struggling with the furling line, we tried rolling up our headsail, which was now shaking our boat like a chew toy. Our Yankee usually furls with little effort, but nothing could persuade the wind-filled sail to obey this time around. With a final tug, we felt a sudden surrender and our Yankee rolled in, presumably. The squall quickly passed, leaving us dripping wet and licking our wounds.

Eventually, we tried to redeploy our Yankee and continue on our way. But when we hauled in on the sheets they fell limp in our hands. Further investigation revealed the stainless-steel ring that is normally stitched to the clew of the sail had torn away, and though it was still loosely furled, our Yankee now threatened to flag open and flog itself to pieces while the sheets lay like coiled vipers on the foredeck. We sailed like that the rest of that night with the unfettered corner of our Yankee continuing to wag at us in the darkness. Finally, at daybreak I went forward to retrieve our wayward gear. It was now all too clear, though, that we were officially clewless in the middle of the Pacific.

The tack of the sail in question was pretty ragged by the time the sun came back up

The tack of the sail in question was pretty ragged by the time the sun came back up

After reporting on our situation during the next HAM radio rendezvous (and receiving heaps of encouragement and advice) we set to work, using a sail needle, Dacron thread and some 1in nylon to reattach the stainless-steel ring, using the same holes as the sail’s original stitching whenever possible. Fortunately, the operation was a success, and with our Yankee mended and re-bent, we continued on our way. It ultimately carried us across the rest of the Pacific.

We accept the onus of fixing or jury-rigging any component of our vessel when we sail far from land. Toward that end, we try to maintain a judicious accumulation of spares and tools to replace worn and broken components of our little ship at sea. Boat shows, symposiums and seminars might hawk newfangled gadgets, gizmos and gewgaws that are promoted to be the latest guarantee against doom. A tacit implication is sometimes made that one would be foolish to go sailing without “the device” that will prove to be indispensable in the pursuit of safety. Safety, though, cannot be sold in a box. Nothing can supplant conservative seamanship.

While cruisers commiserate about fixing their boats in exotic locations, the fixing doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. Split rings and cotter pins need constant vigilance and occasional replacing. Chafe will call for proactive patching. Worn cordage demands re-splicing. Hose clamps require retightening. It takes vigilance to keep a boat on passage held tightly together.

One particularly bad day, while on a crossing from Hawaii to the Straits of Juan de Fuca, I had to service our worm gear steering, plot a running fix, wrap a blistering water hose, re-solder a corroded connection to our autopilot’s motherboard, suture, bandage, and splint my wife’s lacerated finger, and cook a passable dinner—all in a single day at sea. Mechanic, navigator, plumber, electrician, physician and cook. Cruisers are the ultimate Renaissance people.

We sail bluewater to explore new shores, and along the way we discover ourselves. Little has been accomplished by not reaching farther. If we steer our course by self-sufficiency, then accomplishment will be our harbor of refuge. My advice—for what it’s worth—is to believe in yourself and leave your doubts at the shore. Although take a liferaft as well, just in case! 

July 2021

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