Monday, 4 March 2013

On Winter Sailing

You might imagine that an article about winter sailing would gush over the beauty of the sea in winter, the peacefulness of a perfect mooring, or the abundant wildlife that seems to come alive after the last boat has been pulled out of the water.  While these scenes are inspiring, they are not the reason we sail in winter.  The true reason we sail in winter is, quite simply, that we don’t have much choice.  Either we sail in winter (or rather, cold weather) or we only sail 4-6 months out of the year.

We still haven’t decided if that would be such a bad thing.

And yet, when I come home after a winter sail, I find myself defending the practice to dubious friends and family, saying things like, “We’ve got heat on the boat, you know!” and “As long as you’re well-equipped and you can choose your weather windows, it’s fine.”  But the question we’re still asking ourselves is whether or not we should try to distinguish between “fine” and “actually enjoyable”.  My argument has always been that it’s better than staying at home, but Patrick has begun reminding me that those are not our only two choices.

But before dismissing the idea of winter sailing, here’s a short chronicle of what a typical 3 day weekend sail actually looks like here in southern Brittany.  This is for my mother, who asked, “What do you actually DO when it’s that cold? … Just hunker down around a space heater in the boat for 3 days?!”  (She lives in Florida…)

Weather: completely overcast grey skies, 15-18 knots of wind, daytime highs 3-5° C (37 – 41° F) with wind chills below freezing.  But no rain !

Day 1: 

Left the port of Vannes at 10:00, hoisted sails at 10:30 after passing out of the narrow channels, and headed out of the Morbihan Gulf on a lovely beam reach and smooth seas to the island of Hoedic.  Averaged 7-8 knots (thanks to a well-timed current…).

Lunch in the cockpit en route.  Okay, we hid behind the dodger to get out of the wind, but it was still lunch in the cockpit.  Salmon quiche warmed on the stove, salad, white wine, fruit, chocolate pudding.

Arrived Hoedic 13:30.  We were the only boat in the small 5-slip marina.  We were later joined by 2 other ships-of-fools.

Rigged up shore power and investigated why the auto-pilot was dead.  After 30 minutes of tracing wires, we found a plug that had come undone in the back of the repeater unit (probably knocked out when we shoved one-too-many fenders into the cockpit locker).  Works fine now although I have to now re-do its sea-trial calibration process.

Wild oyster hunting on Hoedic Island.

The tide was rising fast, so Robert and I headed out to gather some wild oysters for dinner.  Patrick started investigating a navigation program glitch (the Automatic Identification System works fine on the free software OpenCPN but not on our very expensive MaxSea).  Benny curled up with the newspaper (with the space heater at her feet !)

Repairs and leisure time.
The nav problem partially understood, we headed off for a walk around the island, finishing at a warm pub for a drink before dinner.

Beautiful walks around Hoedic.
We lingered a bit too long in the warmth of the pub and Patrick and Robert opened oysters in the dark.

Opening wild oysters is hard work...
Dinner!  Oysters for starters, followed by winter stew (sausages, cabbage, carrots, potatoes), cheese, wine, chocolate cake.

Dinner !

Once the dishes were cleared away, Benny introduced us to a ridiculous children’s card game called Dobble that had us all in stitches before long.   

Lights out.

Day 2:

Up at the crack of 9:30.  Breakfast: tea, brioche, toast, butter, jam, yogurt, fruit.  Personal hygiene time, tidying up the boat, and getting the latest weather report.

11:00  Caught the tide for a 1 hour downwind sail to the island of Houat for a picnic lunch in one of our favourite anchorages, the Treach Salus beach.  It was quite grey and depressing, so I didn't take photos.  Here's what it looks like in summer, though !

Treach Salus in better times.
Lunched in the saloon.  Shrimp cocktail and devilled eggs, potato and smoked haring salad, white wine, cheese, fruit, chocolate cake.

14:00 took the tide back into the gulf.  It was a close reach in near-freezing temps with +15 knots of wind, so we put a reef in the main and put up the smaller jib (easier to tack with).  After a few tacks around the rocks of Houat, we made it across the bay on one tack, but then had to short tack for about 1 hour from the entrance of the Gulf to Monks’ Island (Ile aux Moines).  But all that tacking kept us warm ! 

Cold hands, warm hearts ?
18:00  Arrived at Ile aux Moines and tied up to the floating pontoon in the small harbour.  Surprise – shore power has been cut off for the winter.  Tried out the new diesel-powered heating system and discovered we like it even better than the oil-bath radiator. 

Patrick and Robert continued their investigations of the AIS MaxSea.  I got the latest weather report on the VHF radio and calculated the tides for the following day. 

Time for drinks and dinner preparation.  On the menu, a southern specialty, Chicken and Dumplings, made by yours truly, served with garlic green beans, bread, cheese, red wine, and ….drum roll….chocolate cake.

After the dishes were done, we continued our Dobble tournament until 10:30.  Lights out.

Day 3

8:30  There was a stiff breeze and Robert reported that it was really cold out.  This was an ominous announcement from someone who loves the cold and feels unwell when the temperature gets above 15° C (59° F).

We cast off the lines at 9:30, still uncertain about whether we would motor a direct route home or short tack into a stiff headwind for an hour.  After getting into the main channel, we decided to sail.  It was a good decision – great fun with tacking every 5 minutes, so we didn’t feel the cold. (Much.)

10:30 Motor on, sails down, heading home for the bridge opening at 11:00.

11:30 Tied up back home.  Said goodbye to our companions and put the boat in order.  Home, food, shower, nap, cleaning, laundry.

16:30  Walk back to the boat after realizing that I forgot to turn the cooking gas valve off….

Summary:  We did some good sailing, fixed a few things on the boat, and had a fun couple of days with good friends.  Not too bad and certainly nothing to regret.  Would we do it again?  It’s tempting to say no and draw the line at sailing in sub-freezing wind chills, but the truth is that we will probably do it again, simply because the pull of sailing outweighs the discomfort.  Of course, I’m now spending my non-sailing days dreaming about sailing in places where you don’t have to make these kinds of choices… the Atlantic Islands (Madeira, Azores, Canaries), the Caribbean, the South Pacific, etc. 

For more articles on winter sailing, visit The Monkey's Fist !


Unknown said...

This post is strangely familiar. Sounds much like me and Vickie trying to explain why we would go camping in the late fall/winter. Or why one of our best and favorite trips was to Niagra Falls - when they had their biggest fall snow on record. Enjoy the creation!