Wednesday, 11 June 2014

First Night

The sky was clear, the moon was nearly full and the winds light.  The forecast was for steady westerly winds, force 3 to 4, a perfect night to test our night navigation equipment and ourselves.  That reverie was short-lived.  Around 1:30 in the morning, we put in the first reef, one hour later, the second, and by 3 a.m. we had rolled up the genoa entirely and were wondering whether or not to start rigging the 3rd reef (which we failed to do before leaving because the sky was clear, the moon was nearly full and the winds light, etc.)

The plan was to head down to the Loire river estuary, buzz around the waiting cargos to test our AIS system, then head back in time for sunrise.  Half way there, the southern sky was illuminated along the coast by lightening and we started getting pummelled with strong gusts.  U-TURN !  A big anvil-shaped cloud blocked out our moon and the wind howled through the shrouds as we made a dash back into the relative calm of the Quiberon bay.

We zig-zagged across the bay for the next 3 hours, trying to maintain a comfortable and stable course.  We dodged a couple of fishing boats and had the piss scared out of us by a huge unidentified unmoving blob lit up light a Christmas tree, which we eventually identified as wind turbines along the coast (not shown on our charts).  At daybreak, the wind died out completely and a light steady rain fell.  We tried to coax the sails to stay filled but we finally cracked and started up the motor for a wet one-hour trip to the port of La Turballe.

As a test, it was a good one, although it was not at all the confidence-building experience we had in mind.  Here are a few things we learned along the way:

1.  Head-lamps are a must.  We have two on board but hadn’t put the batteries because we didn’t think we would need them (calm night…no need for reefing, right?).  Trying to work with one hand while the other holds a flashlight on a rolling boat is ridiculous. 

2.  The pilot works well and is very much appreciated, especially at night.  Finally !  We’ve been without a reliable pilot for over a year.  Even after the new computer was installed last week, it was plagued with a bad electrical connection that I was able to track down and fix at sea.  We feel (relatively) confident about it now.

3.  Our watch schedule went to hell as the wind increased.  We tried to take turns resting but the noise and tension were too much until the wind died down around 5 a.m.  For a 24 hour passage, this is no big deal.  Two days or more?  Untenable.  Once the wind started calming down, Patrick managed to get some sleep and I managed to shake out both reefs and unroll the Genoa by myself (with the help of the pilot).

4.  Our at-sea bunk is cold!  Need to put down a sleeping bag.

5.  We had difficulties adjusting our clothing appropriately between the cockpit and the saloon.  We wanted to stay more-or-less fully clothed and ready to jump up to the cockpit to help the person on watch at any moment.  But staying fully clothed meant sweltering in the saloon below (while the bunk itself seemed icy…nasty combination).  Next time, we’ll strip off all the outer gear and just have shoes and lifejacket in place.

6.  Next time, we will rig the bloody 3rd reef point before leaving home, no matter what the weather forecast says. 

7.  We will never believe the weather forecast.  We had thought about putting in a preventative reef at sunset, just in case, but the weather conditions were so nice we decided not to.  It was relatively easy to put in the reefs when we needed them (we’re early reefers anyway) but I think a preventative reef may be a good habit to develop.   

8.  Easy to eat / easy to access food is important.  Since the night was supposed to be calm, I didn’t prepare anything ahead of time.  I was able to make soup and sandwiches, but it wasn’t easy or comfortable.  I also forgot to set up the pot-holders for the stove (to keep the kettle clamped in place). 

9.  The bad stuff gets forgotten easier than you think.  While we were discussing whether or not to rig the 3rd reef, Patrick looked at me and said “I don’t think we’re ready for a 3 day crossing of Biscay,” to which I replied, “There’s no way we’re crossing Biscay.”  24 hours later, we seemed to have forgotten all about our rough night, instead agreeing that, while it was stressful and uncomfortable, we could gut it out for a few days if we had to. 

10.  But it’s supposed to be fun, isn’t it?  This realization came while we were asking ourselves “why are we doing this again?”  We’ve done long crossings before as crew and it was fun, even if there were some rough passages here and there.  But being a short-handed skipper and crew on your own boat is another story and the anxiety is pretty heavy. 

Maybe we should take some smaller steps first, like hugging the coast as far as we can and then making a 24-hour hop to the Spanish coast, rather than setting off directly for a 3 day notoriously-rough crossing.  I’m confident that after a couple of successful 24-hour crossings, we’ll be ready for something bigger.  We’ve got no calendar that says we have to be somewhere on a given date, so why push so far outside our comfort zone?  One of the blogs I enjoy following is called, reassuringly,  “just a little further” where the crew of Nine of Cups stress the importance of concentrating on little challenges first and building experience slowly to ensure that thing stay enjoyable.  That’s the key to keeping long-term sailing ambitions alive and a philosophy that appeals to me on the eve of a big challenge !