The Voyage to Nowhere

Passage Notes (continued)

Saturday, May 29, 2004 (Day 3 of the Juan Fernández Passage)

Well, I spoke too soon. The inclement weather that was here yesterday is still here today.

My night watch last night wasn't too bad—it was a mixed bag of clouds and some showers with moderate winds. There was a half-moon overhead, and I watched it turn fuzzy and indistinct as high thin clouds passed in front of it. Given the direction of the wind and weather, the clouds passed in front of the moon just before they reached our location. I used the moon to gauge how serious the clouds were about producing rain. If you could still see the shape of the moon through the cloud, no problem. If you couldn't see the shape of the moon but the cloud was bright white, maybe a little rain. If the moon was fully obscured by a dark cloud, yes, some rain was coming our way.

When I went on deck for my morning watch, the weather didn't look too bad. Marcie had had some showers, but it had stopped raining and you could even see a colorful patch on the horizon where the sun was coming up. The first half of the watch was reasonable, with a ragged gray overcast and moderate winds. Now and then a small band of showers would pass over, but even these showers mostly missed us. Later on, though, I was not so lucky. A rather ordinary-looking rain shower approached, but as it started passing over us, conditions worsened. Tipped off by the bands of rain and whitecaps that were rapidly approaching, I quickly furled the jib and left us under a triple-reefed main. As the squall hit, the wind suddenly increased to 25 to 30 knots and it poured down rain. The surface of the sea, already lumpy from the prevailing wind and swell, was whipped into a quick steep chop from the sudden strong wind. As a deluge of rain pelted the ocean, the water's surface took on a granulated appearance from the countless raindrops each making a small and distinct splash. As each raindrop hit the surface, it splashed and spawned several tiny droplets. These droplets were blown across the waves by the gusting winds, swirling around and over individual wavelets and streaming across the surface. The swirling streams of tiny droplets looked like drifting snow being blown across the surface, and they even looked white like snow and made the surface look much lighter than normal.

I was sitting in a corner of the cockpit, hunched over and trying to stay warm. Because the wind was coming from aft and port, the dodger offered no real protection and the heavy rain blew through the cockpit, drenching me. I couldn't even look up at the approaching wind since my eyes would immediately be pelted by stinging raindrops. (The next time you drive your car through a downpour at 35 mph, stick your head way out the window and try looking into the oncoming rain!) My rainsuit was leaking badly at the seams and I could feel water pooling inside the seat of my rain pants. I wound up getting soaked to the skin and chilled; part-way through the squall I had to go below to put on warmer clothes.

The boat did very well all by itself and I didn't have to adjust anything. We were broad reaching under a triple-reefed main, doing over five knots in the gusty winds. Several times over the next two hours the wind and rain lessened and it seemed like the squall was blowing itself out. But these were cruel deceptions—more pelting rain and vigorous winds could be seen in the distance speedily working their way towards us to resume their assault.

As 12:00 noon approached, David came into the cockpit to relieve me, and boy was I glad to go below. I was soaked and very disheartened by the really bad weather. I continue to worry about the weather, because we are heading into the Southern Hemisphere winter. I worry about having lots of cold wet windy weather, because I don't want to wind up disliking this passage. I like passagemaking, but only when you get at least some good with the bad. The really bleak sodden weather of the past couple days can really get my mood down. It can take a lot out of you both physically and mentally.

While David was on watch it blew like stink, with wind and rain, a near-gale. But then miraculously it began to clear up, with patches of blue sky appearing in the west-southwest (which is where the bad weather was coming from). It continued clearing, and by the time my dog watch started, the bad weather was only a memory. The sun was out and it felt wonderfully warm and healing, despite the low angle of the late afternoon sun. My spirit was lifted and I was so relieved that there was, in fact, an end to the bad weather. I peeled off my soggy rainwear to dry out the sodden layers below and hung up clothes on the lifeline to dry. I stood aft of the cockpit with my arms spread wide gripping the boom gallows, and let the sun warm my back and dry my clothes. I felt like a cormorant sunning itself and drying its wings.

Here's a basic question you might be wondering: if it's bad weather, wind and rain, why stay in the cockpit? Why not go below and just visit topsides now and then? Well, the main reason is that a sailboat is so affected by the winds (as you might expect). During a squall, the winds can change dramatically in both strength and direction, and these changes can occur suddenly. A sailboat is designed to be in harmony with the winds, but this condition doesn't happen by accident—someone must be on-hand, continuously observing the situation, to spot when some disharmony starts to occur. Then you make whatever changes are necessary (adjusting the sails, changing course, etc.) to restore the harmony. A sailboat is complicated enough, and the situations are dynamic enough, that somebody really has to be there, observing the situation in detail, and following through with adjustments. You build up a mindset of how everything is going (wind, seas, set and draw of sails, boat speed, heeling, course, upcoming weather, etc.) and become very much in tune with the boat. You already know (from experience) what the boat likes and dislikes, and you can readily sense how the boat is feeling from moment to moment. Operating a sailboat is not a rote mechanical process, like driving a car down the highway. It's a much more complex yet subtle process, like a cowboy using his favorite horse to round up cattle.

Another reason to remain topsides is to maintain a good watch. Granted, visibility can be poor during inclement weather, and a watchstander might not see anything other than an eyeful of rain. But it is a sacred duty of all mariners to keep watch—we are not the only ship on the ocean (although we rarely see other vessels). There can be other hazards, too, so it is necessary to remain topsides and do you duty.

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