Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Sailing on our own

After completing three ASA classes, we figured we should get out and actually sail on our own.   So a couple of months ago, we signed up to charter a boat in Lake City, MN.  As the weekend got close, I checked the weather and it was a sort of new sailor hell.  The forecast: winds 15-25, with gusts over 30mph.   Storms coming through in the afternoon on Saturday.   Same on Sunday, except highs in the 60s.  We considered canceling, but really wanted to practice before we forget everything, so we went.

So how did it go?  Here are the gory details:

The Boat: a 35' C&C Landfall. It was in great shape. We had done our lessons on an older 35' boat of a different brand with the exact same layout, and it is amazing what a few good design choices and some good upkeep can make in livability. No complaints on the boat, both the living and the sailing were far easier than the previous boat we'd been on.

The charter service: The guy who rented the boat to us was a (non-ASA) instructor, and was shockingly casual about safety. He gave us such tidbits of advice as "don't worry about a little propane in the cabin", and, to leave the dock, just have someone hold the line and jump on at the last second. Can you get away with that stuff most of the time? Probably. What is the cost of failure? WAY too high.

So we spent Friday night settling into the boat, seeing a little bit of the town, and trying to decide if we should go out.   Our less-than-safety conscious charter guy didn't think it would be a problem.

Day 1 (Saturday): I woke up a bit woozy. I almost never get motion sickness, and it had been a fairly calm night, but I needed to go walk around and get some food and a shower to clear my head. Something about the particular motion that night got to me.

As predicted, the wind was directly from the south. Our slip was on the south side of a two-boat slip, and not far from a very high seawall, so we were well-protected. Furthermore, it was nearly a straight shot from the harbor into the slip. We couldn't have asked for a better slip. (Cue ominous music).

We checked the forecast and it was about the same as predicted, with the possibility of some storms in the evening. The lake was breezy but no whitecaps, and a bunch of boats were out. So we decided to go for it -- we only had the boat for two days.

We had reefed at the dock. The sail only had one reef point, so we had no choice. We raised the main and left the jib furled. I figured I'd get familiar with the boat with a nice broad reach. For the next few hours, we had an amazingly pleasant run at 5-8 knots. We had a quick lunch and decided it was time to get back to give us plenty of time before the storms rolled in. We had been considering anchoring out, but the predicted storms left that plan in question; we figured we'd check the radar as we got close. In the end, though, that question was settled by a more pressing matter: one of our bags of groceries had been left at home (in the fridge), and all we had left after lunch was bread, water, and potato chips.  

The trip back upwind was, to say the least, interesting. Once we turned, the two young kids and my wife started feeling the motion of the boat, and weren't comfortable with the healing. They didn't get sick, but they weren't 100%, either.

So we stayed main only. Experienced sailors will immediately know what that means: after 40 minutes or so, we'd barely made any progress into the wind. We were moving at a couple knots, but lost it to the wind. So I had to make a choice: motor sail, motor, or let out some jib. Based on the discomfort of 3/5 of the crew with the healing we were already doing, I went with motor sail.

After about 20 minutes, the back line on the reef came out. Lesson number 1: don't trust other people's knots. (It had already been in, I assumed someone knew what they were doing and so I didn't look closely.) So I was out there in 20+ winds trying to redo the reef in the main while my son steered. Lesson #2: It's really hard. Lesson #3: I can tie a bowline one-handed if I need to!

Another 10 minutes or so, and we just gave up on the sail, and decided to motor back. By this time, the wind was well into the 20's, and we were getting ocean-style waves with whitecaps. I took the advice of random strangers on a sailing forum and trusted the boat, and it was really kind of a fun ride, getting sprayed with the warm water and riding the crests.  

A few hours later, we finally made it back to the harbor, and the wind was nuts, it had to be sustained 25 or more. We made our plan on how to dock, and as we approached the friendly people from a neighboring boat came out to help us. Once I got beyond the sea wall it was much easier to maneuver, but not easy enough. Once I got below about 3 knots, I lost steering and the wind took over. I made an attempt to make it to the slip, and the wind put me WAY off, way further than I expected, and rapidly toward another boat. I stayed calm, used the engines in forward and reverse to do an in-place turn, and headed out of the harbor to regroup.

Did I mention there was a two-story party boat right on the corner of the harbor, with about 50 drunk people to witness my ability? If they hadn't been there, I literally would've had a straight shot.

Attempt #2 I try to swing a little closer to the party boat to get a better angle, but once again as soon as I got below three knots I lost steering and started drifting. I could see the panicked eyes of the people on the party boat as I started drifting toward them, but I didn't feel panicked at all. Once again, I used forward and reverse to execute a perfect in-place 180 and headed back out of the harbor to regroup for attempt three. 

Lesson #4: With practice, calm, and confidence, I can handle a boat in tight quarters pretty well.

So now, after two really bad misses, I didn't have any solid plan for attempt #3 except come in hotter. Fortunately, the helpful neighbors at the dock had, by this time, gone to the end of the dock and waved us to tie off there. Since it was the south end, it was a piece of cake, all I had to do is go to neutral and let the wind bring me in. We tied off there, and went to ask the charter guy what we should do. I started explaining about failed attempt #1 and watched his face fall, and then #2 and he started really looking shocked and I realized I needed to get to the end of the story. When I told him we were securely tied on the end, he said that's fine, leave it there for the night, and became downright chatty about the boat.

Lesson #5: When you have a scary story for a charter rental guy, start with the good news.

So we went and got some dinner and came back and looked at the storms coming in on the radar. There were tornado watches and predictions of 40 mph winds, and the radar showed two huge waves of storms centered right at us.

And then, it didn't rain. I checked the radar, and the first wave of storms seemed to just break in half, one to the north, one to the south. There was no way the second wave could miss us though, right?

And then, the second wave did the exact same thing. We barely got any wind at all, and barely any rain.

We talked to several of the experienced guys around the dock, and told them our sailing adventures of the day, and they said they had really struggled to get into dock today, that they had to come in way hotter than they ever had before and then slammed it into reverse. They basically said everyone was struggling that day, and we had done about as well as could be expected on an unfamiliar boat in those conditions. One guy said he had clocked a gust of 38 during the time we were fighting our way back into the wind.

Day 2: Sunday morning

At this point we were a bit tired and discouraged. The wake up conditions were still 20mph winds, around 58 degrees, and cold drizzle. That's known as "summer" here in Minnesota. There were almost no other boats out, and the wind had already reached the levels of late afternoon the previous day.

The good news was the wind had shifted from South to NW -- basically the perfect direction for the two things we had to do that day, which was pump out and go back to our slip.

We discussed going out sailing again, but 60 degrees and wet and 20 mph winds sounds really unpleasant. So we relaxed on the boat, packed up, cleaned, just on the chance the conditions would break early (instead of 6pm as predicted). Finally, around noon we just faced facts.

Based on the wind in the harbor, we deduced we could do the docking at the pump-out dock (which faced north, and was approached from the east). So we cruised in and let the wind drift us to a smooth stop. Getting out was just as effortless. 

We only had one test left -- getting into the slip next to another boat. Again, the dock was on the south, approached from the east -- the other boat was on the windward side today. As an added bonus, the party boat was gone so our angle of approach was straight on.

The docking was again flawless -- we had done it.

Lesson #6: Mother nature is going to win most of the time, you can cooperate, or you can take chances.

Summing up:

This was supposed to be our first real test of how we would do as a family sailing on our own. It turned out to be a little discouraging in that it was way harder than anything we had hoped for on our first try. The good news is we didn't wreck the boat, we didn't hurt anyone or ourselves, and proved we can handle less-than-ideal conditions. I also learned a bit more about handling big boats. I didn't really need to learn this much the first try, really, I would've settled for a nice lazy day with the kids swimming and us watching the sunset with some margaritas.

So... success? I'm not sure, overall I'd probably say yes. Relaxing fun family weekend? No, not really. Better than working? Yeah. And maybe that's the key, as our decision is whether I should retire next year and do this full time -- on a cat, in warm weather, on our boat.