Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Caribbean Squall

A typical Caribbean squall off St. Maarten
We knew we shouldn't have been out...
The forecast called for a huge wall of heavy squalls associated with a tropical WAVE from Trinidad to the Grenadines and 20-25 knots of wind.  But, we weighed our options and knowing we had to be back in Grenada in two days to drop off Scott's lovely mom - and seeing that the forecast wasn't getting any better - we decided to go for it.

I prepped the boat with extra care, checking to make sure everything was lashed down, dogging down items that might fall, bungeeing our veggie hammocks so they didn't swing and turn our produce into mash...the usual procedure when you have the small luxury of knowing what you are in for.

We headed out in 19-20 knots under full jib and a double-reefed main.  We have learned that sailing conservatively and shortening sail early is never, ever a bad thing.

While in the lee of Carriacou - we could see the squall line approaching.  The sky was a uniform grey and the dark, flat bottomed clouds that loomed just to the east of us were approaching.  "We're going to be getting wet soon" Scott warned.  But he didn't have to tell us, we knew.  That's the thing about squalls at sea; you can see them as clear as day.  More often than not, you can even see the rain literally approaching your boat like the front line of a Calvary.  If you are lucky you can actually steer your boat around them and avoid them, if you are unlucky, they engulf you.

The wind kicked up to a steady 25 as we left the lee of land and entered the passage of open water between Carriacou and Grenada.  It's incredible what a difference sailing in the lee of an island is.  The seas doubled in size and grew to 8-10 foot rollers having nothing to block them between us and Africa.  We told Scott's mom to sit tight and hold on, that we were in for a wild ride.

The first squall literally seemed to swallow us whole.  Usually, when you are in a squall you can see out the other side so you know then end is near, which is very reassuring.  This particular squall was so large and powerful we saw nothing.  Within one minute driving rain was upon us, visibility was reduced to zero, the seas grew angrier still and we had our starboard rail under water.  Scott was silenced by his concentration, and there was nothing Sue or I could do but hold on tight with a white knuckle grip.

The wind kicked up to about 35, and by then, the sea almost was so bizarre.  The tops of the waves were blowing right off and all we could see around us was a wall of white and grey.  "Turn on the radar" Scott directed.  If another boat was bearing down on us, we would have had no clue until it was too late.   Luckily, we were clear.

After about 20 minutes that at the time, seemed an eternity, the winds dropped to the low 20's, our boat righted herself and we were on our way again, but not out of the woods.  Scott and I saw the next one coming and there was nothing we could do but sail on and wait.

No more than six or seven minutes later the big sister to our previous squall was upon us.  Again, the sky seemed to engulf us and the former pitter-patter of rain on deck turned into a loud, constant downpour which left pock marks in the water.  The wind picked up and the rigging began to scream and vibrate.  Thunder, a rarity in a Caribbean squall, boomed behind us. Please don't let there be any lightening I silently wished.  Another gust piped up and we were nearly on our side again, with a fair amount of sea water washing into the cockpit from the rail.  We were soaking wet, despite our full enclosure and hard dodger.

The wind was rounding us way up and at one point we were headed for shore.  Scott asked me if I though we should tack away and I agreed.  We did and, while still careening along at a steady seven knots, we weren't in danger of land.  The gusts were intense and sporadic, and with each one I would pray that nothing would break.  The squall we could handle, but something breaking in those conditions - well, that would have been another story.  Scott, my incredible captain, was cool, calm and in control.  He was very serious, and concentrating very hard and none of us made a sound.  I could see he was struggling with the helm through the gusts and after one particularly large one almost put us on our ear completely he yelled, "We're going to heave-to".

While we knew this storm tactic in theory, we had never actually done it.  Scott turned the wheel hard to port, back winded the jib and eased the main slightly to stall our forward motion.  Our speed plummeted from seven knots to about a half of a knot and our boat was more or less stalled in the storm.  "Well, at least we know our boat heaves-to" I nervously quipped, cracking the only joke that I could muster at the time.

After another 25 minutes or so, the squall passed and within another 40 minutes we were back in the lee of Grenada, which made for a much smoother ride and gentler seas.  While we would never wish to go through squalls like that again, we know we will - it is par for the course in order to live the life we do.  We are so happy to know that our boat is strong enough to handle just about anything nature throws at her and I am forever grateful to have Scott as my Captain - if I am a good sailor, he is incredible, and I feel totally safe when he is in control.

Scott's mom, Sue, was such a trooper.  She never got faltered or panicked at all, having total trust in us and our boat and when it was all said and done asked me, "Were you scared?"

Fear has no place on a boat.  Sure, it creeps up from time to time - but like other emotions like jealousy, insecurity and worry it offers absolutely no benefit to the beholder.  I told her I wasn't "scared" per say, but definitely concerned.  No one in their right mind wants to bring their boat out in that sort of situation, because it's pushing limits and putting a huge amount of stress on the rig and the crew.  If and when something goes wrong in a situation like that (a broken stay, a severed halyard, a blown-out sail, a snapped shackle...etc), consequences can be dire.  So no, I told her, I wasn't scared - but Scott and I were both very serious and making sure we stayed one or two steps ahead of the game.  When it comes to boating and living life in the hands of nature, if you are not a step or two ahead - you are falling behind.

"I am not afeard, my Heart's-delight," resumed the Captain. "There's been most uncommon bad weather in them latitudes, there's no denyin', and they have drove and drove and been beat off, may be t'other side the world. But the ship's a good ship, and the lad's a good lad; and it ain't easy, thank the Lord," the Captain made a little bow, "to break up hearts of oak, whether they're in brigs or buzzums."
- Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

Brittany & Scott


SailFarLiveFree said...

Glad to read you weathered the storm! Being hove-to is such a simple yet often very effective tactic.

You say fear has no place on a boat, but my view differs slightly. One of my very favorite Bob Marley lyrics opines "My fear is my only courage". Fear can be healthy, it can push us to new limits, it can open our eyes and it can help us survive. But still, knowledge and experience can lessen fears, particularly so on a small boat in a large storm.

S/V Mrs Chippy said...

This was a good recounting and excellent seamanship.

It's also a testament to how tough they make those Hallberg-Rassy's.

Bettie del Mar said...

That sounds like a pretty incredible experience! We are heading out in about a year, and I have to admit the idea of an intense storm at sea has me a little apprehensive.

Thanks for the advice on preparedness, and happy sailing!

Juan Valzez said...

Thanks for the story of the squalls - sound like one out of the movie "White Squall" - you should see it if you have not. And great call on heaving to. I had to do it once in the Pacific, and it worked like a charm. Most wouldn't try it without practice, but then I know Scott would do the right thing - whether a bit uncertain or not - and I'm sure he was certain that the situation called for it. Have fun with Kevin........Juan Valdez, aka Al

Mid-Life Cruising! said...

Wow, I have to admit I would have never left the shore! And Scott's mom ... that's one tough lady! Glad everything went okay. We were just saying this past weekend that we need to practive heaving-to. It seems to be a good practice to know!

Artheon said...

Great post as usual. I have to ask though, why is it that you waited so long to heave-to if the wind was so high and you were concerned about the stress on the rigging? I've been reading multiple cruising blogs for a while and I rarely see any mention of heaving-to during bad storms. I'm landlocked so I only do lake sailing but eventually plan on cruising, and heaving-to seems like it should be on every sailors lists of tools to battle heavy weather but it seems to be lost on most sailors. Is there a difference being hove-to on a lake as compared to the ocean that would keep people from doing it more often?

Windtraveler said...

@Artheon - we hove to when we felt we needed to, the boat was handling the situation fine and it wasn't until we almost went on our ear in a gust that we made the call. After being at sea for over a year, this is the first time we've ever done it. Our boat has handled fine in winds of 35 knots, but in this case it was very, very gusty which made it more difficult.

Artheon said...

Thanks for the response. In your preperations for the next squall you should include "Mount GoPro on Stern" so during the storm you can easily record video of the entire boat and use to review (and maybe share with the rest of the world) later to see if it was as bad as it seemed. I have one mounted on the back of my J24 while I race and it's an invaluable tool to help me see things that I forget when I'm in or don't notice in the moment. IMO the wide-angle view works the best for this.

KitchenKiki said...

I've just discovered this blog & am catching up
I'm really surprised that as life long sailors, heaving to wasn't something that you had done.
That was definitely one the things in the "bag of tricks" that our sailing teacher made sure we knew. It isn't difficult, but it was nice to learn how & when to do it.
I'm glad to see that it works as well as advertised.

On another note, I'm glad I found this blog - I've been enjoying it immensely!

Anonymous said...

DreamSpirit. I was at the tender young age of 20 when I had the fright of my life. Not on a sailboat, but on a 28' commercial salmon fishing boat in Shelikof Strait off the Alaska Peninsula. It was April and we were headed for the great herring fishing grounds of Togiak Bay, north of Bristol Bay. As can often happen in Shelikof Strait, a flat, calm sea turned into a raging nightmare in the time frame of about 20 minutes. There was just my friend Bob and I on the boat and there was nowhere to go except ahead. No coves to hide in, no bays to enter for safety. It was just us and the 20' seas that came sideways and threw our boat over so the crows nest was flooded with water. Everything inside the cabin came flying open and peanut butter mixed with boxes of jello to make a nice, slippery mess. It's the only time in all my years as a commercial fisherman did I feel the need to get out my survival suit. Our radio was flooded as was the radar. We endured those 20' seas for over 13 hours until finally a small cove came into view on the wet chart which by then was barely readable. The skiff had come loose on the stern of the boat but neither Bob nor I dared try to tighten it down for fear of getting thrown overboard. We were both exhausted once safely in the cove and sleep came without even cleaning up the destruction of the cabin. The Togiak herring fishery was a bust and having felt I had paid my dues getting the boat to Dillingham in one piece, I voted the other crew to return the boat to Kodiak Island, its home port.

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