The “passing squall” at 7am, just an hour after departure, never passed.
It just kept blowing “like snot”, as they say. This morning’s gentle 10-15kt wind had turned into 20-25kt steady with higher gusts.
I was flying the big reacher sail, designed for lighter winds. A lot can break on the boat with a powerful sail under strong winds: the sail itself can rip, the blocks can snap, the rig or rudder arm can be overstressed.
So I turned a bit downwind, to reduce the apparent wind (ie. to go with the wind). Aldebaran was galloping at a boat speed of 9-10kts steady, sometimes at 12kts! This was exciting & fun- but irresponsible. After 10 minutes going off course, with no evidence that the wind would lighten, I knew I had to reduce sail, (aka “reef the sail”). Sigh. The question was, how to do it alone with such a powerful sail??
The sailing adage is: “If you are thinking about reefing, you should reef!” Not doing so can be outright dangerous to your boat. However, reefing usually requires pointing the boat into the wind and waves, which in itself can cause destruction (as the apparent wind increases, everything goes crazy).
Solution: I must do the opposite, and go further downwind, in order to safely reef. This would allow the mainsail to “shadow” the big reacher, momentarily draining it of power. That would give me a fighting chance at bringing the reacher down quickly, and not run over it with the boat.
But the problem is that when going downwind, the boat course becomes unstable, especially with just the autopilot steering. It could turn a few degrees too far and accidentally jibe the boat, which could break the boom (along with other things).
So this afternoon’s lesson aboard Aldebaran:
Use “preventative medicine” to prevent further harm… I did three things:
1- I used a line called a “preventer” (ironic huh?) to prevent the boom from swinging and snapping, in event of an accidental jibe.
2- I hoisted the inner jib. It feels counter-intuitive to raise more canvas when the boat is already over-powered; but this tiny sail would greatly help the boat maintain its balance and steerage once the big headsail came down.
3- Lastly, I ran the jacklines, which I could clip onto with a harness; if something dramatic happened, I needed to stay attached to the boat at all costs!
Thankfully, the seas were fairly mild and the autopilot did a marvelous job steering the boat. The little inner jib balanced the unruly mainsail and the boat stayed on course at 160 degrees to the wind for about 4 minutes – which is what I needed on the foredeck to claw down the huge reacher sail, and race back to the helm.
I then hoisted a tougher, smaller headsail, and double-reefed the mainsail.
With this configuration, Aldebaran averaged 7.5 knots for the whole afternoon, a blazing speed for our old tri. The steering was happier, and the boat shook with energy, instead of convulsing with excess power.
At night I used an alarm to wake me up every 30 minutes to scan the horizon. Some solo sailors claim they must wake up every 15 minutes because that is how long a fast-moving cargo ship will move from out of view into a potentially dangerous collision course. However, these days AIS alarms are ubiquitous to alert us of ships; so we have to worry more about the smaller, slower moving craft like fishing boats.
Sure enough, at 2am the AIS alarm sounded, from a cargo ship 8nm away. Then at my 3am wake-up, groggy from another thirty minute catnap, I saw lights from a fishing boat. No collision course, no problem.
Meanwhile, Aldebaran just blasted along on course for Tahiti, and we were set to arrive 8hrs earlier than expected!
Photo: Aldebaran’s instruments at 7:14am, an hour and a half after departure from Tikehau. Wind 23 knots, boat speed 9.4 knots. Distance to Tahiti: 168 nm. Usually these squalls pass and wind returns to 15kts. Not today!