Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Taking a Different Tack Part III

By John S. Mickman

Just before we broke out from behind the breakwater, I turned our bow into the wind and Jim hoisted the mains'l. On the way up, the sail was flapping like crazy. "Keep going Jimmy", I called out as he cranked the windless as fast as he could, which raised the sail. "The batons have cleared the skipjacks so just go full bore!", I exclaimed trying to minimize wear and tear on the sail because it was flapping so hard. "OK Jim, just 3 more feet, 2 more feet, 6 inches more. That's it. Make 'er fast", and Jim secured the halyard brake and took the mains'l halyard off the windless. Next Jim spread the fores'l as I turned the boat to port. When the wind caught both these sails, Morning Star began to fly on her own and I shut down the engine. "Yeee-Haaa..." Jim shouted as the wind seeming lifted the boat half way out of the water. "We're just flying along John".

I smiled at Jim, a little less exhilarated; the anemometer read 32 knots as we broke free of the harbors' breakwater. The morning's forecast hadn't been any different from the previous evenings; 25 knots 'till noon, then 30 knots - but it was only 6:30 and we already had over 30 knots of wind. To make matters worse, the wind had not let up over the night, and the seas had continued to build. There were 8 foot sea's, plus the odd rogue wave to over 12 feet. Big weather for our 37' sailboat.

But, Morning Star is a tough little boat and parted the seas nicely as we sailed along. I advised Jim that we may need to put the weather on our tail and return to the harbor if it got too much tougher, but for the time being we'd keep plowing along.

The other bad news was that the wind was still from the NNW - right from the direction we needed to go. So we began our close coast tacking, back and forth sailing rapidly, but never in the right direction. After an hour, we had only gained about 3 miles of distance toward Dana Point, even though we were making about 5 knots of speed.

As the wind continued to build, now at 35 knots, Jim and I decided to take a different tack: "We just aren't making enough headway Jim. I think we need to head off-shore about 10 or 12 miles and hope to catch the wind off our portside bow enough to blow us up to Dana Point", I said. Jim agreed, but offered that he hoped we wouldn't need to get that far off shore, "At 5 knots that 10 miles is going to take 2 hours John, and we'll be going in the wrong direction. We won't get any further away from Dana Point, but we sure won't be getting any closer. Don't you want to be back in a harbor by noon?" he asked.

"Yea I do Jim, but we aren't going to make it by trying to tack back and forth all day. I think it's worth a shot. If we don't like the way it's going, or the weather gets too tough, we can always change course and let the wind blow us back to Oceanside", I said. "OK John, let' come about then. A different tack - coming up!", Jim shouted.

 Jim is a great guy to go sailing with, as we can bounce ideas off each other until we arrive at the best decisions. Hopefully. And being my brother, he has the same sense of adventure and 'brinkmanship' as me. We're both always ready to take a calculated risk - usually with a backup plan in place. "OK Jimmy, coming about", I yelled through the wind as Jim went forward to work the rigging.

When we got on our new course, just a tad north of due west, we picked up another knot of speed to 6 knots. Our 10 mile goal would take us about an hour and a half. Morning Star was knifing through the building seas nicely, but the further out we got, the higher the seas became. When we were down in the trough between two seas, we could not see over their crests.

But Morning Star was doing great and the wind was steady, now at over 35 knots. As Jim and I talked about the wind and the water, we watched as multiple squalls out to sea raced along, most of the time missing us, but not always.  When one of the racing squalls hit us, the wind would pick up a couple of knots and the rain would come down sideways, peppering our faces with hard, cold pricks. Very irritating.

When we were about 8 miles off shore, Jim went below to make a pot of tea to warm up a little bit; I'm not much of a tea drinker, but a nice hot cup of tea sounded good to me too. As we were passing through yet another squall, I squinted through the rain and noted what looked like a sea racing toward us that was much bigger than the others. "Rogue Wave!", I yelled out to Jim down in the galley. "Hang on!"

Years ago while fishing the North Pacific on the King Crab boat the Marcy J, my buddy Chris Jones and I often talked about the different effects of wind on the water. We came up with a grading system that seemed to work pretty well and we always knew what the other was referring to. Flat calm was when the surface was still as a Mill Pond; not a ripple. This condition is rare and we only really saw it when the barometer would drop precipitously before a SW gale. It would become very calm - and scary if we were fishing way off shore.

Then there was a rippled surface, then chop, then waves, then seas and then ground swells. After a couple of days of 40 knot plus winds, the ground swells are the ones that grow to 40 foot plus monsters. The distance between the crests of huge ground swells can approach a hundred yards or more depending upon the height of the swell. The problem is that in big weather, there are ripples on the waves, waves on the seas, that can approach 20 feet, and seas on the 40 ground swells. When a big sea and a huge ground swell break together at the crest it is an unfortunate place for your boat to be. This whole living thing moves at breakneck speed and no vessel will slow it down; the ship needs to move with the sea or she will break apart.

I've never found anything more exhilarating than being at sea is a storm - big or small. The energy of the wind and water as they move past you and your vessel is incalculable. If you're on a good boat, it's fun. If you are not, it will be terrifying.

They call them rouge waves, but this one was a 20 foot sea, and it came screaming up to us at breakneck speed. As Morning Star climbed up the steep side of this sea, there were large waves upon her surface that were breaking, and their froth was being lifted off the water and into the air; 'smoke on the water'. I glanced at the anemometer; the needle bounced off 40 knots of now screaming wind. This was sailing!

The boat was cutting through these smaller waves nicely, but as we neared the top of this sea, a large wave joined with the sea and they combined to break together into a foaming broth of cold sea water. I held on to the wheel tightly as our bow went through this breaker - not over it - cascading water across the whole boat. Heavy spray hit me hard across the face and chest in a refreshing burst that nearly took my breath away. As my eyes cleared, I saw our bow and the front third of the boat clear the top of the sea, becoming airborne, and then come crashing down the back side as we raced down to the trough again. I worried that the bow would bury itself into the next oncoming sea and have a tough time recovering, but when we hit bottom, Morning Star's bow bobbed up like a cork; no worries.

When the commotion died down, I called down to Jimmy; we needed to talk. "OK Jim, that last sea was a big one and right at the wrong moment the wind hit 40 knots. I've decided that is the line; if the wind sustains 40, we're coming about and heading back to Oceanside", I said with about as much conviction as I've ever mustered.

Jim thought about it and offered, "How about if we came about and got the wind on a starboard tack? She might handle quite a bit better. I hate to turn around when we've gone this far", Jim said. I replied that we weren't far enough off shore to tack back yet, and we'd have to climb just as far into the wind, just from the other side of the boat. "Nope", I said. "We will stay on this course for at least another 15 minutes, then take a look at our position. I don't want to have to climb up these seas like this all day."

In the end, we agreed that we needed to hold onto our present course until we could get a good tack, on a more favorable course, right into Dana Point harbor. The gods were with us because the wind never hit 40 knots again, it stayed at about 35 knots or a little more. We were really having a great time, telling stories, adjusting the sails, watching each sea carefully to make sure we 'hit' it right and checking our gear. Sailing in heavy weather is a busy pursuit.

We finally reached a point just over 10 miles off shore, that a course back toward Dana Point looked favorable. "Stand by the come about Jim", I yelled over the still screaming wind and spray. "OK skipper, I'm ready to go", Jim yelled back after getting his lines ready. I turned the wheel to starboard and Morning Star responded, instantly turning her nose back toward the NNE - back toward land.

This different tack took us on a course just upwind from Dana Point; perfect! And with a little less 'up hill' sailing to do, our speed picked up to almost 9 knots; a perfect course. We were slicing through the water as the seas, now coming on to us from about the 10 o'clock position, lifted us gently up then set us down just as nicely. We were making almost twice the speed as we had been earlier in the day - and the day before. Brother Jim and I were elated as I checked our course, speed and time to destination; just about an hour. We would be in Dana Point by noon. Perfect.

At about that time, a large squall cleared and we saw Dana Point for the first time. We couldn't quite make out where the harbor entrance was, so I referred to the iPad Nav app and had Jim adjust our course accordingly. Then, about a half hour before reaching the harbor, a hole in the clouds broke open and showered the small harbor area with wonderful, golden sunshine. Grinning, I looked at my brother and said,  "Look at that Jim. They turned on the lights for us". Jim started chuckling and gave me a big hug. "What a great sail Johnny", he said as his crazy helmet raked across my ear and his grizzly whiskers sanded the side of my cheek.

The closer we got to the harbor, the sunnier it became, and we shed our jackets and sweaters and basked in the warm sunshine. It felt wonderful. When we arrived behind the breakwater at Dana Point, the wind died down to less than 15 knots and we took down the sails as we motored slowly up the calm waters of the channel. We watched as the people on shore enjoyed a day in what appeared to be a wonderful park. How nice and relaxed they seemed.  But they had all missed a wonderful sailing trip up the coast with my brother Jim and me. As I thought about how lucky my brother and I are to be able to spend time like this together, I had to brush a small tear from my eye.

Arriving at noon, we had time to explore Dana Point and environs, and decided to hitchhike to Capistrano Mission a tad south in San Clemente. What a fabulous old Mission – one of just a handful of Spanish Missions that were established in California in the 1700 and 1800’s.

At our first corner we purchased $10 worth of fresh strawberries (two heaping baskets full) from a fruit stand. The lady wouldn’t just sell us a smaller amount, but Jim and I figured we would share with whoever picked us up. However, taking our first bite of these luscious strawberries, as the sweet juice ran down our chins, we both know we would be hard pressed to share. We ended up having to take a bus due to no one giving us a ride (it isn’t like the old days) and we ate every last strawberry. We were so full of fruit, that when we met cousin Heidi and Tim for dinner, we weren’t very hungry. However, we had a lovely dinner and it was a wonderful time catching up with these two wonderful, engaged people. And, as a bonus, Tim refused to let us pay our share of the check; a free dinner! Thank you Tim!

*  *  *  *  *

Sometime later, I thought about how much this sailing trip reminded me of any number of times in my life. You know, things just don't seem to be going well, and whatever you do, they don't seem to get any better.

I've been there many, many times. I would find myself taking short tacks in a direction that was not working. Then, a big, new idea occurs to me, one that would involve some degree of risk, but what the hell, the other ideas weren't working anyway; why not try it.

So, I take a completely different tack, making the commitment to a big course change. I've seldom regret the things I've done; I only regret the times when I didn't try something ‘that could have been’.

My brother Jim agreed. A month after this sailing adventure, they found another tumor growing inside of our brother Jim's brain. Jimmy passed away on Easter Sunday at 6:30 PM, in 2013 at his home with our family looking on. He was only 58 years old.

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