Friday, April 9, 2010


April 8, 2010
Enroute to Cayo Frances, Cuba

It seemed the perfect day to fly the gennaker.

Go figure.

After 3 days of gloriously unrelenting 25 knot tradewinds following us along the North coast of Cuba the wind finally chose other boats to play with. It took its bat and went home.

Meredith and companion boat Joana were not exactly floundering but 10 to 15 knots off the stern is not particularly motivating.

There are three things you can in these "light air" conditions: put in to a good anchorage and wait for wind, turn on your engine or fly your light air sail, also called a gennaker. So the choices are quit, motor or sail.

We came to sail. In light air we use a gennaker, a specially designed brightly coloured wedge of nylon that not only improves a boats performance but looks very very GQ.

Real sailors sail spinnakers. Spinnakers are complicated sailing contraptions with poles and lines everywhere. They are finicky to control and take a lot of skill. The setup includes foreguys, afterguys and top guys. Frankly there are so many guys the whole thing seems a little gay. But real sailors know how to handle these light air contraptions. Gennakers look just like spinnakers - and you don't have to know anything. As we were about to prove.

Our gennaker when properly set creates a brilliant green and white banner to lead our boat. It is as if we were leading French lancers to war.

Today was the day to fly ours The Budget Committee said I could.

Now the disadvantage is that a gennaker can be bit awkward to set up. Our gennaker lives in a big sock with only the bottom corners sticking out. To set it up you connect one corner to the forestay and the other corner to a sheet (a sheet is a rope which runs from the sail to the cockpit so the sailor can control tension on the sail. Once the bottom corners were connected all you had to do was hoist the gennaker to the top of the mast and pull off the sock. Freed of its constraining hood the gennaker fills with air and leads the boat turgid and proud.

A bit time more consumingthan pulling out a furled sail the process is not difficult for ordinary sailors. Today was our day to be extraordinary.

It started with a bright idea. Usually we would furl in the headsail and then tend to setting up the gennaker. It made more sense to get the gennaker ready while the headsail was still working to move the boat. We would lose less time on the sail change that way. In minutes I had the gennaker sheet attached to one corner of the sail. The gennaker was hoisted to masthead and all we needed to do was furl in the headsail, connect the remaining corner of the gennaker to to the forestay and pull up the sock.

As we furled in the headsail we managed to tangle one headsail sheet in the gennaker sock. With the sheet caught we could not completely furl in the headsail. The Budget Committee went forward to try to untangle the mess. This did not go well. We now had a partially furled headsail which was making a lot of noise flapping away at the front of the boat. It was a mess.

It became obvious as the BC worked that I would have to drop the sock containing the gennaker so I went forward to do so. The furling line of our half furled headsail was piled in the cockpit. Most of it at least. One little loop had found its way around my foot and as I attempted to hurriedly move my avoirdupois forward to help the BC it clamped around my ankle and pulled me down. Hard.

I recall being thankful that my head missed the cockpit winch and hit only the combing beside it. This was not clear thinking. Had I been unconscious I would have missed the rest of the ensuing debacle. Undeterred I shook off the fall and went forward to help a fiercely busy Budget Committee. As we worked a gust of wind caught my favourite hat, the one that was on my head, and deposited it in the ocean as a gift I suppose to Neptune.

We cleared the sail, returned to the cockpit and started the motor so we could backtrack to my errant headgear which was retrieved but salty.

At this point we could have quit. Our intentions had been thwarted and we were tired. However we reasoned we could not allow this sail to beat us. It was necessary to "get back up on the horse". It was time for us to dig down deep and be sailors.

This time we furled in the headsail. We slowed the boat. All lines were connected and checked. I hoisted the gennaker to the top of the mast. It was time to let loose our mighty colours.

Now why my bladder chose that precise moment to issue an urgent demand to be emptied I do not know. Regardless I was filled with an overpowering impulse to take care of business right there and then. I called back to the Budget Committee that I had to pee but when I was done I would raise the sock from the gennaker and she would have to pull the gennaker sheet tight. She nodded assent.

As I fastened myself to the lifeline to ready myself to pee I could feel the pop behind me. Something big had just happened. I turned to see the gennaker in full inflation completely loosed from its condomic restraint. Rather than be gently loosed the sail had exploded into full inflation as the wind caught a corner of nylon and pulled that enormous sail right out of the bag. It pulled the sail from its sock.

As the sail unloosed the bottom of the sock rode up, up, up to the top of the mast. It was supposed to do this, just not so quickly. Unfortunately the control lines which were essential for me to pull the sock down again were also at the top of the mast connected to the foot of the sock.

The BC was madly turning the aft winch trying to pull in the gennaker sheet and stop our now madly flapping green tent from pulling itself apart. She was looking at me as if I was somehow responsible.

With the control lines ridden to the masthead we had no way to pull down the sock. This was problematic.

Meredith I might add was now flying through the water. We were hitting speeds of 7 knots. Under other circumstances we would have been exhilerated.

Deciding she could not leave me to make more plans the Budget Committee joined me on the foredeck. Discussion of how to lower the gennaker produced a brilliant plan indeed. We would drop the whole sail to the deck. I would motor ahead as fast as possible to reduce the apparent wind giving us a more docile sail to pull down. As the sail was lowered the BC would catch it and bring it aboard. Simple.

Hah. Hah. Hah.

As the mighty sail was dropped the sail material blew far outboard of the boat. The halyard tension had been holding the sail tight against the boat and as it was loosened the sail could billow out. Which it did with gay abandon. Try as she might the BC could not hold the material and the sail, now deprived of its vertical tension went where whim dictated.

Whim apparently dictated the gennaker move into the water.

The water (we were travelling at 7 knots remember) grabbed the nylon like the parachute it was and filled it. The sail formerly filled with air and pulling our boat forward now bore water and was one big sea anchor. Water pulls a lot harder than air let me tell you. The gennaker which only minutes ago pulled itself up the mast was now pulling itself down. It was all I could do to stop the gennaker/sea anchor from pulling itself and its halyard right off the mast.

By the time we arrested the self lowering of the sail the Budget Committee could reach the bottom of the sock. As she held that sock with the strength and purpose God gave only to Dutch women I muscled the gennaker back up to the top of the mast.

It was not pretty. But it worked.

Back in its sock the gennaker was as innocent and docile as a newborn. Newborn spawn of hell.

It was decided that given our track record to date we should just motor to the anchorage. Sometimes the iron sail is best.

Tomorrow the winds promise to be light. Maybe....

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