Slap, slap slap…
It’s 4 a.m. this past Saturday, and Lisa and I are asleep in the forward cabin of the Sabre, which lies on a mooring in front of Tred Avon Yacht Club in Oxford, Maryland. Actually, Lisa is sleeping but I have been drifting in and out for a while now. The wind is howling through the rig. Since arriving Saturday afternoon we’ve had a sustained 15 knots with frequent gusts into the lower 20s right here in the anchorage. Each gust makes the ominous noise cheap B-movie film makers like to dub over footage of the haunted house on the hilltop in the dead of night:
Seb lists gently in each big gust and she’s doing a lot of swinging. With each change of direction, the centerboard – which we’ve lowered completely to settle the rolling and to slow the swinging – clunks against its housing in the hull. Exactly twice for each swing back in the other direction:
The booms aren’t loud or alarming but you can hear there’s a big weight behind them. They sound almost like far-away cannon blasts that have rumbled over a stretch of miles to reach the listener’s ear. Faint. Distant. But serious. The centerboard’s bumping might be bothersome were it not buried in such lively chorus of other sounds.
Each wind gust urges on scrappy little breaking waves that slap into the bow from the side as Seb swings. They seem to always come in sets of two or three:
All of these noises are familiar, and while they get my attention, the security of being on a mooring means they aren’t particularly worrisome. It’s another noise that’s keeping me awake, and not because the sound is loud. The sound keeps me awake because it’s different. It’s different and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I hear it each time Seb completes a swing and a big gust hits:
After several years of working on my own race cars I’ve developed hyper sensitive hearing when it comes to sounds like this one. Unexplained noises often presage problems with mechanical systems, and problems can grow into breakdowns. Lisa likes to joke that I have developed ‘bat ears’ but I prefer the more flattering analogy of a blood hound. Tonight that part of my brain has woken up, and it’s pulling pretty hard at the leash.
I try to consider whether there could be any loose gear on deck that is moving around, but a search of my mental catalog turns up nothing that could be generating it. So naturally my mind switches to the sinister. A mooring cleat working itself loose? Perhaps it shifts from side to side on loose bolts, soon to tumble overboard into the Bay? Or maybe it’s another part of the Sabre’s stem head? Maybe it’s the whole stem head itself? Maybe I hadn’t noticed before now that the whole thing was loose. Maybe it’s about to be torn clear of the hull, sending us whistling down the anchorage, slamming into the boat moored behind us before we go crashing onto the lee shore. These worries are a little insane, I realize, especially because the bow cleats aren’t even bolted to the stemhead. But things that go bump in the night send the mind to places daytime noises never do. And tonight there are those sinister, B-moving howls blowing through the rigging. It’s the perfect screen play for a disaster movie. I’d be the lead: the cocky new boat owner who, in a spasm of hubris, goes back to sleep in spite of obvious warning signs and winds up grounding the beautiful Sabre on a lee shore before a single cruising season is completed.
It’s probably nothing that serious.
I cave. I’m turning down that movie role. I’d much rather star as the savvy new cruiser who saves the boat in the middle of the night. The reality is that I’m almost certainly not starring in either movie, but it doesn’t matter now. I won’t sleep any more until I track down my clunks. I crawl out of the V-berth, careful not to disturb Lisa, dress warmly in the salon, and head topside.
Nothing appears amiss on deck. The cleats are secure and – of course – the Sabre’s massive stemhead is rock solid. I decide I’ll need to sit and observe for a while, to see if my clunks make an appearance while I am watching. Some time passes and Seb swings back to lie port side to the wind. As she does so, I notice the sharp angle one of the tails of snubber – which I’ve tied to the mooring pennant to form a bridle- has to take to pass through the chock and out to the other side of the bow as the boat swings. I start to wonder about the possibility of chafe. I reach down and feel the underside of the stemhead where the bridle rounds it and it’s not a smooth edge. It’s actually a pretty sharp corner.
A big puff hits, and with Seb lying port side to the breeze, she blows hard against the mooring. As I sit watching, I see and hear it at the same time.
The bridle has a ton of load on it. So much so that the braid in the line slips over the sharp bottom edge of the stemhead in steps – one braid, then two, then three. Realizing there is a significant risk of chafe, I wait for the bow to swing to the other side, then inspect the length of rope that had just been loaded. Sure enough, chafe has already set in. The integrity of the rope hasn’t been compromised yet, but the process has definitely started. This setup won’t do. I decide to re route the bridle straight over the smoother edges of the anchor rollers instead of our through the chocks and then down. The change negates a fair amount of the benefit of a bridle, but it will be a lot easier on the line. Then I dig up a piece of cloth to use as chafe protection and tape it around the starboard bridle where it exits the roller, since the sidewalls of the roller still present a sharper corner than I’d prefer. Finally, I sit and watch as Seb swings back and forth through a few more cycles, and find myself satisfied that the bridle is running fair and the odds of chafe are significantly reduced.
The cacophony of other noises remains, but my clunks have been eliminated. I scold myself for having failed to purchase lengths of hosing to use as chafe protection on the snubber when I had it made. A rookie move, I decide, but the only way to learn is to make mistakes like this one. That’s actually why I’m there in the first place – in a cold October wind at 4:30 in the morning. We bought this boat specifically to learn so we take on much longer passages in the future with more experience. And I’ve just learned something pretty valuable, with no harm done in the process. That’s not a bad bargain.
I make a mental note to fabricate some chafe protection for my snubber when we get home, then head back down below to bed. As I start to drift off I find a good opportunity to reflect on the weekend so far, which has been absolutely fantastic up to and including this moment of of heading off a potentially serious problem right there on the mooring.
As many have this Fall, the weekend started with my arrival on board Thursday night. I enjoyed another cozy spaghetti dinner down below after getting the boat set up for the weekend. Friday had been bliss. A crisp light breeze with bright sunshine welcomed me in the morning.
I got a ton of work done at the salon table during the workday, and was joined by Lisa and our great friends from next door for a visit in the evening. A day in heaven spent right there on our own mooring in Lake Ogelton. This Fall I’ve had spells on board this Sabre when I simply can’t ever remember having been more happy and content.
Sunshine and a gusty Westerly breeze were forecast for Saturday, and the meteorologists nailed it. We reveled in a delightful beam reach down the Bay to the Choptank with a quartering sea, then ran straight down the channel off of Tilghman Island before finally jibing over onto a port tack broad reach up the Choptank. The Sabre was superb – there’s just nothing else that can be said. Down the Bay we ran regularly in the upper 7 knots of hull speed with frequent trips into the 8 knot range. Even on the broad reach we averaged speeds in the upper sixes with regular visits into the 7s. Our claim to fame for the day came during the beam reach when we saw 8.9 on the knot meter – all with wind only in the mid teens occasionally gusting to 20 or so.
Once again we marveled at how slippery the Sabre’s underbody feels with the board up on the deeper reaches. At 19,000 lbs she has an unusual talent for accelerating in gusts; it’s not something we’ve felt cruising boats do before. Heading up the Choptank we set the auto pilot and chatted on the port side deck together or simply laid back and relaxed. Once again I found myself fantasizing about following the trades across the ocean to some exotic uncharted islands. I could travel like that for days. One day I hope to.
After a mere 4 hours and 15 minutes we arrived at Tred Avon. We’ve been guests at Tred Avon many times for regattas over the years, but I can’t say that either of us quite expected to find the anchorage so exposed in the face of a fresh westerly.
We kept all the hatches closed and even closed the companionway, then spent a gleeful evening playing on our iPads in the salon while listening to the wind howl up on deck.
Now, in the pre dawn hours of Sunday morning, I am newly confident that Seb is safe and sound on her mooring after having checked things topside. I regain that cozy sensation I’d enjoyed the evening before while listened to the howl on deck, and drift back to sleep.
It is a gust much more powerful than any other we have heard during the night that wakes us both up shortly after 7 am. This time I really am up for the duration. I get up, dress, and turn on the VHF for the NOAA weather update. The forecast hasn’t changed much: Northwesterlies in the upper teens with gusts into the 20s. Outside it’s very cool and menacing, dark clouds glower back at me as I peer out the porthole.
Tred Avon Yacht Club is hosting a regatta this morning, and several J/29 crews start to appear, decked out in foul weather gear. As I make breakfast, we see them start motoring out to the race course. We’re glad that we’re heading in one direction today without the need to set and douse spinnakers at mark roundings. We know today is going to be difficult – we’ve known that since choosing Oxford as our weekend destination. Equally, we know we need the practice and that Seb needs as much testing as we can get in before the winter haul out.
As we start to wash up from our pancake and omelette breakfast, we see a J/29 go back by our porthole – in the opposite direction from the race course. I step away from the sink for a moment and peer through some more portholes to see what’s going on. More boats are on the way back. Tred Avon has cancelled racing for the day – all of the J/29s are coming back in. Lisa and I give each other a look. In many years of racing we’ve rarely seen racing called off for too much wind. Postponed ashore perhaps – and then usually on smaller boats like J/22s. But J/29s are large, heavy racers and we’d competed ours in winds near 30 before. It must be pretty nasty out there.
At this point it occurs to me that were we on an extended cruise, and if we didn’t have a specific need to test out the Sabre, I might have opted to stay at the mooring that day. Not because heading home was dangerous – our earlier sails in fresh breezes aboard Seb had given us a surplus of confidence in her ability to handle just about anything we could imagine – but because if there weren’t a need for it, why bash our brains out all day in cold and chop if we didn’t need to? On an extended cruise, we could simply opt to spend the day snuggled down below, reading, napping, listening to the wind in the rig while waiting for more favorable weather. After all, we’re cruising for fun; we’re not going on a forced march. But we’re not on an extended cruise, and there is one thing that really stinks about trying to cruise while holding a day job: there are days when one simply has to get the boat home because work commitments loom. Lisa and I are both scheduled to fly to Texas next week for business travel, so this axiom holds true especially today. We really can’t complain, though. We knew what we signed up for when we enjoyed the sleigh ride down, and now the piper has to be paid. So we finish our dishes, get the boat ready, slip the mooring, and head out.
Our sail back doesn’t start out especially well. Looking at the conditions, we opt to hoist the main with the first reef already in it, so with the boat motoring upwind and the main flogging, we tighten the main halyard against the first reef tack ring. Next I start winching in reef line #1. There is a load on it initially, but then it starts to come in very easily. The next thing I know, I am holding the other end of the reef line in my hands, wide eyed. The reef line has come untied from the boom and come completely out the other end. We now have no facility to rig the first reef unless we string the reef line back through the boom or substitute reef line #2 through reef point #1. In these conditions, neither approach holds any appeal. Our options now are to hoist the full main or go right to the second reef.
After a brief moment of consideration, I opt for the latter. I reason that if we are under-powered we can always run with a full jib or shake the reef out and reduce the jib. So we drop the main to the second tack ring, then tighten down reef line #2, which thankfully holds. Next we bear away and kill the engine, then roll out around 3/4’s of the jib. As we start to work our way up the Choptank, it rapidly becomes apparent that the first reef point won’t be missed today. With two reefs in the main and the jib partially furled, we have about the right sail plan for the conditions and find we still need to luff up a bit in the larger puffs to stay on our feet.
We’re only seeing sustained winds around 20 with puffs into the mid 20s, but the big story is the sea state. The Chesapeake may not be the Southern Ocean, but it has enough fetch to kick up a chop if a stiff breeze holds for a period of time. As of this morning it’s been blowing hard from the WNW for a day and a half, and the Chesapeake is in one of its bad moods.
I take the first stint at the helm and I quickly figure out that the boat doesn’t want to point very high. When I try to get greedy she slows down into the lower 5s, and I can feel she doesn’t have much energy for punching through the chop. So I try footing off a bit – right to the outer edge of the close hauled marks on our B&G wind gauge. Seb likes this. After giving her some time to accelerate, I notice the knot meter climb into the upper 6s and now she’s resolutely punching through the chop. When the water smooths out she finds her way into the 7s and I also learn that in the big puffs she can keep her speed up pointing much higher if I’m quick to come back off when the blast runs its course and the wind settles back down to its averages. I’m starting to figure out how to drive the boat, and I’m liking what I’m learning.
The big question in my mind at this point is how much leeway she’ll be making. I remember being in similar conditions during Lisa’s and my honeymoon charter aboard a 32 foot Beneteau in the BVIs. We were trying to make our way over a lee shore and I started to feel pretty uneasy when I noticed the alarming amount of leeway the little Beneteau was making toward the rocks. Before we cleared the island the scenario got to be downright stressful, and I made a mental note to give lee shores much more clearance should I ever need to climb over one again on that boat.
The memory comes to me now because it’s the first time we’ve faced relatively serious conditions in the Sabre, and the honest truth is that we really don’t know how much leeway she’ll make even with the board all the way down. We’re not trying to climb over a rocky lee shore per se, but the Choptank isn’t the widest body of water on earth, and if she doesn’t work well to windward, we may find ourselves bouncing between the sides of the river, making a ton of slow, exhausting, double-handed tacks without making much progress toward home. Visions of an interminable battle culminating in a dark landfall start to haunt me as I wonder how well the centerboard is going to work in these conditions.
The longer we sail, though, the better and better I am feeling. Seb is punching through the chop, and the knot meter is reporting good speeds through the water. But only by watching the coastline and the chart plotter over the next couple of hours do we start to realize that the Sabre is doing a great job of getting us upwind without driving us sideways into the shallows. Although we initially provide for it generously with our laylines, Seb makes almost no leeway at all and as time passes we start to pick laylines almost entirely based on the sailing angles. The dynamics of the boat are excellent too. With both sails partially reefed we are able to balance the helm out perfectly and Seb proves to be as pleasant to drive upwind through the these conditions as she is any other time.
She isn’t pounding, and although we are generating plenty of spray – the dodger windows are soon covered in salt – the water that arrives on deck passes right behind the coaming and drains out the transom without a drop arriving in the cockpit. We are dry and are as comfortable as any boat this size could make us in these conditions.
Around lunchtime we fire up the diesel and douse the sails to motor up through the channel off of Tilghman island, which is too narrow to tack up through. During this period we * do * learn that the Sabre can pound. We endure a miserable period belting straight into the waves making only 4-5 knots before clearing the channel and getting back under sail. Lesson learned: on this boat, sail instead of motor whenever possible if you have to go upwind when it’s snotty out!
Several more hours of beating harshly upwind will follow, culminating in our happy but exhausted arrival back in Lake Ogelton after a 6 hours and 15 minute trip. Seb has passed the test and we’re happy to report that our little double handed crew can make the same claim. We got her home safe and sound without serious problems apart from the discovery of several more seawater leaks that need to be fixed this winter. And with the test passed, we learned that this boat really can be taken into conditions just about as miserable as you care to go out in. That’s good to know, but in the future whenever possible we’ll endeavor to choose our destinations such that we experience at least two or three ‘Saturdays’ for each ‘Sunday’ we have to pay back!