SINGLEHANDED SAILING can be a wonderful experience but there is one thing that often frightens off beginners. It is the thought of being stuck at the helm while running downwind in increasingly heavy weather, when you dare not leave the helm because the boat is already overcanvassed and likely to broach-to and throw you overboard if you don’t take every approaching wave exactly stern-on.
Not being able to leave the helm to take in sail is (as somebody once put it) the maritime version of wearing a ball and chain. It turns an enjoyable sail into an adrenalin-fueled fight for your life.
The situation arises when you’re running before a stiff breeze that gradually strengthens. It’s very difficult to detect a dangerous increase in wind speed when you’re on the run, and even expert helmsmen can be taken by surprise this way. The old advice is to shorten sail at the same wind speed off the wind as you would on the wind. But that’s easier said than done. All too often, you realize your peril only when the boat starts misbehaving. The helm becomes heavy. She becomes slow to react to the rudder. The waves start threatening to break over the transom. There’s no crew to reduce sail. And you dare not move from the cockpit. How long before you succumb to cold and exhaustion?
There are a couple of things the neophyte singlehander can do to avoid this nasty situation.
First, invest in some sort of self-steering. An automatic wind vane is expensive but worth its weight in gold to the singlehander. Alternatively, an electric autohelm will do a fine job as long as you have sufficient battery power aboard. Either of these devices will give you a chance to drop the mainsail while the going is good, before things start getting out of hand.
Secondly, learn to heave to. The time to heave to is when you first wonder if the wind isn’t getting a bit strong. If you’re beating, there’s no problem. Just go about without unsheeting the jib. Give the main sheet some slack when you’re on the new tack and fix the helm down so that it counterbalances the backed jib. If you’re on the run, watch for a chance to round up on the same tack, then pull the jib aback and fix the helm down. Your boat should ride like a duck on a pond, five or six points off the wind and forge ahead at 1 knot or so.
Now you have all the time in the world to reef or change sails and a much steadier platform to work on. You can also take the opportunity to make a warming cup of coffee or pour something a little stronger.
Life suddenly becomes more enjoyable, not to mention safer, when you find yourself in control of the boat, instead of the boat being in control of you.
I hear the wind among the trees
Playing celestial symphonies;
I see the branches downward bent,
Like keys of some great instrument.
— Longfellow, A Day of Sunshine
A young woman went to the doctor complaining of aches and pains. “I think I’ve got the swine flu,” she said.
“Swine flu nothing,” the doctor said. “That’s Egyptian flu — you’re going to be a mummy.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)