November 18, 2014

A paean to the trade winds

ONE OF MY FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHS of my wife shows her sitting in the cockpit of a 30-foot sailboat we then owned. She is reading a book, with her sunhat pulled down over her eyes, and she is the picture of peace and serenity. Meanwhile, a few feet away in the background, a large white foaming crest runs the length of the boat. She doesn’t turn a hair. She is absorbed in her novel. For this is the friendly trade wind, the southeast trade in mid-South Atlantic, where the water is warm and deep blue, and the sky is dotted with little puffs of cotton wool clouds.
The trade-wind belts must be proof that God loves sailors and wants to make up for all the storms and hurricanes that He creates in other parts of the oceans. There is a magic to the trades that no landlubber can experience, a fair breeze that speeds a small boat along on her course for weeks at a time, surging and dipping in a welter of foam as the sails swell with power.
The square rig was the ideal one for the trades, of course, and I often think that modern sailors who try to run downwind in the trades with goosewinged mainsail and jib are either too lazy to do anything special for the trades, or else are simply ignorant and therefore condemned to suffer the rolling and jibing and chafing of the damned.
In the middle of the last century, the big names in small-boat cruising mostly used twin jibs for trade-wind work. They rigged them on the forestay and poled them out from the mast. They ran the sheets aft to the tiller and discovered to their delight that the boat would steer herself. If she strayed off course, one jib would pull more strongly than the other, and automatically move the tiller to correct the course.
This rig is still widely used, especially on small under-crewed boats, and I have sailed many thousands of miles with a refinement known as the twin-staysail (twistle) rig. The twistle has the advantage that it allows the twin jibs to lie farther ahead of the forestay in a deep V, which counteracts the rolling motion normally associated with running dead downwind. The self-steering action is even more pronounced in the twistle rig, of course, because the sailplan’s center of effort is so far ahead of the center of lateral resistance. The boat feels as if she is running on rails and doesn’t even need a rudder.
The trades have a reputation for being constant, both in force and direction, claims that are false in both cases. The “reinforced” trades can sometimes blow as hard as 30 knots, but they normally confine themselves to between 12 and 20 knots. And, of course, this is all downhill work, for nobody in their right senses plans a long passage to windward in the trades. As for direction, the trades often vary 20 or 30 degrees from northeast or southeast, but that causes no great bother for most rigs.
In many cases, the trade-wind route is the long way to anywhere, but it’s still the fastest and safest. What’s more, a trade-wind passage is a wonderful experience. It’s about as close to Nirvana as any ordinary sailor is likely to get. 
Today’s Thought
And winds of all the corners kiss’d your sails, To make your vessel nimble.
— Shakespeare, Cymbeline
There was a young lady of Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comment arose
On the state of her clothes
She admitted: “Where Ah itchez Ah scratchez.”
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