Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sailing Lesson?

Last Sunday was a beautiful afternoon sailing on the lake. It was warm, sunny, and with nice mild winds (3 kts). Except for leaving and returning to the dock, I was Captain of the day, and had a great time sailing our Core Sound 20, the Dawn Patrol. Our friend Ken and his sailing pal Mike also had a great time, despite the low winds as Ken spent the afternoon playing with his new staysail on his Core Sound 17, SouthBound (below).

But our sailing earlier in the weekend was a very different experience....

We had all headed down to the coast for the 3-day weekend; I needed to go to Cedar Island to talk to the management at the Driftwood Motel and Campground about the 2009 WaterTribe NC Challenge being planned for the fall. We’d planned to sail some of the course being planned, I’d get some sailing lessons, and we’d have a fun weekend of sailing and camping.

Our only problem was the weather predictions. Forecasts were for small craft advisories throughout the weekend with thunderstorms Friday night and Saturday morning. We had studied the sailflow wind predications and saw that winds on the Neuse River (more inland) were expected to be 10-15 kts, while on Core Sound and Pamlico Sound winds would be 15-25 on Friday, and then 20-35 Friday night and Sat. Still learning, my preference is for 3-7 kts of steady wind.

So we arrived at the coast with an alternative plan to sailing in the sound: we would sail more inland across canals to reach the Neuse. We would start on the south side of Cedar Island at a public boat ramp under a bridge at the east end of Thorofare canal. Thorofare canal connects Thorofare Bay (on Core Sound to the east) to West Bay (to the west opening north into Pamlico Sound). Then Old canal connects West Bay to Turnagain Bay on the Neuse River. We figured we’d be somewhat protected on these east-west canals, and wind direction from the South meant we could sail on a beam-reach in the canals.
On reaching the Neuse River we would sail a few miles up-river to a nicely protected anchorage inside a hook of land at the mouth of the South River. This 17-mile route on Friday would position us for Saturday sailing on the Neuse not far from Oriental, NC. Perhaps work in a visit to Oriental. If we had started Friday morning before the winds strengthened it probably would have been a good plan; but, we did not get on the water until 2pm.

We met up with Ken and Mike about 1pm at the boat ramp on Thor. Canal and reviewed our options. All agreed winds were too high for cruising on the Sound; the Canal looked good, though windy (15 kts) and we agreed we probably ought to be fully reefed from the start –at least until we could get a look at West Bay. By 2pm we were launching with two reefs in our main, and two reefs in our mizzen. Ken’s CS17, Southbound, was fully reefed too. The CS17 reefs by rolling away the main sail, and moving the mizzen mast and sail forward, reducing his sail area by more than half. Our sails are on tracks and reef by tying up. We had double reefed both sails, but were still flying much more sail area than Ken.

Hmmm, planning to be fully reefed should have clued me in that maybe we shouldn’t even be doing this.

The boat ramp was on a very narrow shallow side canal that required a 90 degree left turn onto the much deeper wider (only about 5 boat lengths and not so deep actually) Thor. Canal. The plan was to drift with the wind down the side canal to enter the Canal, raise sails on entering the Canal, and then make the turn to port while quickly putting the centerboard and rudder down. The guys had it all figured out. Sounds too simple huh?

It was low tide. We easily left the ramp, made the turn, but did not have enough time to adjust the sails and centerboard, and we ended up quickly being pushed into the shallow shore of the Canal. The winds were strong enough to pin us against the muddy bank. The centerboard was kicked up and the rudder was dragging.

While we were figuring out what to do next, Ken and Mike launched from the boat ramp. Despite our perfectly adequate demonstration of what not to do, Ken and Mike joined us pinned on the lee shore.

It always amazes me when in a smaller canal or river, how mistaken you are thinking you’ll be protected from some of the wind, or that you can even predict the wind direction. Instead, sometimes you end up with wind funneling through the narrow slots, and changing direction to suit itself.

Ken and Mike escaped first. After watching them successfully re-start their run down the canal, we knew that to claw our way off the shore required a specific sequence: 1) begin with CB and rudder up, mizzen in, and main out, 2) use an oar to push the bow windward into the channel (not easy to do against the wind), 3) begin to drift out, 4) sheet mizzen out and main in, 5) rudder and CB down just right without dragging (easier said than done), 6) pick up speed (easier said than done), 7) tack around and begin the beam reach (easier said than done), 8) stay out of the shallows of the lee shore (almost impossible to do). The only problem was we had about 2 seconds to do each of the steps listed above.

On our first try the rudder didn’t lock down. 2nd, 3rd and 4th tries were exhausting attempts to get the sequences right with so little room to work with, with the wind gusting and a bit squirrely, and without loosing ground (in my mind I kept seeing us losing ground and crashing into the bridge pilings not to far behind us). Staying out of the shallows was the hardest, as the CB would drag if down and we couldn’t steer without it. It eventually took us five tries to get it right. By the 3rd try, I was all for giving up, it started to seem impossible to me, it wasn’t much fun, and the winds were giving us so much problem I didn’t want to think about what else was in store (remember we still had another even narrower canal to get through).

Ken and Mike had managed it pretty nicely on one try. But Ken had only one sail to manage has more experience, and he didn’t have me in the boat with him :)

Once we got underway, Paul would use the wind gusts to gain ground in the canal to minimize tacking. An efficient maneuver, I guess, but in gusts I always prefer he’d just sheet out the main. I don’t like it when the boat heels yet, and we’re not talking little gusts here.

We quickly caught up with Ken and Mike who were waiting up for us, and at the end of the canal and we all turned north into West Bay. The bay was ripping, breaking whitecaps, and wind driven swells, maybe not 20 kts yet, but more than 18. Heading west-northwest was a very wet ride (no pictures). Even fully reefed (and glad for it) and intentionally spilling wind off the sails, the GPS tracks show us easily hitting 8 kts.

The next step was to round a point of land into Long Bay and then turn south west to tack into the wind down to Old canal. We made it just past the point of land, were realixing it was not going to be fun tacking to the entrance to Old Canal. I was not looking forward to even trying to get through that even-narrower canal. We still had another 3 ½ miles to get to the waypoint at the entrance of the canal, we were now having to point higher into the wind and our speed had slowed to 2.5 mph, we had lots of tacking ahead of us, and it was starting to get late.

We pulled off back on the point to discuss our options. Go forward? Camp here? Go back? We rechecked the VHF weather again. We were standing on a low, flat, expanse of mud firmly held together by marsh grass roots. With my feet on dry land, I was perfectly happy to camp right there! The south winds were predicted to clock around and become north sometime Saturday which would be good, but the forecast was for some serious thunderstorms and severe winds later that night, and we would be exposed. From a lightning bolt’s point of view, we would be the highest objects in sight for miles around. We agreed to head back to the boat ramp and camp at the Driftwood Campground. We knew we would enjoy a great seafood dinner, as it was the Driftwood’s Restaurant’s opening night for the season.

Returning to the boat ramp would require short-tacking into the wind to sail through the first 50 yards of the canal, but the guys expected the remainder of the way would be a beam reach (how quickly they forget the gusts and swirls). Sailing back toward the canal we made really good time, we followed the red and green markers that identify the channel into the canal. At the last marker in the mouth of the canal we were pointing high and preparing to tack up-wind further into the canal. Rather than tacking to the upwind (righthand) side of the green marker, we maintained our starboard tack to pass a few feet downwind of the marker (the left and wrong side). We were less than 4 yards from the marker when our centerboard bit into shallow mud and we were stopped. The wind pushed us backward and our centerboard was more than vertical with at least a foot or two of it down in the mud. The Dawn Patrol was stuck.

The centerboard would not budge, was even inverted down in the centerboard trunk. Paul tried the usual maneuvers with sails and rudder to get us moving. We rocked and heeled the boat, with absolutely no boat movement of any kind. What the heck? The mud was too soft for us to get out of the boat.
Next plan, Ken and Mike would tow us out of the mud bank using his motor (I want a motor!). Not so easy, no movement. Next, Paul and I got into the SouthBound to lighten the Dawn Patrol, and we tried towing with the aim of rotating the boat. Nothing. We finally got it towed out of the mud by heeling it over about 50 degrees while dragging and rotating it. As the CB came out of the mud and dragged over the bottom, the boat heeled over so much that there was less than an inch of freeboard left before water would start flood into the cockpit. I was sure it was going to go over, but once out of the mud and in a bit deeper water, the unweighted centerboard floated back up into its retracted position and it leveled out and floated free behind us.

Not sure we didn’t damage something during all this; we decided to let Ken tow us back to the ramp. Paul got back in our boat to steer, and I was more than happy to stay in the SouthBound with the motor (did I mention that I want a motor). Ken had a big smile on his face like a happy Inuit hunter towing home a trophy walrus behind his kayak.
We were tired. Our total cruise was about 8 miles, round trip. More work than fun. Paul acknowledged that I’d been a good sport (the seriousness of the situations in my mind had me keeping quiet during much of it). And though I wasn’t happy, didn't find it much fun, there were many lessons learned from our experience. Not the least being that that’s not how I want my future lessons to work out.

We didn't have much time or free hands to take many pictures during our sail, but when looking at the few, I joked with Paul when I saw this one that maybe our problem was he couldn't see where he was going :)

The Seafood dinner and cold beers that night at the campground beat any of the camp food I'd brought and planned to eat, and Friday did see some severe weather rolling across Pamlico Sound and Cedar Island with winds at 40-50 kts followed by pouring rain.

The rest of our weekend was just plain fun. Saturday we adjusted the size of boat to the weather conditions. We opted for the $1 ferry ride as pedestrians over to Ocracoke with a tailwind. We spent the afternoon walking around the island and enjoyed a seafood lunch. We caught the 5:00 ferry back to Cedar Island and rocked and rolled all the way with the building headwind, with 3-4' chop, and 3-4' rollers, winds 25 kts.

No sailing on the Sound on Sunday either. Winds 15-20 were forecast. We left and scouted out the Neuse at New Bern, but passed up the boat ramp in Union Point where an Easter Sunday celebration was happening.

And that takes to a wonderful afternoon of sailing on the Lake. A great way to have ended the weekend, and leaving me feeling ready to go at it again.


Michael said...

Great story! And good for you for wanting to get out there and try again. I remember my first kayak (a whitewater boat, but what did I know back then?) wouldn't paddle straight no matter what. I gave up kayaking for about 10 years before re-discovering it. The rest is...!

Frank Ladd's Water Treatment Blog said...


Sailing lessons are always like that in the spring! Thanks for sharing your great story. One of the best things about sailing is the stories it generates.

I hope your boat turns out to be OK. Your stories remind me a lot of past sailing days.

In the beginning I wanted a motor and didn't like heeling. In the end I hated the blasted stinking motor and I liked heeling.

DancesWithSandyBottom said...

Frank, there was absolutely no damage to the "Dawn Patrol". Apparently it's a tough boat. Washed and dried the boat when we arrived home.

Frank Ladd's Water Treatment Blog said...

Then it sounds like the perfect sailing trip. You went out and came back without hurting yourself or the boat AND you got a great story to tell.


Captn O Dark 30 and Super Boo said...

Great story -- look to blue water!!