“The better part of valor is discretion.”
Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1
This weekend was the annual Memorial Day cruise to Beach Haven with the Windjammers Sailing Club. Avid readers may recall last year’s fiasco, in which we were towed most of the way there after our engine died. We were eager to redeem ourselves and make it there with less commotion under our own locomotion…hopefully under sail.
Sailing to Beach Haven, which is about 20 miles or so south of our home port, is best accomplished with wind from the north. Early forecasts (as far as a week out) were predicting wind with a definite northerly component, although a little brisk for our liking.
We were supposed to leave on Saturday, with most sources predicting winds building throughout the day and gusting to nearly 40kts by the time we would have arrived. The most we’ve ever seen was 35kts, on the original Cattus Island Beat Down, and that was absurdly harrowing for us. 40kts is a ridiculous amount of wind for our boat and skill level. An air temperature of 50°F on a cloudy day wasn’t all that enticing either, especially imagining it in that wind and the inevitable wind-driven spray.
These predictions are based solely on models though and most aren’t reviewed by humans, so we continued to watch with interest throughout the week. Some days it was down to highs of 30kts and some days it was up to 40, which presented a line drawing problem for me (as well as a general distrust of the quality of the prediction). The truth is that 30kts probably wouldn’t be that fun of a ride in our boat either, at least not enduring it for several hours, but it likely wouldn’t have been dangerous. That sets up an opportunity for the inherently flawed “decision-making by ego” where one starts to ask if he is being a wuss. [I briefly considered using the pedantic “he or she” in that last sentence, but I suspect that this is far more often a “he” situation.]
As it turns out, the decision was made when the National Weather Service issued the following:
GALE WARNING URGENT - MARINE WEATHER MESSAGE...CORRECTED NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE MOUNT HOLLY NJ 445 PM EDT FRI MAY 24 2013 COASTAL WATERS FROM SANDY HOOK TO MANASQUAN INLET NJ OUT 20 NM- COASTAL WATERS FROM MANASQUAN INLET TO LITTLE EGG INLET NJ OUT 20 NM- ...GALE WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM 6 AM SATURDAY TO 2 AM EDT SUNDAY... * WINDS...NORTHWEST 20 TO 25 KT WITH GUSTS UP TO 40 KT. * SEAS...4 TO 6 FEET. PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS... A GALE WARNING MEANS WINDS OF 34 TO 47 KNOTS ARE IMMINENT OR OCCURRING. OPERATING A VESSEL IN GALE CONDITIONS REQUIRES EXPERIENCE AND PROPERLY EQUIPPED VESSELS. IT IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED THAT MARINERS WITHOUT THE PROPER EXPERIENCE SEEK SAFE HARBOR PRIOR TO THE ONSET OF GALE CONDITIONS. &&
Our cruising chair is pretty conservative on issues of safety (their ground tackle could safely anchor a frigate) and he announced to the club that he was pushing back the departure from Saturday to Sunday. A lot of people were disappointed that they wouldn’t have much time for shore leave in Beach Haven, but Jen and I have done dumber things than sailing 10 to 12 hours round-trip just to spend a few waking hours somewhere (see last year’s cruise to AC). The forecast for Sunday was strong winds in the morning (15-20kts with gusts to 30), tapering off through the day, so this suited us fine. We’d be able to get in some big weather sailing and not have to worry as much about running through the dock on the other end.
I spoke with Waterloo (the cruising chair) and their plan was to leave on Sunday at 0600 to make slack water at 1100. Their fallback, if it was still rough in the early morning, was to leave at noon to make slack at 1700. Since we didn’t want to anchor out in 40kts or sleep on the boat on the trailer, being able to set sail by 0600 would mean that we’d have to leave our house at like 0300 or 0400, which is crazy talk. I assumed that, given the wind predictions, there was no way that Waterloo would leave at 0600.
We arrived at the marina around 0900, and I knew that things were messed up when I saw a tern flying backwards across the parking lot. The wind was such that you had to lean into a bit to stand. I was fondly remembering our sail in the small craft advisory last year and was thinking about how much we’d learned since the Cattus Island Beat Down, and for some reason it seemed like we should just try it, “knowing” that conditions would improve throughout the day. The tide was astronomically low (literally) and Jen lost her hat (later recovered) while wrangling Fortuitous just after launching, but we got the boat in the water. We then went through the process of loading in our provisions and reefed down at the dock.
Jen was not happy and had her life jacket on before even untying the bow line. I had convinced myself that it would be fine. In fact, it was fine as we motored out of the cove. The wind was from the northwest—almost perpendicular to the run of the bay—which made for short fetch and manageable waves and would put us on a beam reach for most of the sail down with room to come up or down as the channel dictated. Jen and I discussed motoring for a bit to get a feel for things before putting up the sails or committing to continuing with the trip.
Despite the rampant white caps, things were going well until we passed the mouth of Cedar Creek, which was apparently funneling all of the air in the western hemisphere into a cone of destruction aimed at Island Beach. The rigging shrieked and we were heeling more than 10° on bare poles. Still, I thought that this could be a fun run, and wanted to try putting up a sail before calling it. We passed the creek and shortly thereafter turned into the wind so that we could put up the reefed main. I juiced the engine to make enough speed to maintain steerage, since the boat wanted to turn one way or the other away from the wind. When the sail got about half way up, all of the lower sail slugs fell out of the track, leaving us with half a sail up, no ability to raise it, and motoring at 80% throttle toward land.
Jen always prepares the main, but I had done it this time because we hadn’t yet rigged the reefing lines this season. I felt terrible that I had messed it up. Jen, who wouldn’t have taken the helm at gunpoint in that situation, had to go forward to get the sail down so that we could at least bear away from the shallows. We got it down and I came around to dead downwind to try to ease the motion of the boat and put some distance between us and land for our second attempt. Jen remained at the mast and put the slugs back in the track properly. In the process, the main halyard had become tangled in the spreader, and while Jen was trying to fix that, all of the slugs fell out again and the sail billowed out onto the deck. Apparently, there was something wrong with the stop that keeps the slugs from falling out of the gate, which redeemed me to some extent but left us with the same problem. Things were hectic and Jen isn’t sure what she did, but she got it resolved and we came about and put the sail up.
…for about 90 seconds. 30 of which we got on film:
We were outmatched. The wind was too fierce and our ability to control the boat even on just a reefed main was limited…that video stops there because Jen ditched her phone when we started really being tossed around. I had turned to starboard (away from Beach Haven) intentionally because our outboard is on the port side, and being on port tack allows me to stay on the windward side of the boat and provide much-needed ballast while messing with the engine. I never got as far as shutting it off though, as it was immediately clear that we couldn’t hang. I brought us back into the wind with the motor and we took down the sail. We decided that a trip to Beach Haven just wasn’t in the cards for us this weekend. Even if we had motored the whole way it would have been a wet and miserable ride.
I was certain, given those conditions, that the fleet hadn’t sailed (did I mention that the cruising chair is conservative? They have a backup sextant…) but I couldn’t raise them on the VHF. We decided to motor up to their marina to see what the deal was, which was much calmer than trying to sail, especially as the creek narrowed and we got some shelter.
The fleet was gone. I started to talk to someone on land, but immediately ran aground and got weirded out at the thought of being blown into a boat worth more than our house, so we turned around and left. We actually put out the jib and sailed back out of the creek, just to say we did it, and dead downwind under just the jib was fine until we got all the way to the end of the marked channel and went aground between the buoys. We stowed the sail again, wound up the keel a bit, and headed back to Trixie’s.
Since our sailing fiasco was only a couple hours, we decided to drive to Beach Haven to catch up with the boats that made it. It turned out that contrary to the predictions, the weather at 0600 was really nice and they made the decision to go. Once they got down by the bridge though, the wind kicked up to steady 30kts with observed gusts to 40. Although there were a couple groundings and they rubbed a few pilings on the way into the dock they all made it down ok. Providence II hit 8.1kts on just their 135. Everyone said that we made the right decision though. I’m not sure how much of that was just meant to prop us up, but I tend to agree. All of them have keels that are reasonably measured in tons, not pounds, so they can absorb a lot more than we can. Not to mention that it was still blowing like crazy at the Beach Haven Yacht Club. The wind didn’t trail off until hours after predicted.
Well, we tried. We tested our boundaries even if we didn’t make our destination, and we didn’t get hurt or break anything in the process. Confidence is weird in that once you question whether or not you have it, you already don’t—I wasn’t particularly confident in any of my decisions as I made them, but I don’t think I got any of them wildly wrong. I’m glad we didn’t go in the gale warning, I’m glad we gave it a try on Sunday, and I’m glad that we eventually conceded. It’s a little disappointing that we’re now 1.5 out of 3 in trips to Beach Haven, but we have time to improve our average. What’s more disappointing is that this season has been complete crap so far. I hope things turn around soon, and that the long-term predictions for major storms are wrong.