Into Night

Paul’s Dad used to tell another joke.

A tourist with a Yankees hat is walking along the observation deck of a tall skyscraper, when he suddenly notices this good-sized but geekish looking fellow at his elbow, wearing thick glasses, a dark suit, conservative tie, and a white shirt. They exchange greetings, and the fellow with the glasses says, “Hey, wanna see something neat?”

“Sure,” says the tourist.

With that, the bespeckled one jumps atop the rail, and leaps off of the building. Horrified, the tourist watches the leaper drop 10, 20, 30 stories, and then –WHOOSH! — the fellow comes rushing back up TOWARDS him, and lands upright just next to him, an ear to ear grin covering his face!

At first too stunned to speak, the tourist finally mumbles, “That’s the the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah,” says the fellow, smirking. “It’s an updraft. Few people know about it. It carries you right back up. Wanna give it a try?”

“No way. You think I’m crazy?!”

“No, it’s fun, watch.” And again he jumps, 10, 20, 30 stories, and then — WHOOSH — back he comes. “C’mon, give it a try!” he urges

“OK! I’ll go!” shouts the tourist. “Yippee!” And over he goes, 10, 20, 30, 40 stories and then — SPLAT — onto the pavement.

A passerby winces at motionless tourist, squints up into the sky, and says, “Boy, that Superman sure hates Yankees fans.”

It’s like that with the sea. The sea sure hates boats.

No, that’s not true, really. The sea CAN be a great friend to a boat. But it also tends to find and expose the boat’s every weakness.

Any time something major goes wrong, such as the engine problem we’re now having, our senses are alerted for the rest of passage, because the boat’s systems are symbiotic, in a way. It’s not exactly that they all work together, it’s more like that if one system goes wrong, it puts slightly more stress on other systems, and failures can cascade.

So with last night.

We’ve had the sails up for a week now, and they have been getting sunned and moved about, as one might imagine. Sometimes, with such heavy use, the wear and tear will show. So we weren’t that surprised when, yesterday afternoon, a small tear about 3/4 of the way up the main sail appeared, just below the third reefing point. We had had this third reefing point installed in the U.S. before we left, so that we could make the sail quite small if it was blowing really hard out. The sailmaker who put it the large grommet did a splendid job, adding FIVE sheets of reinforced canvas around the grommet to give it added strength. The problem with so many layers, however, is that they are much less flexible than the rest of the sail, such that when it moves about, it creates added force where the old part of the sail meets this new reinforced part — a stress riser. A tear about 18 inches long developed along the trailing edge of the sail, the leech, and was spreading into the interior of the sail, held together only by the leech line, a strong but thin line that runs along the aft edge of the sail.

We pulled the sail down, and Sima spent the rest of the afternoon working on a repair. It was too much work for one day, and so, as it grew dark, Sima stopped. We then packed the sail back onto the boom, but only loosely, as there was, and has been for days, only moderate wind. That was a mistake.

We kept on sailing with just the jib. We were using the spinnaker pole to hold the jib out straight, as this allowed us to sail directly down wind in light air. As night fell, we left the jib poled out, with the spinnaker pole jutting out at a 90 degree angle athwart ship. This was also a mistake.

At about 3 a.m., Paul, on watch, saw a squall line approaching, with some lightning in the distance. The squalls didn’t seem too bad, and in fact we thought that the rain might be good to clean some of the salt off of the boat. In fact, the squall came and passed, doused the boat with a good amount of rain, and then things returned to normal. Paul later turned the watch over to Sima, and called her attention to the fact that more squall lines seemed to be rolling in. And they did.

At six, the granddaddy of all squall lines rolled in, big and mean looking. Sima thought to take in the jib, to be careful. Paul awoke upon hearing the noise, and came up on deck. The jib was now backwinded, meaning that the wind was blowing it back toward the boat, rather than helping the boat sail along. The wind had backed considerably, and was also picking up steam. Paul, groggily, suggested that they try to alter course, to get the wind flowing into the sail properly, and began to turn the boat. That was a mistake too.

The wind suddenly blew in at 40 knots. It gusted and gathered up the loosely-packed main sail, and began to spread it like a parachute across the deck and downwind. In the dark and driving rain, Sima began to sheet in the jib, furiously, as Paul loosened the jib sheet. The jib came in, and Paul went forward to struggle with the main. As he did so, he saw that the spinnaker pole topping lift, which holds the forward end of the spinnaker pole aloft, had come loose, and the spinnaker pole was dragging in the water. This can be particularly dangerous, because should our big heavy spinnaker pole get a mind of its own and start dancing in the water, there is a risk that one of its steps could kick a hole in the hull.

Fortunately, we got a respite from the intense wind. Paul gathered in and tied down the main, securely. He then went forward and maneuvered the spinnaker pole out of the water, and secured it forward. (It turned out that the shackle holding the topping lift to the pole had opened, probably when a flapping jib sheet hit it with force.) We inspected the jib, and saw that it’s sun cover had torn slightly, but the sail was still OK. We came back to the cockpit, and the wind continued to diminish, and then died completely. We checked over the sails and lines one more time, made sure everything was secure, and then let the boat bob in the sea while we caught our breath until the sun came up.

The sun is now up, though not out, on a gray day. But the wind has returned in moderation, and we continue along our merry way. Sima sits on the foredeck, with needle, thread, and sail patch, working on the repair to the main. The tear grew somewhat larger when Paul wrestled with it overnight, but it should be fine to fly within an hour or two.

Whew. Almost there. If the wind holds as it does, we should be in Galle tomorrow, for some much needed repairs, and some rest. One remaining concern is that the wind will die as we close on the land mass of Sri Lanka, which would compel us to turn to the engine. It’ll probably get the job done, but we’ll be holding our breath until we get in.

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