Threading a Needle on a Rollercoaster
Gale #2 / 4th day from St. John:
Reindeer's 1976 Transatlantic Voyage
600 miles northeast of Newfoundland
1,000 southwest of Iceland
Winds: 40-55 knots
Wave height: 30'- 40'
Friday, June 18 - Saturday June 20, 1976
Blog Entry #8
It had probably been decades since Newbold had worked the foredeck on any boat when he was on this his third transatlantic crossing. Of course, the foredeck was only a place where the young, strong, agile and naively courageous ventured. So it made sense since Newbold was now in his early 60's that he might only recall water seeping under foul weather gear as a major discomfort for those forward of the mast. Of course, his detail about waves crashing in the cockpit was accurate, but he omitted the sail-changer's experience 40-feet forward. The foredeck was a far cry from the relative comfort of a cockpit.
The Anatomy / Profile of a Wave
For each four-hour watch on deck, I wore a yellow full body suit foul weather gear my father had given me when he had sailed on DYNA, a famous American yawl, during a 1970 transatlantic crossing. Underneath I wore a heavy wool sweater, (always damp from previous on-deck duty and cumulative body sweat), a pair of snug long john underwear (tops and bottoms), two pairs of socks (1 wool) inside a pair of sturdy rubber boots with only average traction, a wool hat and a pair of oilskin gloves. I felt protected from the elements to some degree, but somehow I felt captive, limited in mobility and sensitivity. For example, my feet felt wet and chilled entombed by my boots while my hands could only grasp or feel very little with my gloves on or off. The frigid temps and damp conditions did nothing to give me much confidence about using my hands outside.
While watching the winds and waves grow in intensity and magnitude on our 4th day,
I remember feeling the duality of exhilaration with an equal dose of anxiety. I surprised myself when I realized I was actually enjoying the challenge of this sleigh ride, even though I was also scared and already exhausted. While the Chesapeake Bay is a relative pond in comparison to where I was at this time, I had sailed enough to know skippers remind their crews to always imagine how you would respond in a worst case scenario. So I had some practice envisioning what I would do if, for example, a sail ripped, or the mast broke, or someone fell overboard, or a wave swamped the boat, or lightening struck the mast, or
we had to
inflate the life raft
abandon ship. Envisioning worst case scenarios is precautionary for survival. It is not something one wants to contemplate for very long.
But one can only envision so much and this experience felt like totally unknown territory to me. However,
Newbold had reminded us earlier on the voyage that Reindeer was not competing in a race so he wanted the crew to know that speed in completion a task was not as important as completing it well. Taking our time and not rushing was a luxurious feeling, not reserved for racers. Thank God, we weren't in a competition!
Changing a headsail in normal conditions is usually a 3-crew task (one on the bow pulpit, one at the mast and one at the helm).
Steps for changing a headsail in calm winds are:
- Envision all the tasks below in their proper order
- Go forward to bow pulpit with replacement sail bag and spare tie-downs
- Snap replacement sail bag to deck or pulpit
- Attach new sail's tack shackle to fitting
- Attach luff's snap shackles to bottom of forestay
- Communicate with man on jib halyard to douse present sail
- As sail is lowered, detach / unsnap all old sail luff snap shackles from forestay
- Keep doused sail from falling overboard (Tie doused sail down or stuff into sail bag)
- Detach and transfer halyard from doused to new sail head
- Communicate with man on jib halyard to raise new sail
- Detach old sail's tack shackle last so sail is not lost overboard
- Return astern with old sail
A harness from the back side. A snap shackle and a 10-foot line attached to the front was our lifeline on deck. Each time I went forward, I felt like a gladiator - armed and ready for combat with my adversaries: the gale force 60+ knot winds, freezing water, near-frozen fingers, pelting rain, mountain-like waves, slippery deck, a constantly tangling harness and my adrenalin at peak levels.
I remember asking myself these questions:
- Where do I snap my harness as I crawl forward to the bow pulpit?
- What happens when (not "if") I lose my footing or grip or a wave washes me down the deck to the end of my harness?
- What do I hold on to when a wave hits the bow?
- How can I unsnap the sail's shackles when my fingers feel frozen?
- How do keep an eye out for bigger waves and complete the sail change at the same time?
I knew my survival instincts would kick in if ever I felt in danger. The key was to make sure I took all precautions. So I focused on keeping my footing and stability while snapping and unsnapping shackles. Somehow my hands never got frostbitten, and my feet and boots were warm enough. I mostly stayed in the present and envisioned completing each task as Newbold had suggested - no need to rush. If I had let the worst case scenarios enter my mind, I might not have completed them.
After each sail change, I felt an incredible relief, a huge sense of accomplishment, a renewed sense of confidence and pride, but always a greater respect for nature's forces. After each venture to the bow, I felt like I could "thread a needle on a rollercoaster". If the occasion ever arose, I was set for surgery. I even remember feeling, "Well, that's done. No more of that." But we were still a week away from our destination and we still would face two more powerful storms. Apparently, I still had some maturation - I changed the headsail twice more in those remaining days before we arrived in Reykjavik.