The day had
started out with light winds blowing out of the northwest. They were driving me
south-southwest, more toward the south pacific instead of my destination of
Southern California. I had barely rounded Cabo San Lucas and was losing ground
the further I went. If this continued it was going to take a long time to get
I read about the clipper route back to Southern California from Baja all said
the same thing, “get as tight to the wind as possible and stay there. The further
you go the winds will back to the east or northeast and take you up the coast.”
I hoped this was true but doubt always creeps in making you wonder about how it
will all play out.
Night was coming on and I was beginning to head more west than south. The doubt was decreasing but the wind was increasing. The routine of travel on a sailboat had already set in and I went about the basics of eating, checking sails and making sure Noreen, the wind vane, was keeping a tight command of the steering. I was already 2 days out of La Paz, Mexico and by myself. This was my first time to single hand such a long passage. Though I had many years of sailing under my belt, I still had many things to workout. For one, I had practiced heaving to many times and thought I knew what I was doing, but this had not really been put to the test in real seas with strong wind. That was going to change in the next 24 hours.
The next morning the wind continued to be strong. I would guess it was around 20 knots and holding. Since I did not have a wind meter guessing was going to have to do. The boat pushed along at 7 to 8 knots with one reef in the main. As the day continued the wind began to increase. I dropped a second reef into the main and reefed in the jib a bit. This did nothing to slow us down. We were continuing to hold max hull speed and surfing down waves occasionally at 9 knots. This was too fast for the boat. I eventually was down to triple reefed main alone and still holding 7 knots.
As night approached the seas built with the wind to mountains of water. I had made some adjustments to direction to keep us on a good angle to the swell which put me on a coarse back toward land instead of the offshore path I should have been on, but the trade off of safety for the boat was worth the lost ground. Every so often I would take a wave over the boat which would be preceded by a loud bang as it slapped the side of the hull. My options were limited now. I could go down to storm sails, but this would have done little to slow us in the winds which now seemed in the 40s. It had now turned night and the intensity had taken its toll on me. With only having slept minimal hours over the last nights, I was at a breaking point and needed to stop the boat to wait out this system. The solution was to heave to, but I had never done it conditions like this and to make a big mistake could cost me the boat. I had to try.
Sitting in the cockpit behind the dodger I prepare the items needed. I had two strong points to lash the tiller to lee, the main was already as small as it was going to get and the jib was furled. I grabbed the tiller, released the windvane’s lines and began set the boat in position. I had always been able to heave to with the main pulled hard to center and the tiller to lee. I steered the boat up into the wind until it stalled and tied the tiller to lee. I watched and everything seemed stable, so I went below and shut the hatch.
I could hear the waves approach, as a loud rumble would precede the bang against the hull. I could feel the boat driving forward and then it happened, we passed through the eye of the wind and were rounding up. Terrified at the possibility of getting caught by a rouge wave in this unplanned position I jump through the companionway, slammed the hatch shut, untied the tiller as fast as possible and pulled hard to round us back into the wind. I reset the boat and went back below to find the same thing occur. Something was not right.
After the third attempt, being stressed out by the noise and motion, exhausted by lack of sleep, I sat there looking at the boat and its motion. Once set the boat would hold for a couple of cycles (the crab walk) and then a wave would push just hard enough on the stern to drive the bow through the eye of the wind. I was also making too much headway with 2 knots, sometimes 3 instead of the 1 or less that was expected. I realized I needed something to push the bow more off the wind. Maybe I could use the jib by letting out a small amount and back winding it.
I grabbed the furler line and the port sheet. I did not want this to get away from me, so I took turns letting out a small amount of the jib and then winching in on the port (windward) sheet. After about three revolutions of this I had enough out. This became clear as the boat had suddenly heeled to leeward and the motion had calmed dramatically. I continued to sit in the cockpit watching as huge waves would approach and the boat would calmly rise to let them pass under. All things now looked stable and I retired below.
Below the same sound would come with the approach of the waves. The difference became instantly evident. The sound of the wave would approach, but suddenly the wave sound like it dove under the boat. The motion had dramatically calmed down. I dropped to settee and was instantly passed out.
In the morning I woke to diminishing winds. The seas had begun to easy up as well but I was in no hurry to get back into what I experienced the night before, so I cooked some breakfast, had some coffee and waited. Around 10 am I decided to get going. I felt almost completely recovered. I unlashed the tiller, let go the sheet and brought it onto the leeward side, picked up some speed, tacked and set the vane. We were now on the correct tack headed back offshore on a northeast heading.
As the day progressed, I was rewarded with the best sailing I have every experienced. The wind held around 10 knots or so, but the seas completely flattened out. We skimmed through the water at 7 knots with only a small amount of heel and little swell. A perfect reward for a night of trials.
That night off Baja taught the beauty of heaving to. I now keep this as a primary tool in dealing with crazy weather.