I gazed out on the sparkling blue waters of San Francisco Bay from my 33 foot sailboat, Rough and Rettie, and thought it was a perfect day for sailing. A rarity for April. My friend Sue and I were heading to the starting line off of City Front for the 1983 Doublehanded Farallon’s race with another 62 boats.
We cruised along getting the boat ready and checking in with the race committee, while we listened to the great weather report. We joked about luckless people on land missing such such a fine day. An hour later when we started with an unusual easterly wind making for an almost unheard of spinnaker start, an uneasy feeling crept into my stomach, I unwisely brushed it aside without question.
Less than an hour later, as the seas began to rise and the wind began tearing at our hair and making the boat more uncontrollable, I told Sue I was going forward to take down the chute which was hoisted inside a spinnaker sock. The sock had twisted itself around the slotted headfoil at the top of the forestay so I couldn’t bring the sleeve down over the spinnaker. I looked over my shoulder and yelled to Sue to release the halyard and she responded by throwing her hands in the air to show me she had. The wind had begun to roar in my ears so only hand signals made communicating possible.
In an instant I realized the halyard was jammed with the sock at the top of the mast and probably only brute force was going to dislodge it. In a second instant, I realized that we had let ourselves be deceived by the light winds and beautiful morning and now the reality was sinking in…this was going to be no ordinary offshore sail. Tossing that misgiving aside, I returned to my struggle with a very large and unwieldy piece of fabric filled by building winds and pulling the boat around the ocean as if the sail had a life of its own. We were now sailing with the wind aft or downwind, with the wind behind us as I was trying to shelter the spinnaker behind the mainsail while I struggled to get it on deck.
Wind howled into a keen scream and the water turned to froth. I knew something was desperately wrong with that last weather report and we were in trouble on a lee shore if I couldn’t get that sail down. By now the wind had switched to the South, a sure sign of a significant low pressure storm upon us. After at least a half hour, my struggles ended with a last desperate jerk and it came tumbling down to the deck. As I crawled aft dragging the bundled sail along the deck, I yelled ahead at Sue asking for the wind velocity. She yelled back, “Forty knots”. Oh yeah… from 10 knots to 40 knots in less than 30 minutes was a clear message from the weather gods that the coming low pressure system was going to do some damage and I kicked myself for coming out here without taking this race seriously enough to be adequately prepared.
Basically, I had fallen into a treacherous trap of overconfidence, treating this day sail offshore as just a jaunt for the day rather than following a usual painstaking planning for every conceivable offshore emergency. Three years before, I had successfully completed my first singlehanded race to Hawaii on this boat. The following year I singlehanded the boat to Japan from San Francisco and faced down and won a battle with a typhoon offshore of Japan. Beating back Mother Nature had me cocky enough to come out here without Loran for navigation and a food supply consisting of nothing other than a bunch of bananas. (I hadn’t yet heard of bananas being bad luck on a boat…now I know better.)
As we sailed under our mainsail alone, catching our breath and deciding on a which headsail, I glanced at the wind speed reading of 45 knots and saw it slowly rising.
“Time to go home!”, I yelled at Sue. Just at that moment the lower panel of the mainsail begin to tear horizontally from luff to leach. I clambered back on deck and lowered the halyard enough so the bottom panel was buried in a reef, then threw in a second reef for good measure. That reduced the sail area considerably and stopped the wild gyrations. We became briefly more stable.
As I held on to the tiller with a death grip, I glanced over my shoulder at the 15 foot seas and realized there would be no going home without using our engine to aid in the fight against the current and breaking seas. We were on a fast track North…at least the compass still worked. I had to get on that foredeck again and rig the storm jib…fortunately it was onboard. It might be a little scrap of cloth but it was an effective sail for balancing the boat in strong winds and hopefully pulling us to windward.
Sue lobbied for staying on due North. I realized she was frantic at the prospect of taking the helm in this maelstrom…but there was land North of us, only we couldn’t see it through the mist being thrown up by the crashing waves. In fact, I did not see land to the East of us either. In all of the turmoil of dragging down sails and building wind, the visibility reduced to about a half-mile because of the spray and mist. I had no idea where we were with respect to the coastline north of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. I only knew that it was in the direction against the waves and wind and we were getting pushed farther and farther away with no abatement in sight.
First things first. I grabbed the storm jib and handed the tiller to Sue, like it or not. I snapped my harness tether into the jackline and crawled to the foredeck on hands and knees dragging the sail behind me. As the boat scooted down the waves, the bow punched into the troughs and threw a cascade of water over me. As I was grabbing for security with one hand and trying to set up the sail with the other…one of my favorite lines of the song, “ The Edmond Fitzgerald” came back to me. “Where does the love of God go when the waves turn the minutes to hours”?
Linda Newland serves as immediate past president of the National Women’s Sailing Association, a program of the Women’s Sailing Foundation.She is a member of America’s Boating Club—Point Wilson Sail & Power Squadron/16 lives in Port Hadlock, Washington, and serves as assistant squadron educational officer. An accomplished blue-water sailor, Linda teaches sailing and She also serves as vice president for administration for the Recreational Boating Association of Washington, which represents boaters in statewide boating legislation and regulatory issues.