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A Late Night Adventure


It's 30 minutes into the new day, according to Universal, or Zulu, time. You use Zulu because it makes as much sense as anything. All you know is that it has been dark for several hours, and will be dark for several more. You just woke up from a nap, and are worried. Earlier in the day you fetched fresh weather files from an electronic bird way up in space and loaded them into the navigation software running on your computer. They told you that your location was going to get rolled by the bottom of yet another low over the course of the night. You check both the euro and the USA files, and yep, they agree. Or at least they mostly agree about the next 48 hours. The wind is going be from the southwest, they say. Coming from where you want to go, but they tell you that you can and should go west or just north of west, beating into the bottom of the low. Then, as you head towards the low and it heads towards you, at some point the winds will shift. They will swing from the south west to the west, then they will swing to the north west. And that is when you want to tack the boat, turn left and start sailing out of the low. The French even have a term for it, translating as the "sea gull's wing". Of course it sounds sexier when said in French, because the French can make any thing sound sexy. But they call it that because the shape of your track as you curve into the low, punctuated by the point where you tack, followed the shape of the curve of reciprocal track as you leave the bottom of the low. It looks like the outline of the gull and their wings. So that's just a bunch of exposition so I can avoid reliving the bad bits of this story. Where was I?

Oh yeah...worried. I had done my part, followed the instructions and sailed into the low. And let's face it, as lows in this race go it was an under achiever. Maybe steady 25 knots and gusts to 35. Except (insert pregnant pause) the sea state. It was filthy, wretched and vile. Dragon was being man handled like a shopper at Best Buy on Black Friday. Bullied like a school boy. A particularly unpopular one at that. Some waves would roll under you and reach your center axis at which point the bow would pivot down to slap into the water with a dull percussive BOOM. Others the boat would be moving fast enough that the whole wave gets past the boat, leaving it hanging in air until gravity takes over and drops her about 4 feet with a SLAM. Those are teeth rattlers. But the worst are when you feel the boat's bow go down and your body rises off of what ever you are perched on as the boat goes into free fall off of a wave. 6 feet down, and the hull is stopped by the water 's surface while everything else on or in the boat tries to continue to fall. Those are the ones where you can feel the after shock as the mast and keel waggle in opposition to one another, as you bang around like a ping pong ball and wonder if the boat is going to come apart and sink 13,000 feet to the closest dirt. So that is the story. It's dark, we've been headed this direction for while, it's howling and entirely unpleasant and you are waiting for a shift that is overdue. And waiting. And waiting. It wants to shift. The wind has definitely turned and your first wing is starting to trace a bit of a curve. But you've been do in this for hours. And it hurts. And you know you have lots of race left that you need a boat for. So you make the call for the tack. At this point it's a routine. You move the gear below, and you have an order for it. It's hard and hot work, and you build a sweat up inside the full kit you are wearing. You do it by the light your head lamp, dim because you need new batteries but you have not changed them out yet because this race is taking longer than expected and you don't want to run out of batteries So the last thing you do when you leave cabin is set up the gate valves to transfer the two tanks of ballast water. And up on deck you go. It's a malestorm. The wind's howl hits you full on, the deck is moving every which way under your feet and water is everywhere. Wind driven spray, waves, rain. Water is everywhere, and you keep having to wipe it out of your eyes to see what you need to do. Run through your check list in your head and do it. New runner on leave handle on winch, open clutch on old runner, load new sheet on winch, move bagged A5 from old windward rail to cockpit. Pause. Got cotton mouth, exertion, or fear that always creeps up when doing a move at night in a blow? Move forward. Pull the two handles that let the water ballast transfer. Count 15. Drop handles. Boat is on its ear with all the weight to leeward. Turn off pilot. Swing tiller over. Release old sheet from winch, hold in hand. Leap across cockpit. Blow old runner. Release old sheet. Haul in new sheet. IT WON'T MOVE. Jib is flogging like mad and won't stop until you can figure out what is wrong and fix it. Boat is over on the new tack but without a jib wants to go head to wind. Can't let that happen. Push tiller over further to get to broad reach. Put on pilot. Pull sheet. IT WON'T MOVE. Look forward with dim light. Curse battery frugality. Let go sheet. Crab-walk up deck. Think about all the ways this trip up deck can go wrong. You have got your vest and tether on because you promised, but they feel like weak armour against the elements. Get to mast. ....the sheets and one other line are tied into a knot around the mast winch. Knots, actually. Like a evil Boy Scout with bad skills had been to work. Sail is flogging like mad, cracking the air around you, sheets flailing like whips. Every flog pulling the knots tighter. Grab the twisted sheets several feet forward of winch to create slack to untie knot. Immediately get pulled off feet. Recalibrate. Brace knee on mast. Grab sheet with left hand. Sheets loosen and tighten and yank and whip your hands arms head with every flog. One head shot feels like a hammer. Desperately yank, pull and plead with knot. Gradually loosen. It's free. Crab walk back to cockpit. Grind on new sheet. Sail actually starts to do its job. Pause. Pause. Pause. Back forward to finish clean up, back aft and move A5 bag to new windward rail and decide another reef in the main. Open halyard, drop main, grind on new leech reef line. Open Cunningham clutch. Crabwalk to mast. Set Cunningham on new luff talk. Crab-walk back. Grind on Cunningham. Trim main. Pause. Pause. Pause. Boat is on the new tack, moving smoothly and a bit more calm. Clean up the cockpit lines and go below to assess the damage. I am soaked, sweat from within, rain and waves from without. I am parched. Every wound on my hands from the past week is reopened and some new ones added - I am bleeding. I am grateful, because that could have ended much worse. And smiling, because as I change the batteries in my head lamp, the shift comes. Now I am pointing properly SW and reaching out of the low. Not even beating any longer - the first time since the start.


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