This is probably nothing for many of you. A lot of you REGULARALLY sail in these conditions, but for me, it was rather exciting. WARNING: Long-winded post follows!
I had a scheduled regatta, the NCSail Pirates Sail, this past weekend. A bunch of sailors and their families dressing up like pirates, decorating their boats like pirate ships, sailing the NC Outer Banks, having a huge bonfire/barbeque and generally having a lot of fun. It?s a big family event, no racing (although you can get broadsided with a barrage of cupcakes and/or Oreo cookies from another pirate ship!) This year was Beaufort out the inlet, along Shackleford Banks to Cape Lookout.
We had a dinner and celebration in Beaufort on Friday night and the plan was to sail to Cape Lookout on Saturday morning. Have the bonfire, treasure hunt, kids? pirate party, 300 pool-noodle raft building contest and camp out. Then sail back Sunday morning. The rain was steady on Friday and the winds a little high but not too bad. But on Saturday...
SMALL CRAFT ADVISORY IN EFFECT FROM NOON EDT TODAY THROUGH MONDAY MORNING NE WINDS 20 KT...INCREASING EARLY TO 20 TO 25 KT SEAS 5 TO 7 FT. CHANCE OF SHOWERS AND THUNDERSTORMS.
So the group decided not to go and have the barbeque at the Beaufort public docks instead. Some people thought to maybe attempt a day sail towards the inlet and see how it would go. Most people opted not to. My crew, Brian, turned to me and said, "well I came here to go sailing!" After towing 'Special Treat', my '93 Prindle 18.2, 300 miles and 6.5 hours, I wanted to use it as well, but I was of a bit nervous. Brian asked me, ?how many years have you been sailing?? ?Thirty.? ?And how many of those years on catamarans?? ?Twenty-five.? ?Don?t you think you know how to handle your boat? I know these waters pretty well. What?s the worst that could happen?? I could think of a LOT of worst things that could happen, but I also thought that Shackleford Banks was pretty much all sand. If things got really hairy, I could drive towards the banks, run the boat up on to the sand, drop canvas and either wait it out or call for help. ?LET?S GO FOR IT,? I said! (Famous last words.)
So we launched and went back and forth along the marina channel on a reach two times waiting for everyone else who would go. But no one else was launching. We thought that we were late and they had already left so we decided to head out to the inlet to try and catch them. Little did we know that everyone was sitting it out, looking at the weather reports on their laptops and watching us fly up and down the channel at 12 knots from the dryness of their cabins. When we made the turn and headed out, people thought we were insane.
Negotiating out of Beaufort was fairly easy ? almost dead downwind. The boat sails slow, steady and in control on a run (an ugly point of sail as you all know) and it was no big deal to negotiate the narrow channel. We were told to pay very close attention to the landmarks that it can easily get confusing. But in all honesty, there a huge condo building right at the main point. Aim for that, turn starboard and Beaufort is right there. Getting back wouldn?t seem to be any big deal (yeah, right! More on that later.) As we headed out into the inlet the winds picked up and the waves picked up. The winds really were 20-25 with gusts to around 30 and the waves just got bigger and bigger and bigger - Up to 8 feet! The wind and tide coming in opposes the current going out which makes for the big waves. I was really surprised how well the boat was handling. No weather or lee helm at all ? totally neutral! I had Brian induce lots of downhaul and most of the sailing was close-hauled so I had the main sheeted in tight as well. (I could hear and see in my mind Rick's demonstration in his videos about de-powering and using the downhaul!) The main was flat as a board and de-powered a lot. I?m guessing my tuning is wrong, because the helm really liked this. It was really easy on the hand. I'll have to check that.
One funny note: At one point I felt that the boat could be pointing better and Brian's jib probably needed to be trimmed. I started to say, "Brian, sheet in on you..." but as I looked at the tell-tales, they were both pointing back beautifully. "Uh never mind. The tell-tales say your sail is just... Wait a minute!" The soaking wet sails had the tales pasted to them like glue. They were ALL flat against the sails and not moving! We joked about it all day even if the floudered in irons, Brian would say, "I don't care what you think. My sail is trimmed perfectly!"
When we hit the big waves I was scared about nose-diving. I was practically on the transom and had Brian come back as well. When we were about to wall the first big wave I yelled out, ?hold on! Don?t lose it and fly forward!? The Prindle hulls knifed right through the wave, we got splashed a little and barely lost any speed. She just sliced on through and kept going like it was nothing. ?What am I supposed to be holding on for?! What?s supposed to happen,? Brian asked? ?I guess nothing,? I said with a huge smile! Once we got into the ocean the waves settled down a lot and we made the turn along Shakleford Banks.
The winds were still very high in the upper 20's and it was a beam reach all the way along which was kind of fun. I had even forgotten to worry and stress out about... EVERYTHING which is what I usually do. Sailing instinct took over as I just tried to control the boat and hold course. For the first time in a long time - I WAS ACTUALLY RELAXING! And then the rain bands came in and starting blasting us! That blinding, stinging, horizontal, visibility-down-to-less-than-a-hundred-yards kind of rain. The kind of rain that looks like a gray wall and you can see rapidly coming towards you.
It wasn?t cold, but it actually hurt your face as it plastered us. When it eased up, it was only for a few seconds and you could see the next line coming straight at us. ?Is this supposed to be fun,? I shouted out?! ?Are we supposed to be having fun doing this?? "well we?re sailing and that?s fun," Brian answered. But it would be nice if I could see. My glasses are covered in water.? ?You can?t see?! Brian, you?re the navigator! YOU?RE the one who?s telling me where to go!? ?Well then I won?t be doing a good job of that. I can?t see a thing,? Brian said. ?Maybe we should turn back, ?I asked. ?At this speed, we?ll probably be there in less than an hour,? Brian countered. ?Yeah but no one will be there. What?re we going to do, get blasted by this just to get there, by ourselves, touch sand and say we made it. Do we really want to do that,? I asked? ?Yeah, let?s turn back,? Brian answered. Is this what they call "Small Craft Advisory"?
Heading back into the inlet we got passed on starboard by the big Coast Guard cutter ship that mans the area. I flipped my radio from the regatta channel over to 16 in case they wanted to hail. I saw the lookout, binoculars in hand, checking us out and I waved. He put down the binoculars, lowered his head and shook it... ?idiots? I could almost hear him muttering. The CG ship would motor ahead, stop and wait a bit, motor ahead, stop and wait a bit and motor on again. ?What?s he doing,? Brian asked? ?Waiting for us to pile it in,? I said! ?He keeps checking to see when we?re going over!? This CG obviously wanted to be somewhere but felt they couldn't go too far away from us. Surely at some point we would need rescuing. So I hear over my radio...
"Hailing catamaran 'Special Treat'. Hailing catamaran 'Special Treat'. This is the United States Coast Guard, do you have a radio? Over."
"This is catamaran 'Special Treat' sail number 590 responding. What can we do for you?"
A loooooooooooooong pause....
"You two are some crazy sonafabitches."
"That we are sir. Do YOU require assistance?"
"Just please make it back to port and don't die on us."
"We'll do our best. If we need you, we'll hail, but we're doing OK right now. Catamaran Special Treat 590 out."
So on we trudged. And it was getting interesting now. The rain started to get worse and visibility was now next to nothing. ?Can you see that condo,? I yelled out?! ?No! I don?t see anything! No land, channel markers or anything. All I see is rain,? Brian yelled back! ?Nothing?! I can't see anything either. I've lost my bearings. Damn! I would hate to run aground at this speed. What about that Coast Guard ship? Do you see that?? ?Yeah, I still see him up ahead in the distance.? ?Good. We?ll aim for him. He?s got to be in some kind of channel,? I determined.
Also, the wind had shifted East a little bit and now we were beam reaching which meant speed, but also more risk of a knockdown. (Our GPS recorded a top speed of 21 knots on the day.) And we were going WITH the big waves this time. I could either try to speed up and jump from wave to wave, or try and slow down and surf the 8-footers heading back into the inlet. I chose the latter, to surf and I do mean surfing! It took me a few minutes to remember how, but I got the timing, shouting out to Brian to ease out on the downhaul, haul hard on the downhaul.. Back and forth to power up and slow down to time the waves and ride them. Duuuuuuude we are surrrrrfing!
The rain began to let up a bit which opened up visibility. We began to see other pirate sailboats attempting to head out towards the inlet. From small 24-footers to a big Hunter 40. All were having difficulty. On the radio I hear, ?Aaarrrrgh! Is that our pirate catamaran?? ?That it is,? I responded, ?just doing some California surfing!? ?You guys are INSANE! Prepare to be blasted with Oreo cookies!? So I hailed back, ?if you can catch us ? you can try to hit us!?
We came up on the big Hunter coming towards us and I saw about four people, including some kids, up on deck getting ready to hurl cookies at us. ?Passing on your weather, port side,? I radioed out. ?Brian! Let out and give me 2-feet of downhaul, sheet in your jib and stretch out. Let?s see what she?ll do,? I shouted! We got out as far as we could and I tried to keep the weather hull just a foot out of the water. At 21 knots we flew passed the big boat so fast that by the time the kids got ready to throw, they were too late (a closing speed of probably close to 28 knots!). They never got a shot off! Hard to throw a cookie at something moving at that closing speed!
We came up on another boat, a smaller one decorated with Viking pirates, which had already decided to turn back. As we closely passed to his port, I saw that he was MOTOR-SAILING! He opened up a 6.5hp outboard to full throttle and we still passed him! "What kind of engine do you have on that thing,? they yelled out to us! I couldn't respond because I was laughing so hard!
Finally the rain let up enough to allow for some visibility and we saw the condo building and made the first tack to head back to Beaufort and then it hit me that that easy, slow, controlled, downwind run to get out of the town ? was going to be a dead, upwind, tack battle in narrow 800-ft-wde channel to get back! Crap! Six tacks to go less than a quarter of a mile!
Like we all sometimes do - I kept trying to push the envelope more and more to clear that last pier and cut down on the number of tacks you need to do. Jusssssst a little further on each tack. And sure enough, as I called out ?prepare to tack,? for the seventh time? BANG! We ran aground. Damn! Almost a perfect control day in conditions such as they were until this. Dumb-ass! Luckily it was just sand and the rudders and rotating centerboards came up just fine.
We jumped off, re-positioned the boat and easily made it back in. By the time we hit the beach we were pretty tired. My plan was to relax, have some lunch and if the rain let up ? give some of the kids rides up and down the channel. But the rain never really let up, in fact at times it came down harder and so the partying just began a little early. Once I found some beers, tortilla chips & hot salsa - sailing sort of lost its apeal.
One final cool thing: On Sunday, we headed back to de-rig the boat and load her onto the trailer. I saw something in the channel and saw a bunch of people rushing to launch kayaks. I screamed out to Brian to throw the sail bags off the boat and onto the beach! "Just grab your paddle and shove off! We're leaving in 20 seconds!" "What? No sails? What are we doing," Brian asked. We paddled a mere 50 yards into the middle of the channel and waited for it - a pod of about 15 bottle-nose dolphins in the channel feeding! Very VERY cool!!! They were going up and down the channel along the marina for quite some time, herding the fish back and forth and dining at their leisure. We watched them for some time and as we sat on the front crossbar with our feet dangling in the water, one actually poked his head up in between the bows to get a look at us. He checked us out for a few seconds and then slipped back down again. It was cool to watch their coordination. 10 dolphins would swim in a line and drive the fish down the channel (you could see th elittle fish swimming and jumping about 50 feet in front of them) to 5 dolphins waiting at the other end to gobble them up. Then the dolphins would switch places. 5 would take off very fast along the opposite shore down tot he other end of the channel and 10 would drive the fish back the other way. It was like a baseball rundown that went on all morning. These dolphins just herded the fish from the ocean, into the inlet and over to the channel where there was no escape. Then they just drove them back and forth, eating them up until they probably got them all. AMAZING!
I'll try and post some pics when I get them uploaded. And yeah.... I'll do it again. Whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger!