Monday, 7 May 2018 – day 44

It’s incredible how fast a southern gale can whip up the sea.

I’m sitting here almost becalmed, which is almost a welcome change.

It’s been a bit of a challenge in the 48 hours since my last update.

The weather in the South Pacific is somewhat predictable. The main influence is a regular progression of eastward headed low pressure systems that build up in the Indian Ocean, intensify through the Tasman, and then spill into the Pacific Ocean.

This eastward progression of lows give the westerlies (from west to east) that the roaring forties are famous for. The clipper ships of old used to use theses winds to carry cargoes of wool and gold back to Europe from Australia. It’s quite amazing to think that these waters I’m now in, deserted and desolate, used to be the primary route of shipping traffic.

The centre of the lows actually are usually lower down in the furious fifties and the screaming sixties. The winds around a low pressure system south of the equator circle in a clockwise fashion, hence the top of the pressure system moving towards the east will have winds blowing from the west,
That said, the force 8 headwinds that I had last week were from a low that was sitting much higher up in the 20th-30th latitudes. I think it was a wannabe tropical storm that didn’t get the memo that it isn’t tropical storm season any more.

Anyway, I had a low pressure system come through a bit higher over the last 48 hours. This meant that I was dealing with constant wind shifts at all hours of the night. Lucky I don’t need any beauty sleep out here with no one to see me.

The backside of the system hit me yesterday afternoon. I was a rather engrossed in a book, and I already had the sails double reefed, so I was quite relaxed.

The boat speed started to build up, and I could feel her commencing to broach down the waves. I sighed, put my book down and, for the umpteenth time, got my wet weather gear on.

By the time I had completed this, it was really blowing. I got out and my jaw dropped just a little.

It was the most beautiful wave formation I’d ever seen. The waves previous to this were the good old southern ocean 4m rolling swell. Now over the top of this, were wave formations coming at around 30 degrees to the south west.

It was like watching a complex military drill with 2 waves coming through for each of the old swell. The new waves were nearly twice the height. I think about 6-7 metres.

You would think that these waves would crash into each other, but no, they slid through like magic!

The sky was absolutely alive with birds. There was this one bird that really caught my eye, I’m going to say it was a Petrel, screaming through the trough of the bigger waves at a great rate of knots, but bouncing over each smaller cross wave with millimetres to spare, using a flick of the wind tips to adjust the pitch.

There was also what looked like an albatross. I don’t know the etymology of the word albatross and there ain’t no google out here, but I do know that ‘alba’ is latin for white. Anyway, this bird and smelt and flew like an albatross, but was deeply brown on its undercarriage. Perhaps this is nothing to be excited about, but every albatross I’ve seen so far has been all white underneath.

I took all of this in within a few seconds, and then got to work on the boat. I had been running with the wind at an angle 30 degrees off dead down wind. I needed to sit her into the wind to drop the mainsail, so I decided to heave-to by bringing the nose of the boat around through the wind and use the backing of the jib against the rudder to stall the boat.

I disengaged the steering gear, and shoved the tiller leeward. She swung around confidently, hitting one of these waves side on which swung her straight back from whence she had come.

Bugger I thought, just a case of timing. I waited until the next wave was just finishing coming over me and then swung her around again. Nope still not fast enough, the sea was just too short.

As I was on a downward run, I had both mainsheet and genoa sheet sheeted out quite a bit, and I realised I would have to use the drive of the sail to give the necessary force to bring the boat around. The drive would come by sheeting in the mainsail as tightly as I could, which would drive the nose of the boat windward. The trouble was, I didn’t want to do this until she’d partially come around, as premature sheeting would cause my boat to excessively heel on the wave before it. So a bit of timing was involved.

I gritted my teeth, got my foot on the rudder, got my hands on the mainsheet and gave it a go. She started to swing, hit the next wave, hesitated as she thought about how nice it was back at the previous angle, and then swung through it. Success!!

The world of difference that this makes always warms the heart. Suddenly you’re no longer fighting massive forces. The boat sits on a 45 degree angle and the sails work against each other, causing leeward drift, creating that lovely slack water that takes the bite out of waves.

I got the mainsail down, one arm embracing the mast with the crook of the elbow, the other working on gathering the sail down. Even hove-to, the movement of the boat is such that at one movement you’re practically standing on the mast, and the next moment you’re dangling with sea directly below you. I was wearing my safety harness of course, but one doesn’t really want to try out its effectiveness.

It has always fascinated me when I watched the State of Origin, how you could have three massive forwards unsuccessfully try to claw the pill out of a small five-eight’s grasp as he dives for the try line. The flexion force of the arm is not to be underestimated, I think it is primarily there to facilitate hanging on rather than try scoring, and hang on I did.

With the mainsail sorted I then furled the genoa completely and set the dedicated storm jib on the inner forestay. I put a lot of time and effort into designing and fitting the inner forestay, and in the words of that great Aussie movie, “It just paid for itself”.

I could have relied on a scrap of unfurled genoa with less effort to set up, but a dedicated storm jib is much flatter than the baggy genoa, letting it spill off the excess air and creating less drag. The other advantage is that the storm jib sits closer and lower to the mast which provides better balance and less heeling forces.

I then set the boat up to just run with the waves. She was running reasonably quickly, and I probably could have run bare poles without showing any sail, but my feeling is that a jib balances the boat and provides a counter force to the waves which want to swing the boat sideways.

A few hours of this, and then I was left with the remnants of the low pressure system in the form of a brisk southerly. By mid evening I had storm jib down and reefed sails back up. Sometime during the night, I have no idea what time, I had full sail flying for the first time in a week and the boat singing as she flew along on a beam reach!

The wind has now died down as the high pressure component of the weather system continues its merry way eastward, the sails flapping as each gentle roll of a previously angry sea passes me by. My daily run was 90 miles as compared to 130-140 mile runs of the last few days. Not to worry, the wind will come again. It always does!

Latitude: -42.567, Longitude: -152.324, Time: 06:03:31 07-05-2018 UTC