Trip Reports

From Bali to Singapore: Gentlemen Don't Do It (21-Nov-2001-00-00):
6:30 PM local time, Wednesday, November 21 (1030 Nov. 21 UTC) 05 00 S 113 30 E. Temp. 85, Humidity 85%, Cloud Cover 100%. Java Sea.

It has often been said, or maybe it hasn't, that unless you count playing the accordion, none of the doings of mankind are less natural than sailing a boat upwind. The infinite inventiveness of evolution has come up with quite a variety of means of locomotion, but not this. Walking, swimming, and flying are so ordinary they've been invented scores of times. There are gliders and floaters, in air and water. There are worms that squirm, snakes that writhe; squid are jet-propelled, jellyfish do that ooching thing, and snails and slugs do whatever it is they do. Rocks and tumbleweeds roll, and tumbleweeds even bounce. Insects walk on water and By-The-Wind Sailors sail, it's true. But nothing tattoos "MOM" on its arm, and nothing sails upwind, but the human being.

You've got your great feats of engineering. But skyscrapers were invented by termites, dams by beavers, and what is a bridge, but a fallen log over a creek. Kites don't really soar that well compared to the albatross, and computers are simplified brains. Sailing upwind isn't an imitation of anything seen in nature. Men, or perhaps women, made it up out of whole cloth.

Flying, an imitation of birds, seemed for centuries to be a remote possibility, and when it was finally accomplished, it was necessary to use the brute force of an engine and expend a lot of fuel in order to achieve it. But the sailboat performs a feat of engineering jujitsu: it turns the power of the wind against itself, to propel something made of wood or plastic or steel and sailcloth where the wind never planned for it to go. It doesn't make any sense, and would not have made any sense to anyone who thought about it, until someone did it. Who was that man? As Captain Ron says, nobody knows.

Gentlemen don't do it, but that caveat has rarely kept the crew of Maverick from anything. Perhaps the way gentlemen become gentlemen, however, is by avoiding doing stupid things, like sailing from Bali to Singapore in November. Neither the pilot chart, nor the cruising guides, nor any of the local folks, gave us fair warning of what we were in for. The pilot chart calls for a 15% chance of northwesterlies for the month, at force three, and zero percent reported gales. (Force three, for you landlubbers, is characterized by 7-10 knots of wind with 2-foot seas.) I won't be the first sailor to feel that the pilot chart sold him some swampland in Florida, and I won't be the last.

Now, Maverick is a boat that was designed for an era of racing in which the name of the game was sailing upwind. It's narrow, with ballast almost fifty percent of displacement, so it's stiff. The hull is easily driven but there's plenty of sail, so it really will go to windward in anything from a zephyr to a gale.

Three days out of Bali, we were making little progress. We had just enough wind to move along, say eight knots, and it was right on the nose. So far, we have no legitimate beef with the pilot chart. But the chop was out of proportion to the wind and often stopped us dead. The Captain was saying to himself that these waves were coming from somewhere, and that was right where we heading. That morning we hit a squall of about 35 knots. The wind came from ahead and when it was done doing its thing it shut off the breeze completely and we were left to wallow for an hour or so, going nowhere. Or really, not nowhere, because we had about two knots of adverse current. About noon we had another squall, a little stronger, still on the nose. But this time, it wasn't over in a half hour. The wind freshened to forty and we learned where the seas were coming from.

So we had forty knots on the nose and 2 knots of adverse current. We also had the Genoa on the furler because we had expected light winds the whole passage. We made more leeway than we should because of the sail shape in our roller-reefed headsail, but even so, Maverick was sailing well. We were working hard, because the wind was not steady. It would build to forty, then back off to the high twenties, then thirty-five, and then, oh, it's finally down to about twenty and that's the end of, jeez, it's back up to forty. Too much sail meant Maverick was driving itself into the faces of waves, like a hound attacking a bear, or climbing up, and up, the face to launch itself off the other side and then fall, all 20,000 pounds of her, into the trough with a shock that made everything on the boat, including the soul of the Captain, shudder. Maverick is all heart, and no brain. But on the other hand, too little sail and the substantial, steep waves would stop her cold, turning her bow away and putting her in danger of being helpless, beam-to the seas.

What this meant was, the boat had to be sailed every minute, We hand steered and constantly reefed and unreefed, moved jib cars, traveler up, traveler down, more outhaul etc., with all the work that entails, hour after hour. There's no coffee break on a sailboat in these conditions. Sailing is a 24-hour job. We were glad to have whatever knowledge we learned racing Maverick about sail trim, when to foot, tacking on headers, etc. We were determined not to go backwards and any brief lack of effort would set us back an hour of progress.

Maverick, in her racing days, would have sailed with a crew of seven, but there were only two of us. After twelve hours, we were physically beat from the motion of the boat and the constant work, and had made 4.5 miles towards our waypoint, a vmg of about 1/3 of a knot. We still had 800 miles to go, and at that speed, our GPS' estimated time enroute read "infinite." Every hour, we would hope for conditions to abate but as it turned out, we had a long time to wait. During this passage, during which we never once could fetch a waypoint, we came to a new understanding of just how long a day is. So why not turn on the motor, I can hear some cruiser buddies of mine suggesting. Hey, we're not so proud...but it was quite clear after a short try that it burned a lot of fuel that we might need later, without improving anything. Our friends on Okiva have a nominal range under power of 1000 miles. In these conditions, by their calculations, they would be out of fuel after less than 400; and since they couldn't really go to windward at all without the engine, they had little choice but to burn it. We at least could sail and make what turned out to be about the same amount of progress, without using fuel, which was a good thing, since we don't have Okiva's fuel capacity.

We didn't want to turn back to Bali; the delay that entailed would mean that we'd never make it to the Red Sea in time this year. In any case, we had no reason to believe that the wind would be more likely to favor us a week or two later: quite the contrary, the pilot chart showed a higher likelihood of contrary winds in December. But it was time to seek some other solution, as the crew would not be able to sustain this level of effort indefinitely. What happened next will be the subject of our next dispatch.

Next report more-or-less from this location: Battling Rough Conditions

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