Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Riding out a gale

Sailors may seem overly preoccupied with weather from a landsman's perspective. Each day we wake up comparatively early to listen to one or more weather forecasts on our long range shortwave radio. When we meet another sailor, weather and sea conditions are almost always part of the conversation. The reason for this is that where we travel, our comfort and safety at sea, and even where we choose to anchor each night are determined to a large extent by the wind's direction and speed.

This time of year in the Sea of Cortez, it is common to have strong northerly winds reaching gale force and often lasting for several days. That means that it is very difficult to travel north and even traveling south can be dangerous or at least uncomfortable during these periods. These winds are caused by areas of very high pressure air north of us in the southern US and much lower pressure air south of us near the equator. The air flows south channeling through the Sea of Cortez until the pressure levels off to the north.

Rani relaxing in the balmy tropical breeze
During the northers, cruisers find an anchorage with some protection from the big swells and waves that build up after a day or so as well as some shelter from the wind. However it is hard to avoid the wind, which will somehow manage to bend its way around even the biggest mountain in its way. We anchored as close to the shore as we dared in a sandy cove with hills to the north. You want good 'holding' so that your anchor will dig in well and sand works well for this.

Before the gale we prepared the boat by removing extraneous items from the deck, tying off any lines that could flap around and keep us awake at night, and tying an extra line around the sail cover. We let out extra anchor chain and put on lengths of fire hose around our bridle (the line that ties the boat to the anchor chain) to reduce the chance of this chafing. We also turned on our mapping GPS, setting an anchor drag alarm. The GPS will detect when you have moved further than X feet (say 120) and will sound a beep to alert you. During the gale, we would get up about once every hour to check for chafing and ensure that the anchor bridle was properly positioned in the chocks. By zooming in on the GPS map, we could see our track as we swung back and forth on the anchor. Finally, we set a small sail called a riding sail from the stern of the boat. This supposedly helps reduce the amount of swinging you do around the anchor, but Ladybug has a very high bow and she still sails around her anchor vigorously.

The first day was exciting and we lost plenty of sleep in the night. The second day we got a bit stir crazy and desparately wanted to get off the boat. We chatted with Kurt and Nancy on the sailing boat Raven, anchored a few hundred feet downwind of us and they were feeling the same - you could here the frustration in their voices. By the third day we had settled into a routine, reading, baking fudge and bread, lazing in the cockpit (dressed in our winter clothes due to the icy winds), and watching movies on our netbook.

We also managed to get our water maker working, which was having problems due to small leaks on the system. The beast runs at 800 psi in order to extract fresh water from sea water through a membrane, so even a tiny leak will cause the whole thing to fail. Fortunately, we were able to tighten a few connections and make 6 gallons of pure drinking water.

First day ashore - We made this rock ladybug to place in the 'cruiser's shrine' - a tree on the beach where boaters have left memorabilia of their visits.

We were very glad when the winds died down enough on the third day for a quick paddle to shore. The following day we were able to go ashore together and think about heading south to our next anchorage.

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