Wednesday, June 18, 2008

23 By Accident, 24 from Zero to 40-Plus with Zorro

During the weekend of June 14th, we held a small regatta at Heron Lake which had some interesting challenges and "learning experiences". Our committee boat was a Catalina 22. After the pre-race meeting, the Catalina's skipper and I placed some racing marks in the deep waters of Heron Lake, then anchored near the lake's eastern shore to wait for the racers to gather and start the race.

Unfortunately, the racers later told us that our anchored boat was very hard to find against the background of the shoreline. Also, some of the longer-term club members remembered when the previous Olympic Circle race course had been further out into the lake, and went looking for the committee boat further out in the lake. It took us quite a while to collect enough of the boats to start a race, and one of the starters ripped a mainsail when unreefing in the still-vigorous winds.

After the race, we had another surprise. The Catalina's outboard motor, which never in its skipper's memory had failed to start -- did just that -- failed to start. So, we raised anchor and sailed off our mooring and back to the marina under sail. We hadn't planned on sailing, but conditions were wonderful, with about 8 or 9 knots of breeze to give us a nice ride.

This past Tuesday, I got in a different sort of sailing, driving south that afternoon to Elephant Butte Lake in southern New Mexico. It was hot -- really hot. Temperatures were expected to break 100 degrees F pretty much all week long, and the air conditioning in the car simply couldn't keep up with the heat. In Truth or Consequences, I picked up some end stops for a bimini top track from a chandlery, and bought 250 feet of light rope for use in setting up race marks at Heron.

Then I arrived at the Rock Canyon Marina, where Zorro and some other sailors were ready for sailing practice. Winds had been mostly quite light, and the sun a bit brutal, but there was just enough breeze picking up to make it worth going. I crewed on the Etchells "Constellation" with "Dumbledore", who usually sails a J/24; and Zorro, Mother Superior, and Space Invader all took out "Kachina", a J/24. The wind was at a right angle to Constellation's slip position, so I took a bowline and did some athletic crawling over boats and piers to get the boat headed into the wind while clear of obstacles. We then raised sail and were quickly off. We dropped a buoy and anchor in position to make a mock startling line. We did a couple of practice starts, then sailed upwind to a mark, turned around, and deployed chutes. I don't do much foredeck, so I wasn't the fastest crew around, but I was able to get things going and then keep the chute happy in spite of very light conditions.

Later on, as we were sailing in the area not far from the marina, Dumbledore noticed signs of stronger winds brewing to the west. Some clouds gave warning of changes in our weather, and then dust began to whip on on the western shore. I tightened controls and we wound up having a pretty wild ride as some wanna-be thunderstorm cells whipped through parts of the lake. The experience was both exhilarating and a bit awesome, and it was hard to predict just where the strongest winds would occur on the lake as the gusts and downdrafts roared across the lake. Sometimes the most intense winds took the forms of tongues of blowing sand and wind-lashed whitecaps; the winds in between the tongues would be 20 mph or so, but gusting into the 40s or 50s within the intense tongues of hard, hot wind.

Sailing within the less windy areas or in between the periods of strong winds was quite manageable, even with a short-handed crew, but sailing in the stronger wind patterns got to be quite a bit of work ... especially with shifts in the wind.

As the winds moderated for a while, we returned to port, making a nice docking in the still good breeze. We received word that the marina crew had recorded gusts in the 40's and 50's (in mph), and the marina is in a somewhat protected located. So, we knew we'd earned our fun!

On land, we visited with our fellow sailors, the marina workers, and a sailor who was resting on the patio, and with his very well behaved German Shepherd, "Buck". Zorro kept watching for the winds to abate, as they continued to cycle up and down in force and to change direction, with some pretty strong chunks of wind blowing across parts of the lake now and then. Zorro looked for reassurance that the winds seemed to be abating and that he'd have a chance for more sailing before having to face the long, hot return drive to El Paso.

Soon, things were tamer and the oscillations in wind speed were less pronounced and more predictable, but by then "Mother Superior" and her crew wanted to return to their cabin. So, just Zorro and I went out on Constellation. Winds mostly cycled between around 8 and 22 knots, with some changes in direction, and gradually softening, so we had a nice ride with lots of gear switching. An an upwind mark, we put up the chute; this was the first time I'd tried running the spinnaker while the jib was still up, and I was having a challenge with the stiffness of the jaws on Constellation's spinnaker pole. Pulling the release line didn't necessarily open the jaws, and one end was having trouble with the jaw opening and closing properly, letting a spinnaker guy escape once. I also got to deal with a couple of wraps and tangles, but that wasn't a big deal.

Keeping the spinnaker full and drawing is one of the things in life that I particularly enjoy, so sometimes it was a challenge for Zorro to get me to pay attention to anything other than the luff curl on the chute. As the winds continued to soften, it became harder and harder to keep the chute happy, but a bit of cooperation between helm and trim kept the kite drawing so we could get to the marina before dark fell. As one point, Zorro thought the wind had shifted 180 degrees; it hadn't (yet!), but instead we'd gotten into a velocity header that happened when we outran the fading breeze. Soon the breeze had faded far enough that it was about time to take down the chute.

As we neared the marina, however, we saw the the squirrelly weather on the lake wasn't at all done toying with us. Not far to our east, on Long Point, was saw winds begin to swirl up some dust and a big dust devil began to from ... and start marching up the point, in our general direction. I had just taken down the chute quickly, and now Zorro wanted me to dump the main -- Fast! -- just in case that whirlwind kept Constellation in its sights and wanted us to play with it. Fortunately, the dust devil stuck to land and faded away. Although the winds strengthened, they didn't do so too radically, and we were able to make a couple of judicious tacks with the jib (Etchells don't seem quite as maneuverable under jib as the J/24; the Etchells jib is only a small portion of its total sail plan) to return to the slip. I hopped off and caught the boat just as the winds freshened and began to whistle in the rigging, lashing up some white caps.

In the marina, we rolled up sails before dark fell completely. I carried an extra mainsail up to Zorro's Mercedes. Opening the door of the car I'd traveled in, I found that the roaring winds had deposited a layer of sand inside; dusting that aside I made the short drive to Dumbledore and Mother Superior's cabin for a rest before tackling the long night drive 150 miles back home.

Saturday's unplanned sail made for sailing day number 23 so far in 2008 for my logbook. Tuesday's pair of sails brought the count up to 24 sailing days. That's an average of about once per week, with some other days being taken up with race committee duties, working on the marina, playing around in kayaks, and other good things.


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