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Sailing – not all gold that glitters

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The skipper. But a dad first

People sometimes get an idealistic idea about how it is to sail a yacht. True, I love sailing. I love the ocean, the freedom, even just the idea of moving on an endless sea merely pushed forward by wind and tides.

But when I go sailing with the family, it is different. Up comes the endless feeling of responsibility. In our family of four, I am the only one who knows how to sail a yacht. Tine, my wife, knows how to assist maneuvering a yacht in a harbour, and helps me steering the boat against the wind when I raise the sails, and she picks up a mooring buoy like no other, but she does not know how to sail. Our daughters, Lana (now 13) and Hannah (nearly 11), know how to sail a dinghy, but not a yacht.

So my nightmare is “what if something happens to me, while we are under sail”… Imagine for one or the other silly reason, I fall overboard – accidents happen on a yacht -, what then? Or even if it is just when getting into bad weather, where I would need skilled hands?
It is different if you have a crew that knows what to do. As the skipper, you stay on the helm and give simple orders: “Trim the main sail”, “reef the foresail”, “look up the course to the nearest port”… But when we sail with the family, it is different.
Even though I take every possible precaution to ensure the safety of my loved ones: I have taken every possible course. I have quite some experience in bad weather, in strong tides, sailing in busy commercial shipping lanes, sailing at night, and maneuvering in busy ports. I know how to read weather charts, calculate tides, and all radio procedures. I know first aid, and emergency procedures. I know how to anchor a ship, pick up a man over board, and maneuver in tight quarters. And still, when sailing with the family I always get nervous.

Let me tell you a story how fast things could go wrong.

Back in 2004, we sailed from in the Caribbean from Martinique to the Grenadines. One morning, we lift anchor from Bequia in the Grenadines, to sail to St.Lucia, about 60-70 nautical miles further North. The weather was nice and the forecast was perfect. I made one mistake: I calculated the trip to be a bit shorter if we passed St.Vincent -the next island North of Bequia- via the East, the Atlantic side, rather than the quieter Caribbean (East) side.

When we cut between Bequia and St.Vincent, the weather turned overcast, but the winds and the seas were quite calm. As we sailed past St.Vincent’s East side, the wind picked up to about 15 knots, still quite easy, even though I could see some isolated squalls coming our way. I kept an eye on them and changed course regularly to pass in front or in the back of them. As we sailed along, we saw the skies getting darker, and I did not have a comfortable feeling. I put in a reef in the main sail, just in case, but did not get too worried until I saw a real dark squall heading our way, just as we were getting close to the North of St.Vincent.

I ordered the family to put on their life jackets, and clipped the kids with a lifeline onto the ship. I clipped myself onto the lifeline, put the ship on autopilot and went to the bow of the ship to put in the third reef in the main sail. Just as I stood hooked onto the main mast, it started raining, and the wind picked up. Tine dropped some of the main halyard so I could put the reef in the main sail. I got soaked by the spray and the rain. By the time I got back into the cockpit, the wind had picked up to 35 knots, turning and twisting from all sides. It was then I remembered someone warning us of the usual foul weather due to the huge mountain at the North of St.Vincent.

The sea turned into a boiling pot, with waves coming from all sides, spraying over the side of the boat, soaking my crew. We already had our rain jackets on, but it got really cold. The wind gusted from all directions, making it difficult to keep a course and to keep the sails filled, so the boat would hold a steady angle.

The rain gusted down, and the visibility was close to nil. Long had we lost sight of land. I had plotted our course, so I knew we were about five miles off land, but also knew there was no harbour this side of the island. It took probably half an hour until I realized something was wrong. The wind had shifted 90 degrees, and to keep the sails full, I had lost my bearing. The compass and my GPS indicated we were heading straight for land, sailing West instead of North…

I needed both hands at the helm, and told Tine we were getting off course. Once the going gets rough, Tine is all business. Even though I know she is not comfortable in foul weather (that is an understatement), she stood up, and told me calmly “Tell me what to do!”. I told her to “take the green rope, put it over a winch clockwise, and to crank it up, until I told you to stop”, an order which for an experienced crew would be “pull in the main tight”. She did it perfectly. Next came “take the white and black rope, put it onto a winch, open up the clamp of the white rope, and start winching in the white and black rope”, a order which would be “pull in the foresail”. I revved up the engine, changed the course back to North and headed into the wind.

The wind was howling, the rain came down in buckets, and the waves gushed over the bow of the ship. We continued head-on into the wind, for what seemed an eternity, but in reality it was probably just one hour. The rain came down that violently I could see the dinghy, which we were towing behind our yacht, filling with water to the rim, slowing down the ship considerably. I kept on hoping that the engine would not fail as there was no way we would be able to sail on this course, head on into the wind. But the engine purred like a cat, and after a while the rain became lighter and all of a sudden, the kids shouted “Look there: dolphins!”.

That is when I knew all would be ok. Dolphins have always been a token of good luck for me. So it was no surprise that as the pod of dolphins swam alongside the ship, the wind turned again, the rain stopped and the seas calmed down. The squall had passed us, with nothing else but clear skies ahead of us.

I put the ship on autopilot again, and pulled the dinghy closer to the yacht. I just had to heave out the water from the dinghy as it was slowing us down too much. I told Tine to keep an eye on the course, and got ready to jump into the dinghy, knowing if I would miss my jump, there was no way for me to get back onto the ship. So I jumped, heaved all water out of the dinghy, pulled myself onto the ship again, and away we were.

The silver lining of that trip came soon: the seas became dead calm, with a broad side steady wind blowing at 15 knots. I put all sails back up, and trimmed them. And boy, we sailed! With our 35 ft yacht, towing a dinghy, we sailed at 10-11 knots, at a perfect angle, and with perfectly trimmed sails for hours, until we reached St.Lucia.

The strange thing was that the kids had no idea in what danger we had been. The only thing they said “Dad that was exciting, when can we do that again?”. Kids!

Some lessons learned:
- Never pass an island in the Caribbean on the Atlantic side.
- Always be prepared for the worse, and hope for the best.
- Be aware of high mountains in the vicinity of where you sail. Often the weather changes near them.
- Better one reef too much than one too little.
- Be prepared, be prepared, be prepared.
- When sailing with kids, make sure they always wear their safety jackets and are hooked onto the boat, in foul weather. You should be able to concentrate on the ship, and not have to worry where the kids are, and what they are doing.
- When things go bad, kids have to get into the habit of following orders without questioning…

More about sailing on The Road.

Written by Peter

July 13th, 2008 at 1:55 pm

How NOT to leave a Greek harbour

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Our ship, properly anchored, stern to, in Greece

As I explained in a previous post, there is a secret, sarcastic streak in every sailor as he watches other yachtsmen maneuvering in a port or at a mooring…

Back in 2004, we sailed in Greece. It was our first sailing holiday. I took all the precautions Tine, my wife, wanted me to take before she would step onto a yacht with me: I followed the RYA yachtmaster courses, did my practical test in the Solent, and with the family, we took two days of harbour maneuver courses before we left. And to play it really safe, for one week, we had a skipper on board to get us acquainted with Greek waters.

Every day, we would sail from one place to the next, and anchor overnight in small fishing ports. As space is limited in these ports, all yachts are anchored ‘stern to': the ship would drop anchor in the middle of the port and reverse with its stern (the back of the ship), onto the quay. A bit of an art in balancing the right anchor chain, and pointing the stern into a free slot on the quay, in between the other anchored ships.

We would always get into port early in the evening, secure our ship, and go for sunset drinks in one of the restaurants or bars on the dock, watching the other ships get into port.

This was always the most fun part of the day, as we could watch the other ships get into trouble as they tried to moor ‘stern to’. They would loose anchor, or tangle up their anchor line with those of the ships already at the dock, or worse…

One evening we watched a Dutch yacht who had been trying to anchor already several times, each time loosing the grip of its anchor. After half an hour, he seemed to be giving up, and with its anchor still one or two meters in the water, he drifted downwind onto the ships on the quay. Good enough, for most of the yachtsmen, who were enjoying their evening drink just like we were, to stand up and watch what was about to happen…

The Dutch guy panicked as he saw his ship drifting downwind onto the moored ships, and still with his anchor in the water, he revved up his engine trying to get away from the boats. Tricky to do so downwind, so he ended up in the far corner of the port, steaming full speed right in front of all the other ships.
That was when the real fun started: as his anchor was in the water, it scoped up all the anchor lines from the other ships, and we could see one ship after the other loosing its anchor, pulled by the Dutch ship. The skipper clearly did not know what was going on, and why his ship was almost coming to a halt, so he revved up his engine even more.

The sight was hilarious: there was this one Dutch guy, trying to steam out of the harbour, pulling all the boats nicely moored onto the quay with it. All the skippers around us, started shouting and cursing, racing off to their ship, trying to jump on their yacht to save their boat from crashing onto the quay, while the Dutch guy, not aware of all the commotion he had caused, trying to get out of the harbour, with the harbour master speeding behind him telling him to stop.

What one moment was a relaxed sunset evening, in an idyllic setting, turned into a turmoil of a dozen ships all with a lost anchor, tossed together in one big mess of anchor chain, fenders and shouting. It took hours before the mess was sorted out, and everyone was back in the bar.

The Dutch were not very popular that night!

More about sailing on The Road.

Written by Peter

July 12th, 2008 at 2:01 am

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How NOT to moor a yacht – take 2.

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our ship, properly moored at The Bitter End Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda (BVI)

Two years ago, we moored at the Bitter End, in Virgin Gorda – British Virgin Islands. A nice anchorage in which we took one of the outer mooring buoys.

Late one evening, we were sitting on the aft deck, having a drink, looking at the night sky, counting the shooting stars. It was new moon, so the sky was dark. Pitch dark… While watching the sky, suddenly, the corner of my eye caught some movement ten yards from our ship. I pulled myself up, and saw the dark mass of a big catamaran moving silently past us. No navigation lights, no cabin lights, nothing… It was too dark to see if anyone was on deck, but I presumed they were going for a night sail, and had forgotten to put their lights on.

For at least an hour, we watched that ship making all kinds of strange twists and turns. Sometimes it would go even backwards, all without any sails nor lights on.. “Really weird”, we thought, “Wonder what those are up to?”…

It was a few hours later, about 1 am in the morning, we were already in bed, I was awoken by a dinghy racing by and circling around our ship. I got on deck, but could not see very well what was going on. I could only hear voices of two men in the dinghy, with one of them shining a small flashlight to and fro onto the water. During one of the times they passed close to our boat, I could clearly hear one shout to the other: “But I am sure we left it here!”. I did not think much of it. The guys went back ashore, and I went back to bed.

Two hours later, I heard a call on the marine radio: ‘Salvation One, this is Salvation Two’.. “Salvation” is a call sign often used in a rescue operation.. I got curious and listened into their conversation. They were clearly two vessels in a rescue operation, looking for a ship. A catamaran. Apparently I was not the only one listening in, as I heard a fisherman breaking in:
“Are you guys looking for a white catamaran?”
“Euh yeah!”, answered one of the salvation vessels.
“About 45 feet long?”
“White hull?”
“Well, I know where it is”, the fisherman answered, clearly enjoying himself: “I see it drifting onto the reef, and according to my calculation, it will crash onto it in 15 seconds!”.

There was a weird radio silence that followed.
Half a minute later, the fisherman came onto the radio again: “Ok, you should no longer hurry, it just crashed onto the reef !”.

What had happened? Some guys had moored their catamaran onto a buoy, but clearly not fixed the lines properly. While they were partying on shore, their boat drifted away, by miracle missing all the other boats at anchor, and drifting gaily downwind, towards the reef several miles further.
When the guys came back with their dinghy, they did not find their ship, and warned the authorities. While the drifting vessel missed our boat by ten yards, it had hit the reef bulls-eye.

I guess these guys will take some courses in making knots when flying back home!

UPDATE: I just found this video. Something we witness every day in the Caribbean: a certain nationality typically thinks they can sail a yacht because they went out on the water a couple of times, charters a big catamaran, and then hope for the best.. ;-)

More about sailing on The Road.

Written by Peter

July 11th, 2008 at 1:34 am

How NOT to moor a yacht.

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The principle of mooring, “fixing a yacht to a mooring buoy”, is pretty easy: A rope with a loop sticks out of a floating ball. The rope is connected to a chain anchored onto the sea bottom. The skipper approaches the mooring buoy against the wind while someone stands on the bow (the front end of a ship), to grab the loop with a boat hook (a long stick with a plastic hook on it). A rope is pulled through the looped mooring line, and both ends are fixed onto the bow of the ship.
All in all, if well prepared and executed, it takes two minutes to moor a yacht. If well prepared and executed….

There is a secret, sarcastic joy to be found in sitting on deck of your ship at sunset, with a drink in your hand, and looking, judging how well the others are doing, mooring their ship…
When you are on the other side, and you are the one arriving late at an anchorage, you know a lot of more people are watching and judging you. That is the point where the most inexperienced skippers get really nervous: the point where a lot of shouting goes on between the guy at the helm (steering the ship), and the poor person (often his wife), trying to grab the mooring line.


Two years ago, we were moored at Anegada in the British Virgin Islands, and watched some Americans (I am sorry, but in the Caribbean, American bareboat charterers are amongst the worst sailors!) approaching a mooring buoy.
It was almost a recipe for disaster: the ship approached the buoy with the wind in their back, a definite no-no in the “yachting for dummies”-course: even if the skipper halts the ship close by the mooring buoy, the wind will push them past the buoy… So we already smelled some trouble, especially as they had three people on the ship’s bow. Tine and I looked at eachother: “Novices!”..

Sure enough, the boat approached too fast. One of the guys hooked the mooring buoy, but the wind pushed the boat forward. The guy who held the boat hook, the long stick with a hook at the end, tried to pull as hard as he could to lift the mooring loop.. Of course, the ship, a good 30 tons of dead weight, moving at 5 mph, would not stop, the wind pushing it gently forward. The only thing the poor chap could do, was, with the hook in his hand, and the mooring buoy at the end of the hook, walk alongside the ship, towards the stern (the back of the ship).

Loads of shouting, and orders flying around… Unfortunately, the guy reached the stern in no time, still pulling onto the boathook like there was no tomorrow, but standing at eh very back tip of the boat, he decided to let go of the mooring ball. Unfortunately, the boathook did not unhook from the mooring ball, and fell into the water.

Loads of cursing of the captain made the guy decide “Oh shit, now I’d better get the boathook!”, so he jumped into the water, to get the boat hook. “Cool stuff”, I thought, “Not only did they miss the mooring buoy, had a boat hook in the water, but they have a man overboard too!”.

It only got better. With one of the crew in the water, the skipper panicked and turned the boat sharply to starboard, forgetting he was still going downwind, in a real busy and crowded anchorage. The boat turned right in front of another moored yacht, so its keel grabbed the mooring line of the second ship. I saw the boat jerking to a sudden halt, pulling on the second ship’s mooring line. Now the ship was dead in the water, the wind pushed the yacht against the second one, and all the crew was ordered to hold off the ship with their bare hands. There they were: all hands on deck holding off a ship pushed by the wind against another boat, one crew in the water, and a captain frantically trying to rev up the engine to get the keel untangled.

To make a long story short, it took them at least half an hour to unhook their keel, by which time, the guy in the water – with the boat hook – got onto the ship.

They went off, with red cheeks, to anchor somewhere far away from all the other yachts. They did not even come on land for dinner, probably avoiding the snickering from the crew of the other yachts who witnessed the whole endeavour.

More about sailing on The Road.

Drawing mooring buoy courtesy RYA

Written by Peter

July 10th, 2008 at 1:06 pm

Doing Good to Others

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We reef the sails, as we see the clouds gathering. While we are still sailing in the sun, the darkness packs at the horizon. That is how it goes in the Caribbean this time of the year: sunshine one moment, rain the next. Under the threatening clouds hurrying towards us, we see the white foam on the waves. The wind will pick up soon. We are sailing to Petit St Vincent in the Grenadines. Everyone calls it “PSV”, for short. An island barely one mile in diameter, covered with palm trees and bush. It is not far anymore, maybe another half an hour of sailing. But we don’t not make it in time. The rain catches up with us, and before we know it, we are engulfed in a dense curtain of water gushing down. I studied the pilot book this morning, and know how the anchorage looks like, by heart. The GPS guides me towards the entrance between the coral heads and the beach.

As we steer into the anchorage, we put the kids below deck, drop the sails, and start the engine. Tine goes to the bow, ready to drop anchor. I steer the boat right in-between the other anchored ships. The rain gushes down. Visibility is only ten meters, sometimes even less. We loose sight of the other boats. Even though we motor slowly, sometimes an anchored boat pops up through the curtain of rain, out of no-where it seems, when it is almost too late to avoid a collision. The wind is strong and gusty, shifting often 90 degrees. A sailboat, and certainly one like ours with a short keel, and very beamy – flat wide bottomed – gets easily pushed around by the wind. Once the boat starts turning with the wind, there is no way to stop the momentum. Then you just HAVE to turn.. It makes it difficult to maneuver between anchored boats, all swinging on their anchor chains, in the stormy wind… But we do well, find a proper spot, and drop the anchor in one go. Phew!

It storms and rains the whole night, but the next morning is bright and sunny, revealing the small paradise we are anchored in. Hardly any clouds left. The sea is clear light green-blue, several fishing terns are gliding high up in the sky, without moving their wings. A soft breeze moves through the leaves of the palm trees bordering the beech of bright white sand. Paradise once more.

In the afternoon, while having brunch on the deck of the boat, we spot two young local fishermen in the water, dragging what seems to be a white surf board. I get a bit suspicious as it does not look like they are having fun, rowing wildly with their arms, barely keeping their head above water. Through the binoculars I can see a black thing on their surf board. Maybe a large plastic bag or a net. As a rain squall comes closer, they seem the more anxious to get ashore. It is all a bit weird: what are they doing in a channel between two islands, on a surfboard? I take our dinghy, and motor to them, only to find that there is no surfboard, but they were dragging a small white wooden boat filled to the rim with water. The black thing I saw earlier is an outboard engine they had unscrewed and put inside the boat. “Mista, you help us, mista?”, they ask. I throw them a rope and tow them ashore. They drag their boat onto the beach, crawl onto the sand, and lay on their back, exhausted. Barely waving their hands to thank me.

When I get back to our sail boat, Hannah, our youngest, stands on the bow of our ship, shouting and dancing “My dad is a superhero! Superdad in action! My dad can do anything!..” Lana gives me a hug. “Dad, I am proud of you. The people on the other boats were just watching, but you DID something… Did you those guys give you anything to thank you?” I tell them when we do good to others, somewhere we will be rewarded by something good ourselves..
In the afternoon, when we scuba dive, and find some astonishingly beautiful cone shelves, Lana says “You see, we are rewarded now. We did something good, and now we are rewarded with these beautiful shelves. We will take them with us, and put flowers in them. As a reminder to do good to others!”.

I guess my kids learned a lesson that day.

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Written by Peter

October 28th, 2007 at 10:52 pm