Rhumb Lines July 2019 Issue

Luck and the Urge to Duck

At night, when only the counted seconds between the lightning flash and thunder-crack offer any clue of what is to come, the intertropical convergence zone seems otherworldly.

You would think that two weeks of midnight squalls accumulated over seven years of cruising would make it impossible to forget how confounding the ITCZ can be. But the longer you sail, the cockier you tend to get. And what sailor hasn’t told themself that in the end luck has the final word?

Your luck has to be particularly bad to founder in an equatorial storm. Though knockdowns and even dismastings are possible when a squall catches you off guard, seldom do the seas reach a height to cause a well-founded boat with sea room to founder.

Boat U.S.

Technical Editor Drew Frye checks side protection on a Protec helmet.

And so we could be forgiven for blithely setting out from the Marianas to the Caroline Islands after nearly two years of dockside living, thinking we would make all the right choices.

Because Tosca was gaff rigged, we usually set two separate vang preventers when running, one at the boom and one on the gaff. Without the latter, the mainsail could backwind at the peak when the boat rolled, precipitating an uncontrolled half-jibe that could rent the mainsail from peak to clew (as we’d learned the hard way). But a gaff preventer is a chore to rig in a driving rain. And why bother when the wind won’t hold for long, and you can just nudge the helm to sail a hotter angle until the squall has passed? All of the above is feeble justification for the closest I came to dying on passage.

The squall came up suddenly and fierce, with 25 knots from astern. Snug in our foul-weather gear, we reefed down to our gale trim, a double-reefed main and the staysail centered hard. T took over the helm and settled in for the brief sleigh ride. I was down below when I sensed the boat sharply heeling under sudden pressure, then rolling back upright. I should probably take a look, I thought.

I had just stepped out of the companionway, stood and turned to look forward when the crack came. The peak had jibed, and the boom, a solid spruce battering ram, somehow gathered enough inertia to release the snap-shackle on its preventer. With my peripheral vision blinded by the hood of my foul-weather gear, I’m not sure what prompted me to duck. Perhaps it was the wind-whistle as the boom closed in, perhaps instinct, or maybe just dumb luck, which, at least in my case, always strikes more than once.

I ducked in time, of course, but the terror of the aftermath held me frozen. The mainsail flopped like the wing of a wounded bird, and my heartbeat drowned the thunder. The memory of this disaster narrowly averted still makes me hold my breath.

Unless I climb aboard a foiling cat, I will probably never don a sailing helmet. As the report beginning on page 20 makes clear, there’s no hard evidence that a helmet would have saved me against the blow I barely missed. But it is clear to me that there are times when a cruising sailor might want to take the precaution of donning headgear—just in case their luck has run out.

A helmet marketed to sailors on high-speed boats might not be what a cruiser needs most. Still, it is encouraging to see that a small niche of manufacturers are designing head gear specifically for sailors—helmets that don’t interfere with our senses, hinder mobility, or add to our discomfort. This gear will almost surely save someone’s life, or prevent serious injury someday—if it hasn’t done so already.

Comments (6)

This is off topic...
25 kts astern with double-reefed main and the staysail centered hard isn't a gale situation... it's just a regular sailing condition.
If your boom is low you always have to watch out.

Posted by: Otia | July 2, 2019 4:15 PM    Report this comment

This is something I never understand why sailors are so reluctant in wearing an helmet. As a cyclist I wear them, as a windsurfer I did wear them and now as a sailor a wear a helmet when in the gale. Even down below where a misstep or flying object can knock you down. Once with a concussion, you become not only useless but you are a liability on board. And if you are solo sailing, then you are left with luck with low odds.

Posted by: Frasse Pelle | July 2, 2019 11:48 AM    Report this comment

I was single-handed sailing an Ensign west from Fairport to Rocky River on Lake Erie in August. The boat was two miles off Mentor Headlands Beach. Sunny, hot with 4 to 6 knots of wind from the east. I was just wearing shorts, no lifejacket The boom hit the base of my skull with in an accidental gybe. Everything went black.

Two hours later I woke up with the sound of waves breaking at the mouth of the Chagrin River in Eastlake. I was face down on the cockpit sole. My head was sore but I was alive!

Posted by: mark2 | July 2, 2019 11:08 AM    Report this comment

I was single-handed sailing an Ensign west from Fairport to Rocky River on Lake Erie in August. The boat was two miles off Mentor Headlands Beach. Sunny, hot with 4 to 6 knots of wind from the east. I was just wearing shorts, no lifejacket The boom hit the base of my skull with in an accidental gybe. Everything went black.

Two hours later I woke up with the sound of waves breaking at the mouth of the Chagrin River in Eastlake. I was face down on the cockpit sole. My head was sore but I was alive!

Posted by: mark2 | July 2, 2019 11:08 AM    Report this comment

No, there is no hard evidence that a helmet would have saved you against the blow but it is likely that had you been hit it would have dazed you enough that you wouldn't have been able to save yourself when you landed in the water without a PFD. A helmet would be a good piece of safety gear for sailors as it is for motorcyclists and automobile drivers. A PFD is probably more likely to save a life for ordinary sailors, just as seat belts are for ordinary drivers.

Posted by: Washedup | July 2, 2019 9:58 AM    Report this comment

No, there is no hard evidence that a helmet would have saved you against the blow but it is likely that had you been hit it would have dazed you enough that you wouldn't have been able to save yourself when you landed in the water without a PFD. A helmet would be a good piece of safety gear for sailors as it is for motorcyclists and automobile drivers. A PFD is probably more likely to save a life for ordinary sailors, just as seat belts are for ordinary drivers.

Posted by: Washedup | July 2, 2019 9:58 AM    Report this comment

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