Monday, April 06, 2009

Warp Drive

Early on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Briongloid slipped her mooring carrying mainsail, genoa, and a crew of four, and rode a rushing ebb tide into open water; her first proper sail of the season. Sails filled by a gentle force 2-3 from west-north-west, we began our first long tack west, our goal the vast arena of Holeopen Bay some 10km distant - my first proper sailing of the season.

Actually, I have omitted one "sail" from our rig: cut from denim, with an unconvential forked shape, it flew between the spreaders and the mast-top on Briongloid's flag halyard. I mentioned this addition to my (shore-based) wife in a mid-course phone call. On being informed of the current location of her brother's fiancee's trousers (they had been soaked during a lively dinghy transfer), she did not praise my sailorly ingenuity (the hoisting was done with a nifty combination of a snap shackle and a loop in the halyard created with the very wonderful butterfly knot, something I happened to have learnt the previous week). Instead, my wife inquired what, if anything, now covered the nether regions of her brother's "intended".
Proudly, I told her that said regions were well protected, since the lady in question was now wearing my trousers; this didn't reassure my wife quite as much as I expected*.

Hard-wearing and fashionable, denim sails remain a strangely rare sight on racing yachts

The outward trip was unremarkable; a fading wind persuaded me to motor the last km or so, and we dropped anchor where we planned at about the time we expected, in the strange shelter of Holeopen Bay, whose sheer walls rise two hundred feet from the sea. Our course mark was an ancient watchtower perched dramatically at the head of the cliffs, and it was in a small hollow beside that tower than three figures (wives, infant) - impossibly tiny from our anchorage - appeared and waved us a welcome. After a late lunch - which sadly we could not share with the cliff-top watchers - we hoisted the mainsail and prepared to raise anchor.

It was as I moved pull up our anchor that a gust heeled us well to port, sending my brother-in-law (both on the foredeck) scrabbling for handholds; the wind was back, and stronger than before; I immediately amended my choice of foresail to working jib. Once underway, we enjoyed a brief glimpse through headland-traversing tunnels that give the Holeopen Bay its name, then turned to run east for home. The jib did little for us on this point of sail, and the Voice of Temptation began to whisper seductive suggestions; I cast a thoughtful gaze across the great blue sweep of sea about us, sizing up the frequency of the white caps which had begun to appear, the level of the chop. Then, I put a veteran dinghy sailor on the helm, briefed a veteran kayaker with iron forearms on the controlling of "kites", and assigned a near-novice sailor to help me on the foredeck.

Well, down came the jib, and up went the spinnaker, the huge mass of coloured fabric filling the sky above me as I crouched beneath it on the rolling foredeck. At first, it only half filled; then we dropped the mainsail, and Briongloid surged forwards. I have to admit that I was far from certain of a positive result - to a non-racer like myself, spinnakers are broach-inducing monsters, and my crew-briefing concentrated mostly on broach-avoidance and broach-survival. Briongloid, however, remained upright, and the great walls of Holeopen Bay shrank away with unprecedented speed, as our bow opened a long white gash across blue-black water. From bow to stern, we exchanged huge smiles. Briongloid's hull fairly sang now; she seemed to have donned seven-league boots. Faster and faster we went, our speed building until we began to surf.

It seemed too good to last; but it did last, and we rode that wind home on spinnaker alone, right to the cove mouth, a golden evening of fast and thrilling sailing with a crew of good friends, racing across an empty sea for nothing but the joy of it, a sail I'm likely to remember for some time.

The final turn to enter the cove required downing the magical spinnaker, my new favourite sail; but down it would not come. Inspection showed the halyard had a twist or two about the forestay. We let fly the leeward sheet to de-power our colourful, wonderful monster, but the wind still kept too much pressure aloft to let us get our sail back. To maintain steerageway, I had my crew raise the mainsail - and suddenly, the pressure eased, and down came the spinnaker. I'm thinking that the mainsail sheltered the spinnaker, easing the tension on the halyard. The working jib was still hanked on, so was raised again in moments, and soon we were sliding gently back into the river mouth, boat hook raised and ready.

* Wet trousers are a common calamity when dinghy transfers are as long and boisterous as ours tend to be; a cheerfully oblivious attitude to beating straight through tide races has contributed its share of wettings, too. I now make it a habit to carry at least one full change of clothes plus "emergency towel" in a dry bag, and it was these spares that I loaned out; it is a bit early in the spring for trouser-less sailing.