In 60,000 miles of ocean sailing, we did not heave to once. That may seem foolish and unreasonable; from our perspective it was wise and rational. Sailing in the heavy weather off the west coast of Australia is an example of our attitude toward this maneuver.
A typical day, of the 18 days of sailing, was to find the anemometer reading 35 knots apparent as the sun came up. By mid-afternoon, the anemometer usually ranged in the 40- to 45-knot range. When the sun settled into the Indian Ocean, there would be an hour or so of unsettled winds, and by 2100, we were reading a steady 55 knots. Then with sunrise, the wind would drop and the cycle would repeat.
Originally built for offshore racing in 1970, Nalu IV is a 48-foot, cold-molded, Lapworth-designed, cutter-rigged sloop. When we left on our circumnavigation, we elected to leave her equipped with hank-on sails and take crew along so we were not dependent on wind vanes or autopilots.
Crew were pickups, one in Cairns and two more in Darwin. All three had sailed, but none of them could be called experienced helmsman. Whether it was lack of experience, machismo, or ignorance, none of them displayed any concern over the winds and seas we encountered. The hard part for them was to learn how to sail to weather in the prevailing conditions.
With a deadline to meet, we had no choice but to sail south from Darwin to Perth in September. The first part of the trip was relatively easy because we were not headed due south. Our southwesterly course allowed us to close reach.
Learning to feel the waves and anticipate them was the first hurdle. Like riding a surfboard, the feel and the motion transmitted through feet and legs, are the indicators of what is going to happen next. Not all boats are the same, but Nalu has a tiny hesitation and luffing of the sails at the crest of a wave. Even in the dark, crew learned to sense this change in motion. Mastering the feel of driving up the front of a wave, and then slipping off the back, made the boat ride more easily and pound less.
The pounding that is typical going to weather with a fin keel was a problem for us, particularly with the higher winds. Having mastered the wave climbing, the crew began to get high on watching the knotmeter. We often referred to it as the applause meter, as the challenge of higher and higher speeds was always present as the reward of the day.
The next step was to reduce the pounding by reducing the speed. The sail area under these conditions was substantially smaller than our normal configuration, since we put a second reef in the main and went to a staysail. Even so, there was enough square footage to drive the boat at more than six knots very easily. Unfortunately, six knots seemed to be the point at which we would pound on every wave.
Feathering is the term we use for sailing at reduced speed. Some might call it luffing or pinching, but it is really a finer degree of trim than either of those terms suggests. Rather than sailing by watching the sails, the crew was trained to sail by watching the knotmeter and the apparent wind indicator (AWI). It was dark when the winds were highest, so watching the sails and the waves was useless.
On the AWI, the optimum reading was a 30-degree angle to the wind. If boat speed exceeded six knots, the helmsman would sail closer to the wind until the speed began to drop. If the boat speed dropped below five and two tenths, then the helmsman drove off the wind to pick up speed. Because sailing broader is easier and comes more quickly to most sailors, the idea of sailing tight was hard to master.
We don’t advocate dependency on electronic gadgetsonly because they fail as soon as you depend on them completelybut we found that concentrating on the knotmeter and the AWI did work. Concentrating is the key word. Each crewmember was on watch for two hours and off three so the overlap meant two people were always on deck. During the two hours, each person spent one hour total on the helm. The hour was usually in 15- to 20-minute stints. After 20 minutes of absolute concentration and physical effort, even the sturdiest crewmember needed a break.
The assumption was that the trip from Darwin to Perth would be an uninterrupted 10 days. It took a total of 27 days, with four breaks. It was at our first break that we discussed heaving to the next time it got to force 10 conditions. The captain was non-committal, responding, "We’ll see."
Heading south again, we were in force 10 conditions very soon, but we didn’t heave to. We managed 72 hours before we sought protection behind a reef for a night. We continued on for two more days and lost a lower shroud. With the captain aloft in the bosun’s chair and two crew on deck helping him, two of us were left in the cockpit. Driving off to flatten the angle of the boat, we quickly ate up the miles we had gained.
A piece of emergency rigging had been made before we left home. It was as long as our back stay but could be adjusted to fit anywhere on the boat. With cable clamps, chain and a large turnbuckle, it was put in place. As soon as the jury rig was complete, we were back on the wind, but looking for refuge.
The next day we arrived at the small town of Carnarvon and were able to order new rigging. The two day respite allowed for provisioning and lots of sleep.
Another cruiser arrived a couple of hours behind us. When we talked about heaving to, the reluctance of our captain for this technique became clear. This couple had sailed for two days. They had made 40 miles and then, exhausted, hove to. They lost 17 miles while hove to. More than that, they had not been rested nor refreshed from the break and came close to putting the boat aground.
The captain’s point of view was that heaving to was surrendering to the conditions and that the result was not acceptable. Heaving to is not a comfortable maneuver for a fin keel boat. Rather than maintaining a track, it is more likely to drift backward, or worse yet, onto a course which could put the boat in jeopardy. In the big seas, we also risked sliding backwards down the waves. Spade rudders are not designed for this stress. Fortunately, we were in the enviable position of being five aboard instead of two and could afford the choice.
Our sail inventory also determined our ability to continue when others might heave to. We had two mainsails, both of which were at least 10-years old. These were reefed to the third set of reef points after they blew out at the second reef. We hand-stitched them as the sea was too rough to use the sewing machine. (We had a new mainsail made in Fremantle.) The progression was from a number three jib-top, to a staysail, and finally to a storm staysail. The latter has a little less square footage than a Laser sail. When both mainsails were under repair, we sailed with the storm staysail and the number three to keep on adequate speed.
Through our 18-day trip, we all fine-tuned our sailing skills so that the tremendous pounding was reduced. The sensitivity to the feel of the boat was so heightened that even off-watch in a bunk, we could tell what the boat was doing. We took pride in the fact that we had made the trip successfully and arrived ahead of others who had left at the same time: a 72-foot French boat and a Swan 44 arrived a week after we did.
We had become so attuned to watching instruments that on the last morning, one of the crew was rapping the anemometer and muttering. He said it was stuck because it read 15 knots. Looking around we discovered that it was blowing 15 knotsand in the distance was Perth.
Diana Jessie is a freelance writer currently based in Alameda, Calif.