Tech transformations – roller furling

Oh My Poor Back – Again!’

In the last installment I wrote about the debilitating effects of my back problems on our cruising, and the wonderful role of an electric windlass, and later electric winches, in relieving the load. Bad backs inconvenience different people in different ways. One of the odd ways mine affects me is to guarantee me a back ache whenever I have to stuff a sail into a sailbag. This is in spite of the fact that it’s not particularly hard work – it’s something to do with the angles.

At the time we built our first ‘Nada’ (in the late 70’s and early 80’s), roller reefing headsails were becoming commonplace, but so too were a variety of failures. I did not trust this new-fangled technology enough to put it on our boat, so we had hanked-on sails. These sails just about ended our sailing in more ways than one.

We took off for our first long cruise from New Orleans in January 1987, with a one-year-old daughter, Pippin, on board, and Terrie three months pregnant. We intended to cruise through the Caribbean to the Panama Canal and into the Pacific. We worked our way across the Gulf of Mexico and through the Bahamas. We headed towards Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Following a squall in which I dragged down the jib and tied it off to the lifelines, I went forward to reset it.

It was nighttime. I was tired and queasy and reluctant to wake Terrie and Pippin, who had both been seasick, by going below to retrieve my safety line, and so was not clipped on. The motion was lively. I started to untie the jib from the lifelines.  The next thing I knew I was over the side suspended by my armpit from a whisker stay, my feet trailing in the water, my head and jaw hurting, and with no clear idea of how I had got there.  ‘Nada’ was sailing on under the autopilot.  I grabbed for the whisker stay with my free hand and hung there awhile pulling myself together before working my way back on board.  My knees were shaking so badly I couldn’t stand.  I sat on the cabin top gingerly feeling my chin and a cut behind my ear. For months afterwards Terrie had dreams in which she woke up when we were sailing at night to find me gone.

The following weeks as we made our way along the coastlines of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and through the Virgin Islands to Antigua and on to the French West Indies, the constant sail changes, and sail-bag stuffing they necessitated, gave me a near-permanent back ache. Writing about this trip a year later, I noted:

In the center of Fort de France, Martinique, is a beautiful park dotted with stately Royal Palms and numerous tropical plants.  After a breakfast of coffee and the finest croissants we have ever eaten the others went shopping while Pippin and I repaired to the park.  I lay on the grass with Pippin asleep on my chest, gazing through the delicate tracery of the leaves on a gnarled old Tamarind tree, watching humming birds at work, fanned by a balmy trade wind breeze, and thinking serious thoughts about our trip.  In spite of shuffling most of the hard boat work off onto various visiting crew members for the past three weeks my back was still bothering me… The perfection of the surroundings leant poignancy to the conclusion that I could no longer avoid: there was just no way I could take the three of us into the Pacific with those great long passages in that vast empty ocean.

This was a moment of truth that I had subconsciously been pushing to the back of my mind for weeks.  It represented a deathblow to dreams cherished since my early teens and removed the principal goal and driving force that had motivated my life for the previous eight years through the building and preparation of Nada – specifically constructed and equipped with a Pacific circumnavigation in mind.  It left a void that has still not altogether been filled.

We made it as far as Venezuela, and then worked our way back to the USA, adding another crew member, Paul, along the way. Back in the States we installed roller reefing headsails, which eliminated most of the sail bagging work (to this day, we have hanked on storm sails), and minimized the need to go forward at sea. On our next boat, I am contemplating in-mast furling or a roller-reefing boom to further reduce the sail-handling work load.

Roller reefing breathed new life into my sailing dreams, but we have still not made it into the Pacific.

By Ocean Navigator