Blowin’ in the Wind

When describing a windy passage to family, friends or fellow cruisers, Eric is prone to announce, “It was blowing like stink!” Sometimes, he’s exaggerating. “It was not. It was barely 20 knots,” I’ll correct. I think he just likes using the word “stink.” I myself don’t consider it to be blowing like stink until we are completely bare poled and towing warps—in other words, gale force—a situation we encountered twice on Duprass but not yet on Corroboree.

But it occurred to me that in writing about our voyage, I have taken it for granted that everyone understands the vital relationships between wind, water and a sailboat. Forgive me. If you’re not a sailor, some of what I’ve written must sound confusing or incomprehensible. What on earth is “bare poled” and “towing warps”? Even common terms like “knot” and “gale force” might not be exactly clear. So herewith a primer on the single most important factor governing Eric’s and my life afloat: the wind.

The first and foremost thing any sailor needs to know about the wind is what direction it’s blowing from. If it’s coming out of the east and you want to head due east, forget it. You can still sail eastward, but you have to do it by tacking, zigzagging to the northeast, then the southeast, so the wind can fill the sail and move the boat. It’s a long, slow process—roughly three miles zigzag for every two miles forward—and the term for it, “beating into the wind,” is thoroughly apt. At the end of such a passage both you and the boat are beat.

If, on the other hand, the wind is coming from the east and you want to go north, west or south, you jump for joy. The wind will be at your side or your back for a comfortable ride. Since the wind patterns across the globe are well charted for every season, most yachts follow the classic routes for major ocean passages and carefully pick their timing to avoid hurricane season and have the fastest, safest trip.

Hard on the heels of direction comes wind speed, expressed in knots. One knot equals 1.15 miles per hour, and the term dates from the 17th century, when sailors measured the speed of their ship by paying out a coil of rope with uniformly spaced knots and timing the process with a sand-glass. When a specified amount of time had passed, the line was pulled in and the number of knots counted to give a rough idea of how far the vessel had traveled. This allowed them to estimate or “dead reckon” their position along their course line.

The strength of the wind also determines the size of the waves as the wind pushes the water up into crests. Sailors—and our fellow whale watchers—often summarize wind and wave conditions using the Beaufort Scale. Devised in 1805 by Francis Beaufort, an officer in the British Royal Navy, it categorizes the wind strength as Force 0-12 and provides helpful descriptions. For those who are interested, here’s a link to a chart:

Suffice it to say that at Force 5 (17-21 knots, Fresh Breeze), Corroboree skips along nicely. At Force 6 (22-27 knots, Strong Breeze) we usually reef the mainsail and may also lower the jib. At Force 7 (28-33 knots, Near Gale), we’ll be under reefed mainsail alone and biting our fingernails. At Force 8 (34-40 knots, Full Gale) we damn well better be in port!

With all the sails down, a boat is said to be “bare poled,” at which time it may become  necessary to tow warps or a sea anchor. Warps are long lengths of rope tied with knots or a loop at the end, fixed to the stern of the boat and paid out aft. The drag created by the warps keeps the boat from surfing down a wave too fast, burying its bow in the water, and being “pitch poled”—flipped end over end by the following wave. The warps also help keep the boat from slewing sideways and being knocked down and rolled over. A sea anchor is a small parachute towed from the stern that works similarly to warps to slow down the boat.

Gale in the Bay of Biscay, Duprass, 1977

Believe me, being in a gale is scary. The first time it happened on Duprass, in the Bay of Biscay, we estimated the height of the waves at 30’. Even bare-poled and towing warps we surfed down the waves at 6 knots. Pretty wild when you consider our top speed on a normal day under full sail was 4 knots. The second time, sailing from Gibraltar to Madeira, we were bare-poled for 32 hours and still covered nearly 100 miles of the 640-mile journey just from the strength of the wind on the hull and mast of the boat.

So far, touch wood, Corroboree has escaped any gales at sea. But a video we took while docked in Santa Marta, Colombia, gives some idea how strong the wind in this part of the world can be. It blew like this nonstop, day and night, for almost two weeks in December, and those boats with anemometers reported gusts up to 45 knots in the marina. No sailboats came or went the entire time.  

Santa Marta Wind

It’s common to romanticize a sailor’s life as being as “free as the wind,” but make no mistake. Freedom has little to do with it. The wind, not you, sets the rules and dictates the game. Too much or too little can hold you up in port for weeks and cheat you out of visiting other places along the way. Once at sea, it can treat you to a blissful ride, toss you about like a bathtub toy, or desert you entirely and leave you becalmed under a blistering sun. Like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, when it is good, it’s very, very good, but when it is bad, it’s horrid.