Dodging the Squall Lines
Seamanship | A shorthanded passage in bad weather underscores the importance of a vigilant watch.
A line of magnificent, fire-spouting thunderstorms marches along the western horizon. The gigantic clouds seem to boil and climb toward the heavens, creating constantly changing images in the moonlit night. There are stars overhead, and for a few miles around us, the skies are clear. For the moment, I can sit comfortably in the companionway to enjoy the lightning’s pure power as we reach away from Australia’s reef-infested shores.
I’ve already rehearsed the steps I’ll take if one of the squalls closes in. My open foul-weather jacket is right next to me. Since the mainsail is the hardest one to control, at the first drop of rain or the first sign of a wind shift, I’ll don my jacket, go forward, and drop it aboard our 29-foot Taleisin. If the wind continues to increase, I’ll release the jib halyard and douse the 100-percent lapper using the downhaul. If I’m a bit late, I’ll let the sail fly and flail for the few seconds it takes to release the halyard, let it drop into the water, then pull it back on board. I’ve played this game twice in the last two days.
My husband, Larry, and I have been sailing on the edge of a front teetering between a retreating low-pressure area and an advancing high. Light winds interspersed with squalls have plagued us as we reset our sails 20 times a day to take advantage of each wind shift to work southeast. Having left the Australian coastal town of Mooloolaba, in Queensland, and ultimately bound for our home on the New Zealand island of Kawau, on this first leg in the Tasman Sea we’re determined to reach Lord Howe Island to rendezvous with friends. We’ve dropped the sails 10 times to stop them from slatting during one-hour calms; when the breeze filled in again, we discussed our tactical choices. Should we sail due south to find the southeast winds predicted to fill in soon, or should we head straight for our goal on the northeast breezes we have for part of each day?
Earlier today, I struck the mainsail when whitecaps appeared ahead of a squall-like cloud. I was glad there were no battens to hang up as I pulled on its luff rope and watched the sail fall into the lazy jacks, even though the boom was vanged and prevented for a beam reach. But those whitecaps prefaced a lovely 15-knot breeze. The accompanying cloud dispersed but a few brief showers, then paraded grandly toward the Australian coast. So, without sheeting home the boom or heading into the wind, I’d rehoisted the main, its claw-type slides moving easily along the external mast track even with the wind pressing the sail against the rigging. Since then, we’ve been booming along, fast-reaching under mainsail, staysail, and lapper, with decks dry and the breeze right on the beam. We’ve decided to compromise on our course, reaching off 15 degrees just in case the southeasterly greets us before we reach Lord Howe Island.
As I watch from the companionway, I consider yet another reason we’ve resisted mounting a dodger on Taleisin. Without one, half of me sits in the friendly, orderly cabin where Larry, sleeping soundly, is within easy shouting distance should I need his help. At the same time, I’m already halfway outside, so there’s no reason not to check a line or trim a sail. Without the dodger, I can study the whole horizon, estimate the track of each squall, and watch stars appear behind each trailing skirt of clouds. Tonight, I contemplate how our amidships galley and aft watch seats make the dodger less important to us. We can cook without fear of spray or wind dousing the stove; we can remove our foul-weather gear in the dry space just below the companionway, safely away from the person working in the galley.