Dodging the Squall Lines
Seamanship | A shorthanded passage in bad weather underscores the importance of a vigilant watch.
Tonight, half in and half out, I hear a pod of dolphin before I see them. Sonar-like squeals echo inside the boat, and bioluminescent flashes spread like green lightning to each side of Taleisin. The rhyme I’d read years ago leaps to mind: “When the sea hog leaps and slaps its tail, tall ships soon wear short sails.”
This evening, though the dolphins cavort beneath the boat in crisscrossing streaks, they don’t leap clear of the water. Twenty years earlier, I’d been on watch as our 24-foot Seraffyn carried us south across the Gulf of Papagayo off the west coast of Nicaragua. We were running fast under reduced canvas. The dolphins came in massive numbers, leaping and slapping. When their spray flew across the cockpit, I was glad I was already clad in foul-weather gear. I swear I saw one dolphin leap across our 7-foot-long bowsprit, through the gap between our inner and outer forestays. Larry thinks the moonlight fooled me. But two hours after the visit from those high-flying “sea hogs,” we lay hove to on a parachute sea anchor in fierce winds and seas.
Back in the present, it’s hard to gauge which way the squalls are moving. Instead of careening downwind, as we expected, they seem to be moving across the breeze, but very slowly, as if driven by whim rather than wind. They change position so sedately that they seem almost benign. But it was only three weeks ago and 600 miles north of here that a seemingly slow-moving line of squalls caught the 55-foot sail-training vessel Marymuffin (the ex-racer once called Ragamuffin) and knocked her flat.
Marymuffin’s crew—five trainees and a skipper—were caught unaware. The knockdown blew out two sails; the cockpit-sole engine-room hatch flew open and water poured in. Her crew managed to claw down the mainsail and get her back on her feet, but the engine was out of commission, and the boat was blown toward the breakers pounding on the reefs of the Capricorn Group. The 60-knot winds, gusting to 65, made feeding the mainsail’s boltrope into the mast groove a daunting task. A small storm jib helped get Marymuffin under control. But as her skipper later said, “We didn’t get her moving forward until we could actually see the breakers on the reef less than 400 yards to leeward.”
On our trip that preceded this one, we were 75 miles to seaward of Marymuffin and headed in the opposite direction when that earlier squall line hit. It was my watch, and a girlfriend’s word of warning came to mind as I listened to the 0500 weather report that mentioned “northerly winds easing, southeast winds proceeded by squall line with gusts to 35 knots.” Sandy Peterson and her partner, Andy, cruised extensively on the 57-foot S&S sloop Jakaranda before settling in Australia. As we parted ways after an enjoyable rendezvous, Sandy said, “If reports say a southerly change is imminent, drop all sail for any squall line you see. We got caught in a 50-knot blow out of the blue last November when we were headed down through these reefs.”