Dodging the Squall Lines
Seamanship | A shorthanded passage in bad weather underscores the importance of a vigilant watch.
|With a deeply reefed mainsail driving our 29-foot cutter, Taleisin, on a close reach into a lumpy seaway, the miles passed quickly if not comfortably on yet another shorthanded passage. We changed sails literally dozens of times over the course of the eventful voyage to maximize our speed and efficiency in the ever-changing wind and sea conditions we faced.|
As a highly conservative sailor, I began dropping the sails we’d used to reach southeastward as soon as I saw that previous squall line, even though I knew it was almost 3 or 4 miles away. With the jib securely lashed, I felt a bit foolish to be sailing under such reduced canvas. But the first gusts hit within 10 minutes, and I got thoroughly soaked striking the mainsail and stashing the staysail. Within two hours, we lay with reasonable comfort while the parachute sea anchor and storm trysail held us at 45 degrees to the howling storm winds and incredibly steep seas caused by the stiff southerly opposing the swift East Australia coastal current.
Later, the weathermen at Brisbane revealed a major distinction between the weather system that spawned that vicious line of earlier squalls and the one causing these on our voyage to Lord Howe. Three weeks before, an unseasonable low-pressure system—in advance of the tropical-cyclone season—stalled and deepened 180 miles north of a ridge of high pressure that lay over Australia’s tropical coastline. The pressure differential between the two was more than 34 millibars—a difference of almost 1 millibar for every 5 miles. To equalize that pressure, the winds swooping in often reached 65 knots. From a careful study of the weather maps two days before we set sail for Lord Howe, plus updated forecasts, I knew the difference in pressure between the low passing over us and a high following 500 miles behind was less than 24 millibars (or less than a millibar of change every 20 miles). So the chance of encountering really strong winds was limited; if we did, they’d probably last only a short while.
Even so, halfway through my watch, I go forward and uncleat the coils of the main and jib halyards, then lay them on deck ready to run freely if and when I release them. As an extra precaution, I assure myself that each of the halyard ends are well secured with stopper knots through eyebolts at the base of the mast so I can forget about them when I do cast them off. I check the jib tie-downs on the bowsprit to make sure they’re ready. I inspect the downhaul line. A particularly ferocious burst of lightning appears from a squall that seems to loom over us only a mile or so away. But I count the seconds and after I reach “nine one-thousand” and still hear nothing, I assure myself that the threat is at least a dozen miles away.
The last few minutes of my three-hour watch pass quickly as I check the log, advance our position on the chart, then prepare a light snack for Larry. There’s a special feeling of accomplishment, a sense of having been in control of not only my fate but also of Larry’s and our boat’s, that comes from watching a squall line and from appreciating the difference between real danger and prudent vigilance, knowing that if my timing is right, the worst-case scenario might mean a little extra work on my behalf. For all their potential might, I know these squalls will delay us only if we need to heave to as they pass or if the winds are light in their wake. I enjoy this feeling. But when Larry climbs out of his bunk and joins me in the cockpit, where I can point out the squalls and give him a status report, I’m glad to pass along the duty to watch safely over us to him.
“Pretty impressive sight,” he calls down as I climb into the bunk. “Where’s the badge of responsibility?”
“The flashlight is next to the leeward sheet winch,” I call back. “Try and sail out of these dumb squalls.”
A rumble of thunder echoes through the boat, and I hear Larry zip up his foul-weather gear. He’ll not be as fortunate on his watch. Rather than being merely a spectator to nature’s grandeur, he’ll be a wet and active participant. As I drift off to sleep, I hear the mainsail coming down the track. That’s the last thing I remember for three hours: I sleep soundly through two squalls and a pair of wind shifts, secure in the knowledge that while Larry may not be quite as conservative in these matters as I am, he’s twice as strong and agile and more rehearsed in making quick sail reductions.
Prolific author and voyager Lin Pardey’s latest book is Bull Canyon, a critically acclaimed memoir about the building of the Lyle Hess-designed Taleisin in a remote high-country California ravine.