Caught Out

10/19/12

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Caught Out in High Winds
By David Hurdle

Boat: Pacific Dragon II
Make/Model: 2002 Performance Cruising Gemini 105mc
 

I have had a few people ask me about turning over in a catamaran.  To them I usually smile and say that "If you can't turn her over with 57 knots of wind you most likely never will."  They are hooked and want the full story; here it is....

I was out for a day sail on SF bay with my brother's family in early spring just after we had purchased the boat. Coming out of Richmond we motored up through Raccoon Straight to Golden Gate Bridge at about 10am in the morning since there was hardly any wind. When we reach the gate the wind had just come up to about ten knots and we set sail down the bay. By the time we passed "The Rock" the wind was in the low twenties and we were moving along at above ten knots on a broad reach under full sail. By the time we reached the end of the bay we were doing about 18-20 knots and the wind was screaming, which I didn't realize until I tried to turn onto a beam reach (you really do not feel it when running, the boat just keeps going faster.)  The wind had blown the water almost flat so the visual wave queues were not yet there that you would expect with the high winds. The Raymarine wind gage was only showing 15 knots; which I knew was not right given the conditions (it has never worked right since.) Unable to safely bring her onto a beam reach and trim sails in with the high winds, we turned back downwind and immediately rolled up the jib all the way after fully realizing how much the wind had increased. It was one of the few times that we had to use the winch to get the sail put away even with it blanketed fully by the main sail.  Bringing the boat head to wind to roll up the jib was not an option at that point (most likely we would have lost the rig had we tried.) I considered running back towards Richmond over 10 miles away, but that would have required jibbing which was completely out of the question and tacking about would have also been a wild experience best avoided.  Since we were not far from the corner of Treasure Island and we were on starboard tack, we took the easiest option and run behind the island under full main which we left trimmed out as far as possible as we came onto a beam reach still doing almost 20 knots (it was already too late and too wild to try to reef.) 

Once behind the island and out of the rapidly building seas my brother (first time on the boat) was tasked with bringing down the mainsail since I dared not leave the helm.  I motored her into the wind and he released the main halyard but the sail refused to come down with the low island providing so little protection from the wind. I heard  a strange zipping sound, once, twice, and then after a few seconds a third time. Just as I was looking up and back towards the sounds I saw the third full length batten shooting out of the sail and defying gravity raising into the air heading for Oakland. All three battens were gone east looking like something out of a hurricane news story that you see on TV where everything is being blown away. The sound of the flogging sail and shaking rigging was deafening as I yelled at my brother in vain at the top of my lungs to pull the sail down; although I knew there was no way he could hear me.  I gestured pulling down with my hands and he understood and grabbed the sail with all his might to bring the sail down ever so slowly to the boom and securing it with multiple lines since it did not want to stay in place.

The bay was full of boats before the high winds hit and I had noted on our way in that all the monohulls coming in had their second or third reef down and still had their rails underwater.  I remember the scared faces of the people on deck clinging to the weather rail passing close to us as we motored slowly along the lee of the island.  It almost seemed as if they were wondering why we looked so calm sitting in our little catamaran, which I am sure they assumed must be ready to tip over with the next gust even without a sail up. I wonder if they realized that we were actually enjoying the day.  We motored into Clipper cove and finding the only spot still open was right up next to the beach we anchored for lunch in about 5 feet of water; happy to be safely out of the mayhem that was happening on the bay. Having anchored upwind of all the other boats in the cove, I was happy to see the new spade anchor holding well despite the high winds and the notorious weed covered bottom, which had given my previous boat's Fortress anchor such a hard time in the past.

The VHF weather report was repeating in a mechanical voice which lacked the proper excitement for the occasion that the wind was at an unbelievable 57 knots; a great deal more than the 15-25 knots predicted in the morning.  

After a couple hours the winds had dropped down into the high 30's, (Raymarine wind gauge still was showing 15 knots) we then proceed to weigh anchor and motor back across the bay to our marina. Bringing up the anchor in hi winds given the little protection from the Island in Clipper Cove was a new experience worth comment.  Each time I tried to motor toward the anchor the bow would be quickly blown off to one side or the other as soon a any slack in the line allowed it.  The Anchorman manual windlass made the situation manageable and was able to bring up the anchor without the engines help for the most part although it did take some time since we had let out over 100ft of line to make sure we did not drag and had some room to swing away from the bank.

Back out on the bay, It was just us and the coast guard who was busy out there in their big cutter assisting a couple of boats that were still limping back in. We first angled out towards the Gate so that we would be mostly into the waves. I don't have a good guess at how big the waves were (it is so hard to gage perspective in these situations) but I remember the distance between each set was over 100 yards given me time walk about and survey the deck and rigging in between each encounter with the big waves. As we encountered the large waves set the bow would easily rise to meet the first wave then dive into the second and third wave easily lifting clear as the solid bow provided the extra floatation to pop her up out and over the wave with lots of green water on deck a couple of times even up to the mast step. My wife and daughter were up in the master bedroom looking out the window actually enjoying the waves coming over them. It was amazing to watch since the bow seemed to be partially lifted by air pocket between the bows as the boat hits a large wave compressing the air trapped under the boat.  Although the waves were larger, the conditions seemed much easier on the boat than in the more common 25 knot winds where the waves are much closer together and pound the boat much harder.  The hard top dodger and cockpit enclosure provided the protection that took the bite out of the wind and spray making the Mustang exposure suit I had put on for the trip back too hot and except when I was up walking the deck, largely unnecessary.

After we got back up almost to Alcatraz, where I thought we could safely run at a 45 degree angle before the waves towards Richmond we made a quick turn in the between the waves sets and began surfing with the waves. Given the conditions I was not willing to put her broadside to the large waves any longer than I had to in order to make the turn; although we never felt any danger of rolling.   Once running before the wind the motor was largely coasting or even slowing us down as the bare poll was enough to drive her above the engines top speed of 6 knots.  Given the excitement I had not considered the 10 foot Walker Bay dingy hanging on the stern davits, which could have been a serous issue if it were to fill with water.  However the combination of boat speed and height of the dingy were sufficient to keep this from becoming an issue.  We quickly reached the lee of Angle Island and the wave height dropped down to a more normal SF Bay size and the motor was again pushing the boat. Although we were still hitting 8 knots at times when surfing on waves, it now seemed painfully slow and everyone was quite ready to be off the boat.      

I contemplated adding sail, but on one of my survey trips around the deck when we were headed into the big waves I found a cotter pin laying on the deck next to one of the hatches.  I looked at all the turn-buckles but could not find anything missing a pin. I hoped that it was just an extra that had been dropped when we were rigging the boat only a few weeks earlier, but I could not be sure it was not from somewhere higher up in the rigging. Given this uncertainty, I was not willing to unroll the jib as we ran back to Richmond although it would have greatly shortened the trip.  I later discovered the cotter pin was from the big gooseneck pin, which had backed out enough to free the front end of the boom.  Only the lazy jacks and sail which we had tied up well with multiple lines was holding the boom in place.  Fortunately the gooseneck pin was also captured in the sail and was not lost.  I made sure the new cotter pin holding the gooseneck pin in place is bent well enough that no wind could ever shake it out.  

I have to say although I was certainly scared a few times (like when taking down the main the shaking of the mast was extremely scary), we never felt in any danger of capsize at any time.  This was plainly evident by the four children aboard who clearly were enjoying the wild conditions and given their limited experience took it to be perfectly normal for SF Bay. Easily bored, they ended up playing Nintendo Gamecube on flat screen TV through most of it (that should give you a good idea of their mood on board.)

The boat handled well and did not give any indication that we could lift a hull out of the water although we were running most of the time and had the main sheet fully eased and the jib rolled up before coming on to a beam reach briefly behind Treasure Island.  Also you must keep in mind that the boat was fully loaded with 8 people, full tanks and lots of cruising gear making it unlikely that anything short of a large travel lift at the local boat yard would ever lift a hull out of the water.  

I can't imagine the experience that other sailors on the monohulls had that day.  However, the dealer who sold me the boat who I saw the following day went into great detail about the many boats damaged. He seemed to have found new respect for me having come through the experience losing only a couple of battens. In particular he talked about one couple who sailed their large monohull (over 45 foot I believe) almost every weekend for years who got caught in the high winds as we did and returned to the dock and left the boat rigged while they went home to "gather their senses." They said that they had never been so scared in their lives and apparently were debating selling their boat after this experience.  I am sure trying to quickly reef such large sails shorthanded in those conditions would test anyone's devotion to the sport.  

I have great faith in the Gemini 105MC that one can only gain by living though such a gale and can not imagine another boat I would have rather been on that day. 

The following day, I contacted Performance Cruising and told them about the battens coming out; they told me it had never happened before as far as they knew and that the button which closes the pocket was sufficient. However, I went to the trouble of sewing the battens pockets closed after inserting the new battens to make sure it would not happen again. I have yet to see another day anywhere close to that day, so I am sure that they were right to say it was unnecessary. However, losing them when one is far out to sea would be unacceptable since it renders the mainsail completely useless. So the little time it takes to sew them in is well worth the effort.

Although I would never purposely go out in such conditions, there is nothing like surfing down the bay at 20 knots in high winds on a Gemini 105MC!!  Reminds me of the old seaman's saying that goes something like this: "All I need is a tall ship, a fair wind and just once in a while a gale please...."

 

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