Reefing down at 0300 in 35 knot winds

Setting out with a reasonable forecast to sail the 60 miles from Milford Haven to Pwllheli during the OGA Round Britain Challenge, 2013, ‘Syene’ finds herself caught in a force 7 five miles south of Bardsley Island in darkness. We bring this account captured in words and digital brush strokes by OGA member, Ben Collins.

The rest of the fleet had stayed in port. They were wise, but we had family to meet up north and Pwllheli was 60 miles away. The 24 hour forecast had been good enough. Nothing too strong.

Sailing had been promising and all day we had made progress riding the flood against the north winds. Cruising along a beautiful Welsh coast, with its smokey blue hills and mountains as background, all day and into the night. Now it was dark and the wind was coming up, so we reefed down one.

In the distance, the orange lights of Barmouth. Then five miles south of Bardsley Island things changed. The breeze picked up as I sat in my full weatherproofs in the cockpit, awakened by the mounting foaming waves slapping the hull, the hum of the wind in the rigging and the endless cold blackness.

All was well, then out of the night a squall hit us. The wind rose dramatically from 18 to 35 knots as we heeled over further uncomfortably. The self-steering gear strained in the turbulence to keep the course. Grabbing the tiller and releasing the mainsheet I was able to bring ‘Syene’ back up quickly.

Down below the sleeping skipper was awoken, in his weather gear, and up in the cockpit in a trice.

This wind had not been in the forecast, this was a good force 7 and it was holding its speed. ‘Syene’ kept going but we needed to reduce sail if we were to sit up and make progress in a rapidly mounting sea.

But things were not to be that easy. As so often happens in strong winds, and in the dark, running rigging ropes get out of line and things jam. The reefing lines were stuck, however hard we pulled them. Someone needed to go forward of the mast to find the problem and sort it out. A bit like riding a wild stallion in the dark, and in the spray, uncouple the reins without falling off.

I volunteered to stay in the cockpit and hold a torch shining on the sail to help light the path forward, while the captain crawled on all fours, tethered to the safety line. Well what could I do? He knew the ropes better in the dark than I did!

With his back  to the wind and spray he reached the mast and clung on hard. Half standing and half kneeling, fumbling in the dark, he released the offending ropes and freed the jam. We reduced sail to quarter size. The sea foamed and the wind piped on, but the boat cut on through the spume with relative ease and I doubled up on my woolly hat, pulled my hood up and over, slumping back in the cockpit to doze again.

The helm took command, as I watched the distant Snowdonia mountains silhouetted against the brightening eastern skies.

Contributed by Ben Collins, OGA Solent Area member