Heavy Weather Sailing // Thoughts from Paul Exner


Note from Andy:

"This post was written by our friend and Isbjorn's racing skipper Paul Exner, of moderngeographic.com. Paul writes from Chiapas, Mexico, where he's onboard his Cape George Cutter 'Solstice,' that he built himself. He's en route to Hawaii, relocating his family after Hurricane Irma destroyed their home and way of life on Tortola in the BVI. Family & heavy weather is on Paul's mind as he readies 'Solstice' to cross the Pacific...

How Paul Exner Thinks About Heavy Weather Sailing

Heavy Weather Sailing is an unavoidable and necessary part of being a yachtsman. Either you embrace it and launch yourself into a new level of technical and physical preparedness of seamanship, or you shy away from the rigors of personal and vessel preparedness to succumb to popular views of acceptable-safety-limits based on actuarial-calclucations and stay at the dock, accompanied by other sailors applying the same level of risk, discussing the same-old bullshit at the marina bar."

Don't get me wrong, when it's blowing 30+ knots and I'm trying to sail that shit offshore, I often wonder how much the vessel can take as I push it into harmony with a sea state and aerodynamic force that overcomes wave-resistance while making the boat go where I want it to go. There's a difference you know, to whether you're sailing or surviving. To "sail" heavy weather means to me that you're pushing the boat and team where you want to go based on the objectives of your offshore passage; then, there's surviving or coping with the situation at hand: fatigued, hungry, worn-out, and wanting to be elsewhere than you are now ... there are many tactics for heavy weather, but they ALL involve being out there, and frankly, NONE offer a reprieve despite what someone says about being able to "make a cup of tea" and sit below as the boat wallows around in a tumultuous pot of denial.

The forces applied to a vessel experiencing heavy weather offshore will stretch the rigging and vessel exponentially ... the wind's force applies to sails "squared" to it's speed! The wind's rapidness is the ONLY contributor to a rig that applies serious pressure; all other aspects of the force applied are linear. But when the wind blow across your rig, offshore, at night, the HOWL is real, and scary.

Let's say my landfall lay upwind, and the wind is blowing HARD! I "could" crack-off and reach away from my anchorage, for hours, or days if necessary, adding hours or days to the ultimate journey. Why the hell would I want to do that if I could sail upwind and weather the discomfort and make my passage semi-efficiently ... but only if the vessel is making it, and we're not in danger of blowing something apart, or causing a team-member to fall down and break themselves?

It truly is amazing how well a boat will grind upwind in a blow when properly reefed and trimmed, albeit uncomfortably most of the time ... but we're getting somewhere at least.
Obviously ... the matter is "INTENSE" ...... BUT, all words FALL FLAT upon my screen when I describe the TORTURE my rig experiences sailing upwind in a serious blow. I often want, and DO shorten sail but it can be a dangerous effort to apply the sail change as the boat pitches around in a bobbling-sea, versus adjusting the sail-plan to better cope with the present situation; eventually I must make the effort to exert my energy to bring the boat into a better balance when the wind is increasing steadily, which truly is more puzzling than one would think because under-powering a vessel will make it more dangerous to operate, than with a tad too much power. If sail is shortened too soon in a large and complex sea-state the boat goes slow, sideways, and is damn uncomfortable, and I know there are many reading this who will claim several other tactics to employ like: hove-to; bare poles; fore-reaching; running-off; and other variations like "staying at the dock until better weather can be expected" but, frankly, it's not as easy as it sounds to turn-away from your anchorage to endure a longer exposure to bad-sailing conditions.

The human spirit is the savior, and each of us has our beacon for hope and survival, to which no other can pass judgement.

I often imagine what it would be like to lose a major component of my vessel's sailing system while underway in heavy air: like a gooseneck; bowsprit; halyard; or steering. When I'm sailing the boat through a blow, I run through the scenarios that which I could face, and I scare the shit out of myself! What if I lose my rig, or get knocked-down, or fall-down and break bones?! How long will the blow last? What if I'm in it for hundreds of miles and perpetually blown further and further from land ... perhaps abandoning my boat for rescue by another; should I survive for X days as I wait for help to arrive. Scuttling a vessel IS imaginable to me ... pulling the plug, scrambling to safety aboard another's sanctuary, and ditching my vessel to the abyss is a reality I've come to accept, but don't ever want to face.

The hope I bring to my game offshore is my family. I do it all for them, and the people I sail with, most importantly. The faith we place in each other when we set to sea is honorable and full of respect. We seek it, often, and is something that many sailors can't live without. I like to think that I'm important to my family who has supported my decision to be out upon the ocean, sometimes sailing in heavy weather to reach home.

However, I always think most carefully about my kids when the sailing conditions far from land turn for the worse ... Eoin and Ava are my prime beacon; I want them to understand that a path exists for their future that's based on my example as a self-reliant adventurer and seaman. They don't ever need to set to sea to make me proud, but I wish for them to expand their minds and potential in a way that never makes them feel they must follow any example other than what they wish for themselves. The innocent potential of youthful dreams is to be cherished and never curtailed.

Follow your dreams my children, face adversity because it's there along your path, and overcome adversity because it makes you stronger. Don't succumb to ANY actuarial-based bullied thinking that's bent on holding you to another's belief system that thinks "the real world" involves credentials purchased from academic or bureaucratic systems.

Paul Exner
Chiapas Marina, Mexico
5 April, 2018