ISBJORN Trans-Atlantic p. 11 // Oops. There Goes the Spinnaker...

The old white spin before she came to an ugly death, mid-Atlantic.

Welp, we did it. Mia & I got complacent and paid the price of letting our guard down. I figuratively kicked myself the first time I was at the top of the mast in the dark, freeing a horribly twisted spinnaker halyard, and then promised myself I’d not make the same mistake twice the second time I was up the rig cutting the wrapped sail down from the forestay and swinging around in the swell like an idiot.

We’d had the chute up for over 30 hours. I’d made the bold prediction, still some 700 miles east of Antigua, that if we got lucky, we might be able to carry the spinnaker all the way home. I’ve never been one to douse the chute just because it got dark, or take a reef out of precaution - but, until recently, if we flew the spin at night, Mia & I would change up our watch rotation so that one of us was always on deck with the spin hoisted, just in case something happened and we needed a quick reaction.

The lazy weather and clear skies made me take this for granted, and we did not implement that rule on this passage. In fact, we had the sail up overnight many times on this trip, and indeed going back to last year en route to Madeira. Early on, just after leaving Las Palmas, the full moon illuminated the spin so well that trimming it was no harder than during the daytime. After a time, when the moon waned and the night’s became black and filled with stars, we used the steaming light to light up the sail (which, weirdly, ignited a heated debate about COLREGS on my Facebook page last fall when we shared a photo of doing this en route to Madeira).

Anyhow, long story short, on the 0400-0800 watch the other day, when both Mia & I were sound asleep, a small rain shower brought with it a dramatic windshift - not strong, just from a different direction - that backwinded the spinnaker and irretrievably wrapped it around the headstay. I heard it flog once, then twice, jumped out of bed and went on deck just in time to see it twist itself around. I pulled on the sheet, pulled on the luff, but it was too far gone, and in the black of the pre-dawn morning, I could barely see the masthead.

Lighting up the spin at night with the steaming light (and the moon’s glow in the distance!).

Just then it was blowing about 15-20 knots, with small rainshowers all around. The spin was hour-glass wrapped around the headstay and still full of wind above the wrap. The rig shook with each gust. By then the rest of the crew was on deck. We rigged the runners and the inner forestay to support the mast and tried a few more times to unwrap the sail, to no avail. I accepted that I’d be going aloft, and despite the darkness, a relative calm descended on the boat. Not knowing the forecast for later on, I wanted to get up there and clear it before it got even windier.

Of course we didn’t get any photos of the actual problem, as it was too stressful! Later next day though, Andy & Mia (and some of the crew!) went back aloft just for fun on a nice day offshore, about 500 miles east of Antigua).

First time up the mast was just to release the halyard, which itself had wrapped several times around. We’d also forgotten to move the downline on the ATN sleeve over after gybing the evening before, so that too was twisted up in the sail. Clinging to the mast with my legs, I reached forward and unclipped the halyard. Timing the roll of the boat, I swung the halyard round to unwrap it, one time swinging with a bit too much fervor and getting it wrapped around the spreader too. That undid itself in the next roll, and eventually the thing came unwrapped altogether, and with the weight of the line inside the mast, skied itself. It remains aloft.

Second time up the sun had starting lighting up the eastern horizon and I could at least see better. I ascended the headstay this time, using a tether to stay attached to the stay while Fred controlled a downline I’d attached to the bottom of the bosun’s chair to stop me swinging in the rolls (this worked very well, incidentally). I was able to release the sock from the sail itself, and with a well-timed drop, managed to keep it on the boat and the guys below on deck secured it into the spin bag.

The sail was still horribly twisted around the furled genoa. At times, the little bit of it not caught up would fill with wind and expand like a balloon, filling then collapsing, all right in my face as I tried to corral it. I managed to collect it all and keep it secured between my feet, which were wrapped in a death grip around the genoa so I could have my hands free to work (I’m still sore, two days later in my thighs, and at some point sprained my left hand so that now I can’t grip anything with it).

To make a long story short, I had to cut the sail in half with the Leatherman to get it untangled. In hindsight I wish I’d been more patient to try and unwrap it, but in the moment, still 700 miles from landfall, I just wanted the thing out of the rig. I’d regret this decision even more the next day when the wind shut down again and we could really have used the big sail to keep moving! In the end the sail did come down, albeit in two pieces, I didn’t get hurt and the rig suffered no more damage.

I’m discouraged though - we failed on one of my two main goals we have on every passage: 1). keep the crew in one piece, and 2). keep the boat in one piece. I can’t call it a gear failure either - it was a mistake by Mia & I in getting complacent and not changing the watches around when the stakes were higher and the spinnaker was up at night. None of our 4 crew have ever even sailed with a spinnaker before this passage, let alone on a rolling sea in the middle of the night, so I don’t blame them one bit. Besides, with that 90-degree windshift, it wouldn’t have mattered who was on the helm, that thing would have collapsed. I just like to think that if I’d already have been on deck when it happened, maybe we could have untwisted it before it got too late.

Mia in the rigging, the first time she went aloft at sea.

The good news is that Liz has secured a us a new spinnaker for the race which she found locally in Newport and will bring with her to Antigua next week when she flies down to sail with us. She continues to prove herself when it matters and both Mia & I are stoked to put her in a bigger role with 59 North. Stay tuned, you’ll be hearing more from and about Liz soon.

Calms & Storms

My expectations for this trans-Atlantic have not meshed with reality. All I could think about since returning from the Arctic was the passage Mia & my dad had aboard Kinship - steady trades and easy, fast sailing. They made it Las Palmas all the way to Tortola in 20 days. We’ll be lucky to make Antigua, some 200 miles EAST of the BVI, in 20 days on a faster boat!

The run down from Las Palmas to the Cape Verde’s was great if not tiring - strong but shifting winds, so lots of sail changes, and an uneven swell that rocked the boat around and made it hard to sleep. But we made those first 1,000 miles in like 6 days, FAST, and fast sailing makes up for any discomforts.

Since Cape Verde though, in the meat of the crossing, it’s been hard to get more than 36 hours of consistency. First, with that cutoff low, we had light southwesterlies, unheard of this time of year on this crossing. Then a 12-hour calm we motored through. Then that crazy 60-knot frontal passage followed by a day and a half of 30-35 knot northeasterlies.

Then THAT fizzled out under another band of rainclouds and produced the weirdest sea I’ve ever seen offshore - the swell was firmly from the east, but the wind, suddenly under the squally grey clouds, came from the WEST, against the waves. It was like watching a good surf break where there’s a nice easy swell rolling in with an offshore breeze sending the curling tops of the waves backwards in a blast of spray. Super weird to see that mid-Atlantic.

Sunset at landfall, Antigua in the distance.

Since then we’ve had a more stable pattern of easterly winds, but they’ve been fickle. Every time they fill in a give us hope - “This is DEFINITELY it now, we can ride this all the way in!” we’d say - they die off again 12-24 hours later, the sails start slatting around horribly and I get very grumpy. Two nights ago we dropped all sail and motored again for 18 hours, the second time we’ve had to do that on this trip.

I talk a lot about ups and downs offshore, but this might be my most extreme version yet. Not in the philosophical terms I sometimes get into - like in 2016 when a bunch of stuff broke on the boat and I started questioning my life choices - nothing like that, but more like, ‘wow I’m super stoked right now when the wind is on and the speed is up,’ versus a few hours later when the rig feels like it’s going to destroy itself and I think ‘boy, it’d be nice to be just about anywhere else but here right now.’ That kinda up and down.

Like usual, it’s down to expectations - If I’d have more realistically been mentally prepared for anything on this trip, like I am for most of our passages, it’d have been fine. I’d have been ready for it. Instead, I was ready for that 20-day downwind run Mia had on KINSHIP back in 2013 and that’s all I could think of.

Not quite the height of the storm, but close! The rain was harder than anything I've ever seen, and the wind was 50-60 knots from the NW for about 20-30 minutes before the squall passed.

The Home Stretch

As it is, I’m on one of my ‘ups’ right now. I woke up at 0515 and joined Mia on the second part of her 4-8 watch. We drank coffee and watched the sun come up. I’d been very well rested - last night was one of the good ones, where the wind stayed just strong enough after dinner to keep the sails full (mostly), then finally filled in after midnight and has been blowing 15-20 from the SE for the last 8 hours. We’re bang on course for Antigua, wing-on-wing, with 350 miles to go.

We’re almost to that third and final stage of any long passage - the one where you start thinking about that cheeseburger and cold beer on arrival and what you’re going to do once you step foot ashore. We’re starting to think about the hour of our arrival rather than the day (and realizing that every single one of us was too optimistic on the ETA game - me by over two days!).

I find it easier to get frustrated in this final stage. I’m ready to be there now, mentally, and when the wind shuts down to delay that ETA, it’s extra annoying. But, like right now, when it fills it and sends you on your way at speed, the ups might even be higher, cause that beer and cheeseburger suddenly feels almost real.

We will get there, eventually.