Blog Entry 16. 29th March 2022. Spinnakers and UFOs

Ian Redwood & Laura Brown
Tue 29 Mar 2022 21:58
29th March 2022.   Spinnakers and UFOs 

07° 39.7 S 124° 10.0 W.  

Flying the spinnaker overnight is a first for us.  Spinnakers are notoriously temperamental.  They are made of parachute type material and fly like a kite pulling a load.  They are light and flighty, a dancing damsel.  They are loosely tethered, with an occasional mind of their own, a free spirit if you will.  However, providing the wind is in the correct direction, steady and from behind, they literally can pull the boat along.  The balloon shape captures a dish of wind to our front.  The same effect as cupping your palm outside a moving car’s window, we’ve all done that as kids, the palm faces the wind and the hand is pushed inexorably back.  Spinnakers are flighty because any shift in the wind can cause it to pull off to one side and this might result in messy and dangerous twists and tangles.  If a spinnaker catches the sea it can act as a sea anchor that will turn the boat instantly at 90 degrees and will likely self-destruct in the process, ripping itself to shreds and perhaps break lines and rigging.  To say nothing of what it might do to the surprise and discomfort of the yacht’s crew.  Because of this, and the constant attention a spinnaker needs to keep it flying and safe, it is rare to fly them at night.

All of the above is true, for UK waters.  Where winds are variable and conditions changeable in the blink of an eye.  However, we are in the tropics where the steady push of the trade winds, are as reliable and inevitable as coconuts falling from a palm.  Rather obviously, there are no land masses on our journey to disrupt the winds constant and predictable flow over the sea.  Regardless, it was not without trepidation that we flew the spinnaker overnight.  The truth is, we had no alternative.  The winds are quite light at the moment, not sufficient to carry a normal sail without constant flapping.  This is known as ‘flogging’ in sailor’s parlance.  Much damage is done to a flogging sail if left to its own devices and many a sail has ripped or been torn asunder in the process of flogging.  So with insufficient wind for ‘normal’ sailing and insufficient fuel to power our engine for the next 1000 miles – we needed the spinnaker. 

When the bright red and orange colours of the spinnaker were raised they lifted our spirits.  The lightness of the fabric catches the wind so readily and it starts working quickly.  It’s like a horse itching to get out of the starting gates.  Overnight we watched it dance.  Like a large ghost swaying before us, the stars still partly visible through its thin fabric.  It swings from side to side as the boat rocks in the waves.  A semi-real see-through membrane doing its own thing.  Once the swings become predictable and the lines correctly tensioned to restrict the extremes of arc, we managed to slowly relax.  We spent a peaceful night with our spectral engine working away faithfully.

I’ve mentioned many aspects of sailing this large distance but not really touched on the logistic planning.  For this we have spreadsheets that we have designed ourselves.  Our daily calculus includes recording the engine and generator hours in order to monitor the fuel use. Additionally, we record the distance travelled per day in order to calculate the average speed, so that we may plan our future fuel needs and anticipate our arrival date.  Each variable affects the other columns and a range of possibilities emerges.  We then have likely figures and worse case figures to contend with.  This effort is really an attempt at risk mitigation as there is no doubt that things could get serious if we failed to pay attention to the detail.  After all a failure to plan is a plan to fail.

An Incident of note.  Other craft remain a rare occurrence in this salty wilderness, but the possibility of an encounter remains an important reason for monitoring around us on watches.  No-one wants to find themselves looking up at the giant pitiless bow of some huge container transporter which might travel at 15 knots or more.  A close encounter of that kind would leave us as matchwood.  But we had a mysterious and unexplained happening yesterday.  Laura picked up another ship on our AIS chart plotter screen.  (AIS stands for Automated Identification of Shipping and identifies nearby sea going vessels – its use is compulsory for commercial shipping).  It showed a craft named as ‘HC COA’ in our path, but it was turning in a circle at speeds of up to 80 knots - like some magic roundabout!  These crazy speeds are unthinkable – warships are some of the fastest things on the oceans and can only travel at little more than a quarter of that speed.  We puzzled as to what ‘HC’ stood for and all I could think of was a possible abbreviation of HoverCraft.  But there was no way a hovercraft would be out here and neither would it do those speeds.  We deduced it might stand for ‘Holy Crap’ and could have otherwise been the ghost of Donald Campbell of Bluebird fame mysteriously caught in a time-warp and transported from Lake Windemere from 50 years ago to attempt a water-speed record.  Or perhaps it was a UFO (Unidentified Floating Object)?  Was it a large yacht with her spinnaker caught in a whirlpool?  We eventually passed a large stationary trawler – either it had picked up an AIS transponder in its net winding gear or it had erroneously managed to mount its AIS antennae on top of its revolving radar dome.  We never did find out, but strange things can happen at sea.