Fri 10 Dec 2021 12:10
One reason is that you have nowhere to escape to - you are far too far out at sea and away from any land to slip into a bolt hole if things get hairy.
The other reason is that nature out here is formidable. The wind is like a wall. 28 knots tall and rock solid. At this speed, the wind shoves whole layers of the ocean into giant waves.
Imagine having a line of apartment blocks coming at you from behind every ten seconds! You look back from the cockpit and sometimes you cannot even see over the waves.
Yet, magically the boat always manages to gently glide over these enormous seas and suddenly - for a few seconds - you can actually see miles in all directions as you crest, before plunging into the valley left behind as the roller scoots out ahead of the boat en route to the Caribbean.
So much of being at the helm when crossing an ocean in strong winds and big waves is simply to ensure the rigging is put under as little stress as possible. Typically we cruise with 25-30 knots winds with two reefs in the main and no jib. This constellation allows our catamaran to sail nearly 180 degrees to the wind, that is, with the wind almost directly behind us. We move on average at 7.3 knots despite the minimum sail area, but the speed varies greatly die to the waves; as each giant swell reaches us the boat accelerates to 11-12 knots only to plunge rapidly to just 4-5 knots as the wave moves on.
The helmsman must avoid gybing at such a low points of sail - we have a preventer rope tied onto the boom to avoid an involuntary gybe, but at these wind speeds, should a gybe happen unintentionally, we would not only rip through the preventer but probably also damage the rig. The forces are just so enormous.
Still, it is so exhilarating! Remember that most of the daytime the sun is out, so the water is a brilliant beautiful blue and the crests of the waves are white as new fallen snow in alpine sunshine.
The helmsman must also constantly keep an eye out for squalls, which when they hit, as they usually do at night, make everything go haywire. As the warm winds travel from Sahara towards the Caribbean they pick up moisture during daytime. In the cooler night air the moisture forms into clouds that in turn fuel small localised rain storms that move from east to west.
The squalls come at you like fast cars in the outer lanes of German motor ways! During a typical squall the wind picks up to well above 40 knots (nearly 80 km per hour) and the wind direction becomes highly variable. On one watch, in a span of just five minutes, the wind went from 10 knots to 40 knots and back again, while the direction shifted some 70 degrees. Bear in mind, it was pitch dark. No moon. Zero visibility. Heavy rain. You sail entirely by instrument. Blind, you listen to all nuances of the ocean’s roar and the varying pitches of the howling wind, while you try to keep the boat as downwind as possibly to depower the sail. On nights with many squalls you steer every minute of three hour watch, without a second’s respite.
Ocean sailing is something else. It is bigger. The forces are greater. The environment is awesome.