Thursday, December 15, 2011

Life Lessons Learned from the Weather Report

(Originally posted in Annapolis Capital: October 19, 2:37 pm | (permalink) )

 Sorry, no photos of the biggest waves, we were just too busy hanging on. Even after we were out of the very worst of it, you can see the waves breaking in different directions and with irregular spacing.
Our friends and sailing mentors James and Ellen once told us that in all their 40-odd thousand nautical miles of sailing, some of the worst weather they’d ever been in was right here on the Chesapeake Bay. And I really, really, hope that’s true for us as well, because I’d be just as happy if the rest of this trip had no weather worse than the weather we had crossing the mouth of the Potomac earlier this month. It started simply enough. We weren’t sure whether to leave the safe harbor we were in and head for the next one, or wait another day. We agonized about making the right decision, and listened to the weather forecast – which called for the wind to lighten and skies to clear – and took our best guess and raised the anchor and set the sails, and we were off. [Mistake number one: NOAA don’t always know-a. We should have relied a little more on our own eyes and weather sense, and cut ourselves a bigger safety margin. James’ guidance was: assume the wind will be 5 knots stronger than predicted, that the weather will arrive 12 hours earlier than predicted, and that the direction will be 45 degrees worse than predicted, and use that set of conditions to make your plans and backup plans. Not to scare you into never going except on the most benign and sunny days, but to realize that the forecast is an estimate, not a guarantee.]

The trip started out being as lovely as predicted. Moderate winds came from behind us (a very comfortable point of sail) and the clouds began to break up. We rolled out the headsail and let it pull us gently downstream.

After a few hours, we noticed that the sky was clouding back up, and instead of lightening up, the wind seemed to be building. Also, it was moving forward, from broad reach to beam reach (a faster, and still not uncomfortable, point of sail). The good news was, we were moving along at a rapid clip, and likely to make our harbor sooner. And the sooner we got in, the sooner we got the anchor set and started relaxing in the next pretty harbor downstream. I could almost taste that rum cocktail already. The bad news was that our headsail-only sail configuration wasn’t ideal for these conditions, but not quite incompatible enough for us to be motivated to do the work to change sails. [Mistake number two: This is called an “unbalanced” sail plan, because all the power of motion came from only one sail at the front of the boat. We know better than that. We have 3 sails and ideally they should all be used to spread the load out over the entire boat. But we were just feeling kinda lazy. After all, it’s not like we were out in the middle of the Atlantic, it was “just” the Chesapeake.] The really bad news was yet to come.

When you’re moving along and ocean, river, or lake, if winds and currents are consistent, the seas probably will be too. The waves come along in a nice, regular rhythm and if you get your boat speed set correctly, you can rock along quite pleasantly. Now think about the mouth of a river where it empties into a larger body of water or a river going in another direction. The water has been moving along in one direction, when suddenly it has to change direction and squeeze in with the water already there or arriving from upstream. (Think about two freeways merging together, without enough lanes. At rush hour.) What you get is a little bit of chaos, “confused seas,” and instead of nice regular waves, you get short choppy bumpy waves, some going one way and some going another. It’s impossible to get in the groove and the boat just keeps getting knocked about first from one side, then from another. The bigger the river, the bigger the confused seas become.

You can probably guess where this is going. Yep, the wind got even stronger, and moved even further forward. Now we were in a full-fledged squall, right in the confused choppy seas at the mouth of the Potomac. The bad decision we made with the sails now meant we could not steer where we really wanted to go, the wind wouldn’t let us. There was too much wind pressure in the sail for us to be able to roll it in, in fact the wind was trying to roll more out. [Mistake number three: The time to make preparations for bad conditions was before it became necessary, because by the time it was necessary, it was too late.] We were making very rapid progress … in the wrong direction, screaming down the face of the waves and splashing into the water in the troughs. All we could do was run downwind toward a more sheltered shore and wait it out.

The storm lasted about a thousand years, or maybe about 45 minutes, it was hard to tell which. We did reach the other shore, and calmer winds and waters, and were able to adjust the sails and continue on toward the anchorage we’d picked.

Lessons learned, and they’re applicable to everyday life as well as to sailing: From mistake #1: Plan for all (weather) contingencies, not just the most pleasant outcome. Prepare for things to go not quite perfectly and have a plan for those, too. Give yourself a way out, if possible. From mistake #2: Balance your life (sails). Use all your resources (sails); don’t draw all your power from one place if you can avoid it, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. From mistake #3: Whatever it is, act early while it’s a little problem still within your strength to manage. Maybe if you wait it’ll go away on its own, but more likely it’ll grow until it’s too big for you to handle and you’ll just be carried along by forces you can no longer control.

[By the way, the next time we were in big winds where a river emptied into a larger one was where the Bay River emptied into the Neuse River in eastern North Carolina. We were able to test these lessons there. We had two small sails up – neither of which was the headsail – and we did just fine!]

 “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” Here was our reward, a sheltered harbor at journey’s end. Sunset at the anchorage at the head of the Alligator River, NC

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