The big day was finally here. We would have to cross the Strait of Juan De Fuca to get to our next area of destinations (we had a couple stops planned over there). In the week leading up to this day there had been a fair amount of concern about this sail. The strait can be bi-polar with heavy winds and crazy currents. It would also be the longest sail we would undertake, at over 30 miles. The weather forecast for the weekend showed a good opportunity to make the crossing without getting the worst of it. We would even have the current in our favor during our sail. Moons were aligned.
On the day of, as we are growing very accustomed too, the wind was coming directly from where we wanted to be. At least the first half would be sailing close-hauled into the wind. It would also require a bit of zig-zagging (aka ‘tacking’) to get from James Island down into the strait itself. Once there the wind would shift enough for us to hold a southerly course along the coast line of Whidbey Island. The further south we would sail, the more the wind would shift around us. Finally, we were going to sail with the wind to our beam (side)… or so we thought.
By mid way through our trip, the wind would die off completely… as usual. We would be denied the beam-sailing once again and forced to turn the motor on for an hour to continue southern movement. The waters were calm and quite enjoyable for us both. Time and distance were passing quickly as we neared the rip-tide prone point up ahead – Point Wilson – just outside our favorite town in the world and the location that our sailing adventures began, Port Townsend. We passed the point with no rip tides to be seen and the wind was picking back up so we could sail past Port Townsend. I even said it to Kerri, “We are going to sail past PT” as if we could show off to the old town. And not a few moments later the wind would teach us some important lessons.
The wind picked up to 25 knots in a heartbeat and we still had full sails up. This put Meriwether on her left side, heeled way over. The chance to easily reef (reduce the sails) was lost as it is much more difficult once they are full of wind. At first I thought it may just be a gust, but it continued, so I chose to bring in the head sail to reduce the heel. This was my first mistake, and once the head sail was flapping in the wind the boat would weather-helm (turn to face the wind) with more stern forces than our rudder could counteract. Facing into the wind is perfectly fine but it was over-reacting and crossing the wind to the other side, then back, then back. Kerri struggled to keep the boat under control while I gave it my all to roll the sail in.
Once that was complete, the job to drop the main sail began, again in heavy winds with a fair amount of heel. And my second mistake showed itself; I never let our the main-sheet to de-power the main sail. We were being hit from the right side (finally, some beam sailing!) with a full main sail up and 25 knots of wind. Kerri, seeing land to our right (more than far enough away, but try convincing her of that in the heat of the moment), refused to let the boat turn into the wind to make the dropping of the sail easier. Stress, frustration, and miscommunication took us over. I eventually got the main sail down, spending every ounce of energy I had left to complete the job.
In hindsight, things could have been handled with ease by doing what we learned in our sailing 101 course. First and foremost, de-power the main sail dummy. That one simple step solves the extreme heel and the boat can maintain balance and control to bring in the head sail in a much more relaxed environment. And my choosing to do the head sail first and completely ignoring the step of de-powering the main sure made things rougher on us. The wind thoroughly and completely kicked our asses and right in front of our favorite town. There was no way we could pull into the marina now, so we kept motoring right on past, to Fort Flaggler, with our collective tail between our legs.
By the end of the day we had sailed more than 35 nautical miles over seven and a half hours. It was our longest journey by far with all but the final hour being some great sailing.