A Storm-Tossed Night

Idle Queen Onset harbor rainbow
Rainbow the morning after

Well, we are still afloat and Idle Queen is still in one piece after last night’s storm, which was a record-breaker for an October storm on this area. I saw a low air pressure of just under 28.9 inches before the barometer began to rise again. Winds measured ashore in the area were up to 90 mph. I saw 70 knots at deck level before I had to start dealing with a rapidly deteriorating anchor situation.

The wind began to pick up a bit after dark, and was really howling by 9 pm. IQ was riding well, and the worst wasn’t expected until after midnight, so I tried to nap. I got up a few times when flashlights played through my ports. There was only one other boat in the anchorage, a 46-foot catamaran. They were playing their lights on IQ to better see where I was in relation to them, so I assume that they were already beginning to drag at that point. The wind was gusting into the high 50’s, but IQ hadn’t budged and the catamaran was not directly upwind. I checked everything and then lay down again.

What seemed like a minute later, I awoke to the sound of revving engines nearby. I jumped up and headed for the hatch when there was a ban from forward. I could hear yelling over the wind. By the time I slid the hatch and got out to see, the catamaran was passing just feet from my bowsprit, already moving off to windward. I could see from their trajectory that I had missed observing the closest point of approach. It was a close one. We fell back on the heavy backup snubber that I had rigged. The moment of slack between the first snubber breaking and the emergency one taking up may have saved the boats from contact, but it brought its own complication.

I turned on the deck light so the catamaran could see me better, and had a look around. The scene on deck was wild, with the surface of the water whipped white and blowing over IQ’s deck in the gusts. IQ heeled 30 degrees and more in the gusts as we tacked back and forth behind the anchor. The chop was a couple of feet high even in tiny Onset harbor, with some waves clearly much higher. I had my kayak tied up vertically on IQ’s side, and it was alternately six feet above the waves or floating up along the shrouds depending on which way we were getting blown over.

Then, the anchor alarm sounded. The backup snubber had been rigged with some slack to keep it from chafing. It is rigged to the deck, instead of the waterline where the primary snubber was secured. When the primary snubber broke, IQ quickly gained momentum as she blew backwards taking up that bit of slack. She hit the backup snubber hard, stretching it about 6 feet until the chain finally straightened. Everything held, and I didn’t feel any shock, but a huge strain was put on the anchor at that moment. From then on, we began slowly dragging in the gusts.

GPS track showing how close we were to being on the beach or rocks.

Even though we were now dragging, it was slow and stable and there were a few hundred clear feet of room to leeward. I kept waiting for the anchor to find some firm ground and hold fast, but it didn’t. It was high tide, plus the extra 4 feet of angle to the new snubber conspired to drop the effective scope of the rode down to under 7:1. Maybe less than 6:1. The harbor was too agitated for the depth sounder to read, but I am sure the water was up even more than normal due to the storm.

The wind continued to strengthen. Now when we were caught sideways to the waves the chain was beginning to snatch as it stretched the snubber to the limit. I grabbed my dive mask and foul weather gear and went out to veer more line and chain. There was still a comfortable amount of room left to leeward to where the waves were breaking on the rocky beach. Suddenly, as I was just pulling my hood over my head, the anchor alarm sounded again. This time the anchor had finally been snatched free and IQ was now dragging quickly. I started the engine and glanced once more at the GPS. We were past the 5-foot sounding and still closing on the beach. There were also rocks in the water to each side of my position. The only thing I could do was gun the engine and bring the bow into the wind and try to take strain off the anchor.

Okay, that worked. IQ’s slide towards the shallows halted. But now what? We were too close to the beach to lie to the anchor even if it held. I motored off to starboard, as the rocks in that direction were a little farther away. With the engine running flat out I was able to keep IQ from tacking in the wind, and keep her from getting closer to the beach and rocks, but I now needed to re-anchor, and that meant hauling up the anchor before having a chance to get back out to a safe spot. I couldn’t get the spare anchor out to windward from my position in those conditions. I couldn’t leave the helm in any case.

I was stuck for the moment. To do anything but drive the boat meant the chance of being driven ashore. Once, I tried tying the helm down so I could go forward to try hauling in the anchor. The wind got IQ tacked over and heading for the rocks under power before I could get any chain in. I dove back into the cockpit and revved the engine to its limit in reverse. IQ slowly moved back against the wind towards the right side of the anchor with waves exploding against the quarter and showering the cockpit with spray every few seconds. A lull let me make a hard turn to get the bow into the wind again, but it was clear that I needed to drive the boat to keep her situation from worsening. So, I settled at the helm to keep things stable and wait for the wind to ease.

None of this was made any easier by the fact that I had to wear a dive mask to have any hope of opening my eyes against the wind-driven spray. The mask kept fogging and getting covered in spray, so I had to lick the lenses every minute or two to see anything at all.

After about an hour the wind began to ease. The moon was shining through breaks in the clouds that moved so fast I first thought it was flashes of lightning. Maybe there was some lightning as well. I could only see a foggy, fuzzy view of things half the time.

Lights shone on me from shore. I didn’t know at that time that some boats had broken free from their moorings and been driven onto the beach. There were lights flashing from emergency vehicles at the far end of the harbor. I still don’t know what happened there, but trees had been blown down ashore. There were fewer lights than normal as some power was out.

Another half hour and I felt like I could try again for the anchor. The wind was now gusting no more than into the high 40’s. I gunned the engine straight at the anchor, then put it in neutral and ran forward and quickly pulled in 25 feet of chain hand over hand, dropping it past the windlass 10 times faster than the machine could manage. Repeating this process we soon had a comfortable distance from shore, and the anchor was holding against the diminishing wind. Sometimes I could get ten feet of chain in, others only one or two before the bow was blown off again, driving the loads too high to make progress even with the windlass. It took a few minutes to unwrap the parted snubber from the chain, then I kept hauling. Suddenly, the wind dropped to only about 20 knots, a lull that was exactly what I needed at that moment. I immediately finished hauling the anchor and motored back out to a safe spot in the harbor. Whew!

With the anchor just going down again, the first strong gusts of a new southerly wind began to hit. The storm was passing, and I knew that the wind would veer around to the west. I set the anchor on 230 feet of chain (in 15’ of water at high tide) for the new wind direction, rigged two new snubbers with lots of slack in the chain, and retreated to the cabin. It was now almost 4 am.

There was no damage to IQ beyond the broken snubber and a slight tweak to the bow roller. The kayak was just fine riding on fenders where it was. A few things had slid around in the cabin, but IQ had been generally secure for sea, so no disasters there. I had a second anchor ready to go, but didn’t have time to drop it once we really started dragging. With some more room, I would have tried that, but I still think we would have been fine with just more scope on the first anchor, as we were holding fast before the primary snubber parted. As it was, I am glad I didn’t try to put the second anchor out once IQ really started to drag. If the second anchor didn’t catch, it would have been a nightmare to try to recover the extra gear when trying to get away from the beach. I’m also glad it wasn’t out when that catamaran dragged down, since the nylon rode is often clear of the water past the bow for 50 feet or more when it is stretched tight in strong wind. Again, two tangled boats would have been a disaster. My takeaway just reinforces something I already knew well: the fewer neighbors in a storm, the better!

Boat on beach. Bomb cyclone 2019, Onset Harbor
A few boats on the beach this morning. Lucky for this one to have found a sandy place to go ashore!

Sailing out of season

Passport 40 wave
Pushing north under power on Pamlico Sound in winter.  The boat is a Passport 40.

I just returned to Oriental, NC, after helping to move a boat north to Annapolis, MD for a friend.  It is still a little bit early in the season to be heading north, and the crew was chilled by the biting north wind that slowed our progress.  Still, it was a successful trip made without any unpleasant surprises.

One of the most memorable aspects of that short (just under 360 miles in 4 days) trip was that it was marked by almost constant headwinds.  Our progress was slowed to speeds frequently below 4 knots, and to less than one knot for one short, but painfully slow stretch even though the boat’s powerful diesel engine was working hard enough to have pushed us at over 6 knots had we been in calm seas.  To have frequent northerlies at this time of year is to be expected, and we certainly had our share.

The same trip could likely have been made with warm winds at our backs in just another month or two, but then the anchorages and marinas would be crowded with others out enjoying the spring breezes.  In my own cruising life, uncrowded waterways and anchorages are among the reasons that can make cruising out of season an attractive venture.

I am often content to travel out of season and take my lumps.  It’s not even really necessary to get beaten up too badly by the weather.  This most recent trip was made through the contrary winds of winter in order to adhere to a schedule, but free of the push to be at our destination as soon as possible it could have been an easy trip even though it was still winter.  The beautiful days don’t come as frequently when cruising out of season, but for one who is willing to wait, there are still plenty of fair winds to be had even though the temperatures may be chilly.  One may enjoy the truly exquisite days when they do arrive with the additional satisfaction of having had to endure a little discomfort to “earn” them, and the uncrowded anchorage at day’s end or voyage’s end is shared only with the hardier of nature’s creatures.

Lessons Learned-Overhangs

Pearson Vanguard Merry Way
Here I am on my first floating home.  Note the graceful stern.

My first cruising keelboat, a very experienced Pearson Vanguard named Merry Way, played a big part in shaping my current opinions about what traits are truly desirable in a cruising sailboat.  Merry Way wasn’t exactly the boat that I had wanted at the time, but she was the best boat that I could afford.  As it turns out, to this day she was the most expensive boat that I have ever owned.  Where to spend my cruising funds was one of the things that she taught me–an important lesson, as these days I don’t have nearly the money I did when I was working full-time as an engineer (as I was when I bought Merry Way).

Here are the some of the important particulars of the Pearson Vanguard:

LOA-32′ 6″    LWL-22′ 4″    Beam-9′ 3″    Draft-4′ 6″   Displacement-12,000 lbs (actual weight; brochure lists 10,300 lbs)    Sail area-437 sq ft.    

Sailors spend a lot of time looking at those numbers for different boats and comparing the numbers from one boat to another.  They give a pretty good overall feel for the size, heft, and power of a boat.  

In this case, one of the things that can be seen in the numbers is that the Vanguard has long overhangs–the difference between the LOA (Length OverAll) and the LWL (Length WaterLine).  The Vanguard’s overhangs are over 10′, or almost a full one-third of her overall length.  That’s a lot of boat hanging in space above the waterline just looking pretty (and I admit that it felt great to be told how beautiful my boat was by passers-by!).  When it comes to a cruising sailboat, however, all of that overhang is mostly just wasted length.  It is true that the stern wave will come up under the counter (stern overhang) of a boat like this to increase its apparent waterline when it is moving, allowing a higher top-end speed for the boat, but that be achieved more effectively by just getting rid of the overhang and actually lengthening the waterline by design.  The long overhangs were put there mostly to help the boat achieve a favorable rating under an old racing rule. 

 The characteristics that caused me to grow to dislike the long overhangs of the Vanguard affected everything from the maintenance to the sailing, and even the habitability of the boat.  The first thing that I noticed on my trip home was that the long overhangs contributed to “hobby horsing”–where the boat tends to pitch when traveling into a sea.  Rather than just riding up and over the waves, the bow would first soar up into the air, and then then plunge down in the troughs, adding an uncomfortable element to the already uncomfortable exercise of trying to sail or motor upwind.  The excess pitching slowed the boat, prolonging the agony of having to endure adverse conditions.  Merry Way often behaved like a rocking chair, with the bow continuing to rise and fall even after a wave had passed.  The pitching was made worse by having cruising gear such as anchors and solar panels near the ends of the boat, but storing gear near the ends is necessary on a cruising boat.  I tried to put only light objects there, but even a few pounds contributed to the problem.  

Maintaining the boat was more difficult because of the overhangs.  Keeping the hull clean in the area where the stern overhung the water required feats of acrobatics.  That area needed frequent cleaning because of water splashing under there which caused algae to grow on the topsides.  I spent hours hanging upside-down from my legs while I reached way under the back of the boat to scrub off weed and grime.  I tried doing it from the dinghy, but couldn’t reach all of the hull.  I tried a brush on a stick from the dock, but the long lever arm reduced my scrubbing pressure to almost nothing.  It was easy to clean when the boat was out of the water, but that only happened once per year.  Hanging over the rail was the most effective method of cleaning that area of the hull, but I always ended up with bruises for days afterwards from draping my body over the edge of the boat.  

I have heard others complain about the noise made when wavelets slapped under the counter, but I didn’t mind them.  Every once in a while, though, a big wake or an ocean wave would get under there with a solid thump that was impossible to ignore.

The overall effect of having a boat with long overhangs in a cruising boat is to cause the boat to become apparently smaller.  The ends would optimally be kept empty to avoid hobby horsing, but that isn’t practical.  Waterline length is reduced–even if the stern wave comes up under the counter, the bow still has unused overhang not contributing to waterline length.  This reduces the speed potential of the boat, as the longer the waterline length of a boat, the faster it can move through the water (we’re talking about displacement boats here that don’t get up on the surface of the water and plane).  Basically, the Vanguard is functionally similar to a heavy 25-28′ boat.

This isn’t all meant to sound overly negative.  I lived with the quirks of the Vanguard for a few years and sailed many enjoyable miles on that boat.  The sweeping overhangs paired with the beautiful sheer drawn by Phil Rhodes are beautiful to look at, and that is worth something.  The Pearson Vanguard is a pretty good sailing boat if she is kept light, especially in the ends.  It is still a reliable, old-school racer/cruiser design that can be pressed into more serious cruising service, if one is willing to accept the tradeoffs.