Wednesday, May 14, 2008

First sail of the season

Above: At last - Arabella looking messy and well-used!

After a five-year layoff from sailing, the plan on buying Arabella back in 2005 had been to start sailing immediately. Foolishly, I had allowed myself to be diverted by The Epic Refit and by the demands of my career. (To be fair, perhaps the latter diversion wasn't entirely foolish).

I hadn't sailed at all in 2005 and 2006. In 2007, I had managed one day and one evening's test-sailing, followed by the frenzy of the Round The Island race, and Arabella had amassed slightly more 100 miles under her keel. If you discounted that experience, and a short, sunny afternoon's sail in Marbella in 2002, it was eight years since I had done any meaningful sailing.

Now Arabella was back in the water, sooner than expected. She was ready to go; but I was rusty and I knew it. Cue a spot of own-boat tuition from John Goode's Southern Sailing School (actually, the great man himself had sold up a short while back, to his chief instructor, but retained a peripheral involvement).

With the British weather granting one of those occasional periods of glorious sunshine and pleasant sailing breezes, I was itching to get out as soon as I could. However, the marine trades on the marina had one final trick to play before letting me out of their clutches. The on-site business which operated as a collection and drop-off point for the (off-site) sail loft decided to close without warning on a weekday - with my freshly-laundered sails locked inside - meaning another wasted trip down from London. So it was literally on the last day of fine weather before the weather broke that I managed to get out on the water.

The objective was to see if I could singlehand what is, after all, a very modest little yacht. By the end of the session, it was pretty clear that I couldn't - not yet, anyway.

My first attempt to reverse Arabella out of her berth was an unmitigated disaster. With a fresh breeze coming from dead astern, it ought to have been easy to go straight backwards, and that's precisely what Arabella proceeded to do. A lovely clean exit, marred only by the fact that regardless how much I turned the tiller, she continued reversing in a straight line, perfectly weathercocked into the wind. Once we were sufficiently clear of the berth to start swinging, I decided to cheat and turned the outboard to port to try and pull Arabella's stern around. That looked as though it was just starting to have an effect when the outboard decided to stop, and, with me pulling feverishly on the starting cord, Arabella, now at the mercy of the wind, re-entered her berth as obediently and tidily as she had left, indeed even slightly more quickly, fetching up with an impressive crunch as her bow found the far end of the berth. A swift lassoo thrown over one of the pontoon cleats by Roger, the instructor, prevented Arabella from swinging across onto her neighbour.

After a little discussion and further experimentation, a number of things became clear:
  • Leaving the outboard at idle speed - which would have been ideal for manoeuvring in the confines of the marina - was not an option, because it was prone to stalling when put into gear. A certain minimum number of revs was required at all times.
  • Less critical, but still annoying, was the fact that, due to the absence of any kind of locking mechanism, the outboard developed a tendency to shake itself to port or starboard, a fact which became apparent to the inattentive (me) only when Arabella opted to leap in a wholly unexpected direction just as you thought you had her lined up on the correct course. Some means needed to be found of locking the outboard in the straight fore-and-aft position, even if it consisted only of lines taken from the control handle to the cleats and either side of the cockpit.
  • Fiddling with the outboard, with your head stuck down in the rear of the cockpit, is not conducive to spatial awareness. All the time you're focusing down there, the boat is up to something - usually something undesirable - and when you pop up for a look around, the scenery has changed radically and the boat is about to hit something. It's the same as fiddling around in the footwell when driving your car - bound to end in disaster.
Ultimately, what worked was to set the outboard at slightly higher revs than I might otherwise have imagined necessary; stop trying to steer with it (over time we proved that the rudder was more effective); and, secure in the knowledge that it wouldn't stall, just put it in and out of gear when manoeuvring in confined spaces as a means of control. That way, I could keep my head up and watch what the boat was doing.

I spent quite a lot of time driving Arabella up and down the river in astern, describing figures of eight and taking her in and out of the rows of pontoons in the marina, until Roger was satisfied that I had at least got the general idea and could be trusted with close quarters handling even with a fairly gusty breeze doing its best to confuse matters.

The next step was to see whether I could berth singlehanded. Once I had gained confidence with the outboard, I felt reasonably sure I could manage this. I knew the theory well enough. The trick was to lead a spring aft outside everything from a midships cleat. The end of the spring would have a loop tied in it, enabling me to lassoo a pontoon cleat alongside the cockpit. This would arrest Arabella's forward progress, and by motoring against the spring, she would be held in against the pontoon while I sorted out the other lines and secured her properly.

Roger tweaked the concept somewhat. The outside end of the spring was left as intended, with a decent sized loop tied in it. However, he suggested feeding the inboard end through the midships cleat without making it off, and leading that end of the line aft along the side deck to a cockpit winch. That way, if it became apparent that the spring line was too long once thrown onto the pontoon cleat, the excess could be pulled in on the winch.

The final approach to Arabella's berth would be downwind, and we would come in starboard side to. Using the "in and out of neutral" technique described above for the outboard, we came neatly in between the rows of pontoons, pointing slightly upwind to offset the effects of the fresh breeze, and I managed to swing Arabella round smartly to line her up for her berth. With the breeze now behind us, it was virtually unnecessary to use the engine, although I stayed ready to go into reverse to slow Arabella down if she began to accelerate as she entered the berth. Roger got ready to lassoo the pontoon cleat with the looped end of the spring, and looked somewhat surprised when I asked him to let me do it, but relented and handed the spring over. Arabella's freeboard being as modest as it is, it was easy for me to lean over the cockpit coaming from the helm and drop the loop on the spring over the pontoon cleat. As luck would have it, the length of the spring was just right to arrest Arabella's forward progress before she ran out of pontoon, and she came to a gentle halt about two feet from the end of her berth.

I knew that the theory was that if the engine was left running in forward gear, Arabella should now motor against the spring, but in practice that needed to be tweaked:
  • The tiller needed to be pushed over towards the pontoon (i.e., as if trying to steer the bow away from the pontoon).
  • The engine revs needed to be increased somewhat - just leaving them at low-speed manoeuvring level was not sufficient to hold Arabella against the pontoon.
But still, it was good to execute a textbook manoeuvre and it did a lot for my confidence after the earlier disaster.

What with all the pontoon-bashing, little time remained for sailing, but we did a brief run out on Southampton Water before short-tacking our way up the Itchen. The wind was getting pretty gusty by this stage and we furled up the genoa somewhat to improve the boat's balance. One point that emerged from the point of view of singlehanding was the need to lock off the tiller from time to time, to enable tasks other than steering to be attended to. I found that the Tiller-Tamer was fairly handy, but only to a point: fine for quick tasks such as tending the genoa sheets and, under engine at very low speeds, going forward and at a push, bringing in fenders. As soon as the boat's balance changed, however - whether due to a gust, or simply the weight of someone moving around on deck - she would change course pretty radically. I liked the Tiller-Tamer for its convenience, but it was no substitute for a tillerpilot if the helm had to be left for anything more than a minute at most.

With some pretty hefty gusts coming in, Roger chose to furl in the genoa partway. Doing so certainly improved visibility but I got the sense that it also induced more weather helm - on one occasion, Arabella rounded up pretty sharply into a F6 gust. That's very rare in my (limited) experience; Arabella seemed exceptionally well balanced in such gusts on last year's Round The Island Race. I didn't say anything, but I think that as and when time comes to reef, it might be as well to reef the main as well as the genoa, to try and keep the centre of effort forward.

There also seemed to be quite a bit of play in Arabella's forestay, which Roger commented on. I'd try and get the rig tension looked at before the next trip out.

Inevitably, we only notched up five miles or so, but it had been more than worthwhile. I'd learned a lot, and had plenty to reflect on as I flaked Arabella's mainsail and sluiced down her decks under a deep crimson sunset. The rain finally arrived just as it got dark, ending the week-long run of hot, sunny weather, and I honestly couldn't have cared less as I plodded contendedly away up the pontoon to head for the station and home.

Conditions: NE F4-5, occasionally gusting F6. Sunshine. Sea state slight.
Distance covered (GPS over ground): 5.16 NM
Total distance covered to date (2008): 5.16NM
Engine hours: 2.6 (total for 2008: 2.6)