This was the 2nd time I have attempted to set sail alone for Bishop Rock in PSSA’s race of the same name. The first time was three years ago aboard Haunani, and a few days ago it was aboard my spirited girl, Cassiopeia. When I re-read my post about my aborted attempt to do the race three years ago, I was hit hard by how much has changed since then. The most obvious difference is my boat. To say that Cassiopeia and Haunani are different animals, would be a gross understatement. Cassiopeia is a powerhouse, not unlike an eager young thoroughbred at the starting gates. Haunani was more like a gracefully aging quarter horse, solid, dependable and sure to take care of you when things got squirrely. The other huge change is me. I am a much more competent sailor than I was three years ago. My threshold is higher, and my skills are more developed and ingrained. It feels good to acknowledge that, but since I am committed to always learning and growing, this does not mean I can sit back on my laurels either. It instead means that I am constantly upping the game. Friday afternoon did not disappoint in that department. We had 22-25 knot winds with seven foot swells at the start. It was lively to say the least!
As the race day approached, I felt very prepared and centered. All lists had been gone through and all safety preparations and provisioning carefully attended to. Cassiopeia and I were ready, and I had just the right amount of nervous energy flowing through me to keep me sharp. This race was to be an important shakedown for Cassiopeia and me. It would have been our first trip offshore (past Catalina), and would have served as a qualifier for the Guadalupe Island race in March. As I wrote about in my last post, we had a lot to do to get ready, and it was all go in order to get it done. One of the things I did, was to have a new inner stay with a furling staysail installed. I was very excited to try it out, and Mary Ellen was literally working until the moment I pushed off the dock to get it done.
AT the 11th hour, the staysail was up, and I released my dock lines, and pulled out of my slip. I was backed in, so this was not the usual routine. As I pulled out, the wind that was steadily coming up pushed us fast toward the boats on the other side of the basin. I had to bust out some serious Austin Powers moves to keep from hitting any of my neighbors. And so the snafus began…
So, I shake that off, and head out of the basin taking a few deep breaths. I engage my autopilot (remember I just put my NKE autopilot computer on this boat) and head forward to remove my fenders. I cruise back to the helm to adjust the direction of the boat a tad to continue my routine of putting lines and things away. Well, the autopilot has other ideas, and doesn’t disengage. I am heading straight towards docked boats and I could not get control of my helm. I throttled back and tried again, and by the grace of God, something shifted and the clutch disengaged. I have my helm again. OK, more deep breaths. It’s ok, these things happen, and we take them in stride and move forward. I see all the PSSA boats heading out, and I feel a sense of excitement and camaraderie as I always do at the start of these races. I turn the corner into the main channel and set about hoisting my mainsail…something I have done hundreds of times with ease and flow. I head forward to jump the halyard and get about 2 pulls in when I realize that all of the lines at my mast are tangled. Dammit! In the flurry of activity on my boat in the 11th hour, trying to get the staysail working, I hadn’t remembered to check it all after the mainsail (with its new 3rd reef) was re-installed. I assumed it was all as it usually is, and THAT was a huge mistake. It took me three tries and mad untangling to get everything dialed in and get the sail up.
I ended up putting a reef in as I did this, because by this time the wind was up to 18 knots, and Cassiopeia likes to be reefed in anything over 15, especially when I am alone. No problem. I am the reefing queen, I can reef my sail in about 4 minutes flat most of the time. Well, not this time. The reefing lines were criss-crossed and my usual tidy beautiful reef looked like crap, and it was not right. By this time I am almost to the breakwater, and as I pass its protective mass, I am immediately greeted by the 7 foot swells of the day, and the now 20+ knot wind. I set about re-rigging my reef lines. That’s ok, shit happens….deep breaths. As Cassiopeia hobby horsed dramatically on the swells, I tried to get ahold of the lines on the bobbing boom to re-tie them and straighten it all out. I finally got it done, but my reef still was not up to par, and as all the other boats passed me with their tidy perfect reefs in place, I felt so annoyed with myself for not double checking these lines either. I assumed again that everything would be as I usually leave it. Now I am sweating and swearing and trying to shake it all off. I am under power still, with no headsail, and in this wind and swell it is a bit of a push to get out to the starting area.
As we make our way out there, I have a talk with myself and remind myself to forgive myself my mistakes and oversights, shake it off and move forward. Be in the moment! I arrive at the starting area and start the zig zagging and maneuvering that everyone goes through in preparation to head out. I got centered and rolled out my staysail. It was perfect! A perfect sail for this wind, and I was making use of the self-tacker that is on my boat, which made maneuvering amongst the racers in these conditions so easy. YES! I was so excited! We got in the groove and made our last tack to line up for the start, and SMACK. The staysail fell to the deck in a dramatic collapse. WHAT????? Deep breath number 497….thats ok, we can use the Genoa reefed, and it will all be ok. So, I set my autopilot, careful to choose a trajectory that does not include crossing paths with any of the 15 other boats tacking around me, and head up to the foredeck . The bow was soaked and pounding, and as I tied up the sail to get it out of the way, I took multiple face shots of sea water, and was quickly soaked to the bone. Thank goodness I was sweaty and hot, despite the now 22-25 knots of wind. It felt kind of good, actually. I scooted my way back to the cockpit across wet, slippery decks and heaving boat. Ahhh…this is what it’s all about! Even the challenges are exhilarating! I looked at my watch. It was time to start and I wasn’t near the line. I had no headsail up. Shit, ok, let’s head to the line and roll out the Genny. Sounds easy right? Well, there is a reason I wanted a smaller headsail, because that Genoa in wind like this is a nightmare to deploy, especially alone. I furled her out to a suitable reef point, and headed for the start line. The sail was flogging (think dollars flying out the door) and I was doing my danmdest to trim her in WHILE steering to jockey myself into position to cross the stern of the rabbit boat. It was what I like to call a good old fashioned cluster f**k. I have attached a video of this moment below, taken by my friend. It was also posted on social media earning some commentary about my sail trim. All I can say to that is that when you’re sailing alone you do things at a different pace, and you also pick your battles. Don’t worry, the sail was trimmed shortly after this was taken :-).
I am wet, sweaty and bruised by this time, and most of the fleet is ahead of me by a long shot. I get the sail trimmed and we start moving out! Yes!! Cassiopeia is flying through the swells at almost 8 knots, and I can sit and breathe for a moment. It is more like panting, but who is splitting hairs here? I chug some much needed water, and survey the scene. The boat is under control, and the autopilot is steering her well. I am fine, despite my disheveled state. As I survey the boat, I see my spinnaker bag dangling over the leeward bow. I had rigged the spinnaker and lashed the bag up forward the day before, when the wind predictions were not as they actually were in this moment, and again, in my haste to leave and help with last minute rigging stuff, I didn’t think to remove it and stow it down below. So now, the bag is hanging on by its clips and lashing and filling with water. One clip has already torn off the bag and I have to get it back on deck before the sail comes out of the bag and causes more mayhem. I could tack to make it so the bag is on the windward side, but if I do that I will have had to furl the Genny (NO THANK YOU) because of the inner stay. SO I have to haul it out as it is. I head the boat almost into the wind to slow her down, clip on and go onto the foredeck. It is NOT fun, to say the least. I am slipping to leeward, taking huge face shots and my tether is stuck somewhere. I try to pull on the bag anyhow, but I am sure it weighs over 100 pounds with all the water inside. It is impossible to budge. I grab my spinnaker halyard and hook it onto the bag and start hoisting. Thank GOD for the winch that I just installed on my mast, because without it, I would never have gotten that sail out of the water. I crank and crank, and finally, in what feels like an eternity, I get it on the deck. I secure it in a better spot and head aft again. Now I am really wet, starting to get cold and I am shivering. I get the boat moving again, and she loves it. But now, the fleet is so far ahead of me that I have no chance of catching them. I know I have to get out past San Clemente before a certain time to avoid being becalmed in an approaching high pressure system, and I feel defeated and disheartened.
Was the boat under control? Yes. Could I have gone on? Yes. Was everything ok? Yes. But I was mentally and physically exhausted by this time, and I was only a couple of hours in. I started to feel queasy and even worse, dizzy, and everything felt impossible. I cried. I yelled. I thought about it. Finally, I closed my eyes and tuned into my intuition, and asked what I should do. The answer was clear as a bell. Go home, regroup and try again later when you are more centered. I called the race committee, retired, and headed Cassiopeia for home. It was a bittersweet decision, but it felt right. We flew back to the marina at 8 knots, surfing big swells giving me a chance to clear my head and respect myself for my decision. I pulled into my slip with a sense of relief ……..and then disbelief, because the wind was so strong that I had to keep the boat in gear to even jump off and get a dock line onto a cleat. My final test by mother nature that day at least got a laugh out of me, and not much more than a bow scuff on Cassiopeia.
It took me a long time to clean up the mayhem of my boat after those few hours. Being exhausted didn’t help my cause, but the routine of it was grounding, and by the time I left Cassiopeia all nestled in her slip, I felt at peace with the day.
I spent the following day fixing all that went awry, going through my rigging and set up with a fine toothed comb. I hoisted my main and reefed it in the slip at all three points, making sure the lines were clear, I checked and double checked the runs of all of the other lines, and helped Mary Ellen fix my staysail furler. I went for a practice sail and all is in order again. I will leave Saturday morning to go offshore again, this time on my own, and not in a race. I have to qualify for Guadalupe Island by sailing 125nm solo. I am looking forward to heading out in a more centered frame of mind and with a boat that is set up exactly as I like it. I have nothing to prove except to myself, and that is one of my biggest lessons in solo sailing.
Here are a few takeaways from Friday’s adventures:
1. ALWAYS double check everything before leaving the dock. Don’t ASSUME!
2. Take 100% ownership for everything on the boat, even if someone else was onboard fixing stuff.
3. Practice, practice, practice, especially on extreme weather days.
4. Always trust my gut.
5. Know when to push and when to step back….again, trust my gut!
5 boats out of 16 finished the race, so I was not alone, but I am quite sure I was the first to tap out.