“PORT FORWARD! STARBOARD BACK! DID YOU CHECK THE WIND?” Tom hollered.
Annoyed, I attempted to ignore him and steer the boat away from the dock. “STOP YELLING AT ME,” I roared back. “ARE THE FENDERS OUT? DOCK LINES READY?”
The most challenging part of owning Julia, our new, fabulous, French designed catamaran, had been our yelling. Tom and I had never been yellers with each other. And then, other times we had to yell to be heard above the wind.
The battle started after our broker, catamaran expert, Don Margraf delivered our new boat, Julia. Five days in Port Townsend, WA, Don taught us how to drive and dock Julia, a new 44' Fontaine Pajot Helia catamaran. And, he assigned us new roles - roles that availed each of our talents. Our new jobs also reflected a modern day sentiment, where the man didn’t have to be at the wheel. Since Julia was a much larger vessel for us, managing lines and fenders was more dangerous. At times it required brute force. Tom became our designated line and fender man. I became the helmsman during docking, the easy job with two 50 HP engines. I could spin her 360 inside the marina, a big leap from our 35' monohull with a 24 HP engine, that I feared to dock. The hardest part was Tom accepting his new role, giving up control at the wheel. I understood.
I loved being helmsman and felt more engaged. Standing there, I assessed the wind and planned how we’d pull in or leave a slip. Boating had always come naturally for me and I believed Julia would come naturally too. But, I was about to learn the truth. She’s a big girl, 44’ long, 25’ wide. When the sun was out, without exception, people stared as I drove her through the marina. Men stood and scratched their heads. I imagined they wondered why that WOMAN drove the big boat? Why that MAN held the fenders? I didn’t mind, neither did Tom, he was my feminist husband.
Before Julia arrived, before our lessons, before our new docking assignments, we dreamed of our future together - sailing around the world on our new, amazing cat. Where would we go? Which route? We’d head to the South Pacific first, then New Zealand and Australia. To avoid pirates we’d ship Julia to the Mediterranean once in Singapore. We’d meet an assortment of interesting people and live within a myriad of fascinating cultures. We pondered. What would we learn? Surely, our lives would be changed forever after our four year voyage. Our dreaming made us deliriously happy.
Before Julia arrived, we gathered and purged. A pile of stuff-for-the-new-boat grew in our front room and garage. Tom attended mechanical workshops, read blogs and books about sailing and circumnavigation. I converged on local writing workshops, hired writing consultants with hopes that our blog would be engaging. My Sisters in Writing became a strong support group for me as I prepared to leave. Facebook’s “Women Who Sail,” with over 11,000 members provided me with street-smart answers about life aboard.
And, before Julia arrived, we continued our summer sails in the Salish Sea on our 35’ O'day, Shamwari. Tom and I became closer. We slowed down, minimized our footprint and cherished our self-sufficiency.
Then Julia arrived. We had our lessons and broker Don Margraf left. We’d planned a six week shakedown cruise out of Port Townsend, WA and would head north. But a bit of outfitting needed to take place first; the Ray Marine installation, our mast stepped (erected). Port Townsend moved a bit slower than us so three weeks later, we left for a three week shakedown cruise.
Julia was everything we dreamed. She was stable and fast. Her ride remained surprisingly smooth, except for the occasional wave that banged under the hull when she’d shudder and break a few wine glasses and we carried on.
Docking remained stressful, but in the open water I stepped aside and Tom would resume his co-captain role. I loved kicking back with a book, buoyed by the seas while providing remarks on an as-needed basis.
One week into cruising, Tom’s sister Kathie, and her husband John joined us a few days. We picked them up in Pt. Townsend and crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca in thick fog. Four hours later, the sun appeared and the fog cleared. Tom went below for a quick nap.
Kathie, John and I motored along where the orcas fed, the west side of San Juan Island. The wind had picked up to 15 knots.
“Hey, let’s put up the sails,” I said. “It’s perfect out here!” They agreed. I thought it’d be fun for Tom to wake up and see the sails up. I’d been sailing over twenty years and felt fully capable. And, I suppose I could be a bit of a show-off, at times.
With John’s help we unfurled the jib. The sail filled and pulled us forward over the bumpy blue water. I shut down the engines, flipped on the auto-pilot and we sailed. It was quiet except for the water swoosh over the hulls.
It was bliss. Perfection. Maybe the whales would appear?
The sun slipped behind a patch of clouds and the wind whipped my hair. The Ray Marine read 19 knots of wind, but our (SOG) speed over ground was only 5 knots. Slow and inefficient.
“Let’s roll out the main,” I barked.
“Yeah!” John chimed in. “Shouldn’t we pull in the jib first?”
“Yep!” I excitedly started both engines and did my best to point Julia into the wind, which appeared to be shifting. The jib slapped and whipped and worked itself into a frenzy. It fought John as he pulled the line. Finally the white triangle shrank and disappeared. The jib was secured. Now for the mainsail.
But, let’s pause for a learning moment, a reality check.
1. Perspective: We’d just stepped from our 35’ monohull to our Fontaine Pajot Helia, a 44’ ocean certified catamaran. It was a big leap that I under-estimated. At the helm, I stood much higher on the cat compared to our monohull and the wave heights looked smaller. The wind felt different. And, most important that day, I hadn’t re-checked the instruments. I hadn’t disengaged the auto-pilot or checked the wind speed, which had increased substantially.
In those same conditions, on our old boat, we’d had known those were thirty knot winds. Our sailboat would have heeled over 30-35 degrees. The jib would have skimmed the water. The bow would have lifted and the boat would have slammed over the waves. Cold, salty water would have crashed over our much lower side decks and drenched us. We would have dropped our sails and motored to a safe harbor.
But Julia was graceful and steady, and being a cat she didn’t heel. She skittered along the bubbling graying waters with ease, minimizing the effects of wind speed. I was clueless as I prepared to pull up a huge sail on a large boat.
2. Impatience: There were several lines attached to the main sail that came to the helm that I couldn’t identify. I’d learn those later.
3. Distraction: I’d forgotten I had set the auto-pilot while we sailed with the jib up, which overrode the manual steering.
4. Plain ignorance: I didn’t have on a lifejacket. On our old sailboat we rarely wore PFDs. We were expert sailors, so we thought. The only time we wore life vests was in adverse conditions, described above.
I connected the main sheet to the electric winch, the first time I’d use it without Tom. Multiple times I attempted to point Julia into the wind. She tried but veered off. I struggled at the wheel.
“John, you steer while I pull up the main.”
John stepped behind the wheel and I engaged the electric winch. The main sail rose, then blew sideways. It flapped in rapid succession, a loud sheet that whipped the wind. I pushed the electric winch button harder and the sail continued to rise. At about 50% it stopped. It was stuck. John wrestled the wheel trying to point her into the wind.
“I don’t understand why the sail won’t go up,” I said above the wind, frustrated.
“Look at that blue line,” John pointed up to the boom where a blue line blew. “I think that line is holding it down.”
I looked for the same blue line at the helm. It wasn’t there. I climbed to the top deck and reached up. I investigated the blue line flying above me. The boom moved. It bumped me, then rammed me like I was nothing. The boom pushed starboard, shoving me. I was going over.
I knew I wouldn’t survive long. That water was frigid. John and Kathie wouldn’t be able to save me. They’d never driven Julia. Tom was in bed. Tom. Poor Tom, the first week out, his wife would drown. My poor parents, they couldn’t lose another child. Instinctively I wrapped my arms around the boom that was above my mid-waist and held tight. One leg dragged the deck as I propelled starboard.
“No!” John’s voice bellowed, piercing the wind.
My clamped-on arms were rigid. The boom carried me in slow motion. My chest beat. My wide eyes gawked. The water looked a hundred feet below. The salty wind scolded, the sail flapped. I was terrified I'd fall and drown. Thankfully, the boom reached its limit on the traveler and snapped back to center, to my safety.
I dropped. Trembling, I crawled to the sunken seating area on the top deck then collapsed to catch my breath. OMG, I could have drowned! Down the stairs I raced to the helm. Kathie lunged forward, enveloping me in her arms. For a moment I absorbed her love before pulling away.
“Life jackets,” I choked, “everyone must have life jackets on now!”
“I’ll get ‘em,” Kathie headed below to the cockpit. “Where are they!” she cried out.
“In the safety locker!” I exclaimed, all of a sudden safety was an issue.
In a flash we donned our life vests but still were unable to steer Julia. With all the hoopla I was sure Tom had awoken. Our bed was directly below the wheel. A window above the bed peered at the helm station so the person in bed can keep an eye on the person who’s on watch, a masterful design.
His blank face appeared in the cockpit.
“Tom!” I shrieked over the mainsail’s wicked flap. “We can’t get it to steer! I almost fell overboard!” Uncontrolled, Julia bumped over whitecaps. The engines were still on. Tom entered my chaos and gazed down at the instruments.
“The auto-pilot is on,” he asserted shooting me a quick look. He punched the red Standby icon on the touch screen. Manual steering resumed and he took the wheel. Within moments, Julia was under control. The main sail filled, wanting to sail in the strong winds. The Ray Marine indicated 30 knot winds. I felt a chill. Dark, heavy clouds loomed over us. Dusk was two hours away.
With his life vest on, Tom dropped the main and secured it in the bag. He'd discovered a reef line had kept it from going up. We motored to safety, Roche Harbor, which presented another set of challenges. I drove into a darkened anchorage, missing the peaceful bobbing sailboats. I led Julia into the blanket of blackness that covered the marina. I successfully pulled her into a slip, taking two spots. That night, I’d never been so happy to be safe and secure, in port, with a martini in my hand. Our group relived the tales of that day with a few nervous laughs.
That was eight months ago and since then I’ve tried to remind myself of the auto-pilot before any new operation aboard Julia. Auto-pilot was so obvious on our 1986 monohull. It was a big blue device that lived on the wheel, not a discreet icon on a touch screen. And, Tom and I have schooled ourselves on Julia's ’s unique reefing lines.
Everything is so different.
So you ask yourself, how can these people leave to cross the Pacific with such little experience? We will learn on the seas, and on our boat while underway.
AND, we’ve hired an amazing, experienced couple as crew to help us and instruct us along the way to Hawaii - David and Amy Alton are a smart, young couple, both licensed captains who happen to own the same boat, a 44' Fontaine Pajot Helia! They’ve sailed “Starry Horizons” from France to New Zealand, half way around the world. We believe it’s a best case scenario! Don’t you?
David and Amy have paused their journey while crewing for us. You can follow them on their popular blog at www.outchasingstars.com as they sail with us, and beyond.
And recently, we purchased a set of walkie-talkies to ease the yelling. Fingers crossed.