First Solo Sail

First Solo Sail

My first solo sail.  First time taking the boat out of the dock and up the marina channel and out into the water ways by myself.  That’s a pretty big step and without a doubt probably the most significant day out sailing I have ever had.  More significant than the collision in the Booker Bay marina.  Much more significant.  Of course I am writing this in hindsight and have done lots and lots of post mortems of the day and have come to the conclusion that it was one of those big days, both in my sailing career and in my life, but it did teach me a few lessons and hopefully, I have grown a bit in the process.

Andrew Evans, in the Third Edition of his book, ‘Thoughts, Tips, Techniques and Tactics for Singlehanded Sailing’ says, “For the first eight years of sailing, I can confidently say that something went wrong every time I went out – every single time. It got to the point where if I was returning to the dock and something bad had not happened yet, I knew that it still would happen.”  I read this sometime ago and think about it often, on my first solo sail, quite a few things went wrong, some in a big way with big consequences, but it’s part of the learning curve.  We all know that in life we tend to learn the hard way and these lessons are the most valuable ones. 

The day started out well, good weather forecast, no rain and gusting winds north to north-easterly.  Probably a bit windier than I would have liked for my first solo sail but not enough to keep me in the marina.  I rigged the boat with the cutter staysail as the headsail.  It’s too high cut for the Compass but not a bad size.  The genoa would have been way too big and the jib way too small.  With the boat rigged and prepped I got a hand from the lads at the marina to get out of the berth.  So far so good, we headed up the marina channel and turned right into Mushroom bay which was conveniently free of water craft.  I turned it into the wind, and using the shock-cord tiller restrainer that I had rigged up, went up to the mast to raise the main.  Of course the battens got snagged on the lazyjacks and the nose of the boat started drifting off course, so I made numerous trips back and forth to correct the tiller and get the main up.  Eventually, the main was up and ready to sail.  The boat was duly turned around and I motored up Coal and Candle Creek out into the main Cowan waterway to begin my sailing adventure.

A couple of hundred yards from  Cottage Point, the wind was favourable for sailing and tying in the tiller, I nipped up to the mast and raised the headsail.  La Mouette soon settled down so I could turn the engine off and breath that sigh of relief – we were sailing.  This is a relatively sheltered part of the Cowan and we were making about 3-4 knots on a broad reach.  Nice and easy.  The plan was to head east and see what the conditions and traffic was like and then turn around and come back.

By the time I had reached Cowan Point, the wind had picked up a bit and was gusting a bit.  No dramas and I was going a bit quicker.  Not too worried about the finer points of sail trim, I was just happy to have the boat moving and be under control.  It took me about an hour or so to reach a fair way up the Cowan/Hawkesbury waterway and level with Patonga.  I tacked plenty of times and felt like I was starting to get the hang of it. 

Time to turn around and make my way back.  The wind had picked up a bit more and was starting to gust.  Just past the western side of Patonga I was caught in a few gusts.  La Mouette took it in her stride.  In hindsight a reef in the main would have been nice, but the boat took on a big lean with a dramatic increase in speed.  At one stage we reached six knots.  The lesson learnt at this stage was that I should have stowed things in the cabin a bit better.  On the first gust, stuff went flying off the dinette table and onto the cabin sole.  No time to worry about that, I will tidy up back at the marina.

At about this time there was another single handed yacht out in this patch of water.  A 35 foot French production boat and we became sailing buddies for a wee while.  To my surprise, the Compass 28 was a lot faster, even though I had less sail as well as less experience.  We tacked back and forth, making our way back up the Hawkesbury.  Not sure why I was sailing a lot faster, but after about half an hour, he headed back up the waterway, probably back to Pittwater.

It was about this time that the next thing went wrong.  We were on a port tack and I decided to go about and yelled “Ready about” to the crew, myself mainly, and then “lee-o”.  The tiller went over and as the head came round I released the headsail sheets and started pulling in on the starboard sheets, and pulled, and pulled until I ended up with the end of the sheets in my hand – to which I held in my hand and looked at for a moment with what must have been a puzzled expression.  When it dawned on me that the bowline in the clew of the headsail had come undone.  Okay, how to fix this?  Fortunately, I had a bit of sea room, so I shock-corded the tiller and nipped up forward to try and retie the sheets to a frantically flapping sail but with no luck.  I ended dropping the sail and securing it with a bungy cord and just relying on the main.  A few tacks later, I had managed to tie the sheet to the clew but never did raise the jib again, preferring just to scoot along on the main.  The good old 20/20 hindsight said that I should have dropped the main and just used the headsail.

With just the main, La Mouette was a bit slower, but still made good time westing up the Cowan waterway.  My waypoint was the red bouy marking Cowan Point and as I rounded this, I could see the masts from the mooring field at Cottage Point ahead.  The wind had dropped considerably by this time and we slowly made our way towards Cottage Point.  Rounding the last point before entering Coal and Candle, we were steaming along at just over one knot.  However, we were still making way.  As there was hardly any wind and what wind there was washing pushing us off the shore, I was quite close to the marker as I rounded the point.  Everything was in slow motion, and each time I looked back at the marker it was steadily falling behind, although very slowly.

By the time I was in Coal and Candle proper and heading towards Akuna Bay the wind started picking up.  It was a downwind sail with the wind directly behind us.  I let the main sheets right out and the boom was all the way across on a port tack.  Glancing down at the Garmin E-Trax I saw that we were doing five knots.  Not bad for Coal and Candle and usually we motor this part of the creek.  The wind was fluky and the sail started flapping heralding a gybe.  Sure enough the boom swung across with a crash.  I don’t like this as things can get broken.  However, I kept on going and by this time I was pretty well level with Illawong, almost half way up Coal and Candle.  Just a slight course change to port and you could see the big white boats in the distance, Akuna Bay Marina.

More flapping presaging another gybe.  This time I stood up to grab the main sheets as the boom swung across to try and dampen the sudden bang and the sheets slapped me in the left arm.  The sudden jolt left me a bit stunned and after the boom crashed I realised that I couldn’t move my arm at all.  It was a really weird feeling and I just stood there for a few moments trying workout what was going on.  The realisation that my arm was broken soon dawned upon me.  I could wiggle my fingers but the lower arm wouldn’t respond and move.  It just dangled there, completely useless.  Again, I just stood there trying to workout the significance of this and realised that I was now one handed and would have to do something to get the boat back to the marina.

OK, what to do.  First thing is get the engine going.  Gear lever back into neutral, a bit of throttle and hit the starter.  Engine going, what next?  Drop the main.  I swung the tiller over and steered the boat a complete 180 degrees into the wind and then, one handed, up to the mast to drop the main.  The main halyard was jammed into the cleat really tight and it took a few goes and a lot of effort to release it.  Once the halyard was free I pulled on the slugs to get the main down.  It didn’t come all the way down and seemed to stick but just enough.  By this time the boat was drifting, nose first towards the bank, so back to the cockpit, into gear, a bit of throttle and head back up the Creek towards the marina.  The staff at the Marina use UHF radios and if you carry one on board, you can contact them for assistance when you are docking.  As I was motoring back, I made several attempts to contact them, but only silence.  This wasn’t good.  Was the radio working or what?  I kept going trying to make contact on the radio and was vastly relieved when I got a reply.  I outlined the situation and asked for assistance docking, plus calling an ambulance. 

By now, I was turning right into the marina channel and saw one of the marina staff on the pontoon who told me that Harry was waiting for me at our berth and would help me out.  Sure enough, as I turned up into B arm, there was Harry and as usual, I had throttled back so that the boat had just enough weigh for steering and it just slid into the berth with just a tickle in reverse to bring it to a stop.  I was back, and as I was standing up in the cockpit assessing the situation I suddenly started feeling really light headed and had to lie down on the seat.  The rest of the story was that of the wait for the ambulance, the trip to Northern Suburbs hospital and the subsequent stay in hospital, surgery and post-surgery recovery, but that’s not really the topic for a sailing blog.

Similar to Andrew Evans, my solo sail had a few things go wrong.  Some were relatively minor but were still learning experiences nonetheless.  The big one was of course, my broken arm and a correspondingly huge learning experience.  I have since done a lot of research into the downwind sailing and crash gybes and now know what I did wrong and what I should have done.  That alone would fill several posts in this humble blog.  Despite the sudden change in my lifestyle and being hampered by a broken arm, I am still keen to get out and go sailing.  Still keen to do more solo sailing as well.  But to be a wee bit more cautious on any future day sails.

Many thanks to the marina crew for their help and support.  Thanks also to the staff at the Northern Suburbs hospital for their help and thanks to Deb for her support and help.

However, what does this mean for the next few months and our sailing adventures?  More about that next time.


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