The weather has been up and down lately: 40 degrees and 20 knot winds one day, 55 degrees and calm the next. The weather was looking good for a sail last Friday, and since I was on a flex day from work, we decided to take Egretta for one last sail on Claytor Lake before putting her away for the season.
The sky was brilliant blue, that crystal clear, I-can-see-forever sky that only fall and winter bring. The November trees contrasted against it in gorgeous yellows and oranges.
The lake had been lowered significantly, maybe 5-7 feet, for dam maintenance. We used the public ramp, as the state park warned that the ramp we usually used would be too dry to launch a boat. Launching was challenging as we had to climb down a ladder to step onto the boat once we launched it. The dock was 2-3 above our heads when standing on the deck of the boat. Retrieving was even harder. Holding a bowline from 10 feet above and trying to manuever the boat with only a line was not easy.
Out on the lake, the world and the water were silent. We were on a different part of the lake than usual, which I loved. We were able to sail along some of the cliffs of Claytor Lake, which until now we haven’t accessed in our sailboat.
With the exception of the occasional lawn mower or cawing of a crow, there were no sounds. The lake was like a liquid mirror. Somehow there was enough air to move our boat while barely rippling the surface, and for the first time I recall, we glided through the water in silence: no gurgles, no sloshing, no mushing or slapping. The only time our movement made any sound was when we crossed a small boat wake and the tiny waves tinkled against the bow hull.
We were wrapped in tall socks, jeans, fleeces and light windbreakers, and with no wind and clear air, the sun was warm on our clothes at 3pm. As soon as the sun started dropping, it got cold fast. By the time we returned to the dock, my hands and feet were numb.
On land at the ramp, Brian pulled all the halyards out of the mast to stow for the season. No more sailing until spring :-(.
Boat: Egretta (O’Day Daysailer)
Location: North River, Gloucester, VA, USA
Date: October 7, 2017
Time: ~5pm – 7pm
Conditions: ~70°F, brisk breeze
We headed out under cloudy skies tonight for a final evening sail from our airbnb. The wind was up and dark clouds hid the sun. October light shone through rare spaces between them, showing blue sky and blinding white dollops above the grey shadowed bottoms. The kids sailed with us, and they jittered with excitement for the higher wind and the rougher chop.
We beat into the wind first so that we wouldn’t go too far on the first half of our trip and then run out of light trying to get home. As we came around a point of land, and sailed out of its wind shadow, the air became fiercer, the chop larger and white-capped, and the sailing dicier. We called the kids back into the cockpit. “If you want to be up on the bow, you need to wear a live vest.” They opted to stay in the back with us.
As we approached the opening of the river into the bay, we began to feel unsafe. Egretta heeled and snapped up, heeled and snapped up. We were getting knocked around by gusts and heavy chop, and my husband sat up on the combing with his hat straining at the chin strap as the wind tried to tear it off his head. His face was grave and skippering was a strain. After conversations that morning about having never practiced capsizing in safe conditions so we’d know what to do in an emergency, we looked at each other and knew it was dumb to take risks, at sunset, with the kids on board, in rougher wind and water than we were accustomed to.
We turned around to head back into the protection of the river, and a few minutes later our son was back up on the foredeck and our minds at ease. In the distance, I’m not sure how far — maybe a mile? maybe two miles? — stood a huge white-columned house. It emerged from the trees ahead like a mansion-sized Jefferson Memorial. I wanted to see it up close. Near it, on the water, was a double-masted boat my husband wanted to see. We sailed fast with the wind at our backs, running at the same speed as the waves on the river.
Running fast was fun, and we kept saying “Just a little bit further.” But the sun dropped with every minute, and ominous weather swept up the river behind us. We’d have to beat back into the wind to get home, and the storm would bring erratic blasts (or no wind at all). Finally, with the columned house and the double-masted boat still distant, we turned around.
As we did, and we watched ourselves approach the rain that dropped like jellyfish tentacles from dark clouds, and the chop was up and the sailing wet, all of us in the cockpit and the kids hyper with the excitement of the wind and storm and sloppy water and the hour and dark clouds and sun dropping, playing some game by tapping each others’ knees, our son staying quiet as he does, and our daughter getting shrill and cackly and hyper-talky like she does, as we did all of these things, as we headed into the dark sky and imminent downpour like fog on the river, as we headed towards a curtain of rain, a rainbow appeared.
Egretta‘s deck and sails shone yellow-orange in the dropping light of sunset, the rainbow glowed bright as it landed first on the starboard bank of the river, then touched down on the water near the bank on our port beam. The wind was gusting now, knocking us around again, and as we neared the entrance to our airbnb’s inlet, I uncoiled and uncleated the halyard, my husband released the mainsheet, and we the had the cleanest pulldown of the mainsail I think we’ve accomplished to date. If we fumbled any part of it, I don’t remember it.
The sky started spitting, my glasses speckled with sprinkles, and the rainbow completed its arc: a full bow arched over the river, like a gateway that if we sailed through it, we’d turn into unicorns or enter an alternate dimension. I felt like we could have been in a scene from Lord of the Rings.
We saw both of the rainbow’s landing points, unobscured: the actual ends of the rainbow. They were so clear we felt we could sail up to them and touch them.
We motored into the sheltered cove of our airbnb, laughing and grinning and giddy with our luck. The storm never touched us, but we got to see its rainbow.
In the shower that evening, the ground shifted under me like the floor was floating. I swayed on sea legs in the clawed tub. There were no walls to grab onto, nor any shrouds. After three sails in two days, I smiled and wanted more. I wanted to be back on the water. The rainbow sunset sail was the perfect close to our first foray into salt water with our little Egretta.
I began my new goal today: to master my role as crew. I began it on land, with the mainsail. Every time I raise it, without fail, something goes wrong: I’ve forgotten to untie the downhaul, I’ve forgotten to feed the bolt rope into the mast, my husband has forgotten to uncleat the mainsheet, I’ve tangled lines. I’ll start hauling and then I shred my hands on the halyard, yanking and grunting despite the sail’s head being stuck halfway up the mast.
On land, with my husband and coffee and pen and paper, on the porch of our airbnb while the kids were still asleep, we thought through, talked through, and I wrote notes to help me understand every force acting on the mainsail and boom, and everything that needs to happen for me to raise and lower the sail. As Brian reminded me, conditions will be different every time we hoist the sails, so the routine can’t be a memorized set of steps, it must take into account the constant question of forces — if I uncleat this, what will fly loose? If pull this, what will happen? If I meet resistance, where are the places to look for the blockage?
The ultimate goal is to get the sail raised and the luff taut: get the head to the top of the mast, then pull the luff taut by tightening the downhaul, then loosening the topping lift so the boom falls to its proper place.
The basic steps to raising the sail, one of which I almost always forget, are these:
Wait for the okay from the skipper.
Attach the halyard to the head of the sail. Make sure it’s not tangled in any other lines.
Release the mainsheet and downhaul.
Feed the bolt rope into the mast.
Cleat the halyard.
Coil and stow the remaining line.
For lowering, the steps are slightly different and are not necessarily the opposite of what to do when raising:
Wait for okay from the skipper.
Remove halyard end from stowage; uncoil it and make sure end is loose.
Prepare passengers and ask them to keep the sail in the boat as it comes down.
Uncleat the topping lift, find the end of the line, and cleat it at the end of the line.
Find the end of halyard, uncleat halyard, hold it steady, and cleat it at it’s end to avoid losing the halyard in the mast.
Notify everyone on board that boom will come down as you lower.
Begin slowly so boom lowers gently into cockpit, making sure to pull bolt rope out of mast.
Lower sail quickly by pulling on canvas and bolt rope; keep bolt rope in hand to avoid the sail getting loose when it’s free of the mast. Remind passengers to keep sail in boat.
Detach halyard from head of sail.
After talking all that through, I was eager to begin, but the kids were still asleep. When they finally woke, they were gummy eyed and hungry and weren’t ready to sail. Brian and I had been up for hours and really wanted to get out on the water, though. So we went alone.
I was able to practice raising the main while thinking through all the components rather than just doing random things and hoping for the best. The sail still got stuck halfway up — on the topping lift, the lines were crossed — but I saw it, took care of it, and everything was fine. Then one of my knots slipped and the mainsail started sinking down the mast. Again I saw it, took care of it, and everything was fine. I raised the jib, successfully checking for crossed lines and twists in the sail, and tidied all the lines on deck before taking my place at the jibsheets in the cockpit.
Once we were underway, in perfect wind for our boat, cruising along at a fast clip, I was true crew, trimming the jib, adjusing lines on the mast, watching for crab pots and sea life. It’s a lot easier to focus and pay attention when the kids aren’t on board. When they’re aboard I default to Mom mode instead of crew mode. It’s also a lot more crowded when they join us, and Egretta more sluggish, and the freedom of an open cockpit and speeding along with wind and salt water exhilerated me.
We sailed about two hours and I didn’t want to come back in. The jib sheet kept getting caught on the pin at the base of the mast when we tacked, and before we turned to go home, Brian said, “Should we practice two more tacks and then head back?”
“Yes,” I said, and prepared to come around.
We repeated our “practice tacks” four more times before finally admitting we really did need to get back. We sailed in on a beam reach and got up onto a plane. We were surfing on our own wake. It was glorious, and I am in love.
I wrote about the story leading up to this post, about falling in love with sailing and Egretta on my main blog, Butterfly Mind.
Boat: O’day Daysailer
Location: North River, Gloucester, VA
Time: ~2pm – 5pm
Conditions: ~82°F, light breeze
We took a couple of days off of work to get out of the mountains and east to the Chesapeake so we could sail in salt water and rename our boat. We launched from the ramp at Mobjack Bay Marina, then brought the boat across the North River to the dock at our Airbnb.
Boat: O’day Daysailer
Location: Claytor Lake, VA
Time: 4pm – 8:30pm
Conditions: ~77°F, light breeze turning gusty and swirly
After a cold front blew through Friday night, we opted to take a Saturday evening sail to let the wind die down during the early part of the day. We wanted to be able to spend as much time on the water as we wanted, so we stopped by the Kroger deli and bought picnic foods to take on the water with us: fried chicken nuggets for the kids, chicken salad for my husband and me, and fruit for all of us.
We stepped the mast and attached the mainsail in the boat launch parking lot, flaking the sail to avoid twisting when we hoisted it. We forgot the battens, which was annoying and meant the leech of the sail would flap instead of hold its shape. Aside from that, though, my husband has organized the gear for easier stowage in the cabin: a bucket with the fenders, dock lines, and hand pump; a bin with tools, first aid kit, flares, whistle, dry box, paper towels, and various supplies; a bin with the anchor, extra lines, and throw cushions; dry bags with towels, sweatshirts, and fleeces; and our L.L. Bean bag with snacks, goggles, water bottles, and glasses cases.
After launching, we motored out, and as it has on all of our previous sails in this boat, the centerboard wouldn’t drop down. Our daughter jumped in with goggles, swam under the boat, and pulled it down. Then our son decided he wanted to swim too, so he jumped in. And then I decided a swim sounded lovely, so I jumped in, too. It was strange for the water to not be salty.
Once we had all cooled off, we fumbled back in over the gunwale, dried off, and made ready to sail. My husband replaced all the crusty, dried, algae-coated lines with fresh soft ones, making it much more pleasant to handle the halyards, and hoisting the mainsail was much easier with the sail already on the boom and flaked so that all we had to do on the water was attach the halyard to the head of the sail, feed the luff into the mast, and haul. Our daughter and I hoisted the jib next, and we were sailing.
As crew, I felt the wind steady and easy. We didn’t need to maneuver a lot, the boat didn’t heel, lurch, or stall unexpectedly, and the kids lay on the foredeck when they weren’t in the cockpit crewing or eating popcorn chicken. I made myself a chicken salad sandwich and ate as the wind pushed us from behind down the lake.
When we ran out of lake, I was ready to take over as skipper so my husband could eat — my first time skippering our new boat — and as soon as we had turned into the wind to beat back up the lake, I took over the helm.
And everything fell apart.
When we turned, we had been sailing back up the lake into the wind. Now, somehow the wind was behind us and we were in danger of accidentally jibing. The wind had changed directions completely, and I was not prepared to make instant adjustments. It became clear to me quickly that I do not have an instinct for sailing. My mood darkened, and my feeling of self-worth plummeted. My husband tried to coach me through how to handle the boat in the shifting wind, but I kept steering it in the wrong direction, adjusting the sails wrong, and stalling the boat. My brain shut down, I couldn’t adapt, and I ended up giving the tiller back to my husband while I went to a corner and felt horrible about myself.
As quickly as I had stalled the boat, he got it going again. It was a fast, windy, and tippy ride back up the lake, with gusts that pushed us over quickly enough that the kids had to grab the edge of the bow to keep from sliding off. I made my husband a sandwich, and he navigated us through the swirls and blasts without capsizing or stalling us. We raced through the water, sometimes feeling like we might get tossed in the drink, until we once again ran out of lake.
We turned again and started making our way on a broad reach back towards the boat ramp. The sun was low now, and the wind seemed settled and steady when it was at our back. I was nervous about trying again and failing, but I need to learn how to do this, and I need to practice so I can build instinct for when conditions shift.
Before I took the tiller, we talked through the current wind direction, what to do if the wind shifted in this direction or that direction, when to use the sail to react and when to use the tiller to react. I took the helm with confidence after that, and I sailed us back to the ramp, where I turned us to the wind so we could lower the sails.
I skippered maybe 20-30 minutes of our four and a half hour sail. My husband’s hands ache today from grasping the tiller and the mainsheet for so long. Next time I can help more. Little by little, I’ll get there.
It occurs to me that I should record weather conditions if this is to be a useful sailing log. My husband is keeping a log, too, and I’m sure his is much more practical while mine is a bunch of words and feelings.
It was a beautiful day to sail though. The sky was a crystalline blue, almost an autumn sky, with no clouds at all when we launched at about 2:00pm, and with just a couple of tiny puffs when we returned around 5pm.
This sail I made all sorts of blunders without even skippering the boat. I almost hoisted the mainsail without the battens, and after putting them in while the sail was attached to the boom, our daughter and I started to raise it and realized the sail was twisted, we lowered it, untwisted it, and raised it again.
I couldn’t remember what anything was called. My husband would tell me to pull the sail by the luff, and I wouldn’t remember which part of the sail the luff was. Or the foot, or the head.
When we hoisted the jib, once we got it all the way up, we saw the halyard was twisted at the top. We had to lower it again. And when we brought the jib down at the end of the sail, I was so proud of remembering how to do it, and then I realized I hadn’t secured the loose end of the halyard, so its bundle hung from the mast, swaying and making us look lubberly. (I am totally lubberly, though my husband is not).
I couldn’t remember how to bundle the lines neatly, either, and as my husband tried to tell me with words, I couldn’t remember any of the knot terminology Working end? Bitter end? What are those?
Aside from all the many gaffes that made me feel like an idiot, the voyage itself was glorious. We were fast, and at times sat ont he gunwale to balance the heeling of the boat. Our son didn’t join us — he had just returned from soccer camp and was tired — but our daughter and I tried our best to crew.
The yawl didn’t have the same rigging as this boat — there were no halyards, no big boom, the sails weren’t hoisted but were already attached to the masts. Lines didn’t need to be stowed since we were using them all. I’m glad we have a more common rig now so I can get used to all of this.
When I arrived home from Portland, Oregon, after a weekend away for work, I found a new sailboat in front of our house: a 17′ O’Day DaySailer. I knew it would be there — my husband had texted me pictures — and I was so happy to find it under the moonlight in the driveway when the taxi dropped me off after midnight.
Finally, we have a boat that our family of four can voyage in together.
Our previous setup consisted of a tiny wooden yawl that a maximum of 3 of us could sail in together, which means at least one person was always left behind, and usually two. We (meaning everyone in our household but me) then built a canoe for whoever wasn’t on the sailboat. The problem is that this meant we had to carry and launch two boats, and conditions that were good for the canoe were not good for the sailboat. We wound up never taking both boats out together, which means that as a family, we were not able to all four boat together.
This little sailboat has changed all of that.
DaySailer before our first sail
Ready to launch
We took her out last night on Claytor Lake, and she performed beautifully. Everything was easy compared to the yawl. We had room to spread out, we didn’t have to sit in water on the floor, we could stand in the cockpit, and moving our bodies didn’t make it feel like we were going to flip the boat.
We motored away from the launch ramp, giving us more control than rowing, and once we puttered out into the open lake, the kids jumped out and swam while my husband and I organized the sails and the rigging. They climbed in near the stern and jumped off the bow, splashing and swimming away from the crowds.
When we were ready to hoist the mainsail, we called the kids back into the boat, and as soon as the sail was up, we were sailing. It pretty much sailed itself.
The rigging is quite different from the yawl. We will need to practice a few times to get everything set up properly on our first try, making sure the centerboard is down, rigging the mainsheet and boom without injuries, and sorting the jib sheets so they don’t tangle.
When we had the mainsail under control and I raised the jib, the little boat zipped across the water. We were across the lake before we had even gotten comfortable — more quickly than we’d ever gotten halfway across the lake in the yawl. I’m glad we didn’t get anything bigger, as the lake might start to feel pretty small.
The kids love this boat like they never loved the yawl. They love being able to help rather than just feeling like they were in the way. They got to crew when we tacked, releasing one jibsheet and pulling the other one in. And they (and I) appreciated the comfort of benches to sit on and the convenience of stowing food and towels in the small cabin.
This boat is going to be a source of great joy for our family. We only sailed for about an hour, but it was a great chance to start getting to know the boat. We pulled down the sails and motored in while the sun was setting, and I can’t wait for next time when we can spend more time and really sail.