2011 AUG – New mainsail & Singlehanding

New mainsail with reefing lines and Dutchman system


In anticipation of my dream of setting to sea in FastAlley one bright morning, I took a long hard look at my mainsail.

There were a number of problems with the mainsail – mostly it was just plain tired but more importantly it required that I go upfront to the mast to raise it, and then return to the mast to work it down later.  The mast is not the place I want to be in bad weather – and definitely not when the deck is bucking and heaving as the boat faces into bad weather waves.

My intention is to install the Dutchman system which, I understand, allows one to reef on any point of sail.  Since I intend to be sailing downwind as much as possible, when its time to reef I definitely don’t want to turn from a stately downwind run to a bashing head-on position during a storm.

I went sailing in the Meditteranean a few years back and it’s a vicious little sea.  One moment the wind is a little blustery and the next the radio is filled with pan/pan and maydays.  We regularly went from deeply heeled  (which is when I fell completely OUT of love with monohulls) to having to turn into nasty sea conditions in order to reef the main.  Fortunately we could reef from the cockpit but the boat still pitched and fell alarmingly as we struggled to reef with the huge main slamming back and forth.  I don’t want to have to go thru those “Med” conditions when I am singlehanding.

Another problem with my old mainsail is when it comes down, no matter how careful you are in gathering it in, it still tends to fall off the boom, puddle in an untidy heap on the deck, and drape itself over the wannabe pilothouse which completely obscures your vision.   Manhandling the mainsail back onto the boom and lashing it down takes at least 2 struggling people.  The Dutchman system, besides its reefing capabilities, would also control the main and keep it on the boom.

My goal is:

(a)    to be able to singlehand from the cockpit

(b)   to never have to stand exposed at the mast

(c)    to be able to reef (my current sail doesn’t have reef points)

(d)   to reef on any point of sail

Robin of Hood Sailmakers in Sausalito came to the boat and removed my tired mainsail.

After a month I visited Robin in his workshop and he pointed out all the failings of my current mainsail.  First it was tearing in a number of crucial areas.  Secondly it had no reefing points.  Thirdly, and most importantly, the sail was never meant for FastAlley but was a bastardized mainsail from a small racer.   Robin pointed out that doing any work on the current mainsail would just be throwing good money at a bad sail.  He suggested we go back to the drawing board and get a new sail cut.  So that’s what we did.

During the first week of August Robin spent a lot of time on FastAlley installing my new mainsail, its reefing lines, the Dutchman system, the boomvang (which didn’t exist), and extra brakes so that I could do everything from the cockpit.   We went out sailing together on August 14th to test out the new system and it all worked flawlessly.

A week later Annie and I intended to go out and practice sailing with the new gear, but Annie went down with a bad cold so that left me alone on the boat.  What the hell, I thought, the boat is set up to singlehand, and I have to learn to singlehand eventually, so this is as good a time as any other.   I must admit I was not blasé about going out alone because the last time I singlehanded it was on my little Catalina 22 daysailer – and that was about 10 years ago!

I find that the scariest times on the boat is un-docking and docking – like flying, it’s the take off and landing that are the most dangerous events.  For me leaving the dock is scary because if the wind suddenly shoves me around as I exit my slip (as it has done in the past) I could hit one of those gorgeous yachts docked closely all around me.  With FastAlley’s high freeboard and canvas cockpit enclosures and just a single engine, I have very little actual directional control especially when going backwards.  Coming in to dock is slightly better from the point of view that I have forward directional control, but worse as I have to do a tight 180 swivel to get into my windward dock – the windward dock being another disadvantage.   For me, (un)docking is my most (un)favorite time on the boat.

Boomvang collar thru mast

So I asked Bob on the boat next door to help me untie the boat and push me off.   Without Bob, I had visions of me shoving my boat backwards and the wind whipping it off while I stood horrified on the dock.  As it turned out, my exit was painless.  Bob pushed me away gently, I put the boat is very slow reverse, backed off carefully, and then I was free and heading out on Saturday morning.

I decided that it was safest for FastAlley and myself to get far away from all the other boats out there sailing so I headed for the isolation of the San Mateo Bridge.  No one ever seems to hang out there.  I wanted solitude on this my first day of singlehanding FastAlley.  I raised the mainsail, pulled out the roller-furling blade, turned off the motor and waited for the wind to fill my new sails.  And waited.  I checked my speed and I was doing 0.0 knots.  I wasn’t even moving over the ground with the outgoing tide.

I checked that everything was ready to go, cleared the deck, tidied the lines, and made some coffee.  I settled down to wait for the wind.  After an hour or more sunning myself contently as I waited, I noticed that I was getting pretty dozy.  That scared me wide awake!!  All I needed was to fall asleep with all my sails raised and ready to fly.

Then I realized that should I encounter issues and want to stop the boat, I should have my anchor ready to deploy.  It wasn’t.  So I went upfront and untied the anchor so that it was ready to run when released from its brake.

While upfront and hanging over the bow working with the anchor, I realized I didn’t have my PFD on.  I had placed it in the cockpit but had not put it on.  Not smart.  I went back and put on my PFD.

I made lunch.  And waited some more.

Port reef lines in new brake

Suddenly I felt a breeze on my cheek.  I strolled over to check my speed and FastAlley was already at 1.1 knots and accelerating!  As I watched we clocked up 2.8, then 3.4, then 4.6 then 5.7 – we were blazing along within moments of the breeze coming up.  I didn’t know FastAlley could accelerate so fast.  I was thrilled.  I was also off course.

I turned FastAlley and we hurtled south at an angle down the channel.  I  tacked and tacked just for the hell of it.  My first few singlehanded tacks were messy when I managed to tangle the furling line and found a knot in the mainsheet.  But nothing that couldn’t be fixed from the cockpit.   Robin had set up the boat so beautifully that she was very easy to manage from the cockpit.  I got extremely comfortable being alone out there on the water ripping along beneath a sunny sky.

I have had the hardest time sailing to windward on FastAlley which didn’t bother me unduly since I intended to sail the world in a gently downwind fashion but it suddenly occurred to me that maybe now that I had the correct sail plan, maybe just maybe I could sail to windward.  The best I had managed in the past was just off a beam reach.  I adjusted the sails to closehauled and visually checked our angle to the wind.  I don’t have a meter to give me the exact angle but I was pretty damn close to the wind.  I couldn’t believe it – FastAlley was going to windward.  And blazing along too.   Seems as soon as I got a decent sail on her, she started pointing like a monohull.

The wind kept climbing and as my speed reached 6.0 knots I decided to test the new reefing system.  I thought that I would most likely want to reef when FastAlley is on a broad reach so I turned her downwind and when she was going at a good lick I reefed as Robin had shown me.  It was so incredibly easy and even with the force of the wind in the sails as I broad reached, she reefed as easily as if I was heading into the wind.  It was effortless and we barely lost a knot.  Under the first reef FastAlley slowed down to 5.2 knots.   I thought maybe she wouldn’t go to windward with the first reef in, but she sailed closehauled happily as I brought her nose up.

I know it sounds silly but when you havent been able to – ever – do something, and suddenly FastAlley is doing everything and more, then it is incredibly satisfying.  There is nothing like a good mainsail to get a boat performing as she was designed to perform.

And the most fascinating thing about FastAlley is that she holds her course – any course – without locking down the wheel.  She is so perfectly balanced that you just point her where you want her to go on any point of sail, take your hands off the wheel, and she keeps going that way until you change course.  I tried locking down the wheel thinking that would help FalstAlley hold her course but instead she tried to round up, so I left the wheel unlocked.  I would pick a course, set the sails, and then walk quietly away from the wheel to sit comfortably and watch her go.  And go she did.

I found myself humming quietly to myself as FastAlley hummed along.  It was truly a spiritual experience being out on the water all by myself with the warm sun in my face, the wind snapping in the sails and the water burbling over the hulls.  I was in heaven.  I realized after awhile that I was humming Amazing Grace so I tried to sing it but it is 40 years since I was in church and I had forgotten the words.  So I sang the words I remembered and hummed the lines I forgot and after about 6 repeats I found I had remembered all the words.  So there I was – speeding over the water and singing Amazing Grace at the top of my lungs!

I sailed around for about 5 hours and then turned for my marina.  There were whitecaps on the water and my wind meter registered wind gusts up to 18 knots.  I am not great at docking so, faced with docking singlehanded and in high winds, I chickened out.  I decided to drop anchor and wait for the wind to abate.  I picked a quiet spot, dropped anchor, set my iPhone timer for 2 hours, and lay down to doze.  When I awoke my batteries were topped up because the wind generator was howling.  So I checked the wind – still high gusts.  I made dinner and sat outside with a cup of coffee and watched the sun set.  Wind still gusting.  Eventually I crawled into bed and went to sleep.

I had a terrible nights sleep.  The wind generator would kick in, whirl crazily as it charged my batteries, then screech to a stop.  As I listened to the wind howl all night I was sure that come morning I was going to have to dock in high winds whether I wanted to or not, so I tossed and turned with trepidation.  It didn’t help that anchored in the the Bay is a roly-poly place to try and sleep with steep wave chop coming and going with the wind and tides.  Between the bouncing and the wind I was pretty groggy come Sunday morning.

I was up at 6:30am, had breakfast and looked out on a grey, overcast morning.  My wind generator was still roaring away in the wind but I decided that I couldn’t sit out in the Bay much longer.  By 8:00am I was sick of being bounced around by the chop, so I upped anchor and headed for the bouys marking the channel entrance to my marina.  By 9:00am, even as I turned into my channel, I still did not have the courage to dock my boat singlehanded.  I chickened out, grabbed my cell phone, and call Hank and Sandy in the slip opposite mine and asked them for help.  To my enormous relief, when I turned into the marina there they were waiting on the dock.   They grabbed my lines and tied me down.  I was home.  And FastAlley was safe.   I decided to treat myself to a power nap so I crawled under the covers and within short I was fast asleep.

The new mainsail is fantastic.  As is the new reefing system with its color coded lines.  And the new boomvang that Robin created.  And the Dutchman system that he fitted.  And the new brakes and rigging so that I can do everything from the safety of the cockpit.   FastAlley is a dream to sail now.

If your boat is not performing as it should, then you need Hood Sailmakers of Sausalito.  Tell Robin I sent you.

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