Monday, April 7, 2008

Just a Great Day

The ocean surface was alive with fish, birds and dolphins last Friday as a couple of crewmembers for the upcoming Newport to Ensenada race and I made an outboard engine endurance run to Avalon. Getting back from Ensenada later this month is going to require upwards of 25 hours of motorsailing. I wanted to assure myself--and my crew--that the engine was properly fixed after being trolled through the waves for a half-hour last month.

Our motorsail to Avalon was flawless. It was even better than that because we were treated to special sights that seem to happen mostly in the spring.

The run began under low clouds and a temperature barely into the 50s, but with dry decks as we left the slip at 8:00 a.m. We weren't far beyond the Long Beach outer harbor breakwater when large boils of bait-sized fish began erupting on the glassy sea all around us. Some were dozens of feet across and one or two may have been a half-acre in size. Larger predators below were probably driving these small fish to the surface in frantic efforts to survive. As we watched, squadrons of sea birds homed in to get their share from above.

As that spectacle ended, another began. A pod of dolphins leaped into view through the waves and soon groups were surfing our bow wave on either side of the boat, stacked one above another as well as side by side. They looked a little larger than us, perhaps six to eight feet long. Many had long scars on their backs from other encounters with something hard. Occasionally one would hit the side of the hull with a bang and veer away.

My experience has been that such encounters are rare and that they don't last very long. So I watched from amidships while my mates, Hobby and Nate, went to the bow for a better view.

After awhile I remembered that I had a camcorder in the cabin and I went to get it, hoping that I would still be able to get a little video. I need not have worried. The first group probably stayed with us for seven or eight minutes before getting bored.

Then, which has never happened to me before, we soon came across another large pod and they altered course to come take up escort positions at the bow. They stayed about as long as the first group and were replaced later by yet another group of dolphins. By this time I had taken up station at the bow and was so fascinated watching them that sometimes I forgot to press the record button. Still, I ended up with a lot of video.

After perhaps a half hour, all the dolphins were behind us and we retreated to the cockpit, seeking the protection of the new dodger and letting the autopilot handle the tiller duties. We talked about how cold it was and how much colder it will be on the overnight Ensenada Race, and the overnight motorsail back to San Diego afterwards.

The gray sky and gray sea merged into a seamless dome of gray that surrounded us. About 15 miles out from Avalon, Nate said he could see the east end of Catalina Island. But I couldn't, and he wasn't quite as sure that he had seen it. In another mile or so, however, it was clearly visible. At 10 miles out we were proclaiming that we could see the landmark round Casino building. Or maybe it was the condos spilling down the hillside above Hamilton Cove.

Originally we talked about trying to get a mooring in Avalon for a couple hours and take the shoreboat to town for lunch. But Nate had another idea: if I'd get him back home by 7:00 p.m., I could join him and Barbara for dinner out that evening.

Thus it was that at about 12:30 p.m. we were within a mile or two of Avalon, the wind was calm and the seas were smooth. So we stopped the engine and retreated to the warmth of the cabin for lunch while letting the boat drift as it wished. Amid sandwiches, chips, onion dip and chocolate chip cookies, we made periodic checks for traffic, and noted that the boat made at least two lazy 360-degree turns under the lifeless main sail. It was once again pointed at Avalon when we returned to the cockpit.

With no discernible wind, it was a perfect setting for doing an inaugural test of my new light-wind sail, a "windseeker".

Hobby and Nate were part of my Ensenada Race crew two years ago when we sailed only four miles in the first four hours after the start and I decided to drop out and motored us back to Long Beach.

With that embarrassing performance in mind, I talked to sailmaker Harry Pattison this January about how to improve my performance "if I could buy just one new sail".

He recommended the windseeker, which is made of 3/4 ounce spinnaker nylon, but is shaped like a jib, not a spinnaker. It is red, orange, yellow and blue in a pattern that I chose, so it certainly dresses up my boat, which does not have a spinnaker or the gear to fly one.

The windseeker comes stuffed in a bag with a snap shackle fastened on the bottom, which is actually the tack point for the sail. It clips onto a shackle attached on the bow just behind my jib furling drum. The luff of the sail contains a cord that serves as the sail's own forestay when it is hoisted on a spare halyard.

The colorful sail instantly proved its worth. With no apparent breeze it quickly got the boat moving at three knots and we head back for Long Beach.

Our timing was perfect. Within five minutes there was enough wind to roll out the working jib on the furler and retrieve the windseeker. We were up to five knots right away as the afternoon seabreeze began building from the southwest. By the time we were half way back across the San Pedro Channel, we were consistently in the 6-6.5 knot range and the sun was shining. It was still hazy and cold, but it was a wonderful sail home. We made it in about four hours, which gave us a lot of anticipation of a great performance in this year's Ensenada Race.

It's been a windy winter and spring this year. I'm telling myself that it's time for another windy Ensenada Race, since the last two were light wind drifters.

1 comment:

WeSailFurther said...

This is a very cool blog. I just discovered it (I'm rebuilding an engine, or trying not to, actually) with a google search.

I'm'na link to yours asap...