Finding Time On The Water

Time. As normal guys with day jobs and families, we seem to have so little of it, let alone time to dedicate to our sailing goals.  

These days, my time is consumed by work and family.  However, with the benefit of a boat that can be sailed with a crew of one, and with the benefit of an amazing wife who understands my sailing goals, I can get time on the water at any hour, including at night after my kids have gone to sleep. 

So this past Wednesday night, I headed north out of NYC for a little solo quality time aboard Abilyn.  My goal was to test new settings on the autopilot and practice some basic boat handling skills, including throwing up the big kite. With steady breeze out of the east at 9-12 knots, conditions were optimal. 

I got out to the boat around 1930.  After our last race experience getting caught unprepared in a 40-knot squall, I now rig the boat each time with my genoa reefing line, and at least two reefing points ready to go on the main, which requires a little more time on the mooring ball--I like to be ready before I cast off.  Too often have my co-skipper and I been handling setup on the way out of the harbor or out to the start line.  This works for some, but not me.  I cast off around 2015 and started beating SE past the Larchmont YC breakwater, and past the RC picking up marks following a night of Ideal 18 fleet racing. 

Shortly after setting the sails to balance the boat, I hooked up the Raymarine autopilot, which has been nothing but wonky since I got her "working" again last season.  As the AP struggled to hold a compass course, I set up the iPad to display my instrument and GPS data, which is accomplished by the DMK box that I recently installed (below).  This device--manufactured by DMK Yacht Instruments in Seattle--takes our NMEA 0183, NMEA 2000, GPS, and AIS data, and transmits those data to our iPad an iPhone via a local WiFi network.  It's glorious in that it opens up our data in ways found mainly on bigger race boats--like the Swan 56 on which I'm hitching a ride in the upcoming Newport-Bermuda race.

DMK Box mounted to instrument panel.

DMK Box mounted to instrument panel.

After some time playing around with the AP, she managed to hold an upwind course fairly well, although I kept my eye on her with the expectation she'd go wayward at any second. 

Night mission:  AP testing & boat handling

Dusk turned to nightfall as I made my way east past the bright lights of Rye Playland in steady breeze and a bit of chop.  I worked on optimizing main and jib trim and keep the boat up to speed through waves.  After throwing in a couple of tacks--one good and one not so good (see the linked video)--I contemplated my downwind sail back to Larchmont with hopes of setting the big kite and getting a quick sleigh ride home.

Two thoughts made me to hesitate on setting the big kite.  First, I didn't know how long my AP would give me on the bow to hook up the kite before she decided to do her own thing.  Second, there was very little ambient light and I forgot I had lost my Petzl headlamp overboard in Around Block a couple of weeks ago aboard the Swan 56, King Daddy.  But whatever, conditions were mild and this was practice.

So I set the AP while sailing 160 TWA, grabbed the kite, and went forward to hook it up.  Just as I hooked up the corners with our Equip-Lite shackles supplied by West Marine Rigging, the AP went wonky again and nearly gybed me over.  I quickly recalibrated and reset the AP, then went for the hoist. All went up cleanly despite poor visibility at deck level.  But, by now, I was approaching the Connecticut coast--R42 was half a mile away and I was doing 7 knots in 9 knots of breeze.  I needed to gybe.

So I started down the 30-step protocol that I outlined in an earlier post.  After setting up the position of the articulating pole, it was time to trim the new working spin sheet and bring the clew patch around.  Snag. Let's try one more time.  Snag.  

Damn, I didn't clear the lazy spin sheet after I dropped the jib.  Given my proximity to land, I decided to douse the kite, which turned out to be an interesting task without having the AP engaged.  Other than getting the tack and clew a little wet, all went smoothly and I turned towards home. By this time, it was 2230, and I had one final challenge--de-rigging and calling for a launch by midnight, lest I wanted to spend the chilly night on the boat until 0700 when launch service resumed.  Long story short, I had one of the most epic, solo, de-rigging experiences ever--on par with the bishops's epic golf game in Caddyshack.  

This practice re-emphasized for me how critical time is to the success of our sailing program.  Being on the water practicing basic sailing maneuvers is essential to locking into muscle memory routine tasks like being CLEAR to do anything.  In my case last Wednesday, this meant being clear to gybe.  I can't simply call up to the phantom bowman to clear the line.  Also, I need to put in more time building my relationship with my autopilot.  I'll never be able settle in for a quick nap offshore if I can't trust my AP to hold a course for more than a couple minutes.  It's just not possible.  The idea of going solo offshore without a trustworthy AP frankly seems ludicrous to me.  

Alright, I'm headed to couples therapy with my AP.  

See you out on the water.

Practice Preview - The Gybe

The main focus of our upcoming season of coastal racing and training will be to master every sailing maneuver we may be called upon to perform offshore.  On top of this list is the gybe because, in any breeze, a bad gybe burns not only boat lengths, but precious time and energy, and has the potential in a blow to bring down the rig.  When we do gybe, we need to be able to stick it every single time.  

The gybe aboard Abilyn involves much more than changing the direction of the boat by turning the stern into the wind.  When broken down into its component parts and taking into account the articulating spinnaker pole and runners, the gybe aboard Abilyn involves a protocol of 30 individual steps designed to minimize movement across the nearly 10-foot-wide cockpit.  

Abilyn (USA 829) preparing to gybe.

Listed below is each step in our standard protocol, which we created based on our experience aboard Abilyn as well as the invaluable guidance provided by Single-Handed Transpac sailor Jerome Sammarcelli and Mini Transat sailor Lucas Schroder.  Both my co-skipper and I must be able to perform the entire protocol alone.  When sailing double-handed, the driver handles only the steering and runners.

Stay tuned later in the season for some sweet video footage.  Soundtrack to be determined.  Lately, I've been feeling dubstep.  

The Abilyn Gybe Protocol

  1. fall off to about 160-165 TWA
  2. trim main traveler so that boom is inside lifeline (main is usually trimmed downwind with mainsheet to control leech tension and traveler eased to leeward)
  3. lock main traveler control in weather cam cleat
  4. load working afterguy on winch drum
  5. open working afterguy clutch to "open" position
  6. ease working afterguy so that pole articulates leeward (to centerline)
  7. close working afterguy clutch
  8. remove working afterguy from winch drum
  9. load non-working (lazy) spin sheet onto weather winch drum (2 wraps)
  10. go low to trim lazy afterguy to hand-tight load (necessary so that, following the gybe, the pole stays on centerline and does not drop to leeward)
  11. trim in slack on lazy runner
  12. remove lazy main traveler control from cam cleat
  13. return to high side and ease working spin sheet to de-power kite
  14. ease off completely the working runner fine-tune control
  15. trim lazy spin sheet to bring clew patch around forestay
  16. when clew patch is around the forestay, turn boat
  17. while turning the boat, and with hand on the new working spin sheet, trim the lazy runner so that it trims the boom across centerline to new leeward side where it rests against old working runner
  18. continue to turn boat while trimming new working spin sheet, making sure to maintain control of the new lazy spin sheet
  19. head up to 140 TWA to help spinnaker pass through fore-triangle
  20. fall off when spinnaker has been fully gybed
  21. lock working spin sheet in weather cam cleat in cross-sheeting configuration
  22. add fine tune to new working runner
  23. go low, open up the runner macro clutch, and ease lazy runner, which will allow the boom to drop to leeward (given that we've opened up the traveler early in the protocol)
  24. open clutch on new lazy afterguy
  25. go back to high side, and load new working afterguy on weather winch drum
  26. open new working afterguy clutch to "lock open" position
  27. insert winch handle, ease kite, and winch in new working afterguy to bring pole approximately 10 degrees to weather of centerline
  28. remove winch handle from drum, close new working afterguy clutch, and remove working afterguy from winch drum
  29. go low and close new lazy afterguy clutch.
  30. trim kite and sail on!

See you out on the water.

My most memorable sailing moment...ever. Surprise, it was on a Mini.

Abilyn is an amazingly fun boat, not simply because she screams off the breeze in a blow (literally), but because she is highly technical, and responsive.  When you do something wrong, she doesn't just tell you, she slaps you in the face.  But, when you do something right, she rewards you by reaching deep into your brain, and pressing the endorphin-release valve.  The feeling of accomplishment, even in a simple maneuver, leads to a feeling of being connected to the boat that can be described only as sublime.  Although some sailors, most notably Bouwe Bekking, skipper of the Brunel entry in the upcoming Volvo Ocean Race, believe that sailors should "never get attached" to their boats, it's hard not to with a Pogo 2 like Abilyn

Sailing Abilyn last season produced many "hell yeah" moments, but there's one that sticks out as my most memorable sailing moment...ever...on any boat.  It was a Wednesday in July.  After working from home that day (and putting out fire after fire), I "cat sixed" my Giant Rapid 0 road bike (nicknamed "Suzy") five miles from my home in Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal.  The plan was to take Metro North up to Larchmont for an evening practice aboard Abilyn.  I arrived at GCT at 1630 only to be turned away.  Apparently, bikes are not allowed on northbound trains out of NYC from 1500-1900 during the week regardless of how crowded the trains are.  

Rather than head home,  I just biked up to Larchmont--an additional 20 miles through Manhattan, the Bronx, and Pelham Bay Park (NYC's largest park property).  After about an hour and 20 minutes, with legs burning, I arrived at the boat, thinking how the heck was I going to sail that night since I could hardly walk at this point; I'm not a long-distance cyclist.  I made the decision to HTFU because, up until that point, my gybes aboard Abilyn had been absolutely abysmal.  I needed to practice.  I needed time on the water to overcome this learning curve.

Jerome Sammarcelli aboard Pogo 2 USA 806.  Pole retracted.

Jerome Sammarcelli aboard Pogo 2 USA 806.  Pole articulated forward and to weather.

The learning curve for being able to sail a Mini 6.50 at all is extremely high.  To give you a sense of the complexity of sailing this boat, the protocol for gybing Abilyn's oversize kite involves a 30-step process. Abilyn's asym is flown on an eight-foot articulating sprit pole controlled laterally by two afterguys, and controlled vertically by an adjustable bobstay.  To fly the kite, the pole is articulated by a line led from the cockpit to a lever on the inboard end of the pole, which articulates the pole 170 degrees from a resting position on the lifelines  (see top photo) to a reaching position about 10 degrees to weather of centerline (see below photo).  The boat also has runners, which must be gybed along with the asym and mainsail.  In certain conditions, the runners are essential to ensuring that the mast doesn't snap clean off.

During our early practices in June 2013 after the we commissioned the boat at McMichael's Yacht Yard, my co-skipper Sam picked up gybing the asym fairly quickly, which is a testament to his lifetime of sailing experience, and achievements in the International 420 class.  However, my inability to catch on as a fast as Sam was quickly sending me into a spiraling vortex of doubt about buying this boat, and whether I would ever be able to sail her effectively.  I had to remind myself that picking up a new activity--including sailing a new boat--sometimes involves a long period of "suck-assedness."  Yes, that's how I will describe this period.

I had no expectations for that Wednesday night in July.  My plan was to head out alone (for the first time), put the sails up, and see what I could do.  After letting my body process the lactic acid that had built up in my legs, I hoisted the big fathead main and 140% jib and headed out of Larchmont Harbor with a warm, 10-12 knot breeze out of the west.  Despite the favorable conditions, nobody was out on the water.  Abilyn and I were alone on the dance floor.  We reached over to Manhasset Bay, turned downwind and set the kite to port.  

After settling in, I began the gybing process for 10-15 knot conditions.  Maintain a course of 150 degrees TWA.  Ease the weather afterguy to bring the pole to center.  Take up slack on the lazy runner.  Trim the spinsheet to bring the clew patch around the forestay.  Turn the boat.  Keep trimming that spin sheet.  Tension the lazy runner to kick the main over.  Exit the gybe at 140 TWA.  Don't head up too high.  Release the old runner to let the main fall to leeward.  Fall off.  Trim the afterguy to bring the pole to its new weather position.  

When the kite gybed cleanly, frankly I was astounded.  I looked around to see if anybody saw it, just like Tom Hanks looked around to see if anybody had seen him make fire.  Maybe it was an accident.  So I gybed again.  And again.  And again.  Sailing across Long Island Sound that night, I gybed maybe 10 times back to back.  They were all clean.  I was awash with a wave of relief, and excitement for the future.  You could see the grin on my face all the way back in NYC.  

It was 2130 at this point.  I doused the kite, hoisted the jib, and sailed upwind back to Larchmont Harbor.

I have many fond sailing memories.  Blast reaching SE from Newport to Bermuda across the Gulf Stream in 30 knots of breeze, and sailing with my wife and daughters in the BVI are two unforgettable memories.  But what made that Wednesday night aboard Abilyn my most memorable sailing moment ever is that it was a breakthrough moment in an extremely challenging endeavor to learn such a technical boat.  With all do respect to Mr. Bekking, Abilyn is not "just a tool".  She is a living, breathing being, and she understands my ambitions as a sailor.

Abilyn spoke to me that night.  She let me know that I have what it takes to sail this boat.  Or maybe she was rewarding me for biking 25 miles just to come play with her.  Only time will tell.

See you out on the water.