During my 11-½ day epic offshore sailing voyage of over 1,700 miles, I began to gauge my performance as crew on whether it woke skipper Matt Rutherford from sleep on his 5-hour off watch. Some days and nights, he did not wake once. Those were the easy watches, when little was happening and the wind conditions were stable. As the passage wore on, I felt greater confidence in my ability to make the right decisions when things did change. Increasingly, I found myself thinking I should change something, and as I was thinking it, Matt directed me to that very thing. This stoked my ego a bit, until the night of the speed demon.
I was enjoying solitude and the splendor of waves lit by the waxing moon, perhaps an hour into the late night start of my 5-hour watch, when the speed demon struck. It was near the end of Day 8 of the Hunter 38 delivery voyage. The skipper woke within minutes.
Before he had gone to bed, Matt told me that the wind was likely to come back, probably off the stern quarter, and if so, I should set the sails. As usual, he had been right. As the breeze came in, I put the Hunter 38 under full sail on a broad reach, a point of sail that seems best for Hunters. There was none of the severe heading up into the wind that we had found with a beam reach.
I was sitting on the starboard bench seat, legs outboard, feet against the lifelines, an expression of glee on my face. “Making the boat sing,” I had just said to myself, clapping quietly. I felt my skipper looking at me, and turned to see him standing on the companionway ladder. “Hello,” I said. “It’s a magical night!”
Matt went to the helm to check our speed. “Eight-point-one,” he said. “We need to slow down. No more than six point five,” he instructed, and then he went back below, knowing that I knew what to do, that he could trust me to do what he said, and leaving the work to me.
Without delay, I moved from the bench seat to the forward part of the cockpit, adjusting lines and line clutches in order to reef the jib and main. Being that the main is mast reefed–rolling inside the mast for storage–it takes a lot of “grinding,” or cranking on a winch handle, to bring it in. This always felt like a workout to me, but by then my muscles had become more used to it. I smiled to myself as I thought “this is one of Matt’s ‘that’ll learn ya’ lessons from the ‘figure it out yourself’ skipper.” After all, it was my watch- and my actions that made the work necessary.
When Matt was back on watch in the morning, I said, “I apologize for that speed demon thing last night. I honestly did not notice the boat speed was so high, but that was partly because I was too absorbed with enjoying it.”
“You just develop a sense for the boat…after about 100 days,” he said, noting that he “would not have been able to go back to sleep” with the boat going that fast. I wanted to know why.
“Part of the reason I didn’t notice the speed was that, unlike at higher speeds before, the boat was not rounding up like it did on a beam reach,” I explained. “Would you please tell me why the speed was a problem, since the boat was under control? Because I have trouble with the concept of ‘too fast.’”
The skipper explained that surpassing hull speed, when not surfing swells, could damage the rig by straining it beyond its capability. “I never push a boat beyond about 80% of its ability, and that’s why I have all these safe deliveries. Others think they are in some kind of race and they push the boat too hard.” I understood. First, a delivery captain does not want to break his or her customer’s boat. Secondly, if even a small part of the rig gave way, it could make for dismasting, which would be a disaster, especially on the high seas.
I learned my lesson, and was sure it would be invaluable at some point in my sailing future. No more speed demons for me.