Reefer madness

Sam Llewellyn battles with gusts on-board open yawl, Lucille.

A small boat is sailing along a foggy stretch of water.

The wind was from the west northwest, plenty of it, funnelling and wildly unpredictable. We were three boats, singlehanded, beating down a long channel oriented north and south between two mountainous islands. I had the open yawl Lucille, and she was going like a train, big bow wave roaring down her lee side, big cream mainsail a sweet and lovely curve, jib and mizzen doing their stuff - 

A black gust shot over the water. It arrived, bang. Lucille heeled. I dumped the mainsheet. As I hauled it in again I noticed that both the other boats were a hundred yards apart, each hard on its separate wind, both on the starboard tack, and thanks to the weird wind-eddies to which this channel is subject they seemed about to collide head-on. This was getting silly. Perhaps it was time to take a reef or two. 

According to the maxims of the great ocean sailor Stokey Woodall, when you think it might be time to take a reef it is definitely time to take a reef. But here came another gust over the water, and it blew Stokey's wise words right out of my head, because I was busy dumping the mainsheet again. Then suddenly lo, the world was flat calm. I had, I concluded, reached the place in the channel where the two winds met, cancelling each other out. I looked round at the other boats. They were well astern, heeled forty degrees. I was all right, here, though. Perhaps the reef could be left for another ten minutes or so –

There was a roar. The mirror-smooth sea to  windward was suddenly black and frizzled. Bang, came the gust. I luffed, and the mainsail billowed back, and I thought, all right. Then the gust spun on its heel, veering, and suddenly the mainsail was not luffing but drawing, and we were over canvassed on a beam reach with the sails all pegged in. Suddenly I found myself standing on the centreboard case, and green water was pouring in over the lee gunwale. 

For about a second, and probably twenty gallons, I was paralysed. Then I found the presence of mind to dump the mainsail. But not all the way, because Lucille has a seat running round the side, and if you can keep some of the water as a lake on the seat it will drain away; though the hole through which it drains is a small one, so it is necessary to keep the boat heeled, steeply but not too steeply, for the minute or so it takes for the lake to becomes a puddle and vanish. 

So I played the mainsheet, keeping her heeled while the water drained away, deafened by my own heartbeat. Finally the water had gone, leaving us afloat, and the right way up, but with the floorboards awash and the mainsail trying to flog its cringles out.

I got up. I hooked the bungy on to the tiller and walked forward. I rolled up the jib and dropped the main. The mizzen kept us head to wind while I stowed the mainsail, neatly, to atone for the wildness that had gone before. Then I unrolled the jib, sheeted in, and started pumping, apologising with each stroke to the boat and Stokey and the reefing gods for not having done it earlier.

Without the mainsail Lucille surged along, elegantly but not steeply heeled, just as fast as with that great brute of a main hammering her over. Shortly afterwards we were rafted up in the sheltered bay at the channel's southern end to share tales of heroism and heartbreak, and (more importantly) make a cup of tea.  

Sam Llewellyn, Editor or The Marine Quarterly