July 10, 2017 Race practice and boat improvement notes

No race today to allow boats to participate in Whidbey Island Race Week.
We were not part of the race week so a few of us got together to do some practice.

Crew: Ben L, John P, Keith H
Winds: N 15-20 knots

Winds had been light and from the south all day. Right before the normal race time they switched from the north and started blowing hard. The West Point buoy registered 15 knot winds when we went out, when we were coming in it registered 18 with bigger gusts. We had waves rolling in from the north  that we were slamming into on an upwind starboard tack. Wave heights are harder to estimate but I think they were about six foot waves.

I had intended on giving us a legitimate course to follow but the high winds and pounding seas altered that plan. Instead we took the time to do an equipment shakedown test. I have not had Billabong out in these conditions before and it was a great opportunity to poke around the boat while John helmed, and helmed us very well. Throughout all maneuvers John kept the boat steady and charging through the water.

We put up a full main and the 140% genoa on a starboard tack, which put us bow first into the waves. Billabong was furiously pounding through the swells. Anything not held down in the cabin was quickly on the floor. After getting everything up and trimmed for the conditions I sat back to look at the rigging. The leeward side was slack, not something usually too concerning, but in this case both the inner and outer stays were swinging wildly. I crawled up the deck to look at the mast and from the side it looked like a noodle. The baby-stay, which I understood to be critical in heavy winds, flopped around like it was not connected. From the bow looking back the top of the mast flopped from side to side with each wave we pounded through. This was not good! The stress on the mast alone was intolerable. Too much more and I was afraid she was going to give way and snap in half. I crawled back to the cockpit to confer with John, we needed to reef, now.

We pulled the headsail in till it was about a 110% and moved the sheet cars forward to compensate. John said the helm instantly felt better. The mast was still pumping some but not nearly as much as before. We held that configuration for a bit and as I was adjusting the leeward genoa car my feet (which were on the toe rail) went into the water a couple times. We needed to reef the main as well.

Reefing a main can be an interesting proposition, especially in higher winds. The old adage many sailors live by says, “Reef early and often.” What that means is when the weather looks like it may get rough you set the sails before it gets to you. This makes the boat safer and more comfortable. We now had the prospect of reefing a big mainsail in winds around 20 knots. Luckily one of the previous owners rigged Billabong with a mainsail reefing system that can be operated from the cockpit. Unluckily I took out one of those reefing lines to install a vang line.

Reefing Billabong requires the handling of three lines: main halyard, fore reefing line, aft reefing line. The main halyard and the fore reefing line are controlled from the cockpit, however the fore reefing line has a hook on it that needs to run through an eye on the front of the main. I went forward and put the hook in place and we were able to pull the front of the sail down. That accomplished I again had to go forward to the mast to pull down the aft reefing line, which runs through the boom and comes out the front into its own jam cleat.This was the line that was previously run to the cockpit. It sure would have been easier to have it back there on a winch.

The boat stabilized and even sped up. It is amazing how reefing, which is the process of making the sails smaller, can actually make the boat go faster in bigger winds. Ultimately it comes down to boat control. With all the sail up we struggled to maintain control of the boat as the same speeds. With the sails reefed the boat again ran comfortably and we had control. Ironically, through this entire endeavor we had a Coast Guard rescue helicopter circling us waiting to assist if we got into too much trouble.

The sail was a great learning experience. Keith is a new sailor and got to experience managing a boat in trying conditions while John and I who are both experienced in those conditions got to learn about Billabong herself. Afterwards we went to Sloop Tavern for a beer and a recap. Here is the list we came up with:

  • The rig could really use some work. We could have held more sail but the looseness of the rig made it sloppy and dangerous. The forestay is so slack it looked like the genoa was curved.
  • Need to setup a backstay tensioner. This would help with flattening the headsail going upwind quite a bit. After a good tuning of course.
  • Till the rig is tuned we need to reef at 15 knots of wind.
  • Static topping lifts suck – We knew that but it really worked against us in high wind. Billabong needs a rigid strut to hold the boom up. If we continue to use the topping lift maybe we need to tap the spare (I think) line in the boom to make it somewhat adjustable.
  • We might be able to convert the two reefing lines into a single reefing line by using the aft line and running it through the fore reefing point eye. To control this from the cockpit we still would need another clutch on the cabin top.
  • The furler drum needs maintenance. It is not spinning as well as it should.
  • The battery box in the engine compartment came loose during the pounding. We need a better way to secure it.
  • The raw water pump belt may need to be replaced. It was not spinning when we started the motor.
  • And perhaps most concerning, the rudder post is leaking. Normally not noticeable, when the rudder is being worked hard water splurts out of it. I am hoping all that is needed is for the packing to be changed. This should probably be done with the boat out of the water though.

Overall a great learning experience. Even though conditions could have caused us some serious problems we recognized and compensated for them quickly. Everyone on board stayed calm, focused on what needed to be done and we all had life jackets on. We now know some strengths and weaknesses to address in the boat too.

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