by Leslie Godfrey
This story takes us back to Spring, circa 2009. Beginning sailors, Andrew and I were still learning the art of sailing our 1976 O’Day 27, Windchime II in good conditions, let alone on blustery days. We had recently been caught in an unpredicted blow while cruising The Narrows of Lake Mead, Nevada. Unable to get the boat under control by sail, we turned on the motor and headed back in.
The best way I know to recover from a fall is to get back on the horse. My family came to visit not long thereafter and my Dad and sister suggested we head out to Lake Mead for a sail. "Sure, let's do it!" I say, forgetting our uncomfortable experience just a few weeks prior. We pack our trusty wheelie-cooler full of cocktails, then head out to the lake.
The wind is great. We are sailing in an easy fifteen knots, and we're all having fun dipping Winnie's rail in the water. Then, the weather pipes up, again. Downwind from the marina, we decide we should turn back. Rounding up into the wind to turn around, we find the wind too strong for both the main and the jib. Intimidated by the idea of reefing the main underway, we decide to take down the jib and try to sail under main alone.
During the process of dropping our foresail, there is much flapping and splashing. I'm on the helm. Andrew goes to the bow to yank the thing down. My sister is down below, too cold to stay on deck, and my Dad is ... let's just say he's judging.
Pretty soon we have things under control on a port tack, but we are running out of "sea room.” We need to change tacks to avoid the islands. "Ready about!" I call. I remind my Dad to keep his head down. There isn't much for Andrew to do because the main will tack on its own.
"Coming about!" I push the tiller across the cockpit and Windchime rounds up into the wind.
"Uuugghh!" I swear I can hear her grunt with effort. Then, her bow catches a gust and falls away unable to make the tack. I give Andrew the side-eye, trying to silently communicate: "That didn't work," without my Dad noticing. Andrew shrugs. My Dad isn't a sailor, but he isn't stupid either. It's pretty obvious we are still sailing toward the island that is in our way.
I wait, letting Windchime gain some speed and momentum again. I fall off the wind to give her more oomph, then say "One more time." I heave the tiller over hard, hoping to swing her through the wind faster this time. "Uuh..uhhh....uuuuggghhh." Rejected again. Windchime just can't get through the wind. I reach down and turn on the engine and smile. "No matter, we'll just give her a little extra oomph with the motor." We fall off, gain speed, attempt the tack again, and I give her some forward just as she comes through the wind.
As expected, the mainsail fills with wind from the other side, Windchime levels and then tips over to her other hip, and we start sailing the direction we want to go. I leave the engine in neutral until the next tack, then use the engine to cheat again. "See, Dad? It's all under control!" I don't say this, but I leave it hanging in the air. Fake it until you make it, people.
While Andrew boldly declared our mutual intention to go to sea a while ago, my Dad seemed to be ignoring him, assuming these to be the insane ramblings of youth. I suspect it was only the combination of my nerves of steel, big smile, and the fact that he never thought we would really go anywhere at sea that saved the Oddgodfreys from a Paternal Safety-At-Sea Intervention. Dad is pictured here on board for a much less blustery day on Lake Mead.
Two days later, we stand in our driveway waving as my parents and little sister drive away. As soon as they are out of earshot, I turn to Andrew and say, "Let's go back out to the sailboat." We hop in the car. "I have an idea." I say, as though this is the most brilliant plan ever hatched. I pause for effect. "Why aren't we reefing the mainsail and keeping the jib up? She needs power on her bow to get her around the tacks."
Back out at Lake Mead the wind is still up. We get Windchime successfully out of her slip and into open water. We put up the mainsail, stopping when it is only half way up. We tie down the series of little ropes called "reef points" used to tie the extra fluff of the sail together and keep it from catching wind. It makes the mainsail smaller, and therefore, less powerful. Now, we put up the little forward sail - the jib. I turn off the engine and sit in the cockpit with the tiller in my hands. Windchime builds speed: 5, 6, 7 knots. "Whhheeeeww!" I cheer, feeling pretty good. Winnie dips her rail in the water and flies. I'm feeling like a genius, until a gust of wind slams across the lake and into our sails. Windchime heels over harder, I pull the tiller harder, but she doesn't respond because she is tipped so far on her side that her rudder is no longer making purchase.
My stomach turns to a boulder, and my heart leaps to my throat. "Whoa, whoa!" Andrew says.
"Release the jib! Release the jib!" I say, asking Andrew to let out his sail. I grab the mainsail sheet. I yank it out of the cleat and let the wind take it out of my hand.
"zzzzzziiyyiiyyyippp!" The mainsail widens its stance on Winnie's deck, the sheet comes loose, Andrew releases his sail, and Windchime bobs upright. We lose all our speed, but now I don't feel like we are going to flip upside down. Andrew and I look at each other, and I grumble. Then, I really do hear Windchime. "It's okay. Let's try again."
"Windchime?" I ask.
"Yeah! Let's try again." She says. Her voice is soft and playful, but she's not mocking.
"Okay," I think. "If you're game..." She answers my thoughts, "I'm fine. All you have to do is balance my sails. You almost have it."
"Yeah, but the wind gusts!" I think.
"Right, I know. What if you keep the main sheet in your hand and just let it out a little bit when you feel a wind gust coming? I swear, it will work."
I tell Andrew Windchime says we should try again. He starts cranking in the jib to trim for speed. I tug the mainsail back into place and Windchime rocks onto her hip again. With just the right sail trim, the tiller is easy to hold. There is no yanking from the rudder one way or the other. I can almost let go and let Windchime sail herself. Balance.
But then, I can see it. A gust of wind is ripping across the lake, ruffling the water into a series of white capped ridges. "Puff coming!" Andrew says, getting ready to take the jib off. "No!" I say, "Leave it. I'll let off the main." Andrew seems uncertain, but he can always throw his line off if we are feeling too tipsy again. As the gust approaches, I click the mainsail sheet out of its cleat and hold tension. The gust hits us and Windchime starts to lean.
"There, now, let out just a liiittttllee bit..." Windchime whispers in my ear as I let a few inches of line slide across my gloved palm. I pull the tiller toward me, gently. Windchime stays balanced. The gust goes past us, and she rolls off her hip to sit like a duck in the water. We lose speed. "Now, tighten back in." She says. I pull the mainsail back in the few inches I released. We resume speed and tip toward her comfortable heel. "Great! See? Now, next time as the puff leaves, draw my mainsail back in. Don't wait until we slow down and go flat," Windchime tells me.
“That makes sense, I think. I can't wait for the next gust to try it again. We sail and sail, building up speed. 5, 6, 7… Andrew has his handheld GPS out and now he's counting off our speed. Another gust comes. "Let's see if we can break 8!" I exclaim. Windchime and I work together. As the puff hits, I let a little mainsail off and we fly! Comfortably. We don't feel like we are tipping over. We don't get waves washing over her deck. She remains balanced right on that edge where the water rushes just below her toe rail, with white foam and clear gurgles.
"EIGHT POINT TWO!" Andrew calls out.
"WHOOOHOOOOO!" Windchime and I cheer in unison. The puff stays with us for a few seconds and then starts to pressure off. I pull the main sail back in and Windchime stays on her edge, keeps her speed. It's like she and I are dancing together.
I'll let her take the lead.
Leslie Godfrey and her husband Andrew, residents of Henderson, Nevada, learned to sail on Lake Mead on their 1976 O’Day 27, Windchime II. They are now sailing the waters of Indonesia, 15,000 miles and two years into their first bid to circumnavigate in their Valiant 40, Sonrisa. Follow their journey at www.oddgodfrey.com and join us at the Whitney Library on April 9, 2018 for a presentation and Q&A regarding their experiences at sea.