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All hands on deck to tame the main

2022 October 1

Kudos to the crew.

They were stellar in this year’s Chicago Mackinac Race. In fact, they were stellar before the race started. 

They managed to be alert and engaged as I delivered a homily they had heard so many times they could probably repeat it verbatim.

This was my pre-race safety briefing, a ritual that may not be strictly necessary but has the cachet of seeming so much the right thing to do that it would tempt fate to avoid it.

So I told the experienced offshore sailors assembled in the cockpit what they already knew about the switches to instantly display the GPS location of an MOB event on various instruments, the Dan Buoy that when thrown overboard provides flotation, a strobe light and drogue, the Lifesling, the throw-rope and the tethers available to attach to the automatic-inflating Spinlock PFDs fitted with AIS personal locator beacons. 

The only new wrinkle in this presentation was my concluding comment that what I said about personal safety might prove to be particularly relevant in the race we were about to start.

As I said that I was eyeing the blaze-orange sailbags that had appeared on the decks of the two TP52s docked beside us. They contained storm jibs, the bulletproof survival sails that are required by race rules but almost never leave the below-deck crannies where they live.

The appearance of the storm sails added an exclamation point to forecasts that the fleet would have to sail through an enormous expanse of fierce weather.

There was no doubt about this. Every weather model, GRIB file, analysis by professional race-routers, NOAA forecast, weather app and even TV weather prognosticators agreed: It was going to be big and bad.

And it was—because it turned out to be a mesoscale convective system, a meteorological mouthful (abbreviated as MCS) that describes a phenomenon in which numerous thunderstorms coalesce into a huge organized mass that multiplies their power. 

This beast roared across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin and after dark launched itself over a wide swath of the race course with gust fronts, roll clouds, lightning, downpours of biblical volume and wind that the National Weather Service said reached 55 knots.

Squalls spawned by weather systems crossing Lake Michigan are common in the race to Mackinac Island. They can be nasty, but not 55-knots-nasty, and they are usually short-lived. They are often preceded by exhilarating downwind sailing, and I confess that I have succumbed a few times to the temptation to carry the spinnaker into their dark maws (and paid a price collected by sailmakers).

No such foolishness crossed anyone’s mind as the MCS bore down on us. Our weather radar display confirmed what the forecasts had warned of. The yellow, red and purple mass speeding down its predicted track covered thousands of square miles and was followed by a clone of equal size. It would be a long night.

The approach of a dark mass, covering the last vestiges of twilight in the west and pocked by distant lightning flashes, was the signal to replace the spinnaker with the small but stout J4 headsail that had been waiting on deck. The next step, reefing the mainsail, gained instant urgency when the wind suddenly shifted forward of the beam—a sure harbinger of the imminent gust front.  

I thought at the time that going to the small jib and reefed main was a prudent, conservative move. This proved to be a serious underestimation of the power of mesoscale convection, which was forcefully corrected when the first blast hit.

Showing utter contempt for our naive preparation efforts, the storm sent us off on a fraught ride in the wrong direction while methodically flogging the mainsail toward certain death and, with its extreme torquing of the rig, threatening the same fate for the mast. The mainsail had to come down.

Ponder this for a moment. When the mainsail is out of its mast groove, it is attached to the boat only at the tack and clew. In this adventure, that meant that 750 square feet of molded, layered material with the consistency of linoleum would be wielded as a potentially deck-clearing weapon by a 40 to 50-knot wind. What to do? You roll it up.

Easier said than done, but the crew managed it. (I told you they were stellar.) After a tussle pulling the sail down, seven men and women from the crew of 12 set to work controlling it by rolling it.

I observed the drama from the helm. The sailors, arrayed shoulder to shoulder along the windward side of the boom, tethered to the jackline behind them, were bulky, indistinct forms in their black foul-weather gear and PFDs, but visible in the lightning flashes that reflected off of their fluorescent yellow hoods as they labored in wind-driven horizontal rain and wave spray. 

The scene recalled images in art and grainy photographs in square-rigger sailing literature of Jack Tars clinging to a yard in a Southern Ocean storm as they fought to furl thick, stiff sails.

With the mainsail roll secured to the boom and a small decrease in wind velocity, the boat showed its appreciation by sailing fairly close to the course at good speed under its single sail. The crew had time to recover before the next MCS cluster arrived. We knew exactly what to do then. Roll up the mainsail—again. 

The MCS eventually ended its too-long stay, the battered but only slightly torn mainsail was unrolled and raised, and we finished the race in good form, wiser in the ways of extreme weather and mainsails.

I might mention emergency mainsail handling in next year’s safety briefing. I’m sure the crew will be politely attentive, even though they wrote the book on that subject.