Thursday, March 3, 2011

A close call with the boom

The snow may be falling and the wind howling as PEI is hit with yet another winter storm, but I am clinging to the knowledge it is now March and one month closer to when Obsession will be launched for another sailing season. This season no one will have to remind me to rig a preventer when we are on a downwind run. Getting hit with an accidental gybe tends to remind one of the dangers.

I am always worrying about someone being hit by the boom. The boom is rather low on Obsession, and if one is standing forward of the wheel there is a real danger of being hit by the boom as we tack or gybe. When we have guests aboard, I harp on being careful of the boom so much I sound like a broken record. So, it was a bit ironic last summer that I was the one who was nailed by an accidental gybe. It happened during our trip to the Bras D'Or Lakes.

The Bras D'Or Lakes in Cape Breton have quickly become a favourite cruising destination for us in the summer as the area offers beautiful, secluded anchorages and good sailing. Last summer we spent two weeks in the Lakes. Midway through our trip we pulled into Baddeck to pick up some supplies. With the forecast for the following day calling for 30 to 50 knots of wind gusts in the channels and heavy rain, we stayed put for an extra day. We spent our bonus day in Baddeck watching movies, working on our laptops, chatting with other cruisers, doing laundry between downpours of rain, and exploring the shopping and restaurants of downtown Baddeck.

The following day the wind had died down and the sun was struggling to break through the clouds. A quick check of the weather forecast and the radar showed a chance of showers, but winds in the more reasonable 15-20 knot range. We left Baddeck headed for Orangedale. There was a good breeze, about 10-12 knots, and a mix of sun and cloud overhead.

We headed for the bridge at Iona, under full sail and on a broad reach. Sailing along at a good clip, we were enjoying the sail and making plans for our anchorage that later that afternoon in Orangedale. However, we were keeping a close eye on the clouds and weather as rain had been forecast and we were concerned that wind might accompany a rain shower. The deep narrow channels can sometimes do a good job of funnelling the wind in strong gusts and we wanted to be prepared.

As we made our way towards Iona, the wind did start to pick up and we could see a squall line approaching up the channel behind us. We reduced sail by furling in the jib and I stayed on the helm while Jay went below to make an early lunch. The weather quickly cooled as the squall approached. The sky darkened and I pushed my sunglasses up on my forehead to better see. A few drops of rain started splattered the cockpit and I quickly thrust the cockpit cushions down the companionway to keep them dry.

The wind shifted slightly and we were now edging even further into a downwind run. I adjusted the mainsheet accordingly. The sun was now completely hidden and the wind and light rain had a sudden chill. The sun had been keeping me warm and now with its disappearance I wanted my rain jacket. I asked Jay to pass my gear up from below. Here is where I made my mistake. I took my eye off the approaching squall line and moved forward of the wheel to take my jacket and pants from Jay. I quickly shrugged in to the jacket, reaching out to steady the wheel. Although we don't have autopilot aboard Obsession, when the sails are set, we can leave the wheel for a moment or two without any consequences. But not when a squall is approaching. I did not take into account that the wind might hit a bit before the wall of rain that was quickly approaching us from the stern.

I then did something that may well have saved my life. I grabbed my foul weather pants and sat down at the companionway to pull them on, facing the stern of the boat. I took my attention off the wheel for a split second. I started to bend forward to pull on my pant leg and was slammed backwards and sideways against the bulkhead in the cockpit, knocking the wind out of me. Just as I had taken my attention from the wheel, the approaching edge of the squall hit the boat and the resulting wind shift had gybed the mainsail. With no preventer in place the boom had gone flying across with incredible force, narrowly missing my head. The traveller is located at the front edge of the companionway and as the boom moved across, the line was pulled out of the traveller cleats and the mainsheet had come flying across the width of the boat. The mainsheet had slammed against my chest, pinning me and momentarily robbing me of both my breath and my ability to speak. BY sitting down at the exact second I did, I narrowly missed being hit in the head.

The crash of the boom had Jay flying up the companionway steps to see what had happened. As I lay slumped against the side of the cockpit he was certain I had been nailed in the head. I couldn't find the breath to answer and the pressure of the sheet was keeping me pinned in place. As my breath came back to me and I gasped out that I was ok, he helped me wiggle out from under the sheet. After reassuring himself that I was ok, and I didn't need any help, Jay retreated below. I went back to the wheel, taking control of Obsession once again, as the skies opened and the rain came down with a vengeance. I clung to the wheel, slightly bruised, but largely unhurt. I shivered with delayed reaction thinking about how different things may have been if I had not sat down when I did. I could have been seriously injured, if not killed, if the boom had hit me in the head.

Within 30 minutes the squall had passed, the sun was struggling to come back out, we were increasing sail as the wind returned to normal, and eating lunch. After we anchored in a cove near Orangedale later that day, we relaxed in the cockpit discussing what we did right and what we should have done differently. We were right to reduce sail as we did and to keep an eye on the weather. I should have called Jay to take the wheel while I put on my foul weather gear, and not taken my attention from the helm when the weather was so unsettled. It also reminded us of the value rigging a preventer in preventing an accidental gybe. And most importantly it reminded me not to let my guard down. I am hyper vigilant about the boom when others are aboard, but I had forgotten about the danger to myself.