Heavy winds make for a challenging sail

The Apalachee Bay Yacht Club at Shell Point, Florida, has a PHRF racing series which is fantastic for honing sailing skills. PHRF stands for “Performance Handicap Racing Fleet,” and its sponsored by the U.S. Sailing Association.

My most recent experience in the race ended up being quite an education sailing in rough weather.

High winds test our limits

The club has a 22′ Capri day sailor (Maxie) available to qualified club members. (I’ve been qualified.) I’ve personally put in just under 20 hours on the boat as either captain or crew. I’ve found the boat to be stable and easy to handle.

This trip, however, gave me a real taste of what handling a boat this size in strong winds would be like.

The forecast was for clouds and stiff winds. In Apalachee Bay, we could expect steady winds of 9 to 12 knots (about 10 to 14 miles per hour). We had been told that Maxie‘s “max” is probably about 15 miles per hour. So, this was going to be a bit of a challenge.

Fortunately, we would have other people in the boat with more experience.

A different sailing experience

As we headed out of the channels toward the bay, the wind was pretty stiff. Fortunately, they were coming in a direction that would give us an advantage if we called it a day – we would have to tack our way back into the main channel.

But we could really feel the weather as we headed out into the bay after we cleared the back channel. The waves picked began to pick up as well.

Most of my sailing has been in lighter winds, almost always under 10 knots. I have experienced a few rollers on my sailing excursion, but nothing seriously challenged my sailing skills. Today would be different.

Rocking and rolling on Apalachee Bay

The video below from my website might give you a glimpse of how quickly the boats could move in this weather. These were longer boats with better designs for handling the rough weather. I have not sped up the video speed.

The steady winds ensured our sails – a mainsail and jib – were full. So, we made good time. But the boat’s handling also became problematic. Since we were a smaller boat, physics and design limited our boat’s handling capabilities. Changing tack (turning the boat’s direction) required more intentional decisions, careful handling, and clear communication among the crew.

Combined with gusts that likely approached or maybe exceeded 17 knots (20 miles per hour), we had to make sure everyone was secure as we maneuvered.

This video below provides a glimpse into the waves were were navigating.

The waves were probably 1.5 to two feet in height. These may seem small, but the distance between the waterline and Maxie’s main deck is probably a bit over two feet. Three foot waves, with the right rhythm and timing, could crest the beam (sides). As the video shows, the boat tossed quite a bit – and we were not even in the main part of the bay yet!

Needless to say, Maxie required constant attention to the tiller and keeping the boat on course.

Five takeaways

What are my takeaways?

First, knowing your boat is critical for sailing in heavy weather. I had been advised by experienced sailors at ABYC that Maxie should not be sailed in winds stronger than 15 knots. This trip confirmed that. The waves and winds were putting significant stress on the sails and rigging.

Second, what constitutes “heavy weather” depends on boat’s size and design. Several larger boats completed the PHRF race. We prudently abandoned the race before crossing the start line. The Capri 22 is a recreational boat built for fair weather sailing. While it can handle heavier seas and winds, it’s not designed or outfitted for heavy weather.

In fact, the outboard engine – typically used to power small boats through the channels – barely kept us moving when used on its own. We made good headway when the outboard supplemented our sails. (We furled the jib on way in and relied primarily on the main sail.)

Know your limits

Third, knowing your limits as a sailor is critical. For me at my skill level, handling Maxie as a solo sailor would have been very, very challenging. While Maxie was unlikely in danger of serious damage, the boat was very difficult to navigate as it rolled over waves, the bow fell dramatically into their troughs, and we were buffeted by wind gusts of 20 mph (perhaps stronger). Keeping her on steady course required constant corrections. We also had to adjust sails regularly.

As we changed tack, we had to be hyper vigilant in adjusting the sails and managing the transfer of the jib (a triangular front sail at the bow) from one side to the other.

Fourth, teamwork is critical. With multiple crew members, sails could be adjusted and managed. But communication was essential. Several times, we were unable to complete a tack – ended up “in irons” – because we didn’t make the right adjustments in time.

Yes, a strong wind gives the boat momentum, but when you are changing direction, unless the sails are managed properly, the wind works against your intentions and you will literally stall. Being on a boat, miles from shore, stopped in a stand still despite 10 mph winds is a bit of a surreal experience.

Safety first

Fifth, just because you can sail in the weather does not mean you should sail in heavy weather. An experienced crew could handle the winds and waves. We were never in any real danger – short of sailing negligence – in capsizing or being hurt.

Nevertheless, giving the constant pitching and rolling of the boat, the danger of someone going overboard was very high. Losing your grip on rigging or feet on the deck should be expected. (Fortunately, we talked through our man overboard drill on our way out of the bay.)

Moreover, the risk of damaging the boat and its rigging was clearly much higher than under conditions more suitable the recreational design of the Maxi. The winds made for an exhilarating sailing experience, but the trip was not a pleasure cruise. It was work.

In sum – a challenging day

While the captain has the responsibility for deciding whether we could pursue the race, our crew agreed that the stress on the vessel – the crew – really didn’t warrant staying out given the conditions. sailors must be vigilant in navigating during heavy weather.

As a relatively new sailor in boats larger than a dingy, this experience reinforced my believe that I am not quite ready to sail Maxie alone. I would be fine in calm seas and “normal” winds (under say 9 knots), but having a second (or third) person on board would improve my ability to handle the boat and cruise safely.

While I clearly benefit from more experience in heavy weather, I am best learning under conditions where I have more experienced sailors with me and my run in with mother nature is intentional.

For more on my sailing adventures, click here.

For more information on the Apalachee Bay Yacht Club, click here.

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series (syppublishing.com) has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).