Two incidents recently reminded me of things we all should know about boating in rough weather conditions. The first involved my participation on someone else’s boat in a Leukemia Cup charity event run by the New York Yacht Club (NYYC). While the event was held within the confines of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, the weather conditions were hardly ideal—a driving rain and 25 knot winds with frequent gusts over 30. Given the dreary forecast, the club did a nice job providing a weather update early in the morning and advising the participants not to venture out until a decision was made to cancel or postpone the start of the event. After a delay of an hour ashore, NYYC reminded skippers that the decision to race was theirs alone.
The rain let up just before noon so our mixed crew of experienced and newbie sailors set out from Newport harbor even though the wind continued to howl. Our skipper gathered the crew and explained basic man overboard procedure, although we did not practice it. Then we raised our mainsail, with a reef in it to reduce sail area, under the lee of Gould Island. Next to us, also raising sail under the lee of the island was Interlodge, a fabulous looking 52-foot IRC racing machine. I was completely surprised to see that this boat’s towering flattop carbon-fiber mainsail had no reef points at all, meaning that it had no way to reduce sail area other than not putting it up at all. Nevertheless they spun away, heeling heavily, toward the start. By the time we got to the starting area we noticed that only 15 out of the 60 boats registered for the event had shown up. By the time the first gun went off, accompanied by a 30- plus-knot gust, several more boats, including us, had prudently retired and headed back to harbor.
This incident reminded me that we are not in control of the weather; that discretion, proper equipment, and crew preparedness are the only things we can control, and that we are usually never completely prepared. Did I mention that while several of us were wearing our own inflatable harnesses and PFD’s, some weren’t? And the skipper never made mention of where the boat’s PFDs were stowed.
The next incident happened when I got back to work the following day. Apparently, the storm was bad enough farther up the coast that it caused the yacht club where I work to cancel launch service while I was off trying to race. The waterfront director relayed to me that several club members who wanted to get to their boats were angered by this and one actually challenged him about the protocol for cancelling the service. I was pleased to hear there is no such protocol, just a judgment call that people in responsible positions have to make sometimes. The lesson here is that you should never be pressured by anyone to do something you think is unsafe, like electing to go out in a storm.
Heavy weather can be frightening for some, exhilarating for others, and death or destruction to the unprepared. I’ve sailed across oceans and been caught in storms where we had no choice. Hopefully, you’re in control of your own actions, the safety equipment on your boat, and ultimately the preparedness of your crew and passengers. Practice man overboard and other emergency practices, indicate to the crew where your safety equipment is stowed and, if you have a choice, don’t fool with Mother Nature—you can’t win, you can only survive.