Experimenting for speed

It’s about 1050 nautical miles from Valletta to Gibraltar if you go via Ibiza. I wrote about the wonderful sail we had when we decided to head to the Balearics. On the way to the Pillars of Hercules I learnt a lot about sailing in general and Roaring Girl in particular, thanks to the creativity of the crew. Their objective was more speed and their ability to use sails, ropes and spars in new and ingenious ways was a lesson in breaking rules to get the results you want.

Mainsheet attached to toerail, with our wake furling alongside the hull.

Mainsheet attached to toerail, with our wake furling alongside the hull.

Take the main sail. Normally the sheet, the rope which controls its angle to the wind, is fastened somewhere behind the wheel in the cockpit, and I adjust the angle within the two meter span of the track. Not nearly good enough with so much down wind sailing. We rigged a line from the end of the boom to the bow (a preventer, to stop a dangerous jibe) and then moved the sheet right out on to the toerail. Of course, before moving it around, attach another preventer to the boom to keep it under control from the cockpit. It really added to our speed.

Then there is our jib boom. I admit that I’ve tended to be lazy about this, but in the hands of a master (Marcelo) it became a wand. The traditional thing to do is keep it roughly parallel to the water, keeping a full or nearly fully unfurled genoa filled with wind when running. Not he. Instead the boom was rigged in whatever way best kept the sail filled even when it was only unfurled a little, sometimes making an angle of just 40 degrees to the mast.  I couldn’t get a good picture of it but, despite looking very unconventional, it worked.

Mizzen staysail against the Mediterranean sky.

Mizzen staysail against the Mediterranean sky

Ingenuity really came through with the mizzen staysail.  This clever little triangle, made of lightweight cloth, was my birthday present two years ago, but as we have been land-bound had never been used. No-one on board had ever rigged one up so it was a learning experience all round.  The traditional approach is to fly it forward of the mizzen mast (the smaller one at the back) rigged so that the foot is amidships just aft of the mainmast, and then sheet it back to the cockpit. This makes for a high sail which fills with wind and provides terrific lift. Taking pictures of your own boat while at sea is never easy, but this one shows the staysail and the tops of both the mizzen and main sails, and suggests the feeling of lightness.

New twin headsail in unexpected action.

New twin headsail in unexpected action.

That wasn’t quite enough. On Friday afternoon, after completing an amazing run of  160 miles in 24 hours, we were becalmed just 55 miles east of Gibraltar. Friends there were still sitting in an easterly hoolie, but we could not find that wind. The forecast suggested it might come back with a bang, and there was quite a swell, so we didn’t want to put the chute up.  Instead, the mizzen staysail moved to the bow, got poled out on the telescopic boat hook and acted very nicely as a twin headsail.

All this experimentation made for some great sailing and meant we covered the ground, but didn’t break anything or tire ourselves out.  Every mile mattered because the blasted motor played up again once were about 50 miles from Ibiza and we ended up engine free for 570 of the 580 miles to Gib.  Most of the leg was great sailing, including surfing at over 11 knots in a F7 gale in the Alboran Sea.  The hairiest moments were the 40 knot katabatic gusts off the Rock as we surged up to La Linea through the anchored container ships in the pitch dark.

This engine has been incredibly reliable all its life. The problems are now sorted and I am beyond grateful to my saintly friend Adrian Dann of Molinary Engineering who spent three hours of his own precious time to sort it out. I decided not to slog upwind all the way from Gib to Falmouth so Andreas is skippering with Marcelo and another professional.  I will meet them all in Cornwall this weekend to sail up the channel to Ipswich with friends when I’ll getting more out of Roaring Girl than before. The lessons of breaking the rules but knowing the basics, experimenting, understanding the effects of changes and playing with all the variables will stay with me in other contexts too.


About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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