Writer: Nikki Henderson
Sailing is a sensual sport. Anyone who I’ve taught will have had heard this before. When you sail, you must work together with nature. You must ride her waves and helm in time with her flow, easing and tightening and swaying with her rhythm. With a boat – you must do the same. Tuning yourself to your man-made environment as well as your natural one.
More literally, an example that an old crew mate and I laughed about just the other week, is how we could tell whether a boat was overpowered from the way our butt muscles clenched at the nav station.
Why am I writing this? Because I feel that the process of connection with the boat, with nature, and with ourselves has a powerful effect. It forces us to be present, rather than fearing the future. A useful skill during this period of increased uncertainty.
On La Vagabonde, all six of us (baby Lenny included) shared this same sensual connection with the boat. Almost every night, one of us would sit bolt upright. Half asleep, squinting at the blurry figure glowing red sitting at the nav station, we would often manage just one slurred sleep word, “reef?”
Catamaran sailing is reputedly more numbers driven than mono-sailing. Without the telling heel, common practice is to use the instruments as a guide to the sail plan. Instead of deciding to reef because the jib trimmer’s right foot is wet, the multi-hull sailor will probably look at the wind strength.
Although a humble mono-sailor myself and very aware that I’m relatively new to multi-hull ocean sailing, I do think there is a key factor missing in the ‘sail by numbers only’ theory. How do you sail if the instruments don’t work? Or if the instruments read incorrectly? Or what if – as was the case on several occasions during that crossing – there is a lightning storm so violent you shut the systems down?
And now I return to my favourite phrase: Sailing is a sensual sport.
A far cry from a caravan on water, La Vagabonde truly is a beautifully sensual boat. Like all Outremer’s, she sat quite low to the water. It took only the slightest change in the sea state to feel a change in rhythm of the waves on the underside of the reinforced saloon floor. Her rigid structure didn’t flex either, so the tapping and slapping felt very direct. The butt muscles remained useful, but in a more subtle manner than the mono-version; twitching here and there rather than stopping you sliding out of bed. The internal structure is laminated (not glued) to the hull so you don’t hear the usual chorus of squeaks and creaks in the waves. Thus, you can actually hear the sea, the changes in the wave frequency, height, and also the acceleration of the boat.
How did we sail La Vagabonde upwind? Yes, partly the numbers, but also through our senses – connecting with every structure, texture, sound, and acceleration. La Vagabonde, crew and nature sailed in harmony. Perhaps to sail through the rest of this year unscathed, we must do the same – elevate our senses – inward and outward – and try to live in harmony with this new state of normal.
Fortified with a strong mental attitude and a heightened level of awareness of our present state, we can now enter into the winter with confidence. But just as with the North Atlantic last year, we must play the long game. This winter, like any ocean passage, will be about consistency.
The hardest thing with upwind sailing is managing the brutal punishment to the boat and the crew. It’s like we (the boat and I) share the same pain. As the sail leech wobbles and the rig shakes, I physically crave another 10-degree shift. When the gooseneck squeaks and groans my body whines out for an easy in pressure.
By day five on that trip we had all just had enough. How did we cope?
Well – largely because La Vagabonde sailed upwind really quite beautifully. With the daggerboard down, traveller up, plenty of twist in the main, and the appropriate amount of sail up to keep momentum without sliding sideways – the Outremer 45 beat to windward far better than I expected. Whether it was the narrow hulls, the low centre of gravity, the light-weight construction – it was some of the most pleasant upwind sailing I’ve done in 40 knots. Whilst the boat didn’t sail brilliant upwind angles (for a mono-sailor), we could maintain excellent speed which probably levelled out the VMG; A note-worthy factor if you are worried about the mono to multi hull jump.
Without a doubt, the key to upwind sailing is sail-area management. For us to play the long game, we needed to manage which sails and how much of them we flew, and our energy.
The star of the upwind sail wardrobe was in fact the Code-0. This really helped us get moving and flew pleasantly high to the wind. Although going for consistency/long game meant a lot of sail changes. 0 – jib – 0 – jib. For anyone who owns an Outremer and is planning on doing a lot of longer passages, I’d recommend considering a second heavier-weight Code-0. They are brilliant (maybe my favourite) sails. The option of pushing above the 12 knot apparent wind limit especially during the night would have made it slightly less daunting.
The ease of reefing again was great for keeping consistent speed and safety. From the higher position at the helm, the visibility of the back of the boom, the sheaves, the reefing lines, the mast and the sail was excellent. Unlike on a monohull where you end up needing to do some sort of gymnastic manoeuvre to see above the boom, I could toe the button and grind in reef three, tail with one hand, communicate with Riley (NB ease of communication channels must be one of my top priorities on boat choice), see if the lines were running smoothly and drink my tea all simultaneously. No hands for the Walkers shortbread, but there’s always a compromise somewhere.
And there rounds my final takeaway for the final challenges of 2020 that lie ahead of us. Don’t strain your gear. Reef early. Call your watch buddy for help when you need. Lower the sails. Take stock. Slow down if you need. Play the long game.
Be assured, the wind will change eventually. The winners amongst us – the ones that will sail through unscathed – will be those who took the necessary precautions early and decided to play strategy as well as tactics.