Friday, January 12, 2007

Heavy Rigs

Vero Beach

Our sailing background was like most people’s. We started small and worked up. Our first boat was a 19 foot O’day Mariner. Our second was a Clipper Marine CM 26. It was an extremely lightweight rig that I could trailer, launch, step the mast, unstep, and haul out single handed. The hull in places was only 1/16 inch thick.

Our third boat was a Tanzer 27. Compared to the Clipper, it felt much bigger and more solid. Nevertheless, the Tanzer is still a very lightweight rig designed for inland sailing. The total displacement was on the order of 9000 pounds. We also had some experience with larger boats in Sweden when sailing the Baltic. Boats in the 30 to 35 foot range, yet still lighter rigs designed for inland and coastal sailing.

Three times we went to the British Virgin Islands and rented bareboat charters. Those boat were huge and heavy. We had a Morgan OI 41, and a CSY 37 and a CSY 44. However, we always had ample crew, and the dock hands from the charter companies do most of the close in maneuvering in any case. I recall how impressed we were watching those deck hands manhandling those huge yachts.

In many respects it’s best to learn on a small boat first. Everything happens faster and more delicately on a lighter boat. That forces you to learn better. On the other hand, disasters like running aground tend to be less serious on smaller boats. I recall how pleased I was to bring my Clipper and my Tanzer into a slip under sail, or to sail through a crowded mooring field to pick up my buoy. I’m also proud of the time when my Clipper’s rudder broke and I sailed her home and right up to the slip with no engine and no rudder. It became almost a contest to see how far into the year I could go without starting the engine.

On my smaller boats I always had only outboard engines, and when I did use the engines I could spin them around 360 degrees to put force in any direction I want.


Tarwathie is our first truly heavy rig blue water sailing boat. She weighs 20,000 pounds empty and probably 26,000 pounds when loaded and provisioned. She also has a full keel and a skeg rudder which gives her very different handling characteristics than a fin keel spade rudder sailboat.

With Tarwathie, everything is different. She is much heavier and harder to stop. Bumping into things is much more likely to cause damage. We have to be very careful to resist the instinct of using arms and legs to fend her off from other objects. That worked well on the lighter boats but it likely to lead to broken bones on a heavy rig.

In light winds Tarwathie is much more subject to currents than to the wind. The full keel is intended to make her want to travel in a straight line, and she does that very well. The downside is that she doesn’t like to turn. Fin keel / spade rudder boats can turn on a dime but Tarwathie needs a very large turning radius.

On the other hand, out in blue water Tarwathie sails a fairer course than those fin keel boats, even against heavy seas or following seas. That’s what we should expect, Tarwathie’s designed is optimized for sailing in the open sea, not for sailing inside marinas.

It is vital for the skipper to learn about his/her boat’s steerage way. In other words, how fast does the boat have to move to make the rudder effective. If the boat is not moving then the rudder has no effect. A skeg rudder unfortunately, needs more way to be effective than a spade rudder does. Our skeg rudder also has only a tiny bit of its surface immediately behind the propeller. That means that we can’t use the common technique of turning the rudder then revving up the engine to create artificial way for steerage. It is sometimes scary to move the boat faster than seems prudent in order to maintain steerage.

It took me a long time, but finally I learned to make use of Tarwathie’s large moment of inertia. Once I get her turning at a particular rate, say 180 degrees per minute, she tends to keep turning at that rate even without power. Therefore, I can use forward speed and rudder to begin her turning, then shift to neutral or even reverse to allow her to continue to turn on her own axis. She’ll continue turning another 45 to 60 degrees before stopping. Thus, using forward and reverse the right way, I can turn her around in a very short radius.

Another trick I have learned by hard experience is to allow the wind and current to help whenever possible. If I see that the wind and current are moving us in the right direction or turning us in the right direction, I just wait and allow it to happen. I use the engine and rudder only to move her opposite the way wind and current would take us. Believe it or not, such patience is hard to learn. When maneuvering in close spaces, the helmsman tends to be nervous and anxious to get out of danger as quickly as possible. It takes courage to be patient in such situations to let the wind and current help instead of revving up the engine.

Of course, close space maneuvering on Tarwathie can be done, but done slowly using lots of time. It won’t work well in a strong wind or a strong current. Therefore, we have to learn to be prudent and to stand off from docking or to refuse to leave a slip when the weather conditions are such to make it too risky. I never had that problem with my light weight boats.

One advantage we have on Tarwathie that we never had on smaller boats is our anchor windlass. It is a manual windlass with two speeds. On the low speed it can crank up an amazing force with little effort. Using my anchor chain and the windlass I can easily apply as much as 5,000 pounds of force in any horizontal direction. That’s very useful, especially when kedging.

I get jealous seeing the captains of other boats maneuvering in the marina using only sail, no power. There is no way that we could do that with Tarwathie. When I’m feeling that way, I can always put up the sailing rig in our dinghy and go for a ride. Last week I took her out for a harbor tour and I got stranded when the wind died completely. I had no engine and no oars and the tidal current was carrying me away from home. I just moved the tiller to port and starboard in a sort of rowing motion providing a very slight forward thrust. That technique wouldn’t move a heavy rig at all, but it is enough to move a very small boat. 15 minutes of sculling got me home safely. If that had failed, I could have jumped overboard and swam home towing the dinghy behind me.

There is still one more level of expertise in heavy boat handling that we haven’t learned well. It is called warping. It involves using numerous lines (ropes to land lubbers) to pull the boat this way and that, and moving those lines from one fast point to another. In theory one can warp and size rig anywhere in almost all weather conditions. The Self Sufficient Sailor, by Lin and Larry Pardey extol the virtues of warping. We have those learning adventures still ahead of us.

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