Some 25 years ago, when Hurricanes David and Frederick bore down upon my floating abode in the U.S. Virgin Islands—threatening back-to-back strikes—I learned a sound lesson about what matters most with boats at sea.
Two days before the arrival of David, a friend and I decided to sail east from St. Thomas, seeking a more secure haven for that Cal 25 in St. John's famed Hurricane Hole. We loaded up with stores and made our way upwind to Cruz Bay, anchoring there for the night. The following day, with southeasterly winds building in advance of the storm's arrival, we set out for a long beat up the southern coast of St. John.
Throughout the ensuing 10-mile slog, the breeze and the waves continued to build, so much so that we had no option but to strike the mainsail and headsail and deploy our storm jib (we had no storm trysail aboard). Making ground to weather with just that tiny rag was agonizingly slow, but our auxiliary power, a long-shaft 9 hp outboard, would have been useless given the sea state.
As we rounded Ram's Head—the promontory that guards the western entrance to the bays on that island's southeastern end—we spied a 50-foot ketch entering from the east. The boat seemed to be sailing well with jib and jigger rigged, but we lost track of it when our lack of weatherly ability meant that we had to stand out and sail seaward of a small land mass called LeDuck Island.
Once we cleared the island and bore off into the bay, we were astonished to see that the ketch had moved all the way across the bay and was foundering on a reef near the western shore. I'm not certain exactly what happened, but we later heard a rumor that the skipper had been preoccupied below with a malfunctioning engine, and allowed the vessel to sail onto the reef. Offering advice after the fact is a dicey business, but I'm convinced that this misfortune could have been avoided had the skipper simply opted to make his destination under sail and sort out the engine afterward.
We sailors often suffer the distraction of things less vital at the cost of ignoring those we truly need. Sure, having a working engine is nice, but you'd better be able to make do without it. And taking time to mount those instrument repeaters around the boat is fine, but wouldn't it make sense to first ensure that the reefing system functions properly? I'm not suggesting that these things are mutually exclusive, but some truly ought to take precedence over others.
When Joshua Slocum found himself shipwrecked in Brazil and in need of a vessel to return his family to New England, he opted to build a ship himself, and had to consider similar priorities. He wrote of that process in The Voyage of the Liberdade:
"But a boat should be built stout and strong, we all said, one in which we should not be afraid to trust our lives even in the storm... Seaworthiness was to be the first and most prominent feature in our microscopic ship; next to this good quality she should sail well; at least before free winds."
Slocum certainly knew that it was the sailing ability of his vessel—and the functionality of the equipment underlying that—which mattered most. As another sailing season looms and we go about the duties that precede our migration back to the water, it's appropriate to concentrate our energies on those vital systems that enable our boats to perform under sail. I write this fully aware that much of our April issue content pertains to items of maintenance, comfort, and navigation rather than actual sail-handling gear. These things matter too. We need them; we simply don't need to get unduly distracted by them.