Luck and the Urge to Duck
At night, when only the counted seconds between the lightning flash and thunder-crack offer any clue of what is to come, the intertropical convergence zone seems otherworldly.
You would think that two weeks of midnight squalls accumulated over seven years of cruising would make it impossible to forget how confounding the ITCZ can be. But the longer you sail, the cockier you tend to get. And what sailor hasn’t told themself that in the end luck has the final word?
Your luck has to be particularly bad to founder in an equatorial storm. Though knockdowns and even dismastings are possible when a squall catches you off guard, seldom do the seas reach a height to cause a well-founded boat with sea room to founder.
And so we could be forgiven for blithely setting out from the Marianas to the Caroline Islands after nearly two years of dockside living, thinking we would make all the right choices.
Because Tosca was gaff rigged, we usually set two separate vang preventers when running, one at the boom and one on the gaff. Without the latter, the mainsail could backwind at the peak when the boat rolled, precipitating an uncontrolled half-jibe that could rent the mainsail from peak to clew (as we’d learned the hard way). But a gaff preventer is a chore to rig in a driving rain. And why bother when the wind won’t hold for long, and you can just nudge the helm to sail a hotter angle until the squall has passed? All of the above is feeble justification for the closest I came to dying on passage.
The squall came up suddenly and fierce, with 25 knots from astern. Snug in our foul-weather gear, we reefed down to our gale trim, a double-reefed main and the staysail centered hard. T took over the helm and settled in for the brief sleigh ride. I was down below when I sensed the boat sharply heeling under sudden pressure, then rolling back upright. I should probably take a look, I thought.
I had just stepped out of the companionway, stood and turned to look forward when the crack came. The peak had jibed, and the boom, a solid spruce battering ram, somehow gathered enough inertia to release the snap-shackle on its preventer. With my peripheral vision blinded by the hood of my foul-weather gear, I’m not sure what prompted me to duck. Perhaps it was the wind-whistle as the boom closed in, perhaps instinct, or maybe just dumb luck, which, at least in my case, always strikes more than once.
I ducked in time, of course, but the terror of the aftermath held me frozen. The mainsail flopped like the wing of a wounded bird, and my heartbeat drowned the thunder. The memory of this disaster narrowly averted still makes me hold my breath.
Unless I climb aboard a foiling cat, I will probably never don a sailing helmet. As the report beginning on page 20 makes clear, there’s no hard evidence that a helmet would have saved me against the blow I barely missed. But it is clear to me that there are times when a cruising sailor might want to take the precaution of donning headgear—just in case their luck has run out.
A helmet marketed to sailors on high-speed boats might not be what a cruiser needs most. Still, it is encouraging to see that a small niche of manufacturers are designing head gear specifically for sailors—helmets that don’t interfere with our senses, hinder mobility, or add to our discomfort. This gear will almost surely save someone’s life, or prevent serious injury someday—if it hasn’t done so already.