Adventures in Sailing, Part 4 – Sailing 101 – Sea Trials

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

Adventures in Sailing, part 4

After 6 months of rebuilding the 42-foot tramaran Columba, our crew of 12 held sea trials to prepare for our upcoming summer sailing trip from Ventura, California to the Hawaiian islands. We had taken classroom sailing courses, earned first-aid and CPR certifications, bought our personal supplies and sailing gear, and spent one weekend a month sanding, painting, cleaning, attraching, affixing, re-masting, outfitting and otherwise restoring the boat at the captain’s direction. Now was the time we were waiting for — on the water sailing lessons.

In Spring 1980, mere months from our departure, Captain Mathias split the crew into 3 components. He and the 1st or 2nd mate would conduct sea trials, training the rest of us in all the basics of sailing: shoving off, docking, changing sails, helmsmanship, man overboard drills, tacking, jibing, and anchoring. We learned how to use our floatation devices and to hook onto the lifelines when going forward. We learned how to avoid an accidental jibe and to give verbal and hand signals. We learned to avoid a boom that was crossing the centerline of the boat.

Sailing is a dynamic sport, and accidents happen suddenly, and often without warning. Being prepared and practicing safety first in all situations is paramount to survival, especially in the middle of the ocean without any land in sight. While exhilarating, being in the middle of the ocean without land in sight can strike terror into the novice sailor’s very being.

Sea trials were a learning experience, not a try-out. We had paid our money, and like it or not, we were going on this trip. Seasickness was a temporary inconvenience, not a reason to abandon an adventure of a lifetime. I would question the soundness of that reasoning a few days into the voyage, but for now, I would learn to sail along with the rest of the crew.

We were all novices, except the captain, his daughter, and the 1st and 2nd mates. While they had some sailing experience, and I had a little bit too, none of us were what you could call a sailor. We had minimal playtime lake experiences with boats. Better than nothing but not a foundation for ocean-going.

Our sea trials consisted of 4 or 5 of us sailing for several hours and then for an overnight weekend off the coast of California around the Channel Islands. This area is prone to relatively high winds (higher than San Diego, not as high as San Francisco). With the wind whipping around the islands and the currents coming into the mainland, sailing can be challenging. But our sea trials went very well. We practiced all the maneuvers and sail changing techniques that we would need in the open ocean.

One particular challenge, however, was the overnight trip. We had a pleasant day sailing even though the weather was a bit rough. The winds died down around dusk. We searched for a place to set the anchor and then had a quiet night. Sailing can be exhausting. The rhythms of marina and sea life are early on the west coast. Once the sun goes down, the winds die and activity at the marinas slow. People go to bed early and rise with the sun.

At sea however, there is no time-keeper. We spent the evening watching the stars and practicing taking sights with our sextants. There was always something more to learn.

I was assigned the forward berth in the middle pontoon hull for my sleeping quarters. Around midnight, the swells started coming in, 6–10 foot constant swells 1 to 2 seconds apart. It felt as if the boat would smash apart. The swells lifted the boat into the air and the boat would crash into the trough only to be lifted by the next swell. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! It was distressing. But more than that, it was a test of our anchoring.

The captain went forward to check the anchor rode, the chain attached to the anchor, and the attachment points for the windlass to make sure everything was secure. Then he asked each of us to attach our life jacket to the life lines and make our way forward to see what it was like to go forward at night in stressful ocean conditions. Some of us had to crawl to reach the anchor rode.

The other challenge was seasickness. These swells were relentless, constant, with nothing in the world that could stop the motion. I had taken my dramamine faithful, but I had never experienced swells like this before, and the sound of the constant pounding of the boat against the water. I found myself mid boat, holding onto the lifelines, puking into the ocean all night long. I’m sure I dozed a little bit, only to be awakened by crew now and then to see if I was still alive. The forward berth in the boat is prone to the most movement, thus it wasn’t a good assignment for someone prone to seasickness.

The swells stopped sometime in the night, and we woke in the morning to glassy calm seas. Our trip back to the marina was uneventful.

Because of how sick I got due to the swells, I was assigned to the middle berth in the boat for the trip to Hawaii. Tanya and I would share that middle berth located where the dining table was, which was raised at 6:00 am and lowered at 12:00 midnight so that we could sleep. I wasn’t sure how this would work, but it played a big role in how the trip went overall.

With the sea trials concluded, we were one step closer to our bon voyage date. Pacific Ocean and Hawaiian Islands — here we come.

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