My recent week-long trip along the Great Glen, as part of Sail Caledonia, was a great opportunity to really get to know Scratch, my Walkabout (kind comments from designer John Welsford), and to improve my sailing skills. Here are some of the things I discovered. (Image © Dimitris Prokakis)
My normal sailing area is the Firth of Forth. I usually only have a couple of hours on the water, so I rarely sail to anywhere in particular. Depending on the wind direction, I tend to either tack upwind for a while and then return, or reach back and forward. I rarely have to worry about my upwind sailing ability – or have the chance to test it against other boats.
Gaining on Oughted Whilly Boat Storyteller (Image © John Macpherson)
Sail Caledonia was a different story. Narrow lochs and a specific destination to head for – either the race course or supper, or both! I soon discovered my upwind sailing skills were not great. Thanks to the iPhone, an email to the Welsford Builders Forum soon resulted in some useful advice. The only piece of advice I could act on at the time was to keep the luff very tight. I knew that, but for some reason had allowed things to get a bit slack. I was also given useful advice to add, and use, telltales, and ways of lacing the sail to improve tension. I'll explore these in due course.
Medusa and Lapsus racing in the driving rain. I'm crewing in Lapsus where I learnt a few tricks (Image © John Macpherson)
After this, rather annoyingly, I only had one opportunity for upwind sailing! That's slightly unfair; I could have entered a race at the south end of Loch Ness on the day we were waiting at Fort Augustus for the wind to ease. However, I decided to crew for Bart in Lapsus rather than risk struggling in rather wild conditions – more of this in a later post.
Apparently, whatever the wind direction across the country, the wind in the Great Glen is always either up or down the Glen. As the wind was generally south westerly, between F3 and F6, we were blown up Glen like peas in a peashooter. A great opportunity to test the Walkabout's downwind sailing ability. In a word – superb.
Oughtred Caledonian Yawl Elsie on a run (Image © John Macpherson)
In two races, all running or broad reaching Scratch steadily gained on and overtook most of the boats in her class. The only boat that we couldn't catch was the much larger Caledonian Yawl, Elsie. To achieve this performance we needed the stronger winds, in lighter airs some of the other boats gained ground.
Looking north east up Loch Ness (Image from Nasa)
Loch Ness is a big body of water – 27 miles long – and with the wind pushing up the glen, waves build up quite strongly. On the Thursday we were to sail the whole length of the loch in two races, before and after lunch. The wind was very light at the start, although forecast to rise later, so I set off without a reef. I sailed off the pontoon and the short distance down the canal onto the loch, rather than rowing which is my normal way of leaving dry land. In the event the wind was so light, I drifted very slowly towards the start line and, even with lots of tiller waggling, got there after everyone else had left.
The wind soon rose and we made good progress down the loch, steadily gaining on the rest of the fleet – except the three boats Lapsus, Medusa and Somervind, which had chosen to do the 'Loch Ness Challenge' – a longer race to the head of the loch, back into the wind, and then up to the head again. (Only Medusa completed that race, the others found beating back down the loch too much for more than a short time.)
Scratch, downwind under full sail. Given the forecast, and the fact no rowing was planned, I was in my drysuit. (Image © John Macpherson)
The course was a zigzag up the loch, running and broad reaching, finishing at Urquhart Castle. I felt pretty good about my performance here – the wind by now was F5 with gusts, and a swell of 3 feet or so had got up. Broad reaching towards the castle with full sail was exhilarating. If I'd been sailing alone I'd certainly have reefed by now, but I was racing and in second place – and there were safety boats out with us.
Hurley, a Drascombe Longboat, heading toward the finish line below Castle Urquhart (Image © Steve Sim)
The finish line was beyond the castle in the bay, after crossing it I had to tack up to the beach below the castle. With the castle, promontory and trees the wind was very flukely, and I had to sail back out into the loch into the full force of the wind as I tacked in. After racing with Lapsus the day before, I was confidently sitting up on the side deck with the tiller extension (hiking stick) in hand. I made it on to the beach, managing to keep the mast out of the trees. Despite the perhaps more extreme sailing to come later that day, this part – the last broad reach, over the line and up to the beach, is the bit of sailing in the whole trip of which I feel most proud.
Lunch below Urquhart Castle (Image © John Macpherson)
After lunch, Martin, Sail Caledonia's head honcho, briefed us about the change of plan. The wind wasn't now forecast to ease in the afternoon, the waves at the north end were 3 – 4 feet and choppy. The final leg of the race was cancelled. Instead we were to sail up the loch keeping together and close by the safety boats.
I furled the mizzen and reefed the main. I also shifted my bags to bring the weight a bit further aft and made sure my drogue (sea-anchor) was ready to deploy in case I needed to get the sail fully down. The drogue would not only stop us drifting to fast, but also keep us head to wind, and waves, while I got the sail down.
The Loch Ness sleigh ride (Image © Derek Wales)
As soon as I left the shelter of the castle we were hurling up the loch as a great pace, heading for the southern side as the waves were reportedly less severe over there. The instruction to keep close to the rest of the fleet was impossible to follow – we were flying and I was already fully reefed. I think most others were under jib or jib and mizzen.
Scratch from Hurley as I overtook. I don't remember quite so much whitewater. (Image © Derek Wales)
The swell was quite impressive, but Scratch handled it beautifully so long as I kept my weight right back. One time, I can't remember why, I moved forward a bit, and the bow was buried in the back of the wave ahead of us – but even so the surface of the wave remained below the level of the deck.
It was never actually alarming, but I felt I was right on the edge of my ability here, this was definitely learning by doing. But after a while, I started to feel more on top of things, especially as Scratch's seaworthiness became more and more evident.
I think another set of reef points would help keep the speed down. (Image © Derek Wales)
Despite the intense concentration I was enjoying this immensely. (Image © Derek Wales)
Once the cruiser had moved on, I decided to head back towards the narrows. The wind was F5/6, the waves 3 – 4 ft and very choppy as we were getting near the head of the loch. Tack or gybe? Tack or gybe? I saw one of the safety had headed over to check on me. No standing rigging, let the mainsheet go all the way out – a gybe will be fine. I gybed. As the boom went across, the tiller caught on my body as I passed it behind me, and – over we went.
Thanks to the capsize test a couple of days before I was not alarmed – especially as the safety boat was nearby. They soon gave me a line and made sure nothing important was floating away, took me on board and gently towed Scratch, floating on her side to the shallows. Given the waves, and the lee shore, they felt that would be more sensible than me trying to right and bail out Scratch. I think I could have, especially with the drogue to slow the drift and keep her head to wind, but I was happy to rest.
Even as I was surfing Loch Ness, feeling very pleased at how well I was doing in these pretty wild conditions, I thought to myself…
Lessons learnt – and things to think about
- Scratch is powerful and fast downwind, especially in stronger winds. Keep weight aft.
- Perhaps too fast in F5/6, I was in control all the time, but near the edge. A second set of reef points perhaps.
- Keep the luff really tight for upwind sailing. I've since re-arrange the downhaul cleat to make this easier.
- Consider fitting telltales.
- The gap between the end of the boom and the tiller was too tight, making it difficult to put the tiller across when keeping out of the way of the boom when gybing. I've since shortened the tiller by 6 inches of so, a definite improvement.
- I've since been quite strongly advised that the Fleecy Buff and Tilley Hat combo is not a good look.