Tillerman has challenged
us to report our worst mistake or most embarrassing moment while sailing.
Now was it when I crash gybed a yacht in front of a rapidly on-coming Greek ferry? (nope, just learning then, doesn't count)
Or was it on the round the island race when our navigator got so sea sick he got stuck in the cabin unable to undo the lock to get out and then missed two buoys? (nope, wasn't me, so again doesn't count).
Or broaching a brand new yacht in the Solent with an inexperienced crew including some single women who for some reason didn't want to talk to me afterwards? (nope, probably some other reason for that).
So must be the case of the midnight shredder. I was onboard Boss
's Ocean Wanderer with 5 others crossing the Atlantic on the Arc - gosh, back in 2003 - and we were only about 3 days out of St Lucia.
We were feeling pretty good - even confident - which can be very dangerous. We'd had a bad accident with the spinnaker halyard shredding one crew members hands to bits the previous week but since then moral had improved and we'd just done the spinnaker gybe so one watch could go below.
It was so nice on deck the off-watch remained to chat. The air was warm and the full moon rising high in the tropical night. I was at the wheel as we headed deep downwind, and we were exchanging jokes.
My attention slipped (it must have been a good joke), just for a second. And the spinnaker wrapped itself round the forestay, and kept wrapping round and round and round.
At first we were pretty relaxed - we'd had several wrap and a bit of heading into wind, pulling on the sheets and they had generally come free. This one just kept on getting worse.
The skipper and mate went forward to have a look and were baffled: the top half was wrapped one way the bottom half the other. They tried all sorts of tricks from unwinding manually (no good, which ever way they went the other half just got worse) to letting the kite fly (no good, it acted, er, like a kite, and was caught by the wind, at one point streaming horizontal. It looked rather beautiful lit up by the moon).
Then it started to shred. Boss are well known for accounting for each paper-clip, so loss of a whole spinnaker wasn't going to look good. This had to be stopped and fast - someone had to fix it. And that meant going up the mast and coming down along the forestay, unwrapping it as you went. So I volunteered.
Thing was, I was feeling really
guilty. Yes, spinnakers do wrap, but I had let my concentration slip, and had been on the wheel at the time. So I got prepared and the bo'sun's chair was attached to one of the spare halyards.
Just as we were about to start the hoist the mate managed to unwrap the wayward sail. Maybe all the flying horizontal had ironed out some of the coils, but now the end was clearly in sight and soon the sail was done on the deck where the damage could be inspected. So I didn't have to go up the mast.
It was really really disappointing. I don't mind heights that much and going up the mast would have felt like balancing the mistake. And then there would have been the bragging rights "yeh, I've been up the mast, middle of the night too, it was nothing really".
But mostly can you imagine what it would have been like with the moonlight glittering off the waves and the mast swaying gently under the rolling waves that follow the trade wind from Africa?
It taught me to focus when on that point of sail - on all the information available, from the feel of the motion under foot to the sound of wind and sail. Since then (touching wood) haven't had another problem. Indeed during the Fastnet I helmed the most during our watches when the spinnaker was up - in particular at night.
Because the important thing about mistakes is they are the best of all learning experiences and if you don't get them you'll never really be able to sail.