Shakedown… sail-ish?

Having finally finished all of our critical boat work and spring cleaning, the time finally came to take our boat out for the first time this season.  In our case, this would also be our very first “shakedown sail”, which we’ve been looking forward to for a while.  Unfortunately, the weather had other plans.

Note: This post originally appeared on our sailing blog, The Bay and Beyond, which now redirects here.

The term “shakedown sail” originated around the time ships were transitioning from sail to engine power.  In early motor vessels, the engine’s vibration in the hull would sometimes be so severe that fixtures and fittings in a new boat would literally shake loose and fall down.  Thankfully, modern engines and isolating engine mounts make severe vibrations a thing of the past, but the “shakedown” term stuck.  These days, it typically means running the boat and its systems through a number of tests, often pushing it to its limits to assess its characteristics.

Ellie and I were looking forward to our first shakedown sail in order to test the sails and rigging while starting to get a feel for how our boat handled under sail.  However, after several weeks in a row of beautiful weather with light winds, the forecast for this weekend was less than ideal.  The temperature had been dropping all week, and we had a string of storm systems moving through the area carrying pretty heavy winds.  Even though the storms were gone by the time the weekend arrived, the fresh winds were still lingering.  Here’s the forecast we woke up to on Sunday morning:

PredictWind forecast for Sunday, May 7th.

One of our favorite apps for sailing is PredictWind, which provides wind and weather forecast data merged from several different sources.  In addition to forecast tables and graphs, the app includes interactive map overlays that really bring the forecast to life.

Anyways, things were not looking good for an afternoon of relaxing sailing.  Sure enough, by the time we got to the boat, the NOAA weather radio was reporting sustained west/northwest winds of 15 knots with gusts up to 30 knots.  We prepped the boat for sailing anyways and with the help of Bill, our experienced sailing mentor, Ellie took the helm as we backed out of our slip for the first time!

As we motored east down our home creek towards the bay, it quickly became apparent that actual sailing may not be in the cards for us.  As we reached the mouth of the creek, we finally felt the full force of the unobstructed wind, including frequent puffs (gusts) that caused the boat to heel just from the windage of the mast and rigging alone.  Bill suggested that instead of attempting to sail under such stiff wind, we practice motoring around the neighboring creeks; the bay would have to wait until another day.  Ellie got a lot of helm time as we negotiated the twists and turns of several nearby creeks.  Shielded from most of the wind, we spent a very pleasant couple hours checking out the gorgeous homes and boats that lined the creeks.

Finally, after a wet and bumpy beat back through the inlet into our home creek, the wind died enough to lure us into raising the sails for the first time.  While Ellie pointed us into the wind, Bill and I hoisted the main.  After a quick turn to fill the main, we were finally sailing!  The wind remained light just long enough to convince us to unfurl our genoa, which happily caught the breeze and gave us a bit more speed.  A few moments later, however, we cleared a branch in the creek which exposed our starboard side to a long fetch of unobstructed wind and taught us a quick lesson in gust handling.  The sudden strong wind buried our port rail in the water, and the boat immediately tried to round up (turn itself into the wind).  Bill took the helm and showed us how to recover (thanks, Bill!).  We took that experience as a clear signal that it was indeed not a great day for sailing!  The sails came down and we turned for home.

Ellie took the helm again as we neared our slip.  Even though it was a difficult approach due to the stiff wind blowing off the dock she guided us in perfectly, as if she’d been doing it for years!  A few dock lines later and we were all snug back in our slip.  All in all it was a good experience even if it was mostly a day of motoring.  We both got some helm time and a good feel for how the boat handles under power.  Even though we were under sail only briefly, we were able to verify most of the running rigging and got some valuable experience.

We can’t wait to take the boat out again to continue practicing our docking, undocking, and sail handling; hopefully with some lighter air!