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Heavy Weather Advice for Light Weight Sailors

We recently sailed over 4,000 miles westward across the windy, wave-tossed Indian ocean. This journey reminded me why I'm such a Star Trek fan – not because I like science fiction but because I desperately want to be able to say, "Beam me up, Scotty!"

That's right – I'm an international weather wimp. The funny thing is that many sailors think I know something about heavy weather because I've ocean-sailed for the last five decades and circumnavigated a time or two. I don't. Everything I know about "storm tactics" can be summed up by hitting myself in the head with a hammer – as in, "Boy, it sure feels good when it is over."

Like most sailors, I'm not brave at sea. Only later – while telling sea stories in a warm, cozy rhum shop – am I courageous, valiant, heroic, noble, and/or smart.

Landlubbers love nautical myths – like the British gentlemen calmly sipping champagne on the slanted aft deck of the Titanic as the band sorrowfully played "Nearer My God to Thee!" I do not believe this is how the sinking went down. "… bitch took off with de kid and all her jewelry – left me wid empty pockets and a bar tab!" is a more likely scenario.

So I admit I'm not an expert on heavy weather. However, I know sailors who are. Thus I recently asked my dear friends Hin and Harry Parody, authors of Stormy Tactics, what was the most important piece of survival gear on their boat.

"… depends," said Harry Parody.

Actually, any brand of incontinence product will do – but I found Harry's sage advice both honest and insightful. Yes, big waves really DO scare the crap out of you! That's why you need large cockpit scuppers as well – if you're going to pee at the sight of every 30 foot breaking wave in the Indian Ocean … well, you'll need good drainage.

My wife Carolyn is an intelligent realist who has no respect for me. Her insight and vast knowledge concerning my character is based on long, sad experience: "They call them the Roaring Forties because I can't hear Fatty's cowardly whimpering over the wind-roar," she says, "and the Furious Fifties because that's what I get when he won't head back toward the equator. I mean, the whole time we sailed around the Cape of Storms off the southern tip of South Africa – I kept screaming '… well, this 58 year-old menopausal woman is certainly furious … !'"

Of course we've made massive progress in heavy weather management IF you have the proper (read expensive) survival equipment. Example: say you want to snap your rudder off. There are two modern ways to do so. You can deploy your Paratech sea anchor and snap it off while having your vessel shoved backwards by a massive wave or you can deploy a Jordan series drogue off your transom to snap it off in a completely different manner. See why it is important to have options?

As faithful All at Sea readers know, I'm fascinated by nautical lingo. Example: a sailor puking into a marine toilet is said to be "… calling 'Ralph' on the big white phone."
The fact is, my wife Carolyn also pukes like a metronome during heavy weather. If I want to join her, I simply balance my reduced-canvas vessel 45 degrees off the wind – and do so. This used to be calling 'heaving, too,' but was shortened over time.

Ye old square-rigger sailors were a tough lot. They weren't coddled, no sirree. They didn't stoop to adult diapers or even Gore-tex foul weather jackets – back in those days 'bare poles' meant exactly that. And that's why there were no women aboard – with the naked sailors running around slippery decks, well, pole-vaulting overboard off Cape Horn could be a real possibility.

Many offshore sailors are so overwhelmed during a major storm that they do nothing – and only later "pretend" to be a good ship's husband when the weather clears. This is called "lying ahull" with good reason.

I know, I know, sailing across an ocean is a stone-age, caveman, mano-macho thing to do – even though, a few weeks ago, primitive sail craft were the only transportational devices moving across the Atlantic Ocean. (Icelandic volcanos don't affect Wild Card's performance or longevity a'tall!)

Of course, I must admit that I have learned a few tiny lessons during the last 100,000 ocean miles. For instance, blame the weather forecast is a tried-and-true storm tactic. Let's say you're sailing the Caribbean in mid-September and you get hit by a "surprise" hurricane. Let's also say NOAA predicts the storm to have 88 knots winds and you get one gust to 92 knots … then you are allowed to blame the Federal Government of the United States of America for your dismasting.

That's fair.

Let's look at another common scenario: you are sailing along in a major gale with your spinnaker up – and your vessel suddenly gybes without your permission. This is what is commonly known as an "act of God" and you are completely in the clear.

Modern sailors and seamanship have come a long way. It used to be sailors read Bowditch, now they carefully pore over their insurance policy before a storm.

Yes, times change. Back in the 1960s, we used to brag how "well-lit" we were during a major blow … now that's frowned upon.

It goes without saying that certain types of hull shapes do better than others. For instance – most trailerable sailboats survive hurricanes … if well-strapped to their trailers and moved to higher ground.

There are modern marine mathematical formulas that take the guesswork out of storm analysis. Take wave height, for example. If you take the actual size of the wave, multiply it by the years since and the number of drinks consumed during recital – you can get a very accurate measurement of what really happened.

All sailors are prone to exaggeration. For example, I once spent an afternoon with Tristan Jones – during which he attempted to fill up his wooden leg with rhum. (It must have been going somewhere!) Anyway, there was a mirror on his cockpit table and a little gust of wind blew some white powder off it. Later I read about this incident in one of his books …

"… it was blow'n so hard, it peeled the Awlgrip off our topsides! Yeah, I had to tuck a reef into the ensign. My ears were popping on the crests – and in the troughs, I was able to scoop up live lobsters. I can't tell you the wind speed – as my anemometer only read to 100 knots. (But the spinning cups sounded louder than a military helicopter.) Oh, the waves were big … so big that in the middle of the Pacific I could see both the Indian AND the Atlantic oceans … big freak'n waves! And then she started to leak … why, that boat sprung more leaks than the White House! Luckily I switched on my Monica Lewinsky – that's what I call my big beautiful bilge pump – and she saved the day. During all this, because of my wooden leg … well, I fell down more often than a David Letterman intern …"

Some spouses, of course, use a survival storm to … to shirk their matrimonial duties. I once had a girlfriend who claimed to be a virgin in seas over six inches – but she wasn't my girlfriend for long.

My wife Carolyn and I have a set routine when heavy weather strikes: she opens up our salt-stained encyclopedia and converts to all the major religions (why take chances, eh?) and I settle down with my iPod to listen to Elvis, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin … so that I can honestly say, if we don't make it through the storm, "Hey! I was just listening to you guys!"

In reality, the only real storm tactic I can offer is to keep your sense of humor dry. We were buried by a huge sea off Madagascar – and it swept our decks completely clean of diesel jugs, storm curtains, boat hooks, cockpit cushions, man-overboard poles – you name it. "Ah," I shouted gaily at my wife, "… spring cleaning, Fatty-style!"

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of "Chasing the Horizon" by American Paradise Publishing, "Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies," "The Collected Fat" and his newest, "All at Sea Yarns." For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com.

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