Thursday, November 15, 2012

Midnight Squall...

TIME: 2012/11/15 11:14 UTC (1:14AM local)
LATITUDE: 16-08.68S
LONGITUDE: 165-57.73W

Midnight Squall

At midnight it was my watch, our position 294 nautical miles SE of Pago Pago, American Samoa. Half awake I made my way to the cockpit where the cool night air helped wash the grogginess away. Our biggest spinnaker was pulling nicely and LightSpeed, our Chris White designed Atlantic 42 catamaran, was slicing through the inky black seas at 8 knots. The night sky was filled with brilliant stars and within a few minutes I enjoyed not one, but two shooting stars. Being a bit superstitious, I cast a wish for a safe voyage as the meteors streaked across the sky. LightSpeed was in her element accelerating down the bigger waves, catching a surf up to 10 knots at times. A 2 meter quartering sea was a little annoying and the large spinnaker snapped and cracked as LightSpeed shrugged off the seas.

The cooler temperatures were a welcome reprieve from the sauna like daytime conditions. My middle of the night drowsiness was abating as I moved into the pilot house and plopped in front of the navigation desk. I checked the course and looked for ship traffic on the collision avoidance AIS display. All was good so I toggled the Furuno radar from standby to active and the familiar green glow of the screen began to sweep the darkness. I wasn't too worried to see the signature of a squall looming in the distance. We'd seen plenty of squalls on this voyage, but they'd all lacked much punch. The day before I'd even commented to Kathy that such menacing looking clouds were only delivering a few rain drops and little extra wind.

However, with each sweep of the radar this midnight squall grew noticeably. I went back on deck and peered into the night trying to size up the situation. Without a moon to light the clouds, all I could see was a large dark area several miles wide that was blotting out the otherwise star filled sky. I was starting to feel a bit concerned, but convinced myself this squall would be just like the 20 others that had passed over us in the last few days. I'd need Kathy's help to douse the big spinnaker if the wind got up , but I decided to hold off rousing her from her slumber.

A steady 15 knot breeze was filling the sail, but any increase in wind from a squall would translate to increased boat speed up to a point where it could get scary fast and potentially blow our spinnaker to shreds. I headed back in the pilot house to evaluate the track of the squall on the glowing radar screen. What looked like a small squall on the radar earlier had now grown to a large blotch 4 miles wide on my screen. Worse the blotch was tracking directly down on our position.

Back out on deck I felt the air temperature drop a few degrees. This is a sure sign that there is major convection going on in the cloud and solid indication that the squall would be packing plenty of wind and heavy rain. The wind was just starting to build and the boat speed was now touching 12 knots. For a moment I thought we might just enjoy the ride as long as the wind didn't kick up much more. I altered course 20 degrees to keep the spinnaker solidly set and within a moment the lines began to creak in complaint as the wind increased and the speedo bumped 14 knots. It was now or never if I wanted off this ride.

In hindsight, I'd already waited too long and now it was fire drill time if the spinnaker was coming down in one piece. I gave the emergency knock on the cabin top to rouse Kathy and she stumbled into the cockpit, but not as quickly as I would have liked as the wind was still building and the speedo was now reading 15 knots of boat speed. I had Kathy blow the port sheet and guy to de-power the sail while I hauled on the dousing sock. It wasn't a second too soon as the wind really started to howl and I struggled to hold on to the spinnaker sock as I tied it to the deck.

Our anemometer had failed about a week previous from the apparent cause of seized bearings in the mast head transducer. Now with the wind blasting at gale force the friction was overcome and the wind instrument was reading 34 knots. Our squall was now 6 miles wide by 3 miles deep and the skies had opened, lashing the decks with a heavy monsoon rain.

At this point Kathy having seen enough took the frazzled cat and went back to bed. I had my night watch ahead of me and a small mess to sort out. The spinnaker which was still hoisted in it's dousing sock was shaking furiously and lines were a tangled mess. The cockpit was puddled with water and needed a squeegee.

As the squall eventually passed I was faced with the decision to relaunch the spinnaker or not. Back to the radar I found squalls splotched plentifully across the screen. So, I called it a night and dropped the soggy mess of spinnaker into the forward hatch. I was happy to sail lazy, under jib alone for the remainder of the night.

That's it for now.

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