Bay tripper

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Wind power is free, but it ain’t easy

Wind power is free, but it ain’t easy

The soaring price of gasoline takes me back to the 1970s and long lines at the pump — which ironically is what is happening in oil-rich Iraq, where subsidized gas sells at the equivalent of 5 cents a gallon. By Labor Day weekend, our prices had passed the $3 mark but still no lines.

Who or what is to blame? Hurricane Katrina’s destruction along the Gulf Coast has certainly played a big part. Greedy oil gougers? Limited fuel supplies? The war in Iraq? And what does all this have to do with boating?

Well, during the ’70s there seemed to be a surge of interest in sailboats because of lines at the pump and the fact that wind is free. A switch from power to sail, however, may or may not be in the cards this time around.

Why? Maybe because powerboaters who tried sailing were put off by its complexities, or it was just too slow-going for their temperaments. They were unable to equate speed on the water at 7 or 8 mph, as sailors do, so fuhgeddaboutit.

I’m not happy at the pump when I pay $15-plus to fill a 5-gallon container that will, in turn, fill my on-board auxiliary tank to power my older 5-hp 2-stroke outboard. Those prices and that volume would send a boater with a 35-foot twin-engine cabin boat into hysterical laughter, but my fellow sailors will understand.

It simply has nothing to do with speed as powerboaters know the term. I can handle 30 miles under power when I must in no-wind conditions, but even then — at the outrageous but continuous speed of 4 or 5 knots — I still have less than a half-tank left upon arrival at my slip.

Putting out $400 (or more) at the gas dock in one crack would be out of the question for me, which is why I continue to dodge going over to The Dark Side. But one of these years, if I wish to continue going out on the water, I may be faced with making that fateful, life-changing decision, and gas prices may have nothing to do with it.

That dark thought occurred to me in mid-August in a 12-knot southerly with building whitecaps and a strong flood tide. Sailing out of Annapolis, Md., I decided to take a series of fairly short tacks to get upwind in order to have a sweet wing-and-wing run home with the whisker pole rigged.

There are a few reasons for this. When I encounter larger boats trying to sail wing-and-wing without a pole set, the jib flopping about uselessly, I jump on the opportunity to overtake them in my Sailmaster 22 pocket cruiser. But as I get older, and my strength, footing, balance and dexterity on the foredeck begin to diminish, I have begun to question the wisdom of performing such single-handed acrobatics on a pitching deck. It is no simple task, but I have a reason to get into details, so please be patient.

OK, I rig my self-steering apparatus to put me on a broad reach and then dash to the foredeck to unsnap the pole from its dedicated perch on the mast. I free the topping lift, and the pole hangs there suspended at the right angle, stopped by a knot, as I unfasten the jaw at one end from the gooseneck in preparation to quickly grab the end of a flailing jibsheet dancing wildly in the air.

Now it gets a bit complicated. The more I pull in the clew end of the sheet to grab it, the more the bow begins to turn into the wind, making it harder to pull in the sheet because the sail is beginning to fill. I pop open the jaw fitting at the outboard end of the pole with a pull line, and snag the end of the jumping sheet with my free hand and pull it toward me. (Two spaced stopper knots are tied into the ends of each sheet, so if I miss one open space I have a chance to grab the other.) Meanwhile, the pole is banging about near my unprotected head, which makes me think I should be wearing a helmet.

Once the outboard pole end is secured in place between the stopper knots, I push the pole out and snap the inboard end back into the gooseneck. This allows me to grab a snap shackle on a downhaul control line that leads from the cockpit to the foredeck, and snap it to a bronze bale fixed to the underside of the middle of the pole. By this time the boat has rounded up and stopped, with main and jib flogging, which allows me time to dash back to the cockpit and gain control of the situation.

But the maneuver is not over yet.

I pull in the sheet a bit to go on a broad reach, cleat it at the winch, and then pull in the downhaul line and secure it to a jam fitting abaft the winch. After pulling in the main and beginning to move, I fall off the wind and jibe the main, adjust the pole angle with the working sheet, and go running downwind, wing-and-wing. At some point there comes the time to unhook all this business, which means another trip to the foredeck. Thankfully, it is easier and quicker than rigging the pole.

I go into all this confusing detail because I cannot possibly imagine a powerboater who makes the switch to sail going through such moves. But that is part of the sailing game, and those of us who play it accept the problems that go with the sport. On the other hand, I don’t go through this craziness when the wind gets stronger, opting instead to broad reach and jibe downwind. This decision keeps me off the foredeck and on my butt, and progress is just as good. But nothing is sweeter than overtaking a larger sailboat trying to go wing-and-wing without a whisker pole stabilizing the jib. Skippers just stare at me as I whiz by. I love it.

Getting back to the point I was trying to make at the beginning: These spiraling gas prices now give me even more reason to sail when I should be sailing and not powering. There was a time a few years ago when I used to shout at sailors with all sails furled or rolled when there was no reason for them to be under power. I stopped that after a friend, Dave Gendell, editor of SpinSheet (a free Chesapeake Bay sailing magazine based in Annapolis), caught me heading home under power and took me to task for it. He asked why I was not sailing, and I realized he had me. I explained, duuhhhhh, that I was in a rush to catch the Spa Creek drawbridge opening. He laughed and shook his finger at me; I covered my face in shame.

In the meantime, I will sail not to conserve fuel but for the sheer joy of sailing. On the highway I have cut back to driving at posted speed limits and slower. That has made a difference in fuel consumption. But I have long been conserving fuel on the water — not because I want to but because I am feeding a 5-hp 2-stroke, not exactly a gas guzzler.

So on Labor Day weekend I was off cruising with a 5-gallon tank strapped to the starboard deck and a 5-gallon auxiliary tank in the lazarette topped off.

Maybe I will find fewer powerboats out on the water, which is perfectly acceptable to me. Or maybe they will be going slower, which will mean less wake to knock me about. One thing I know for certain: At full speed (with the outboard) I cannot go much faster than 5 knots, and even under full sail I will probably go less. I also know I will not be canceling cruises and, in fact, if fewer powerboats are out on the water I may cruise more.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.