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Old 09-07-2015, 07:52   #1
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Rough Conditions in the Gulf of Mexico - Question of tactics

I just completed a crossing from Galveston Bay to St. Andrews Bay (FL). We had a great time except for pop-up t-storms one afternoon and evening. The forecast called for benign conditions and we were doing a lot of motoring but one afternoon large t-storms formed all around us; we were about 80 nm south of Mobile Bay. After the first batch hit us, the USCG issued a warning via VHF (which I was surprised we received so far out) to which the three of us onboard said "no-crap". We had multiple batches of fury well into the night. The seas remained confused to about 04:00 the next day.

We had 35 knot winds, lots of lightning, and 6 - 8' waves with very short frequency. Some rogue waves seemed even bigger and the boat was getting tossed pretty good. I made the decision to motor into the winds (which were from the north) as opposed to flying small amounts of sail. There were a few times where we were getting pushed back but we maintained good control with just 2000 rpm. We had radar showing the storms and oil rigs (which were also lit) and we had plenty of sea room in all directions.

I had a close to full tank of fresh diesel and new fuel filter and water separator filter elements so I had decent confidence in my engine despite the very rough conditions for my 35' Beneteau.

My question relates to the opinion of others regarding whether or not running off in a bit of sail would have been a better approach. If the engine died due to clogged fuel filters (or another reason) I was ready to deploy a scrap of jib and sail on. My boat heaves to but not real well and I didn't have a scrap of main out (in-mast furling) so I didn't view that as a good option. The storm came on so fast with surprising intensity that I didn't attempt to unfurl a bit of main to be in a position to heave-to. I somewhat feel this was a mistake.

We had on inflatables harness life jackets and were tethered to the cockpit. Given the lightning we had the ditch bag at the ready.

As this was my first Gulf crossing I'd very much appreciate the opinion of others regarding my tactics. We were fine but I can't help but wonder if I could have done better as skipper.

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Old 09-07-2015, 15:48   #2
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Re: Rough Conditions in the Gulf of Mexico - Question of tactics

Any voyage you walk away from is a good one! I think that you might have been more comfortable “heaved to” and you should try this out in daylight and about 15-20 knots of wind for a “lunch stop” – if you haven’t done this before. You may have to reroute a jib-sheet to clear the life-lines but you can leave the other sheet alone, since it will still be correctly routed if you “tack” out of your “heaved to” position. Once you have the jib set, you can experiment with the main to see what it takes to get a 45 degrees to the wind / waves heading – moving the traveller etc. I have found the rudder to be generally useless for this procedure and either lock it or lash it to a fore / aft position.

If you aren’t ready to heave to, you can try fore-reaching and instead of the “highly skilled helmsman” sometimes touted, use the autopilot in “wind-vane” mode. Just remember to set the reaction speed of the auto-pilot to its fastest setting. You basically reef the sails as though you are close hauled and set the autopilot for 42 degrees or so off the wind. (You need to experiment here) When you get a strong gust you punch a couple of degrees into the autopilot to head-up and then you can add a couple of degrees when the wind eases.

Short steep seas in the Gulf of Mexico at night are so much fun, especially mixed with lightning. Put your iPhone, iPod and spare GPS in the microwave for lightning protection and with your life jacket and safety tether on, read a copy of “Pecked to Death by Ducks” by Tim Cahill or even better, “Close to the Wind” by Pete Goss. Then you will realize it’s not so bad after all.
Fair Winds,

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Old 09-07-2015, 16:09   #3
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Re: Rough Conditions in the Gulf of Mexico - Question of tactics

Personally I find motoring in bad conditions the most uncomfortable for boat and crew. Usually you are square on to the waves if motoring straight into it. I'd much rather rely on sails, either reefed, shy reaching or hove to. If motoring and conditions deteriorate, the first thing I would do is raise some sail in most cases. You got home safe so there's no point doubting your decisions, but definitely practice as many tactics as possible and see how the boat behaves under various configurations and review each option afterwards for future reference.
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Old 09-07-2015, 17:00   #4
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Re: Rough Conditions in the Gulf of Mexico - Question of tactics

With your roller furling main and jib, you almost certainly would have been most comfortable fore-reaching under sail with motor assist.

A small patch of mainsail with the mainsheet hardened up on the centerline does wonders to take the rolling out of heavy seas in those winds. Because you have roller furling, you can put out however much you like. You'll find your boat to be pretty well balanced with the same amount of both jib and main out, however much it takes to make comfortable speed. In those winds it would be small indeed, but roller reefing gives you infinite possibilities. Just pull out the main until the boat is steady, and then pull out the jib to balance the helm on course.

Given enough fuel, I'd also keep the motor running to maintain positive rudder control as the boat goes through the wave troughs. Sometime the wave motion will run as fast as the boat, and the rudders become ineffective with no relative motion, causing a "wallowing" and S- curve effect. This is most apparent when you're running but can happen on any point in heavy seas. Having the engine running can push the boat a bit faster than the current and help minimize this effect.

Wind-vane mode on the autopilot to maintain the fore-reaching is an excellent idea. I'm going to add that to my bag of tricks.
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Old 10-07-2015, 17:37   #5
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Re: Rough Conditions in the Gulf of Mexico - Question of tactics

I appreciate your replies and opinions. All reflect my thinking that I should have unfurled a bit of sail and angled off. The main reason I didn't was that we were remaining relative dry as the storms were mostly wind and lightning events. My thinking was that we would have been soaked from the windward side via the steep waves with such short frequency. Thanks again!
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