Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Real Maiden Voyage

The Neoma is pictured on her first real voyage. She is royally becalmed on Reindeer Lake, a state in which she drifted for much of this inaugural trip. Eventually, a new sailboat must go to meet the wild wind on her own terms. Flat calms were a prospect that I never bothered to envision while building. Somehow I always imagined my boat heeling to the rail, and Reindeer Lake being vast and remote, I always pictured a grey froth of forbidding whitecaps. The surprising calms of this maiden voyage were indeed punctuated by some very strong winds, and so I had chance to get to know the Birdwatcher design — and my own sail design — at both ends of the spectrum. 

The moment Mark and I launched (see picture on the last entry), the lake went dead calm. After getting afloat and away from the dock, we hoisted main and mizzen and then waited on a tiny, glassy bay. We made coffee, then lunch, then tea and were still just a few metres off shore. In fact, realizing I had forgotten something in the truck, we rowed to the dock, all sails standing, and I went up the hill for the item. Back aboard, more time passed until, in the late afternoon, just enough breeze came over our stern to push us out of that slender bay and into the lake proper. 

At this point, a squally line of thunderheads became visible to the north — the forbidding face of Reindeer Lake I had expected — and they were marching down to meet us with us with disconcerting speed. The force of the gust front was startling, instantly knocking us on our beam ends, a variety of unstowed items going a-clatter in the bilges. We were suddenly flying, the windows were bending down to the racing water, and the tiller needed two hands to control.

Looking back, we were spooked by that rush of the wind, the first hard blow to hit Neoma's crinkly new sails. The gusts were a handful and the boat still unfamiliar. If you are going to capsize a boat, it is when you are getting to know each other. The ice had only gone off about ten days earlier, and I had no desire to test the Birdwatcher seaworthiness formula just then. I declared we would run into the lee of a point and reduce sail before continuing on the widening lake. 

Recall that Neoma's workboat sail rig is "reeefed" by striking one mast altogether, and moving the remaining one to a third, intermediary mast step. Simple as this sounds, it is a lot of work repositioning six spars, re-roving the various lines, lashing down the unused part of the rig. It is a system from a prior century, an era inured to hard labour. We were still getting to know the ropes, and the snapping wind dogged our efforts. As an added challenge, we had an audience. Several aluminum skiffs had come racing across the water from the Denesuline village of Southend, bearing curious locals to see what new foolery had arrived from the city. We must have looked a circus sight amid all that flogging canvas. Teenagers laughed, and a rather handsome couple with after-dinner coffee mugs in hand looked at us with a mix of incredulity and concern. 

"Going up the lake?" said the woman. "Be careful."

No sooner did we have everything shipshape and hauled in the main, than the wind died again. It would not revive that day, which was already evening. We ghosted briefly on the remainder of the squall and nosed into a snug bay for the night, just a few miles from the boat launch.

Somewhat exhausted by the 600 kilometre drive, the capricious wind and the long day, we made camp aboard. And in this role, the Neoma performed beautifully. By moving our Rubbermaid totes full of gear into the ends of the boat, and stacking them, enough space was made available for two men to sleep, one ahead of the middle bulkhead, one abaft. The dodger unrolled and snapped into place easily, and the boat became a rain-proof, mosquito-proof floating tent. 

Earlier I have opined that the Birdwatcher is an unrowable craft for one person, and therefore that there is no point in installing oar ports as shown on the drawings. However, my store-bought opening ports serve other purposes that may make them worthwhile. Thanks to their little bug screens, you can open the ports for ventilation in camping mode. In their protected position under the gunwales, no rain will come through even in a storm. The person sleeping aft can also raise up just slightly and get a view of the weather at night. A window is nearly always welcome, and I would not want to be without my little ports.

The morning was bright and we had a nice beam wind to ride northward. We had given ourselves eight to ten days to reach as far north into Reindeer's 250 kilometre (150 mile) length as possible. We planned to sail away from the sun until our time was half gone, then turn around. The lake is so labyrinthine and island-studded that the return route would seem wholly unfamiliar. Realistically, I hoped to make it to the halfway point of Kinoosao, one of only three small villages on the whole lake. 

The nice breeze carried us through the island maze for a couple of pleasant hours before the sky clouded and the wind veered around to head us. At one point where it funneled through a narrows, we tacked several times to shoot the gap, and it seemed we might be blown against the rock walls of the shoreline there. I knew in theory that the Neoma would not be as close-winded as the dinghies I was used to, but the reality was depressing. The boat seemed to require about 140 degrees. Not only that, but the light hull lost so much momentum in coming about, that progress to windward was further compromised. We barely made that gap against the wind. 

Turning east, we then took off on a mad run, the rising wind carrying us down to another narrows, this one with a submerged rock showing on the chart in mid-channel. While Mark stood and scanned in the whitecaps for this sunker, I wrestled the helm and tried to bring the left shore close to port. The tiller bent like a sapling, and the boat wanted to broach. My sail trimming had not tamed the weather helm. The rudder seemed ready to stall, and once again we slipped through a narrow rock chute barely under control. 

Fearful of the boat's handling qualities, I started to point us closer to shores. However, this only halted our progress. It was either wrestle the tiller in big winds, or wallow in the lees. Eventually we got on a nice beam reach and made some progress, ending the day in one of the perfectly sheltered bays that are easy to find on northern lakes. Easy to find, but hard to get across the last few metres of glassy water in winds too light sail, too much to row. This would become a tedious end-of-day pattern in the early voyages.

The morning was again bright and fair and so was our mood. Mark had slept ashore and me aboard, each to our preference, and the coffee was excellent. We were slowly getting to know the boat, and we had an ace up our sleeve. I had been given a jib sail from an Enterprise and planned to try it on Neoma. Not much more than a handkerchief it was, but Phil Bolger has written in many places that a small jib can do wonders for a rig not so much by increasing area, but by shaping the airflow over the main. We would see. 

Sadly, however, the maiden voyage was about to come to a swift end. Leaning over the starboard bow to get some water from the the lake, I noticed a gap opening between the chine log and the hull side panel. Water had clearly reached the wood somehow, and the swelling was pulling the epoxied structure open. The gap was small, perhaps an eighth of an inch at most, but it was in a vital location — the hull itself. I was mortified. It is one thing to have to tinker with an experimental rig. But for the hull itself to start coming apart on the first voyage was embarrassing. 

I showed Mark, who just shrugged and left it to me to decide our course. I was the builder, after all. I had plenty of tools, spares and even epoxy aboard to do repairs. But whatever had caused the problem could appear anywhere along the chine log, and epoxy takes time to cure. There was no real chance of a tow on this lake, and only one road to its shores. Continuing further was needlessly risky.

It took two days sailing — much of it becalmed but punctuated by some tiller-wrestling in the occasional blows — to get back to the launch point. The last evening, we sailed in heavy rain, lured by favourable winds but struggling to navigate in the low light. Finally, we then slept at anchor in an exposed location, it being too dark to find a better one. The boat charged around her anchor, keeping our vestibular systems charging all night too. In the light airs, we had time to mess with the jib and found the foremast was not high enough to set it properly, so that was inconclusive. One truth was incontrovertible: Neoma was not close-winded in her current configuration, unable to get much closer than 60 degrees to the wind. 

While all this may sound like a litany of woes, it did not feel that way. We enjoyed each other's company, the eagles and trout fishing, the Labrador tea. Reindeer Lake is a stunning, pure wilderness that we got to sample, and will return to again. The final image will give a taste of paradise. Meanwhile, I had plenty of data to take back to my shop. 

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