Stinker Squall

Our radar system – a Raymarine Quantum Doppler 2 – has put weather events into a whole new dimension for us. Of course, squalls in the tropics aren’t difficult to spot. It’s usually your classic dark band of cloud, hitting the horizon. Just before it hits, you can see the rain on the water. Then boom.

We have been hit by so many of these squalls in the Caribbean, it isn’t normal if one doesn’t give Quest a good wash on a passage. Except strangely, when we crossed the Atlantic, we didn’t encounter a squall until we were in sight of landfall. 2000 miles without a single one.

Since then, we’ve learned the trick is to point downwind until the squall passes. Squalls vary in strength, but as a rule they can get pretty intense.

When our radar transmits, it shows rain that is likely to hit us as a red band. This is the doppler working. The rain which is no longer a threat becomes green on our screen. That works for any object – boats included. Even though we can see most squalls, we still love this radar feature. It helps to give us more precision to prepare.

Summary: take cockpit cushions off and stow. Put on rain gear and life jackets. Girls happily go downstairs. We reef the headsail – usually furl it completely away. We don’t touch the mainsail. This is the sticky thing about having an in-mast furler. It is harder to furl downwind. You can do it if you have to, but it usually looks like a dog’s breakfast. So, we tend not to put too much of it out in the first place.

Oh boy. Technicalities. Overall, you set up and hope for the best. The squall always wants to pull you into its centre – if it has its sneaky way. All ‘no place like home’ like.

I have to admit. I thought our new radar was set up to alarm for weather, as well as floating stuff. This was the second night of our passage and I was sleeping happily again. Last time I’d done a check the Milky Way was stretching across the sky. Nothing showed on the radar. This time, I woke up to black ink. No stars. Jack was sitting upright at the plotter.

‘Squall’s on the way,’ he said.

‘The radar didn’t alarm?’

‘The radar alarm isn’t set up for weather. If I put the weather on, it just alarms all the time.’

Oh shit. Jack pointed to the direction the wind was coming. It was hard to tell sky from water. Double shit. The radar showed it too – angry bursts of red coming our way.

Go quickly into the routine. Put cockpit cushions away. Furl headsail. The sky was flashing with lightening too, so an addition – stuff devices into the oven. And bang. I was downstairs when the squall hit. I could feel Quest’s hull shiver and tense herself.

Jack remained at the helm. Both of us had put our head torches on. He sat, watching the radar screen.

‘You’re not going to hand-steer?’ I asked.

Another feature of our old electronics. The auto-pilot very rarely held us in a blow. The wind almost always over-powered it.

‘He’s doing a better job than me,’ Jack replied now.

I processed this while he sat, still ready to take over. With just the mainsail up, Quest became a steam-train. We watched her wind instrument flash. 20 knots, 25, 30. Over 30 knots, I closed my eyes. Didn’t need to see anymore. I came back to sit at the other helm but Jack brushed me forwards.

‘Go and get ready to release the outhall.’

With this, I moved to the forward winch. We’ve never done it before, but this is the quickest way to de-power a sail boat. Let out the line holding the sail. You will get an enormous flapping chaos and possibly a damaged sail, but the wind will no longer control you.

For half-an-hour, I held on to the outhall line. Rain came down in sheets around us. The wind became a steady 20-25 knots. Not once did Quest’s auto-pilot waver. It held course at a steady 180 degrees to the wind – as we were enveloped by darkness, rain and howl. Jack was able to watch and ready himself for any other sudden job to do.

Then, suddenly it was day break. The sky lightened behind us and we could see the gap in the clouds. The squall had let us go. From a maximum recorded 37.5 knots on our wind instrument to 3 knots. What has just happened?

Hard not to grin.

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