January 31, 2009 – 2115utc 43/36S 51/42W, sailing away from France discouragingly. We’re trying to get to the other side of this massive low that is forecast to envelope the entire southwestern South Atlantic. Tacked last night to head for the oncoming trough. I thought I had it figured out with the weather map files and information from NOAA from the US. The only map that disagreed was France Meteo, which of course turned out to be right, or at least I think.  We have since I’ve gone 100 miles past where the weather files said the trough would be, up to 6 hours from when it was supposed to be there, and I’m still going west to find the trough.

Discouraging, but it’s better than what I was a few hours ago. At least now, although the barograph is still going down at a 45 degree angle, we have some change that must be happening. Earlier we went through some rain showers, and then occasional patches of blue sky, and now the wind has dropped from the 35-45 knots that we had, with 18- to 21-foot breaking seas that built out of nowhere, and we had storm jib and 3 reefs in the main.

Then it got to 50 knots of wind, and the boat was going 20 knots down the seas. I could not decide whether it was more risky to try to lower the mainsail in 50 knots of wind, or to let the boat continue to fly along at 20 knots. Finally the wind lessened in velocity. This kind of sailing is frightening, and it wears on your nerves–particularly when all the data is wrong. But then you are back to sailing the way we did 30 years ago: using a barograph, looking at the windex to see the wind direction, and looking at how angry the seas are to tell the wind velocity.

Luckily, I can get the storm jib up quickly, and we have a good system for that with a deck bag. The storm jib has been lashed on deck since we sailed past South Africa. I think that I have had it up probably 15 or 16 times, and we’ve had the mainsail down entirely at least twice, maybe three times to slow the boat down in extreme winds.

Right now, the wind is down, but frankly, I don’t trust it to put up the staysail and get going again. The barograph is at 984 millibars, and still heading downward. I have been struck by how stunningly accurate the grib (weather map) files have been for barographic pressure, but not at all for wind direction or velocity, and it only took a little bit of time this morning to match up our barograph and the grib files to see that they were off in ways that they haven’t been before, so something was definitely wrong.

The real challenge in these situations is dealing with the internal decision-making and self-doubt: should I take the main down, or not; when does that staysail get rolled up and the storm jib gets put up; should we run off with these huge seas and prodigious speed and risk burying the bow, or should we try to jog upwind a bit at very slow speeds, without the mainsail? Who knows what the right answer is?

I was just getting the foul weather gear on, trying to muster a decision on the mainsail when the wind hit 50 knots, and the boat speed hit 21.3 knots down a wave. Then as quickly as it all sped up, it suddenly started to diminish. Who can tell? I need my weather guru Jean-Yves Bernot out here!