Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Great Equalizer

Sea Gem is a fantastic boat.  But like any boat, she is forged in compromise.  She is wide, which makes for a roomy interior but hurts sailing ability.  She is heavy, which makes for a comfortable motion but hurts sailing ability.  She has short masts, which permits her to clear low bridges but hurts sailing ability.  She has a shallow keel, which permits her to explore shallow areas in the Keys and Bahamas but hurts sailing ability.

Getting the point?  Sea Gem is not the best sailing boat out there.  We knew that going in, of course.  Sea Gem is designed for comfort and flexibility, at the expense of sailing speed.  Because Sea Gem has small sails for her size, she sails particularly poorly when the wind is light.  When the wind really picks up, so does our speed, and we don't have to reduce sail as quickly as other boats.  In fact, we hit 10 knots in a real blow (45-knot gusts), so Sea Gem can definitely move with the proper motivation.  But in light air, Sea Gem barely gets by and, more often than not, we need to fire up an engine (or two) to make any decent headway.

This past weekend, we sailed to Key Largo from Miami.  The wind was blowing about 8 to 10 knots.  Normally, we would expect to make no more than 3 knots in wind that light--slow enough to require some "iron wind" (engine) if we want to get anywhere at any particular time.

This time, however, we tried out the cruising spinnaker that came with Sea Gem.  We never got around to trying it before, but we will certainly be using it again at the earliest opportunity.  For non-sailors, a spinnaker is the giant, colorful sail in the front of a boat that puffs up like a balloon.  It is lightweight and is designed to achieve top performance in light winds.  In our case, the spinnaker made Sea Gem forget altogether that she is heavy and slow.

With the spinnaker, we made half the wind speed in light air.  At 10 knots of wind, we did 5 knots.  When the wind picked up to 14 knots, we did 7 knots.  Compared to our regular light-air performance, we nearly doubled our speed, which, in sailing, is nothing short of phenomenal. 

Speed aside, the spinnaker has its pros and cons.  On the downside, it is much more difficult to handle than our regular, roller-furling headsail.  First, it must be organized on deck:

Then, it must be hoisted manually in its sock:

Then, it needs to be untangled:

Then, the sock must be hoisted:

Finally, the sail needs to brought under control:

Handling the spinnaker is definitely more complex than our regular headsail, which requires little more than pushing a button.  But, on the plus side the spinnaker sure looks incredible (the "SG" stands for Sea Gem):

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