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Bewl Water experience 29 April 2012

What an experience and what a day! I did not realise sailing could be so enjoyable for an old Granddad.

Arrived in pouring rain and strong winds. F5 fairly consistently, frequent F6 gusts maxing at F7 just for good measure. Put the helmet and camera on in the expectations of some good filming and I was not disappointed! It is in conditions like this that a dry suit is almost essential. The extreme wind, driving rain and spray would be very chilling without the suit.

 

We are now an experienced sailing team (I do the crewing, Helm does the difficult bit) and the possibility of reefing the Xenon was never even discussed - I don't think we even thought about it. We both feel thoroughly at home in the Xenon, that is until it tips us out!

We quickly launched and took care not to get blown on to the floating jetty (already been there and done that). Rudder locked down we set out for the race Starting line. Within seconds the Xenon was getting hit by heavy blasts, and as we scrambled to hike the waves (yes large waves on a reservoir!) came crashing across the bow.  This initial experience was a wake up call for me. This sail was not going to be a walk in the park. Heading upwind the Xenon behaved as though we had the gennaker pulling us. The speed and acceleration in such winds was amazing and so enjoyable. Often when partially hiking the experience was more akin to a rodeo ride than sailing and when fully hiked my back muscles quickly explained this was not part of the agreement.

 

The Race Officer (snugly ensconced in the elevated Race Box peering through rain lashed windows) had set a tricky course consisting of a slightly skewed start line to the upwind mark followed by a reach, just too tight to risk the gennaker, then a Tack around the southern mark, again leaving it a bit tight for the gennaker and then a downwind run past the headland (the headlands at Bewl can be very interesting as the winds meet or veer around them). Finally the upwind run to the finish line, dodging some moored fishing boats etc.

The first threat on the upwind mark was the temptation to stay on the starboard tack (very fast) but heading towards some water that was still relatively shallow. We tacked away as late as we dared but still found ourselves looking at the rear ends of the RS 400s just ahead of us. The waves were significant and on a starboard tack were hitting the starboard bow square on, sending cascades of water into the boat and over the crew (I lodged a complaint!).  The camera (an HD Contour in a waterproof case) was dripping.

Helm certainly had his work cut out just keeping us afloat. The advice "always keep the boat flat" was rather academic in such conditions. The Xenon was heeling so heavily with the mainsail fully out at times that the water was continuously flowing in over the starboard bow and out through the rear chutes - I felt like a spectator watching a waterfall on occasions.  It was on the tip of my tongue to explain to Helm that carrying so much water might slow us down, but thought better of it.  The self draining hull of the Xenon works extremely well and we never have to give a thought to such complications as sponges, buckets, plugs, self-drainers etc.

As we approached the southern mark we noticed a brave RS400 ahead of us round the mark and launch the gennaker. We watched with interest..... The RS400 heeled violently with much flapping and the crew showed great skill in recovering (much disappointment in our boat!) and rapidly retrieved the gennaker.  We decided to learn from their experience and delayed our launch until the next leg.  In retrospect the strong winds across the headland can result in some rapid shifts and once the gennaker is launched the sailor is committed with little option but to swim if the shift is very large and sudden.

 

As we approached the mid course marker we looked forward to a gennaker launch (the Xenon is fitted with one of the largest dinghy gennakers). Rounding the marker we launched, although we were already travelling so fast that the increase in speed appeared marginal.  Then trouble struck.  Helm was fully hiked, I had the gennaker under some sort of control (it was cracking in the shifting wind and needed to be rapidly pulled to regain control before allowing it to fly again) and was high on the side. We were hit by a sudden veering blast. Now helm is no slouch, and with the mainsail fully out the Xenon  was foaming through the water, he pulled the rudder in to allow the Xenon to follow the gennaker. I watched with a degree of astonisment as the Bowsprit and Tack of the gennaker parted company. The gennaker was now in the form of a giant flag flying from the mast.  The bow wave made a pretty sight as the boat curved through the water creating a massive wave that any destroyer captain would have been proud of!   I would have like to have stayed and watched but I disappeared into the wave and Helm was tossed over the side. All was suddenly quiet and peaceful. I did not wait to see if the Xenon would turtle -  it didn't - but quickly dived under the hoop and out to the stern to find a very peeved Helm (why is it always my fault!) climbing on to the Centreboard. Helm did a sterling job of righting us but was thrown off the side again as he did so. He managed to grab hold of the Righting Lines to prevent me from sailing off without him and work his way to the stern where I helped pull him aboard.

 

We needed to sort out the gennaker damage so headed for the shallows (no we had not abandoned the race!). Fortunately the problem was quick and simple to fix. The bobble on the bowsprit had pulled through the Tack eyelet of the gennaker (what force managed to achieve that?) and merely had to be refastened, before we launched the gennaker and resumed the race. No we were not last! nearly all boats had capsized at least once (all but one - he obviously needs me as crew). 

 

The next race was much the same wind, rain and spray with the Xenon bucking through the cross-waves. By the end of the race the wind had shifted to south south east ie the wind was blowing very strongly straight on-shore.  In these conditions the text book approach is to drop the mainsail and go in using just the jib but.....  the wind strength was such that even dropping the mainsail was extremely difficult. The wind was shifting and pinning the stiff Mylar sail to the gnav strut and it refused to move. We decided that rather than end up with a mainsail neither up nor down to sail away and return and heave to about 50 metres from the landing spot. The Xenon settled down nicelyhove to in the wind and with an almost fully raised centreboard we were gracefully blown in sideways!  Our landing could not have been more professional!

 

We were relieved not to have experienced the previous weeks landing when, with a strong westerly (straight across the landing point), we approached with the jib furled and the mainsail fully out. All went perfectly and sedately until we were about 20 metres out. There was a rapid wind shift to the south (directly on-shore) followed by a strong gust, pinning the already fully deployed mainsail to the shrouds and the Xenon leapt forwards like a dragster towards the concrete landing pad. Helm jumped out on starboard and I jumped out on port and clung on to the shrouds for dear life. The Xenon slewed to port under my weight and drag in the water (who wouldn't), freeing the wind pressure from the sail. It was a relief to feel solid ground under my feet - that could have been a nasty high speed landing.

On the same topic - we had finished sailing for the day and were enjoying a warm coffee in the Galley and admiring the skill of a young lad reaching back and forth in a Pico.   We watched when he decided to come in. Unlike the Xenon the Pico boom will swing freely so he left it free on his approach but he too was caught in a sudden on-shore gust and headed for the concrete ramp like a rocket. His father, with trolley, scattered as he drove up the ramp. The lad stepped out on to dry land completely unconcerned - who needs a trolley?

 

The sailing was so good that we even headed out for the afternoon race, and if anything the wind was even stronger although the rain had stopped and the sun was beginning to appear.  We thoroughly enjoyed the first of the afternoon races, level pegging with an RS400. I believe we capsized yet again, but we were losing count. At the end of the first race we decided to call it quits. Exhaustion was setting in but we have memories of one of the best days sailing that I can remember.

 

If you sail a Xenon and still have the energy to write an account send it to us using the contact facility.  This site is widely used by Xenon sailors who would be interested in your experiences and in learning of any hints and tips you might have.

 

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Comments

It is a pleasure and inspiration to read your blog about Xenon sailing.
I am a new owner of a Xenon and probably the first one in Israel to have this dinghy. I sail it with my children, there is room for all four of them!
The waters here in the eastern mediterranean are more choppy than in your picturesqe english water reservoir, but still fun.
Your blog and website thexenon.org have been an inspiration and big help in choosing a great and fun dinghy.
Palle

You're braver than me.  Do you think if the main was reefed you would have been quicker, as the boat would have been flatter and less capsizing ?

Anyway, can you unload some of the footage on youtube for us all too experence wthout getting wet and scared.?

Glen you may well be right.

The very point you make was discussed (after the event) at the Club. The Xenon would have travelled slightly flatter and our speed may have improved. The counter argument is that in the rather extreme conditions the Xenon would have been heavily overpowered even with a reefed mainsail. The reefing available on the Xenon is limited (for those who are not familiar with the dinghy, unlike some, it has only a single zipped reefing that certainly reduces the power and is very neat but it still leaves a lot of sail in use) and while it may have been sensible, as you suggest, to reef that would also detract from the effectiveness of the mast head buoyancy (in practice reducing the sail lowers the flotation packs). The Xenon is then more likely to turtle. I have first hand experience of this in a Force 5 in which I was helm. The Xenon turtled rapidly on that occasion.

I will have a go, in the future, at putting some footage on Youtube, but the video and soundtrack are more about the spray and rain hitting the camera and the actual view of the sailing is very bleary through the drops of water - even with a demisting coating on the camera case. But how I enjoyed the experience - at my age I should know better!