Katabatic winds

As I left Lisbon I set my aim for Sines, down the coast. But as always I realized that my ambition combined with the winds didn’t quite add up, so I had to come up with a new plan. I saw on the chart that there was a really well protected anchorage just an hour and a half to the west of where I was at Sesimbra. It wasn’t en route, but on the other hand I was about to leave the coast and cross some open water, so this was my best alternative. The alternative was to arrive at midnight and anchor in the dark, something that I still want to avoid.

It would cost me half a day, but I’m in no hurry really. So I turned ninety degrees and aimed for the anchorage. The wind was about seven knots, so I didn’t expect any excitement. Boy, was I wrong. The coast consists of high cliffs around Sesimbra, and the wind was blowing over the hills, down onto the water. In the beginning I was just happy that the wind picked up a bit, somewhere around twelve, thirteen knots. But totally of a sudden it climbed to over twenty knots and it pushed the boat hard to port. The autopilot tried to compensate, but I saw that it was at its soft stop, at twenty-two degrees to starboard, and we we’re still turning hard towards port! At this moment all my sails were up, and at these wind speeds I would definitely have reefed if I had the time, at least one reef, maybe even two, because they were strong winds pushing Away into a hard heel. I put the autopilot in standby and tried to turn the boat to starboard, to no avail. The winds were dictating where I was going right now, and I was going straight onto the shoreline and the cliffs. There was still plenty of margin, but it is a special feeling going at nine knots straight towards a rocky wall.

So, if I couldn’t go to starboard, there was just one other option: port. I turned the rudder over the the other way and I did a piruett. Luckily I had adjusted the sails on the way into this area, they were rather tight, so there was no slamming sails risking the equipment to speak of. The boat stopped, or at least that’s how it felt like. But we were still doing five knots away from the shore, with the head sail inverted and the main sail tacked to port.

I took a few seconds to assess the situation, since the wind increased from low tens to low twenties in just seconds and I had to understand how and why. I realized that I prior this had passed a point on the shoreline, and it was likely focusing the wind, making an acceleration zone directed right at where I was. In just a few minutes sailing out of this area the winds went back to low tens again and I could continue as if nothing had happened.

I kept an eye on the shoreline, to see if there were any more acceleration zones that I had to compensate for. I was steering on my own now, since the autopilot obviously wasn’t equipped to handle situations like this. After about twenty minutes I could feel the pressure on the rudder increasing, and I saw that there was another point that I just passed. I turned towards starboard to meet the wind and this time I could continue, but the heeling was quite strong and it was obvious that I had too much sail up for these winds. After a minute or so it was as if nothing had happened, winds back to before and all was fine.

The weird thing is that it wasn’t really possible to see these winds on the surface of the water. Normally you can see the ripple that the wind makes as it pushes the water, or even larger or closer waves that starts to break. I really tried to find the line where these winds was supposed to make, but I just couldn’t find it. Maybe it was too subtle so that it hid in the waves and ripple that was already there or maybe it didn’t reach the water surface as I expected.

Closing up on the harbor where I was to anchor the wind started to pick up again. The town was surrounded by high cliffs, at least a hundred meters high, and as I approached I could feel the wind picking up, now it was at the high tens, closing up to the twenties. I turned to port, and Away heeled hard but hardly turned. I couldn’t even get the bow to point into the harbor, the winds were pushing me to the side. Every time I tried to turn more into the wind it was the same story. And then suddenly the wind increased even more, and now the wind was turning the boat to port! There was no chance to get her to go to starboard and once again I was looking straight into the cliffs at high speeds, wow!

This time I didn’t wait, I turned to port to regain control of the boat again, doing another piruett. And it worked. I had no way to get into port under sail, the winds was just so chaotic and strong that I didn’t know how it would be when I got closer to shore. Another thing was that I didn’t want to come in at speed and try to stop before getting too close to the other boats anchored. So I decided to quickly and ugly drop the sails and motor into the anchorage. I started the engine, set the autopilot to hold a steady course straight into the wind and released the sheets for the headsail while starting to furl it in. It was crazy, the strong winds was flapping the sail like mad and it was really hard to winch it in, but eventually it was in. It immediately got so much less hectic, I checked the mainsail and I needed to adjust the course a bit, but then I just dropped it. All of it, straight down. It got almost all the way, but about a fourth of the sail was still up, so I got up to the mast and pulled the last bit down.

The boat was at rest, no more heeling, no more trying to turn into the wind. I revved up the engine and set a course in behind the breakwater. After about five minutes I was behind it and night turned to day, darkness to light, a ferocious ocean to a calm oasis. It was amazing how big a difference it was. The wind was still present, but the sea was almost flat calm, just a light ripple dancing over the surface.

Where I wanted to anchor were a lot of buoys, which in them selves wasn’t a big issue. But the boats attached to them did cause some problems. So I tried to sneak up on them as close as I dared in the wind, since it was pushing me a bit sideways, and dropped the anchor as fast as I could. I use a snubber, a line that takes the strain off the windlass to avoid breaking it, and as I was letting the last piece of chain out and had the snubber take the weight off the windlass I heard someone calling. There was a guy in a boat waving at me, telling me something in Portuguese. Something something pescatore something something navigation something something. It wasn’t hard to understand what he wanted. I had anchored where the fishing boats usually was coming in and out of the harbor. I knew that, but I saw also that I had left enough space so I wasn’t blocking anything. But then again, considering the wind I had let out quite a lot of chain – I was going nowhere! – and had moved backwards considerably.

My main concern at this moment was that he would tell me off, that I wasn’t allowed to anchor in the harbor. That would have been a shitty thing, and something that I would not agreed with. But, as it were, he just wanted me to move. So I hoisted anchor (I’m beginning to get quite good at this by now) and followed him to a spot further down the beach. It wasn’t as protected as where I first anchored, but to be honest, it was just as good. so I dropped the hook again, ran my procedure and turned off the engine, finally. Ahh… What a day it turned out to be.

I checked the water temperature, it was about eighteen degrees, but there was plenty of kids in the water playing at the beach anyway, it did not feel inviting enough to me though. I snapped a photo, adding it to the album “sandy beaches I have been close to but never set my foot on” and went below to make some food. After an ordeal like this it felt just perfectly fine to sit in the cockpit, eat my food and watch the beach from a safe distance.

In the morning I sailed away from this harbor, but that is a story for another day.

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