Wind and Fuel / by duncan mckenzie


Captain Tom told me something which really brought home the enormous gap in understanding between users of sail and motor vessels.

We completed an eight hour sail that took us from Ciutadella, ancient town of west coast Menorca, to Puerto Pollenca on the east facing coast of the neighbouring island of Mallorca, a distance of some 35 miles. I will explain what such a voyage is like, then explain the chasm of understanding.

One prepares for such a voyage. Eight hours might not sound that much but when you sail you get physical and you must concentrate. As the wind and sea state changes, which they invariably do, you have to monitor and react. You are on deck, adjusting lines, tuning sails. 

For example things started well with a reasonable following wind. We had the mizzen sail at the back on the small mast and the mainsail in the middle on the main mast, and the genoa (foresail), all slackened off to be like walls or bags catching the wind from almost dead behind us. However after 30 minutes we reached the headland which marks the westerly-most point of Menorca. 

We saw what was coming, it was quite evident on the horizon. Curls of wave forms crossed from right to left, tangles of water rising up from a flat sea surface. It was the point where the land on our right ran out, along with the shelter it gave. It was the DMZ, the point where we became exposed to the full sea state, a strong residual swell resulting from a storm miles away in the Gulf of Lyon to the north that played out in the preceding days. This hit us on the starboard (right) side, diagonally, from behind, sending our boat into a kind of corkscrewing motion. 

As if this wasn’t enough, simultaneously the wind decided to die off. With a good wind (13 knots plus ) a boat like ours, heavily built and with a long underwater keel, will be pulled steadily through all this messy water. She will break the smaller waves and tension her way through the larger swell, creating an enviable stability against nature’s best. The sails drive her and create her own centre of gravity, like a gyroscope operating from the centre of the vessel. But without a good wind in the sails she becomes a sitting duck to the watery articulations around her. 

Inside the cabin the party begins. Well-lodged things start to fall off shelves, a whole pineapple thuds on the wooden cabin sole. The contents of locked cupboards start to chatter and mingle like at a good party, towels fall off rails, books slide off tables, the water in the toilet bowl may slop over the rim. Not good. Not highly relaxing, at all. 

Now that the wind had dropped to about 9 knots, and the boat was rolling around like a drunk, the sails we had up were joining the party. The two mast-rigged sails began to clang their metal pins as their booms swung left and right by the wave motion, the canvas flogging in sharp cracks, the wind insufficient to pin them in one position. The foresail was similarly disturbed and rubbing on the metal wires that holds up the mast. In a flat sea this little wind would have been something useful, but in this 1.5 metre swell the sails couldn’t cope. 

We decide to roll up the foresail and drop the mainsail, lashing the small mizzen sail in line with the boat to create some sideways stability. After all that, an intense five intense of activity, clipped on with harness on a deck that resembled a rodeo machine, we pulled out the cruising chute. This is a kind of large, lightweight bag of a sail that is used for lighter winds coming from behind. It is orange, very orange, and goes very well with a navy blue hull (from the passing seagull’s point of view, at least). It is so big and unruly that it comes wrapped in huge white condom. You hoist the tip of the condom up to the top of the mast, this entire 11 metres deflated white sausage hanging down to the deck. pocking out of the bottom of the condom are two sail corners. You tie the front corner to the deck at the bow, and the back sail corner to some control lines going back to the cockpit winches. Then you pull a thin line which controls the condom, pulling it up from the bottom edge. The condom wrinkles up and lifts to the top where it stays, revealing reams of orange sail, which as soon as it makes contact with wind, turns into the most beautiful orange curvaceous wind-catcher and pulls forward against its lines. 

Suddenly the boat has a tension capable of countering the rolling motion as we are pulled forward by this enormous orange half bra. Everything changes comfort-wise. There is a resemblance of order on the boat, the party quietens down, we can think again. Also the FastCAT ferry from Mallorca finally notices our huge oranges and changes course to our north, to our relief. We figured we could sail between its two hulls but we would lose the mast in the process.

For the next 5 hours or so we sailed forth, Menorca becoming smaller, lower, hazier, just as Mallorca’s hills became visible, taller, clearer. We managed to cook some tortellini eaten with olive oil and black pepper, some fruits, made some tea, all in a controlled but still rolling boat. Maia filmed the stove rolling left and right on its gimbals with the boats motion, the pasta pot swinging with it, steam swirling. 

As we approached the outer bay of Pollenca, the wind dropped a little more, changed direction from north east to south east which caused a confused sea state with the new southeast wind waves clashing with the northeast residual swell. It was an ugly mess. Our orange busty half bra started to fold in on itself and make explosive cracks as the canvas flexed tight, testing the seams. What’s more, I noticed that one of the lines controlling it was chafing on the stainless steel pulpit. I had set it up wrong perhaps, or needed a higher fixing point than was available. It was time to get the sail down.

As Maia loosened the line holding the back of the sail, the sail flew out in a glorious wrinkled  twisting drape and simultaneously I, wobbling by the mast on a rolling deck, pulled the thin line that brings down the condom over this orange madness to restore order and drop the sail. That was the plan anyway. Instead the wind piped up just as the the condom stuck half way down due to a prior twist that I had not seen, and half an orange bra was flailing around, occasionally catching wind and trying to hoist me into the sea. I shouted at Maia to clip on and get on deck, I needed to drop this entire mess lower onto the deck, and her to sit on the bottom of the sail to stop it going in the sea. At that point the rope holding the sail up developed a twist of its own and I expounded every last drop off energy bruising against the mast and heaving against this unwelcome friction to get the sail down onto the deck. 

Not wanting to go into too much detail, but the point is, that when you sail for eight hours, you have an experience. You don’t know what is next. The present moment is ever-changing, and you are compulsorily caught in it. There is no escape, no stepping off to dry land for a coffee and a re-think. An so you are in the moment, this eight hour moment, and when you reconsider your journey from Menorca to Mallorca, even months or years later, you have all these memories flooding back, these mini trials and tribulations, and your heart beats with the heart of nature, its elements, its rhythms, the wind and the sea. You can say you have evidently travelled, you have voyaged between two places.

Which brings me back to my original premise concerning the gratuitous. 

Captain Tom lives on a sail boat himself but his employment is to skipper one or two large motor yachts, the kind that might be called ‘gin-palaces’ or ‘stinkers’ on account of the smell they make when motoring along. Typically around 80 to 120 feet long, they have enormous engines which enable this huge bulk to move quickly from A to B. Tom told me that when such a vessel makes the afore-mentioned journey, which took our 38 foot yacht eight hours, they complete it in just under an hour. They need the sea to be quite flat as they have no steadying sails, but when all is well, they can cane it at 30 plus knots and get there in a flash. He and his deck hand do the navigation and mooring stuff and the owners sits back with their buddies and their gin, presumably, and stare at the passing yachts, and then they are there. 

The mild catch is that the journey costs €2000 in diesel!! It cost us perhaps €8, or 5 litres of fuel, from the brief motoring at either end of the voyage when mooring. It’s not only the money, it’s the idea that for an hour of gratuitous speed you can burn that much fuel. Quick calculations suggest a use of around 1,500 litres of fuel. And just so that they can feel a brief thrill simultaneous with the over-arching drone of a many thousand horsepower engine and the repeated explosions of the bow as it shatters waves, causing disarray to other craft and worse to any passing turtles, as they check their iPhones for developments. And then they arrive in time for the next restaurant reservation, presumably. 

Such a form of travel shows a poor awareness or respect for the state of our crowded under-resourced world. The word gratuitous comes to mind. Possibly philistine, as well. Then they brilliantly miss out on the experience of making a journey, it becomes inconsequential, a by-product of the need for speed. It is like any other of their journeys, it is all about them, the boat, the superimposition of power and force over what is around them. Other than the questionable acquisition of status, I cannot see the attraction of such a pursuit. You lose on all fronts!