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Thursday, October 30, 2003

October 31, 2003-White Squall

We were sailing north in the Vela Gulf on our way to Vanga Point under the shadow of Kolumbangara, the extinct volcano known to be the home of gods whose name means "Rain King". We were happy to have wind and were wishing for more to pull our fishing lines faster but Wings was already powered up under full sail. I lazed away on deck with the wind vane steering waiting for a fish strike and Judy was down below reading. To our right the peak of Kolumbangara where the gods reside was shrouded in dark clouds and rain fell steadily on its sides but out in the Gulf it was a nice day, and we were carefree, glad to be sailing for once instead of motoring around the Solomons.

The gods on Kolumbangara watched with displeasure at our disregard for their power as we sailed by without even a glance their way. They sent out a few threatening rain squalls to dance around the shores of the extinct volcano but on Wings we took no notice, and simply sailed on. The gods then sent out one dense cloud of rain that obscured the mountain itself from our view, but we only watched its approach with slight interest, wondering if we'd get rained on.

Then the gods got angry. They sent a white squall.

The squall approached Wings with stealth, behind the rain. The wind, when it came, increased but slowly. I noticed the strengthening wind and, as Wings picked up speed under the press of canvass, I adjusted the wind vane and cranked in the sails. The wind went forward, backing, as it built. I was happy; this was sailing!

Then the wind and rain hit with a vengeance.

From 18 knots it became 22, then 26, then 30, and higher. The rain pelted down and Wings surged ahead, fishing lines singing and with a quarter wave that roared. I could see nothing around us but whiteness. The boat became overpowered with the big main set deep and full and still eased a bit out, and the boat began to round up as the wind vane struggled to maintain control. I reached for the helm and disengaged the control lines to the vane, and as Wings heeled sharply I pulled the tiller up to my chin. I looked aloft and the big main was luffing along its full length, undulating like a living thing, then waving, like a flag. Another gust hit and we rounded up more and the gentle waving turned into to a violent shaking. The mast and standing rigging and all the sheets tried to rip free of the boat and go with the wind. I wanted to run off and settle the main but I needed some more hands to ease the sheets while I steered. Judy was on deck by now and saw my difficulty and she jumped to the mainsheet winch and let out enough for me to turn the boat down. The shaking stopped as the sails filled again.

Now we ran off at 8 knots. The sea swept past in a rush and the rain hit our bare skin like lead pellets. Somewhere ahead in the mist were the reefs of Vella Lavella Island. The wind settled at 33 knots, still plenty strong and Judy took over the helm as I flattened the main and dropped the jib. We knew we should reef but downwind that would be difficult and we didn't want to take the time, not with Vella yet ahead. With the main still fully hoisted but now flat as a board, and the jib secured on deck, we turned upwind and sailed back in the direction of Vanga, now slowly and in full control. The gods on Kolumbangara saw that we were paying attention for once and they were pleased.

The squall passed.

Fred & Judy, SV WINGS, The Solomon Islands

Lat 08 deg 05 min S, Lon 156 deg 50.2 E

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