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Anchoring a 440-foot cruise ship under sail

Jan 1, 2003

To the editor: There's something magical about sailing into a pristine anchorage under the silence of full sail. Confident from years of experience, you ease up on the weather helm and let the trade winds pull the bow into the warm breeze. Your boat speed drops steadily as the sails begin to luff, signaling the anchor's release. The sails are dowsed while your boat drifts steadily aft; cable and line are paid out until you finally come to rest, held firmly by a well-set kedge.

Anchoring a sailing vessel without engine assistance has long been the preference of traditionalists and purists. It is this thought and the weekly questions from passengers and acquaintances about Wind Star's ability to sail that compels me to anchor the 440-foot, four-masted, staysail schooner under sail power only whenever the opportunity arises.

Wind Star is one of three sisterships built in Le Havre, France, in the late '80s. The idea of visionary and entrepreneur Jean-Claude Poitier to build a state-of-the-art sailing ship for 148 privileged passengers was realized in 1986 when Wind Star was launched. Wind Song and Wind Spirit followed in successive years.

With 22,000 square feet of Dacron sails and 5,700 gross tons, Wind Star debuted as the largest sailing vessel ever built. Powerful hydraulics and custom software run on a Hewlett Packard computer (Hewy) the size of a small closet were among many technologies and innovations that distinguished this sailing ship from any other.

Our weekly visit to Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands usually offers perfect conditions for a sailing approach from the south. Clearing the West End of Tortola after sailing down Sir Francis Drake Channel and negotiating the Narrows, we bring the helm amidships and let the trades guide us on to a heading east of our destination before applying 5° of weather helm to steady up.

Hardened up on a beam reach, with enough sail area to cover a football field, Wind Star settles down to a comfortable 10 knots through the water. I've seen her pushing 15 knots before, but 35 knots of wind over the deck is rare to find in the Caribbean out of hurricane season.

Anchoring a Wind Star ship without engine assistance requires a break from tradition and the use of immense hydraulic systems that can control six massive sails that tower 200 feet above the deck. A sail control panel comprising sail area, boom angle, sheet length, and tension gauges dominates the bridge console. The sail system can be controlled by a computer that monitors wind speed and direction and makes adjustments to the sail trim accordingly. The computer was never designed to perform anchoring maneuvers, so I have to manipulate the rig manually using the 30 levers available on the control panel. The flick of a switch furls or unfurls a sail, while another hauls in or pays out a sheet line. Even with tension readings and wind indicators, there still is no substitute for getting out of the bridge and eyeballing how your sails are set.

Three miles away from the anchorage, it is time to accurately assess the leeway and sharpen up the approach angle. With 100 tons of water ballast pumped up into the starboard heeling tank, we're listing only 3° to port. Although Wind Star is not blessed with a racing keel, her 400-foot waterline and 14-foot draft help reduce leeway to an acceptable level. On a beam reach we'd expect 10° of drift, climbing up to 15° at angles of 60° to the wind.With the eastern edge of the island on the port bow, and a course made good for the anchorage, I furl the mizzen and the fore jib, leaving our primary sails deployed: four well-balanced staysails. The speed drops off by a couple of knots and steadies at about eight knots on the log. Two miles out, I fine-tune the sails and course, correcting for any current or change in wind strength and direction. By this stage a crowd of excited passengers is usually forming in front of the bridge (an open sun deck). Our slender beam of 55 feet does little to stop Wind Star when it is time to dock or anchor, and with only 1,000 hp available at the propeller, it's a waiting game that unnerves many a pilot. With one mile to go, I operate the roller reefing and reduce sail area to 50%. Speed drops off gradually to eight knots.

The propeller is feathered when in sailing mode, and there is a two-minute delay after pushing the engine request button before the propeller becomes useful. A 12-foot "Becker Rudder" with an aileron-type flap along its rear edge helps control the momentum, but at slow speeds without the prop-wash course alterations can be agonizing.

Half a mile out, I start to harden up on the wind. I like to approach the final anchorage position with 50% sail area and the wind between 50° and 60° on the bow, generating about three knots of ship speed. The final quarter of a mile and the success of the operation largely depend upon the previous setup stages.

At approximately 200 yards from the anchorage, I cycle the rudder to starboard and head into the eye of the wind. With the ship swinging gently upwind and slowing down steadily, I take control of the booms and back wind all the main sails. As you'd expect, the remaining 10,000 square feet of heavy-duty Dacron make an impressive brake, and as the log drops off to below one knot I give the order to lower the anchor.

By the time the anchor hits the bottom 40 feet below, we're drifting astern slightly and I hand the sails over to "Hewy," the computer, to bring all sails to the centerline and furl them. The four-foot-diameter aluminum masts and inch-and-a-half galvanized rigging provide enough windage to ensure we'll maintain sternway to set the five-ton anchor. I bring the rudder amidships because it has little effect going astern.

Bringing any sailing vessel to or from an anchorage is a satisfying exercise, but when your command weighs thousands of tons and dwarfs the largest clipper ships, you are simply enthralled by the feeling of accomplishment.

As the sails furl smoothly around their stays, I call down to the engine room to request "finished with engines." "Finished? You haven't started them yet", replies the chief engineer from below. "Sailing ship, Chief, sailing ship," I confirm, with a smile.