Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Don’t Do What I Did!

October 31, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

As a couple of U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary friends and I planned a three week sailboat trip, thinking about it grew in excitement. Eventually, it took more time and effort in planning than would the journey!

We went through an exhaustive checklist of safety items (based on what an auxiliary patrol facility boat would require), and considered suitable food, beverages, and reading material. A sufficient amount of fuel would compensate for our pessimistic view of the wind, which we thought unlikely to satisfy our loose definition of speed. You see, our adventure would be aboard my full-keel, 32-foot cutter, Old Cow, a vessel that could maybe achieve five knots in a 20-knot wind.

However, this wasn’t a race, and there’s something special about a boat you know and trust. Old Cow has taken me through storms and the nastiest kinds of weather — as I’ve said too many times to anyone who’d listen, you can’t knock her down. Our cast of characters was the skipper (me), Joe, an able guy and a seasoned Auxiliarist who has sailed for most of his 70 years, and “young” Andy, age 50, who’s more of a power boater than a sailor, but nevertheless fearless on the water.

Courtesy Herb Herman

The day of our departure was a happy one, with friends and family wishing us well on our trip to remember. Our first stop, Block Island, was familiar territory. We reached it without event and anchored with textbook perfection. We prepared dinner followed by a brandy toast to a great voyage.

We woke to bright sunlight and beautiful weather. The wind was perfect at 20 knots as we departed Block Island in Old Cow and headed to Newport. We picked up a mooring and rode the launch into town in time for a first rate meal and a nice walk. When we awoke the next morning, the still breeze held no promise we’d get anywhere without turning on the noisy diesel, so we visited town again and spent another night on the mooring as the boat gently rocked under the stars.

Next thing we knew, it was 5:00 am and we were in the midst of blow with a  mooring line so tight you could pluck out a tune  to accompany the wind’s song, “You’re staying another day whether you like it or not.” Being conservative sailors, we elected to obey the wind, and settled in for whatever it took.

Things settled down at about dusk, so we returned to town and a nice comforting meal followed by a pleasant sleep. At dawn, we were greeted with sun and some wavelets in the outer harbor. A powerboat captain coming in told us things were “OK out there.” About time!

As we exited the harbor, we were surprised to be greeted by a bubbling sea with rather energetic waves accompanied by a hard wind — it was so not OK out here. Joe, the sailor, was hanging in even as his eyes betrayed his trepidation, whereas Andy, our power boater, seemed to have disappeared. I feared the worst, until Joe pointed down to the cabin where Andy had found a pillow and bunk to hide.

The Old Cow is now moving at a pace knots above what the boat’s designer intended, and Joe was having a tough time getting down the main sail. He was valiantly pulling and tugging but the boat was heeling over at an angle that the designer never imagined. Under the rail for certain, leaning over quite a bit, and no longer on her feet, Old Cow was impressive to see if you were dumb enough to be out in this maelstrom.

Down the main finally went, the diesel happily roared, and Old Cow stood nicely on her feet, heading tentatively south (my shaking electronics estimated the wind speed at some 40 knots, kind of coming from the southwest, more or less). Once we were not hanging on for dear life, I had to decide what to do. Should we make a U-turn and head back to Newport Harbor, some six or seven miles due north, and risk being broadsided by five- to six-foot breaking waves coming one after another? That was too risky, so our goal was to reach the area created as a harbor of refuge just west of Point Judith. We’d head through the wind and then northwest to the safety of the harbor. The chart showed the entrance as being fairly narrow, with rocky groins around the entrance, but I believed my adrenaline rush would get us through the needle, though the harbor’s opening was barely detectable.

I had been on the helm throughout this harrowing episode. Joe, bless him, offered to take over, but as much as I trusted him, I wasn’t inclined to hand off the wheel. I felt some primal obligation to follow tradition and be the one to crash Old Cow should the rapidly arriving breakwater do us in.

About a quarter-mile from the inlet, the diesel coughed, bellowed blue smoke, and abruptly fell silent. Amidst this, I noted the building wind was now behind us, but wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Joe let out the jib, which immediately caught with a snap, accelerating Old Cow into what I hoped was the general direction of the entrance to the harbor. It was and we slipped in through the eastern one-quarter-mile gap.

At this point, we went from hell to heaven. I radioed a marina via my VHF and though the reply sounded like someone gargling, I took that as a “yes” and calmly and carefully sailed into the dock, looking to inflict minimum damage on the dock and my trusty vessel. After the onlookers applauded and drifted off, I asked the dockhand to contact a mechanic, but none were around. Andy, an ace with diesels, reappeared. I forgave him for his disappearance once our engine roared into activity.

While we were certainly lucky to make it through, we completely disregarded our obligation to check the maritime weather in our vicinity before heading out. With all our training and our experience, we put our safety in the hands of a stranger who categorized the conditions as OK.

By Herb Herman

Herb Herman is a member of the United States Coast guard Auxiliary, 1st Southern District, Division 22, Flotilla 6, Port Jefferson.


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