One week after Meander’s sudden and unexpected refusal to start scuttled our plans to motor out of our marina and practice a little anchoring, and two days after my improbable and undeserved triumph over a glitch in the starter circuit of her engine, my wife Pam and I decided to do with her what she was designed for in the first place, and go sailing.
This might have been, say, the sixth time in seven weeks we’ve done this in our nearly two months on Meander. Since buying her, we spent three weeks in the relative isolation of rural Virginia trying to get her and us ready to go; three days motoring up the Chesapeake Bay under no wind to our home port in the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Basin; half a week sitting under a nor’easter; and much of the rest of our time writing about it all. So it really isn’t remarkable, I guess, how little sailing we’ve done.
And since a combination of family-oriented travel on one hand and unused vacation days on the other made both my father-in-law, Dale, and Pam’s brother in law, Bob, available, we decided to invite them along.
This would be the second time Dale and Bob had been together on a boat under our command. On our first sail, we were in a boat with no head; I developed a sudden and unexpected case of diarrhea; and they spent our last half hour on the water creating purposefully loud but determinedly polite conversational cover in the cockpit while I, shielded from view by a hastily inserted set of companionway boards, made inadvertently loud and thoroughly impolite noises while hovering over a hastily scrounged plastic garbage bag in the cabin below. So it really is entirely remarkable that they accepted.
With this particular company aboard once again, we went to great lengths to create a sailing experience that could be described as blessedly uneventful, and completely devoid of the sudden and unexpected. And we did it. Mostly.
Little bumps and scrapes
Some days, I wonder if we’ll ever get out of a slip cleanly.
I’ve already written up another departure attempt, the last one we made under my command on the day on which the question of who should be Meander’s captain was settled once and for all. Our attempt yesterday was a lot cleaner, primarily, I think, because we chose not to put the boat under motor before ensuring all her lines were cast away properly.
But a truly clean departure from a slip is, for practical purposes, characterized by the boat not making contact with the docks and pilings surrounding it on the way out.
And the details of yesterday’s performance informed us that we still have a way to go yet. After casting off the third of our four lines with an appreciable wind on our starboard side, Pam struggled to get our last line away while I sat stupidly at the helm with the engine idling. In just a matter of seconds, we once again were at rest against the port pilings.
So, on the “down” side, we still need to improve our departure tactics and our timing.
On the “up” side, however, we had Bob on board this time to push us off the pilings when I put us into reverse. It suddenly seemed to make my heartfelt promise not to have another gastric attack worth the risk of failing to keep it. Good job, Bob.
Big bumps and scrapes
Once away from the marina, we raised our sails, cut the engine (“Ah, that’s better”) and let Meander do what she was built to do. She crossed the Choptank River peacefully, and then Pam called for a tack.
To tack effectively, the helmsman must turn the bow of the boat all the way through the wind so that the sails that had previously been filled on one side fill out again on the other. So it was not without reason that Pam, observing the prolonged flogging of our headsail as we ended up facing directly into the wind, turned to her helmsman and asked, “Mike, what’s going on back there?”
That’s when I realized I had unconsciously picked up a pair of binoculars in mid-maneuver.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I just got distracted by that sailboat way off to starboard, the one that seems to be heeling excessively. I had been thinking that her crew should reduce sail. But her sails aren’t even up, and she’s not moving.”
And this is how we learned what it looks like when a sailboat is hard aground.
What I had first seen as excessive heeling, was, in fact, a pronounced listing to starboard. The rail on that side was nearly in the water, while her underbelly to port was high and dry. And at her stern, one could just see the top of her rudder, a part of a boat that no boat in the water should ever be showing.
We checked the chart for her location between Howell Point and Green Can No. 19A, a buoy that marked the limit of the shoals that extend about half a mile out from the point’s entry into the water. The chart indicated that parts of the area between the point and the buoy were so shallow that they would uncover with the rising and the falling of the tide.
Oh, yes, she was stuck. And, it appeared for the moment, abandoned. No crewmembers were visible abovedeck, and no towboats or salvage operations were around to try to pull her off.
Dale, Bob, Pam, and I conversed.
“Can we get closer?”
“A little, but not too close. She’s smaller than us and probably has a lesser draft. If she’s stuck, we’ll get stuck well before we reach her.”
“Should we hail her?”
“Well, it stands to reason that if she had both a radio and a crew member to operate it, we would have been hearing their own calls for help. Since we’ve heard nothing all morning long, she must be missing one or the other, so hailing her would be useless.”
“Well, she certainly looks as if she’s missing her crew. They might have been picked up hours ago.”
“And what would we say to them, anyway? ‘Hi, we’re sorry you’re stuck, there’s not much we can do, but we’d be glad to radio for help?’”
And, of course, we speculated freely on how she came to be there in the first place. Sailing without charts? Got cocky and tried to cut a corner? Got lost on the water at night or in a fog? Alcohol?
In the end, however, our speculations were as useless as we were. Seeing no sign of life, we simply sailed on by.
It occurs to me now as I write this that there was one possibility our speculations hadn’t covered: that a singlehander met with an accident that left him or her incapacitated belowdeck, out of reach of the radio, and that the boat motored itself up onto its grounding. And that there was one option we hadn’t considered: to radio the Coast Guard and apprise them of the boat’s location and condition.
It’s entirely likely, of course, that the Coast Guard already knew all it needed to know, and that the crew are in fact fine, if somewhat humiliated. After all, it’s not as if the boat were aground in an unpopulated and isolated area, cut off both from observant eyes on shore and passing boat traffic.
But the thought that we didn’t think to take the worst-case scenario off the table with a little extra insight and action does makes me pause.
And seeing that sailboat listing pathetically to starboard, I reflect on how potentially dangerous the sudden and unexpected can be, and I put our departure struggles into perspective. Coming to rest against a piling simply does not compare to any journey that might have ended in the loss of a boat, a limb, or a life.
It doesn’t matter, then, how slow we are with our lines or how many times our headsail flogs. There is room in sailing for recoverable errors of that sort. And any day that lets you return safely to the dock to reflect on those events can indeed be gratefully accepted as blessedly uneventful.
Sailboat aground: Pamela Webster.
Raised sails: Mike Webster