Happy belated New Year, friends and readers. It’s been an unacceptably long while since my last post, and I do apologize for that.
That last post was on the unglamorous but important subject of engine mounts; and although it made its appearance in Bimini Dream on December 22, it had in fact been written before December 18 and scheduled for automatic publication thereafter.
There’s an irony to that.
The engine mount post included, among other things, a story about another boat that was badly disabled by something hitting its propeller, and it ended with an expression of gratitude for the many bullets that have whizzed harmlessly by Meander. But by the time it was published, Meander had already been hit by a new bullet. One in the form of a stray length of line in the Chesapeake Bay that struck our own propeller, wrapping itself around our shaft and damaging our gearbox.
We picked that line up at 8:15 AM on Friday, December 18, one hour after we tried to end our previous eighteen-day repair layover in Deltaville, Virginia by casting off from the “A” dock of the Deltaville Yachting Center, motoring north out of Broad Creek into the Rappahannock River, sailing east to the Chesapeake Bay, and allowing the forecasted twenty-knot north wind we would find there to push us south down the bay toward the ICW.
But in that moment, neither I nor my wife Pamela nor our dog Honey the Golden Retriever knew what it was that we picked up. But we knew the sudden thud under our feet and the ominous grinding that followed from the engine compartment. And then we knew three other things.
We had to get back to Deltaville. And with the motor’s condition an open question, we had to do it under sail. And that sailing had to be done with a twenty-knot north wind heading us off.
I have since tried at least three times to sit down and write up the rest of that day. But the composition of a coherent, competent, and complete account has confounded my courage, confidence and creativity every time. Because that day didn’t end for us until 12:15 AM on Saturday, December 19, when we again tied up on the “A” dock of the Deltaville Yachting Center.
In summary, we spent seventeen hours getting nowhere. Seventeen very, very tough hours.
But, on the bright side, at least our engine mounts held.
A trip too far
Having so often failed to write my way through the myriad grisly details and sodden textures of December 18, I should disclose right away that I have no intention of trying again to do so now. I will simply note that I aborted my first draft when I realized I was closing in on 1,500 words before having reached 9:00 AM in my narrative.
It’s obvious that I’m not quite in control of my material.
However, I will note that the trip we needed to make to return to the “A” dock required, probably, no more than ten miles made good. I say “probably” because after the line strike, I lost track of our position for more than two hours while I worked through everything I had not realized I didn’t know about reducing sail on our boat to cope with a twenty-knot wind.
But that ten miles over ground took us sixteen hours to travel. And at the end of the trip, the knotmeter that doubles as our “odometer” told us Meander had plowed her way, under our inexpert guidance, through almost forty miles of water.
So it’s equally obvious that I’m also not quite in control of my boat. Meander, indeed.
How do I drag out a trip like this over sixteen hours? Let me count the ways.
- Inexperience with how Meander is rigged for the sail reducing maneuver known as reefing. Ninety minutes went into my pulling down the mainsail, getting the forward cringle of its third reefing point onto the mast’s reefing hook, and tensioning its outhaul line. Thirty seconds of observing the resulting misshapen mainsail reminded Pamela that the third reefing point wasn’t equipped with an outhaul line. Ten seconds of diagnostics revealed that I had, in fact, tensioned the sail with the second reefing point’s outhaul line. Forty-five minutes went into my forcing the sail back up to the second reefing point, a period during which I lost one waterproof winter boot out over the water. I won’t go into how that happened here other than to note that at the moment it came off my foot, I was out over the water as well.
- Seasickness. That prolonged reefing exercise occurred while Meander, no longer being under motor, was no longer making way through the water. Sailboats that lose way are soon turned broadside to wind and wave. In our case, the wind was at twenty knots, and the waves it kicked up were a closely spaced six to eight feet high. Rolling in the troughs of those waves for two hours was more than we could take, and all three of us—Pamela, me, and Honey—gave up our breakfast shortly before lunchtime. Having established itself, that nausea would set the tone for the rest of the day, subsiding but never quite disappearing, making every bodily effort slow, tentative, and delicate.
- Inexperience with sail balance. For all that my wife and I have accomplished in five years of learning to sail, we are yet rookies. And those years were spent exclusively on sloop-rigged boats that fly two sails, while Meander is a cutter that can fly three. Sailing under a 75% deployed headsail at the bow and a considerably shortened mainsail on the mast, I noted that we had lost some critical speed. So rather than struggle to get the main back up, I opted to hoist Meander’s staysail, located between the other two. I don’t believe there was anything in our experience to warn me that flying such a high proportion of Meander’s working sail area forward of her mast would cause her bow to be blown down. And I didn’t notice for the next four hours that our boat, typically capable of pointing forty degrees off the wind, was suddenly struggling to get up to sixty, retarding our progress north.
- Inexperience with leeway. The wind that pulls a sailboat through water also, and inevitably, pushes her a bit off to her downwind, or lee, side. This idea isn’t new either to Pamela or to me, but we had had no direct experience of it in critical navigational settings where it mattered. So in my desire to sail the most direct line possible as we tacked back and forth toward Deltaville, I kept changing Meander’s course at the precise moment required to put critical turning marks ahead of us—a spit of land, a light marking a shoal or a channel—on a heading corresponding to a close-hauled point of sail. This is the one point of sail that would not let us point higher into the wind to compensate for the slowly accumulating and eventually quite substantial downwind error known as leeway, avoid the shoals onto which that error was setting us, and make it around our intended turning mark. I ended up having to take an extra tack away from three—not one, but three—of those marks before I worked out what was going on.
- Accumulating exhaustion. By the time the sun was setting at 5:00 PM, we had put nearly nine hours of fatiguing and frustrated effort into our journey back to the “A” dock, and had managed only to reach the mouth of the Rappahannock. Our arrival there coincided with a forecasted backing of the wind from north to west, placing it to head off our progress up the river as it had previously done on the bay. Furthermore, as daylight dissolved into twilight, the air temperature began to drop. And once nightfall had fully added “cold” to our “sick” and “tired,” both our vision and our judgment began to dissolve as well.
- Inexperience with sail balance. After twelve hours under sail, we had the west wind’s sixteen knots blowing nicely over our starboard side on the highly forgiving point of sail known as a beam reach, and our course was finally aligned with the narrow entry channel to Deltaville’s Broad Creek, at the south end of which lay the “A” dock, safety, and sleep. Then we started to worry about our speed into the channel. In that wind, it was nearly seven knots; and we wanted two. So we went immediately to the most drastic thing we could have done: we dropped our mainsail, intending to fly in on our headsail alone. And in a reprise of our earlier staysail experience, our bow was again blown down, and we lost our line. Shame on us. Unable once again to point up and recover our course, we had to furl the headsail and spend another hour fighting the wind to get the main up. By the time we were done, the wind had blown away all the progress we had made in the past three hours.
- Sheer stupidity. Obsessed by now with the lifetime’s worth of advanced sailing lessons we had inflicted upon ourselves in the space of fourteen hours, I firmly resolved that our second approach to the Broad Creek channel would include room for a late correction. And in so doing, I completely lost sight of the much more fundamental task of navigation. Even at that late hour, the slightest glance at the chart would have driven home to me how straight and narrow the channel was, but I was too preoccupied to check it. So, coming in at far too steep an angle at 11:00 PM, we went soft aground on the shoal to the west. And after wriggling off, we shot far too fast across deeper water and ended up much more thoroughly aground between two channel markers on the shoal to the east.
With the west wind pinning us to the shoal, there would be no way to get off under sail.
More sobering still, our weather radio, the one that had so accurately predicted twenty-knot winds backing throughout the day from north to west, was now broadcasting a small craft advisory and calling for a blow of 30 to 40 knots after midnight. So there would be no waiting it out until morning, either.
So we did what we had been sorely pressing all day and all night to avoid. We dropped all our sails and once again fired up our suspect motor.
It took five minutes of spinning Meander’s helm back and forth while listening to her engine pound and grind under high throttle before she began to turn, first a few degrees to port, then a few degrees to starboard, then a few more to port. And it took another five minutes of pounding and grinding before her keel started inching forward through the mud, out from between the channel markers, back toward the deeper water.
We didn’t know what damage we were doing with this late, last-ditch motoring effort, nor could we have afforded to. And no amount of hindsight can reveal what portion of the five thousand dollars’ worth of drivetrain repairs Meander would eventually need was attributable to this moment as opposed to our initial early morning line strike.
We knew only that we wanted desperately to be off that shoal before midnight.
And get off we did. Our inches of progress soon grew into feet, and suddenly Meander was free again.
Gliding back into the Rappahannock, we began breathing out the tension of the last ten minutes and took a few moments to recollect ourselves. Then we took one last long look at our too long neglected chart, and aligned our boat for our third and final approach to Broad Creek.
And then we motored through the channel, passed into the waterway beyond, wandered inadvertently into the creek’s west branch, narrowly avoided plowing into a dock tucked into one of the deep shadows inhabiting the spaces between the sporadic lights of the creek’s many marinas, turned around, found the creek’s south branch, turned to starboard, found the Deltaville Yachting Center, turned to starboard, found the narrow entrance to the inside face of the “A” dock, turned to port, passed the end of the dock, turned to starboard, came alongside the dock, stepped onto the dock, and tied Meander off to the dock fifteen minutes after midnight on Saturday, December 19.
And, this time for the last time, killed her engine.
And then fell into bed, gratefully letting the distant howl of a rising gale on the river we had just left behind lull us to sleep on our well founded, well sheltered, gently rocking boat.
And that, in a rather oversized nutshell, was our Friday, December 18.
On Saturday morning, we told our story to Tony, the marina staffer on duty that weekend, and Tony let Lew, the marina owner, know we were back on the “A” dock. Lew stopped by later that day to hear our story in person and then arranged to have Mack, his master marine technician, pay us a visit the next day. On Sunday morning, Mack discovered in our gearbox oil the hundreds of bronze shards that would portend thousands more dollars in boat repairs. On Monday morning, the marina’s effort to locate and order a new gearbox for a twenty-five-year-old boat began in earnest.
But what with Christmas and the New Year and the ripple effects they would have on parts departments and service departments and shipping companies, we spent many of our next seventeen days simply waiting for things to happen.
Add to that the eighteen days from our previous stay, and you will see that I might be forgiven for going around telling my wife, the marina staff and anyone else who would sit still long enough to listen, “I’m going to die in Deltaville.”
Perspective, Michael. After all, dying in Deltaville would have been preferable to drowning in a gale just outside it.
And neither of these speculative fates seems to have befallen us anyway. Having cast off again from the “A” dock on January 7, Pamela, Honey the Golden Retriever and I now have Meander tied off in Hampton, VA, less than fifteen miles from the ICW’s Mile Marker Zero. It may well be that I’m going to die in Deltaville. But not yet.
Meanwhile, my recent reticence has been reckoned with, my writer’s block is broken, and our December 18 story is more or less out. I may revisit that day again; there are a few more stories left in it to tell.
But not until I finish catching my breath.
Chart: Excerpt from NOAA Chart No. 12235, “Chesapeake Bay: Rappahannock River Entrance, Piankatank and Great Wicomico Rivers.”
Aground: “the mysterious chances : boat aground, santa barbara (“ by torbakhopper, shared via photopin under a Creative Commons license.
The “A” dock at Christmas: Mike Webster.