“And the train, it kept on going though it could slow down.” So concluded singer and rock flutist extraordinaire Ian Anderson at the end of Jethro Tull’s classic hit, Locomotive Breath, as he considered the fate of the All-Time Loser being run headlong to his death by said train.
When our binnacle’s shift lever failed us this morning as we came down on a low bridge in the ICW’s Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, that song flashed, instantly and in its entirety, through the soundscape of my mind.
A game of bridge
Pamela, Honey the Golden Retriever and I had just spent a few days in the boatyard of the Atlantic Yacht Basin in Chesapeake, Virginia, where we had the pitch of Meander’s feathering propeller adjusted. Trying to resume our progress southbound down the Ditch, we were off the dock and approaching the Centerville Turnpike Bridge a mere three miles away. The bridge is one of many relatively low spans on the ICW that sailboats like Meander must have opened to allow their passage. So we contacted its bridge keeper on VHF Channel 13, and he instructed us to come right up to the bridge before he would open it. This instruction is intended to minimize the amount of time bridge keepers must disrupt vehicle traffic over the spans to allow vessels to pass under them.
Small recreational boats, that is. Bridge keepers seem to show a little more alacrity with the thousands of 1,500-ton-capacity barges being pushed around by tugboats on the ICW, often opening their spans long before these vessels would be required to reduce speed to avoid a collision. And, given the potential of any one of these to take an entire bridge down, quite appropriately, too. A sailboat as small as Meander, however, could lose its mast in a collision that would mean no more for a bridge than some scraped paint; so with us, the bridge keepers are somewhat more willing to take their chances.
Of course, we’re not willing to take ours. So as we began to draw in close, I throttled down. Then I tried to shift into neutral, intending to coast to a near stop.
Immediately, we heard a small metallic tink, as of a metal pin parting; and suddenly, the shift lever was drooping uselessly from its pivot on the binnacle.
When you’re headed directly toward a bridge in forward gear and your transmission fails you, you know instantly that there is one thing, and one only, that must be done before all others.
You turn to your wife and say:
“Pam, please call the bridge keeper and let him know we won’t be needing that opening after all.”
After all, you don’t want to keep the poor guy waiting.
Oh, also, any steps you might take to avoid hitting the closed span in front of you should probably be fairly high on your list of things to get done sometime before the end of the day as well.
So you check around for other boat traffic, thank your lucky stars you’re not being followed by a 1,500-ton barge at that moment, make your about-face turn away from the bridge, and point yourself back toward where you came from.
Sometimes, keeping a minor crisis from becoming a major one is really that simple. (For helpful hints on how to escalate a minor crisis repeatedly into a major one, please check out this post on The Longest Day.)
The next step in crisis management was getting our runaway boat (runaway, Mike? at four knots? really?) back under our control. So Pam took the helm, I put Honey in the cabin below, and I opened up the top hatch of our engine compartment.
Fortunately, too many previous and unfortunate trips to this compartment have made me quite familiar with the layout of its contents. Within it, the engine sits fairly far forward. Aft of it sits the gearbox (newly replaced at a cost of about $4,500 in the aftermath to The Longest Day), and on the starboard side of the gearbox is a lever arm connected to a cable. The cable snakes forward, then up, then aft through the compartment and disappears through an opening in the cockpit floor to continue up into the binnacle above. The lever arm is the gearbox’s shift lever, and the cable is the visible portion of the linkage that connects the arm (or should have connected it and, until this morning, did) to the corresponding shift lever on the binnacle.
Aft of the gearbox, the propeller shaft was happily whirring away in forward gear and lowest throttle at about six revolutions per second.
Having guessed from the tink we heard that the break in the linkage was somewhere out of sight in the binnacle, I decided not to concern myself with locating it. The chance of finding it was slim, and the chance of fixing it while underway was, I believed, none.
Rather, I turned my attention to operating the gearbox’s shift lever directly. The fitting that connected it to the cable linkage was a small, oblong steel block with a narrow slot machined into it, looking like a badly proportioned tuning fork designed by someone who had no ear for music. The tuning fork’s two tines straddled the shift lever, and a pin passed through aligned holes in all three elements to complete a freely rotating connection.
It was onto to this block, rather than onto the small, exposed tip of the shift lever itself, that I decided to try to lock my vise-grip locking pliers. Its parallel sides gave the jaws of the pliers a greater bearing area than the rounded tip, and locking onto it would allow us to exploit the pin connection’s rotation instead of rotating our wrists as we pushed and pulled.
So, in the half-suspended, head-aft-of-heels position that has become my favorite for engine work, a position around which I fully intend to create a best-selling yoga program that will keep us financially afloat until I die, I put my pliers onto the block, squeezed them into the locked position, and pulled up on the shift lever.
The lever came up smoothly; and a moment later, the prop shaft wasn’t rotating anymore.
“We’ve got neutral, baby,” I called up in triumph from the engine compartment.
And Pam said, “What? I can’t hear you with your head in that engine compartment.”
So I came up for air, and we discussed strategy for our return to the Atlantic Yacht Basin dock.
Practice ‘til you’re perfect
Our standard operating procedure for docking Meander with our two-person crew puts one of us on the deck, managing the lines with which we will tie her off, and the other at the helm, managing the boat’s speed and direction as we pull alongside the dock. To manage that speed, the helmsperson must operate not just the throttle, but also the gearbox. The necessary tactics include alternating between forward and neutral to keep just enough speed to maintain way on the approach, going into neutral to decelerate on the final coast to the dock, and, finally, in order to bring the boat to a dead stop right alongside, giving it a quick burst of the throttle while in reverse.
In our latest semi-disabled situation, however, the helmsperson could not operate the gearbox directly. That would have to be done by the other crew member, head down in the engine compartment, eyes off the developing action outside. That meant that the helmsperson would have to be in sole charge of bringing Meander in. In turn, that meant that the other crew member—let’s call him the engineer, he would enjoy that—would have to execute the helmsperson’s oral commands.
Granted, that execution would involve no more than pulling back and forth on a lever, for crying out loud. Let’s not make more of that than it is.
But tactically, the helmsperson’s ability to manage Meander’s speed successfully would depend in large part on the speed, accuracy and predictability of the engineer’s execution of her orders, giving her a working emulation of the gearbox control she would otherwise have had right at her fingertips had the binnacle shift lever been working.
That is, the key would be communication.
And that communication would have to happen through the soundscape of a thudding engine.
So, long before we began our final approach to the Atlantic Yacht Basin dock, we practiced with Pam on the helm and me in the engine compartment. I put my head down and tried to hear her shouted orders over the throbbing in my ears. She tried to hear my shouted responses emerge from the din of the open compartment. And after a few minutes, we had worked out the specific bodily positions from which we could reliably send and receive in both directions those critical one-word commands and confirmations: forward, neutral, reverse.
Also, we called the boatyard’s dockmaster, advised him of our impending shorthanded landing attempt, and asked him to meet us on the dock with a boat hook with which he could pick up Meander’s bow line.
And, finally, I reached back into my five months of experience on the helm to advise Pam that reverse should be used to stop Meander at the dock, preferably after the dockmaster had gotten her bow line around a piling.
Then it was show time.
Pam took charge of the helm, and I went head down into the engine compartment. Wishing that I had relinquished the steering to her in the past more often, I checked for places against which I might brace myself in anticipation of being knocked off balance by a hard bump off a dock piling.
Over the engine’s thrum, I heard Pam shout, “Forward.”
“Forward,” I shouted back.
Thirty seconds later, I heard her shout, “Neutral.”
“Neutral,” I shouted back.
Another thirty seconds, during which I wondered what the world looked like going by.
“Forward,” Pam ordered.
“Forward just a moment.”
That was a new and somewhat ambiguous wrinkle, one that I, as the more experienced helmsperson, should have thought to anticipate and address in our tactical briefing. Speculatively, I put Meander into forward for one second, then popped it back into neutral. It was a little less than Pam had intended. Raising our eyes to each other, she and I quickly agreed she would give me a more specific duration on the next order.
“Forward one second,” she commanded.
“Forward,” I yelled back. “One-one thousand. Neutral.”
“Forward three seconds,” she commanded.
“Forward. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand. Neutral.”
Ten seconds or so drifted by.
“Forward three seconds.”
Forward. Three-count. Neutral.
We continued to coast.
“Okay, this is it,” I thought. I shifted into reverse and braced for the bump of boat against dock.
A moment later, “Neutral.”
Huhmn. What happened to the bump?
Since it would have required abandoning my post at this critical moment to pick my head up, I just turned it skyward, leaving my hand on the locking pliers. Above, the edges of the bimini and the dodger were speeding past the clouds. This startled me.
“Holy crow!” I thought. “We must still be doing one and a half knots!” Yet there was no sound of a commotion or panic above, so I continued to hold my position.
Then it occurred to me: The bimini and the dodger were not speeding past the clouds. Rather, the clouds were speeding past the bimini and the dodger.
We were stopped.
A moment later, Pam confirmed it, calling out, “We’re done.” I came up, killed the engine, turned off the ignition key, and looked up.
We were lying alongside, floating about six inches off the pilings of the dock. It had been a perfect landing. And Pam had had it under control all the way in.
No joy in Chesapeake
So we’re back on the dock again in Chesapeake, Virginia, and I am again reminded that I will not be able in this finite lifetime to exhaust the infinite number of good things I have to say about my wife.
And I can also admit that I’m not entirely displeased with our growing record of successful attempts at self-rescue in emergent crises, in spite of my growing resentment at their seemingly endless repetition. All-Time Losers? Not us. Well, not Pam, anyway.
About Meander, however, most of what wants to be said cannot appear in a family blog without heavy redaction. For the third time in about two months, we are spending a long weekend stuck on the dock of a boatyard, waiting for a service department to open up the following Monday so we can get her figured out, fixed and flying again.
And that’s not entirely fair of me. This is a good boat, a solid boat, one that will someday cross oceans. Under the daysailing and weekending style of her previous owners, she was, perhaps, a little underused. Realizing that fact, they did the right thing by her, selling her to a couple who, with liveaboard plans, cruising aspirations and a bimini dream, intend to help the boat achieve her potential. And here we are now, running Meander harder than she has been run in many years, shaking out her cobwebs, tightening up her loose screws, getting her ready once again to face the entirety of the world she was designed to sail.
To add to the injustice, the second of these three weekends about which I complain came as a direct result of The (rather heavily promoted, don’t you think, Mike?) Longest Day; a day made long not by Meander’s failings, but rather those of her crew; a day on which, if anything, she proved her worth to that crew ten times over.
Right now, though, I don’t care. All I care about is the extraordinary amount of time we seem to be spending in boatyards.
And I’m sorry about that. Sorry to feel sorry for myself. Sorry to pit this resentment and all my other stupid, shallow little personal irritations and inconveniences against the truly big, truly real, critically important injustices the world faces each day.
It’s a waste of good psychic energy. Because in my heart, I know Meander is a good boat, a solid boat, one that will someday cross oceans.
But in my head right now, she’s just costing us money and getting us nowhere.