Monday, September 27, 2010

A harrowing tale

Friday night was an interesting experience on the water, that bears re-telling.

I decided to de-stress and take the dinghy out for a leisurely sail. Winds predicted 5-10 kts SSW and seas 1-2 feet. The tide was flooding, going into slack when I set sail out of the MWR Marina at Naval Station Norfolk, and there were four other dinghies in my immediate vicinity, as well as a chase boat providing instruction for some beginners on one of the other boats. It was 5:40 when I got underway, so I still had a few hours of daylight left before I'd have to get back in.

Trying to meet a friend who did not have DoD Decals, I set off across Willoughby Bay to Rebel Marine where I planned to pick them up and return. Racing across the bay, I planed out quickly on a broad reach, wind quartering, with the boat so light. Opening my auto-bailers, the 'sucking sound of success' started immediately and drained the small puddle in the cockpit so fast that I had to look twice. I was really hauling, and it was fun. Helicopters from squadrons based on the nearby waterfront swirled around me, creating small wind eddies that I could almost dance with. When I arrived at Rebel Marine, I was so exhilarated that I'd just crossed Willoughby Bay - a distance of about 3 miles - in just under 12 minutes that I failed to immediately realize that it meant averaging about 15 knots. Ummmmm.

With the wind quartering it can be difficult to really appreciate its velocity, especially when you're concerned with getting somewhere by the quickest possible means. When running with the wind, your apparent wind speed is reduced and things can seem much more calm than they really are. It goes without saying then that on bearing up on my approach to the docks at Rebel that I was somewhat caught aback - literally.

Sailboats don't stop quickly, and sometimes the best way to do this is come up on the wind and luff, letting the wind push you backwards. With a SSW wind, this was the best way to approach a dock from the South, such as I had to do at Rebel.

I sailed with astounding speed past the breakwaters at Rebel and was reminded of the crew's faces in the Monomoy when we had to ram the trailer to get her on there last year in the flood waters at Great Bridge. I quickly bore up and in doing so, I caught an acid blast of salt spray that blew my hat and sunglasses clean off. These were no 5-10 knot winds, but I'd known that leaving the dock. What I didn't know was that they had built to over 25 knots, and were only getting worse.

I managed to get alongside the dock and make up, then ran to tell my friend - for whom this was supposed to be their first time sailing - that we'd have to do this another day. It was just after 6 pm.

I got back to the boat and attempted to get underway to weather, and soon realized I might as well have tried to carry the boat back to Norfolk overland. Five - count 'em five - consecutive attempts to get off the dock ended as I was blown back hard against pilings and into hard rubber fenders designed for much larger boats. When I did get underway, I couldn't sail close enough to clear the breakwaters, which run out at strange angles to the shore, and were I able to point just a little higher, I might have been able to clear. But instead I had to tack back and forth, losing precious footing to weather each time. The wind had whipped the bay into a turmoil and each time I tacked 'round, I shipped 20-30 gallons of seawater into the cockpit - and with no time to bail, and no speed on to operate the auto bailers.

As one person I know would have described it, "my head exploded" all over that boat. I cursed the wind, the waves, my 30-year old worn out boat, meteorologists in Norfolk and the whole profession, people who install breakwaters, the people who put that dock to high for dinghies, the damned rocky shallows, the.... wait. Wait. Suddenly and without even noticing, I cleared the breakwaters. I gave a quick and very relieved smile up toward the heavens - and then I got knocked over.

A sudden gust of wind tore the main sheet out of my hands and sent the boat onto her beam ends. I found myself standing on the side of the centerboard trunk clamoring up onto the weather side of the boat, my mast in the water. My initial alarm was oddly broken as I looked at the exposed centerboard and thought "oh, that's not nearly as bad as I thought it was" - and promptly returned to noticing that I was drifting fast to leeward and into the concrete breakwater, mast first.

I threw one leg out and onto the centerboard, and shifted my weight onto it. The mast slowly rose from the water, then popped up as I clamored to get my windward leg back into the boat as my shorts dragged full of water. The cockpit was now like a bathtub, full to waist height, but I was still afloat. Hold on, little boat.

I skated of to the East, just missing the breakwaters and several boats at anchor, trying to bail all the way. As I approached the Willoughby Bay Bridge I had emptied enough water to tack and start the trip back West, then South. I made the turn, and took a great boom shot to the temple. I was getting tired - that's a rookie mistake.

Running West I soon realized that my jam cleats weren't holding, and I had to hand both the jib and the main sheets, trying to keep a good balance to the helm. By about 7 pm I made enough Westing to turn and run SxE into the NOB Marina inlet. I was almost to the degaussing range, just South of the HRBT South Tunnel Island. Almost home, I started to cheer up. But in the turn I noticed a hollow "BOOSH" sound forward, and suddenly my jib was luffing. What the hell is up with this wind? I mean for crying out loud my main is drawing just fine and this.... whoa. Leaning forward to survey my jib, I saw only flapping tatters. It had shredded in the luff while tacking.

I think by this time I was whimpering like a little girl in frustration.

Now thoroughly pissed off, I knew I'd never get upwind with my main only - I'd have to trim and shorten sail if I expected to make it back the 4 miles to weather. And to make matters worse, the ebb tide had started. Needless to say I had problems.

First, I needed to prevent anything in the way of leeward movement while I cleaned up my rigging. Last week I broke my spinnaker pole, but I've been too lazy to take the two halves out of the boat. I removed the flotation foam (forgive me CBF!) and lashed them into an X with the spinnaker sheet. Then, I paid out the line, allowing the tubes to fill with water and drift slowly to the bottom, about 20 feet below me. Then, bending another length of spinnaker sheet onto the first, I paid out enough to slowly fetch up on the mud bottom. I had an anchor, at least for a little while.

Next, I had to get my jib down. In this boat the jib's luff wire is also the forestay, so the rig had to come down. I lowered the 24-foot mast, and started to cut away the scraps of the jib from the luff wire. The bow bucked high into the air with the weight of the mast - and me - aft, and I could feel my jury rigged anchor starting to drag with each jerk. I re-stepped the mast and got the main in hand. I took my trusty sail needle out of my hat, that I'd stowed in the cubby forward - and with some strips of the jib as sail twine managed to take a crude reef in the main by lashing a point on the leach to the boom, forming a new clew, then wrapping the excess sail tightly, and shifting the tack upward about 4 feet in the same way as the clew. My anchor finally gave out as I finished my work, and I stood to the SE slowly.

It was 8:30 pm when I finally made it in. My dark, tattered mass glided slowly up to the dock in the sheltered marina cove. Somebody on the shore shouted that they were about to send out a search party. Very relieved, I stumbled onto the dock, and took a breath.

I had no lights on the boat and except for my cell phone, no communication. I could have ditched the boat and swam to shore were I in a real pickle, but was surrounded by land I didn't see the need. I always wear a PFD, so exposure would have been my only concern about being in the water. Still, as it was there were WAY TOO MANY RISKS HERE - my own personal ORM failed me.

In hindsight, I shouldn't have gotten underway. There were many dangers there I didnt have to take, and a lot of damage done to the boat that could have been prevented. Do I wish that I hadn't gone? No way - I'm glad for it. I had an experience and I made it back, and I learned something for next time. And even though I now have to replace at least one sail on a boat whose design class stopped being produced almost 30 years ago - its another challenge that I've never encountered and I'm sure I'll do well for the experience of tackling that too.

If anyone is out in Hampton Roads and finds a length of blue double braid made off to a broken spinnaker pole, let me know.


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