Monday, March 8, 2010

Accidental Manly Men

O Docker’s comment to my last post, Why Manly Men Never Use a Radial Sail, wisely pointed out that Manly Men characteristics aren’t limited to sailors of smaller, more athletic boats. The tendency to use brute force and a sense of bravado instead of intelligence and good judgment is evident in manly sailors of all boats. Perhaps there is a macho gene that takes hold of us and overrides all other brain functions when certain opportunities present themselves.

As I suggested in the last post, one of the compensations for our manly acts of foolishness is the opportunity for a good story. Here is my personal big boat tale of stupidity and inexperience triggering my Man-Up instinct.

At one point some years ago, I was a little bored with racing dinghies and thought I should expand my horizons to include comfy, cruising keelboats. I took a rather big first step and bought a used Pearson 36, a beautiful, comfortable, well made boat from a quality company… not counting some of the shitty lasers they made in an apparent sideline business. (Alas, they were driven out of business in 1991 by the recession and the introduction of a luxury tax on big boats.)

Admitting that a five day US Sailing course in bareboat cruising might not have taught me all I needed to know, when I picked up the boat I brought along an experienced friend who I will call Ralph Snodsmith. (No offense to any real Ralph Snodsmiths out there.) Because the new home of the boat was a full day’s sail from its current location, our trip began with some two hour jockeying of dry land transportation so that we would have a car waiting at journey’s end. The water part of the trip got underway in unusually calm Sippican Harbor in Marion, MA. As we motored out, it only seemed logical to raise the sails to be ready for Buzzard’s bay, known for its frequent 15 – 25 knot winds and 4 foot waves. As Ralph raised the main, it caught on a mysterious line, halting the process. The line appeared to go from a grommet on the luff forward along the boom. Not understanding the function of this line, we untied and removed it. Minutes later, another similar line became another obstruction and was handled in the same way. Finally, the main was up. Unfurling the 135% genoa followed efficiently. Geared up for the tumultuous Buzzard’s Bay, we found a sheet of glass. Humph. This never happens. Thank God for diesels.

The next segment of this under-powered power boat trip was through Cod Canal, passable only with a favorable current. Competent mariners for sure, we had timed this correctly. With apparent wind only generated by our movement, we kept the main up and furled the genoa. My first trip through the canal was smooth as silk.

To those of you anxiously awaiting the manly men part, thank you for your patience. It’s coming shortly.

On the Massachusetts Bay side, we finally found the wind we came for, a comfortable 8 – 10 knot off shore breeze. Finally the rumble of the diesel could be silenced and the peaceful beauty of travelling under sail power could be savored. Moving north at 5 knots on a close reach with flat water, life was very good. Man, was I smart to buy this boat!

Getting up to Plymouth Harbor, the wind had picked up to about 12, and boat speed went to 6 knots. It was really cool to have instruments that actually measured these things. In dinghies, we just make up these numbers by the seat of our pants based on our self proclaimed expertise and narrative needs.

Proceeding northward past Marshfield beach, the wind had built to a solid 15. The boat was heeled 18 degrees. (Measurement based on a crude tilt-o-meter and a poor memory… in other words, made up.) Half an hour later, the wind was up to 20 and the boat over to 25 degrees. (Same measuring system, but you get the trend.) Boat speed was about 7 – 8 knots. Boy, this was fun!

My experienced friend, Ralph, cautioned, “If this wind keeps building, we should think about reefing the sails.” Instead, we skipped any thinking and just enjoyed the ride for the next half hour as the wind built to 25 and the boat was over to 30 something degrees. Fifteen minutes later, we finally got serious and decided it was time to shorten sail. Ralph confidently wrapped the genoa furling line around the winch and began pulling. Nothing happened. Pulled harder, the line did not move. “The furling line must have jumped the spool. I’ll go forward and put it back on,” Ralph said calmly. I was in good hands.

As the wind had increased, it had moved forward. We adjusted to a close hauled course, and even with a short fetch from land, waves were starting to build. I was happy it was Ralph bouncing up there on the bow. It seemed he was up there for quite a while, and as he crawled back to the cockpit, I was hopeful that we were going to get this boat back to a more comfortable heeling angle.

“I couldn’t get it. The line looped over itself under the spool and I just can’t get it undone. We’ll be fine like this.”

“Maybe if we reef the main, it will help,” I said tentatively, trying to be helpful.

“Why not,” responded Ralph. “We’ll give it a try.”

We surveyed the situation. There were two grommets at the luff of the sail. All we had to do was to find some line to make an outhaul and lower the main

“Maybe we can use one of those lines we took off getting the main up,” I suggested.

“You know,” Ralph said thoughtfully, “those lines were tied to those grommets before I removed them. Maybe they were reefing lines.” (Doh!) “I’ll just retie them.”

Turns out that those reef points are pretty high off the cockpit seats when the main is up. Judging from the considerable reach of the 6’2” Ralph, the lower one must have been about 7 and a half feet up, just a little too high for him to get. (Aside: The nifty jiffy reefing system on the boat worked really well once I learned how to rig it properly.)

“We’ll be fine,” we told ourselves. “We can handle a little wind and the boat heeling over.” We were tough guys, manly men of the sea. Heeling over was not really a problem, only an inconvenience. The formidable weather helm just required a little muscle to keep the boat on course.

That eastern shore from the Cape Cod Canal up to Hingham where the boat was to be docked is a lot longer by sea than it is by car or appears on a map. Passing five towns may seem quite do-able, but these towns stretched for miles and miles. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we were just beginning to see parts of the third town, Scituate.

Now the wind was consistently in the high 20’s. We watched the anemometer readout, taking pride in our manhood with every gust. The highest was 33. We were pretty impressed with ourselves to be under full sail in this wind. At this point, the boat with a five foot freeboard had its rail buried in the water. No problemo. We could handle it.

As we approached Scituate harbor about 5:30, we noticed a lot of boats out. They had reefed sails. “Must be the Wednesday night race,” my knowledgeable companion observed. We were going to go right by them, affording a good view of the race. As we approached the fleet, we noticed a boat on the left reaching toward the other boats. From a distance, it was clear she was going to cross us with no problem. As we got closer, it wasn’t quite so clear that she was going to cross. Still nearer, it looked like it was going to be very close.

“Just to be safe, bear off and give him plenty of room,” Ralph suggested. With more speed we’ll cross him and give him plenty of room to go behind if he has to. Or we’ll just go parallel until it gets sorted out.”

With considerable effort, I turned the wheel to head down. When the boat didn’t respond, I turned harder.

“Let’s go! Turn down!” Ralph shouted with more intensity than usual. “It’s getting too close!”

“I’m trying! It’s not going!” (Funny how large boats behave like dinghies in this respect. Full sails in big wind completely overcome the rudder in steering the boat.)

By this time, all aboard the other boat were hollering at me too. They were in complete disbelief that some asshole just out cruising might actually hit them during a race. Sweating, I began imagining the shattering of fiberglass that would occur when a 15,000 pound boat going 7 knots broadsided another boat. As the boats came within a few boat lengths of each other, Ralph simultaneously yelled “tack!” and dumped the main. The dumping of the main allowed the ruder to take over just enough to turn the boat and avoid the stern of the other boat by five feet. The two of us finally exhaled, but the screaming from the other boat continued. We hung our heads in shame for causing the close encounter, but we also secretly prided ourselves on our quick reactions and heroic disaster avoidance skills.

Having a modicum of sense, we admitted to each other as we sailed on that our unfamiliarity with a new boat had caused considerable anxiety to everyone on both boats. But what could we have done? Under full sail in that wind, a big boat is really hard to handle. In the end, no one was harmed, no property damaged. No big deal.

Checking the time, we realized that there was no way we were going to reach our destination before dark. Our vast experience told us that navigating an unfamiliar harbor at night was a potentially bad idea. Besides, we were tired and really needed some beers.

Being the veteran sailors we knew ourselves to be, we radioed the harbor master and requested a mooring for the night. He gave us a mooring right on the channel, not allowing us to demonstrate our boat handling skills in tight spaces. Maybe he had already heard about us. After finally fixing the genoa spool, we stowed the sails and closed up the boat for the night.

As we rode the launch in, who did we pass but the sailors on the boat we narrowly missed. Fortunately, they did not recognize us as we turned our faces away in casual manly avoidance. However, halfway through our first beer, our would-be victims strode into the bar. We were going to have to meet this head on as real men do. After a friendly greeting, we apologized, offered to buy them a couple of beers, and laughed at our close call. We earned forgiveness, at least in our minds, at the very reasonable cost of two beers each.

We were, however, still 10 miles from the car we planed to drive home. Being single at the time, I had no one to call, and it would have been an admission of failure to ask Ralph’s wife to make a rescue trip. No biggie. Ralph said he would use his manly charm to find a ride back to the car. So effective was Ralph’s “charm” that it was actually one of our victims who located someone going our way – an absolutely shitfaced drunk. Not to worry. It was late, few cars still out, secondary roads.

It was, in fact, no problem. Our new friend was one of those highly cautious drunk drivers, never breaking 20 MPH all the way back to our car.

Getting into the car, we breathed a long, deep salt air sigh of relief and satisfaction. We had conquered a 33 knot wind without conceding an inch of sail area, we had avoided, nay prevented, a disaster, we had made new friends, and we had a good story to tell and perhaps embellish. A good day for two manly men of the sea.


  1. Sailing is like many outdoor adventure sports - mountaineering would be another good example - in that part of the thrill is in taking risks and pushing the limits. It is true that novices, or people playing with unfamiliar equipment or on unfamiliar terrain, may not have the best judgment on when to back off and when to push on. It's also true that sometimes the most experienced go over the line and pay the consequences.

    The tendency of the male of the species to exhibit his machismo is certainly a factor too. But there are plenty of less healthy and less acceptable ways for those with an excess of testosterone to work out their issues than failing to put in a reef when out sailing.

    Verification word: beres. Must be an anagram.

  2. I have to re-think my opposition to reefing. In 30 knots+ I break things. Usually vangs. One solution was to sail without mainsail. I found that I could point to 65 deg under jib in 25+ knots, enough to start. In a large fleet intimidated from starting in similar conditions, a DNF score was a big plus as far as series standings were concerned. But bailing out after a start is not good for crew morale.