I did not plan to stop sailing so early this season, but circumstances dictated otherwise. In the past, I have usually sailed into December, but in late October the unexpected happened and sidelined me with an injured left shoulder.
To set the scene: I sail alone, and if the wind is blowing more than 20 mph I postpone sailing until the wind hole has filled. But this time I violated that rule because I was trying to help a troubled ladyfriend in distress over her failed romantic relationship. Distraught, she was “desperate for a therapeutic daysail.”
I had cancelled two earlier outings that week with her because of heavy weather, which reduced her to tears. When I called at 9 a.m. to cancel again, this time with forecasts in the 30-mph range, the woman (who shall remain nameless) would not hear of it. She said she was already on her way to Annapolis from Virginia, even after I had warned her I had pulled my ailing shoulder a week earlier.
As luck would have it, however, Bob Grieser — an international yachting photographer and mutual friend — was in town from San Diego on assignment. I had asked him to shoot me motorsailing through the Spa Creek Drawbridge to illustrate this column, which was supposed to focus on various aspects of single-handing.
Grieser and the woman saw me off at my Wells Cove dock and waited for the shoot from a dock near the bridge. I raised the main and ran downwind in 20-mph gusts with the outboard running in neutral to catch an 11:30 a.m. opening. As the bridge opened, I pulled in the main as tight as I could and motored through. I should point out here that I do not motorsail through the bridge if a strong wind is hitting broadsides and into the bridge. But I wanted to get the image before Grieser left town.
I went through and dropped the main, motored to a restaurant dock to pick them up, then raised the main again, shut off the outboard, and blasted out of the harbor. The wind was blowing about 20 mph at the time. We rolled out the jib and sailed around, eventually into Whitehall Bay. This may have been a mistake, because the ex-boyfriend’s sailboat is docked in a nearby creek, and they often anchored in this small bay. Memories can be painful.
Returning toward the mouth of the Severn River, 30-mph wind gusts from the west arrived and put the port rail under. It was time to roll up the jib and reef the main before we began tacking homeward. I was in the companionway facing forward and getting the reefing lines ready.
I asked the woman to let out the mainsheet before I began dropping the main to reef. Instead, she grabbed the port jib sheet from the winch and began tugging hard on it. “No, no, no!” I shouted. “That’s the jib sheet, and the jib is rolled up, remember?” At that point, I made an awkward turn backward and to my left to grab the loose jib sheet when I felt a very painful, grinding “pop” in my left shoulder.
Eventually she found the mainsheet she was sitting on and let out the boom so I could begin my one-line reefing routine from the cockpit. With 19 control lines coming into the small, crowded cockpit with three adults, the spaghetti of lines made things complicated. Incidentally, sailing alone, with no one to get in the way, is an easy procedure.
I was unable to pull any lines, so Grieser did the grunt work because he at least knew what was going on. After a somewhat sloppy reef and my left arm hanging limp, I retreated to the cabin in intense pain and poured a slash of black rum with my good arm. It was odd being down below in my heeling boat with someone else sailing it, but at least I was dry and warm.
Looking out the cabin ports and getting close to the harbor, I returned topside to lower the main between the lazyjacks and try to tug on the main downhaul. Shoulder pain also prevented my pulling the starter line on my 5-hp Honda 4-stroke outboard under strong compression. Grieser took on that assignment, too, and made me even more grateful he was on board. It is always a pleasant experience to get out of foul weather and into the calm of an inner harbor. I grabbed the tiller and motored through the bridge.
Arriving at my slip, I asked everyone to sit still and do nothing, because I have spring and dock lines set up for quick solo landings. Naturally, as soon as a boat is tied up, guests immediately jump ship and abandon the owner to tidy up.
I suppose I should defend myself for my single-minded, single-handed pursuit of boating pleasure. Regardless of what anyone might think, we are not all weird, lonely, friendless, anti-social misfits. In fact, I enjoy socializing with fellow sailors on long cruises. I have taken part in many lively, memorable exchanges of tall boating tales at evening anchorages until my jaw ached from laughter. But when cruising alone and anchored for the night, I barely have enough energy left for a drink and a cigar before jumping into my sleeping bag. Of course, I am always up at daybreak and ready to go.
As a sailing regular out of Annapolis, other sailors often wave at me with a smile. I like that. When Capt. Jennifer Kaye is at the helm of one of her family’s two excursion schooners named Woodwind and comes near, I can hear her instructing her 50 or 60 guests thusly: “One, two, three … HEY JACK!” Everyone shouts in unison as off they go.
If a southerly breeze is good enough for a dead downwind sail home, I’ll fall off on a broad reach, rig a self-steering line, and uncleat a whisker pole downhaul line behind a sheet winch in the cockpit. Dashing to the foredeck, I’ll pop the pole loose from its home on the mast and free the topping lift so the pole will drop and stop at a predetermined height. Then I grab the sheet and pop it into the outboard end of the pole before securing the pole back on the mast gooseneck and snap-shackling the pole downhaul to a bale.
This is where my boat can do better on a wing-and-wing run than those without a whisker pole or spinnaker. I have passed 40-footers under such conditions. When a skipper of such a larger boat realizes he is about to be passed by an old man alone on an old 22-footer, he may decide to change course or start his engine. I say to myself, I know what you’re doing!
Sailing alone, I am unable to jibe the pole from the cockpit to change course. For example, to sail closer to the wind on a starboard reach, I pull in the main and roll in the jib to a halfway point. Then I ease the pole downhaul line to move the pole well forward so that the “reefed” jib will bag out and allow both sails to draw. The downhaul must be adjusted accordingly to avoid bending the pole. To resume sailing wing-and-wing after the course correction, I let out the main and roll out the jib all the way, trimming the headsail by pulling in the starboard sheet and readjusting the downhaul.
If all of this sounds complicated, it really isn’t, and it works. Dropping the pole and putting it away is far easier than setting it.
What are the rewards? You learn more things about what you (and your boat) can and cannot do. You sail better, gain confidence and enhance your boat’s performance … and your own.
Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.
Jack has been cruising Chesapeake Bay and writing about the region for more than 25 years. His critically acclaimed book, "Maryland's Vanishing Lives," was published by Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University Press and is now in its second printing. Before joining Soundings, Jack was a feature writer at the Washington (D.C.) Star for nearly 20 years and a senior editor at Chesapeake Bay magazine from 1995 to 1998. His monthly Bay Tripper column focuses on the Chesapeake.