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Close calls, near misses and Lady Luck

Near misses, I’ve had a few. Most of what I write about in this column comes from personal experience.

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I’ve made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. But never make the same mistake twice. Do so, and you’re a fool. It’s been said, “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain,” and no amount of advice or guidance will stop you from eventually harming yourself. Hope that others aren’t harmed along the way.

Of course, I personally am proof of another adage: “God watches over fools and drunks.” I’m not a drunk, but on occasion …

1. Crossing traffic separation lanes

During a delivery, we were powering into the Chesapeake at night from the Chesapeake Bay Light Tower. Exercising brilliant judgment, I chose an inbound course between the outbound traffic separation lane and the south shore. The water shoaled, as I should have known it would, so I decided to cross the shipping lane into deeper water. Ahead, I saw the masthead, range light and green side light of a down-bound ship. Instead of waiting, I turned to starboard. We were committed when I saw both side lights and realized I could no longer see the masthead light of the oncoming ship because the bulk of her hull was obscuring it. We went to full speed — I hadn’t even done that when I turned. We made it only to see another ship bearing down. She’d been masked by the bulk of the ship we had just squeezed past.

2. Responsibility of the skipper

I was below during a delivery in very rough weather, having plotted a course to clear a headland in fog and with an onshore wind. I gave the helmsman the course and began working on the next leg, instead of checking on him and his course-keeping in the difficult conditions. He later called out there were rocks ahead. Had I checked the compass, the helmsman and the angle of the wake relative to the fore/aft line of the boat, I would have realized we were setting onshore by a combination of wind, tide and a degree of inexperience. We were so close to a cliff that a sharp turn to port would have swung the stern into the rocks. I should have been on deck and monitoring the helm. That is where the skipper belongs under such circumstances. He’s responsible.

3. Idiots and the location of your VHF

We were sailing on Lake Superior, in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands. The weather was clear, winds at Force 3. My wife, Lou, was at the helm when she called regarding a developing situation. A large tour boat had turned directly toward us, and was following our evasive maneuvers and closing. We ran into shallow water and still it came on. I had taken the helm while Lou was checking the water. When she sang out that she could see rocks under water, I turned up in time to hear a loud speaker on the tour boat announcing, “There, up close, is one of the beautiful sailboats plying these waters. Give a wave hello.” First, we should not have crowded into shallow, rock-filled waters. Second, the VHF was mounted below, and there was no hand-held. As the situation evolved, we didn’t have the opportunity to call and warn off the tour boat, not that I think it would have done much good.

4. Messing with hurricanes

Picture an IOR-era racing sailboat. She has an axe-blade of a bow and generous quarters to accommodate the International Offshore Rule. She’s built as lightly as can be gotten away with. Now, picture a crew with a maximum of two weeks vacation time. Add to this mix a hurricane churning away about 1,000 miles to the south and not moving. The destination is the United Kingdom. The question: Be conservative or take a chance and go? Make it into the Gulf Stream, get a lift and, with luck, you’ll be in England ahead of the stationary or very slow-moving storm. Picture the storm accelerating and passing south of you, resulting in a wind-over current situation, and you don’t have a storm jib or trysail to enable you to heave-to. You get beat up by beating to the extent that the main bulkhead starts to loosen from the hull. Is that a near miss? Never cross in front of a hurricane.

5. Have fun, but remember the sea is not inherently cruel but is utterly unconcerned with human shortcomings. Sometimes you get lucky.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.