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Sweat the small stuff and you'll survive

I recall going sailing in my friend John's new 23-foot sailboat. The boat had been hurriedly berthed on a mooring, using badly worn three-strand nylon line. We hadn't had the time to replace the line. In fact, we hadn't properly set up the anchoring system or the jiffy reefing system. It was the first available chance to sail her and we were anxious to try her out.

Mike Saylor

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There was little wind under an overcast sky. Seas were calm, about Sea State 2. We got under way in what was almost a drifter.

A few hours later, the wind, which was on the nose as we drifted up to our mooring, reversed and became cooler. I realized a microburst was coming. As we hooked onto the mooring "string" - more than two-and-a-half of the three strands were gone - white water in a line started toward us.

The wind hit us with tremendous force (recorded at 75 mph) tearing us from the "security" of our mooring. The boat heeled 60 degrees on the inclinometer, the cross trees touching the water. I eased off on the main, the boat came back up, and we took off like a bat out of hell.

We hadn't rigged the boat for reefing, so we couldn't reduce sail. We couldn't do anything with the headsail, either - no downhaul was rigged - and we couldn't anchor because we hadn't put together the ground tackle. Off we went down the harbor with the knot meter pegged at 10. We couldn't haul the main in to come head to wind (to what purpose?). We couldn't turn downwind because of the docks close under our lee. We just sped on toward the docks at the end of the harbor less than a half-mile away.

We lived, and the boat wasn't wrecked, thanks to providence. They say God watches over fools and drunks - we weren't drunk.

My reason for exposing this appalling failure of seamanship is to point out the small things that an intelligent, competent boater would have addressed. The anchor wasn't shackled to chain, nor the chain secured to line. Reefing gear was not installed. No downhauls were fitted, and the mainsheet tackle was too light. Had any one of these simple tasks been tended to before casting off for our joyride, the situation might not have been so unmanageable.

Small details can grow and cause other problems that increase in seriousness until ...

I recall an incident (not directly involving me) when a boater installed a float switch for his small bilge pump high up in the bilge so he could reduce the draw on his battery. He saw no need to install a larger-

capacity pump, though the amount of water that would collect in the bilge would be greater with the float switch higher. He also had no manual backup pump. He was offshore when his stuffing box began leaking excessively. The water volume in the bilge exceeded the pump's capacity to handle it by the time the float switch activated the pump. The water rose to a level where it shorted out the battery, and the boat sank.

When a lot of little things conspire, they can cascade into real problems that jeopardize the boat. I learned, through bitter experience, to check the running rigging on the mast as soon as I board a sailboat, whether I'm the skipper, a crewmember or a guest. A fouled halyard, topping lift, down-haul or reefing gear can ruin your day.

I have always remembered a friend, who was a Naval Academy graduate, telling me what had been drummed into his head as a "middy." I don't remember the saying verbatim, but here's the gist. The sea is not inherently cruel. The sea is, however, utterly unconcerned about the shortcomings or failures of those who sail on it.

It's something worth keeping in mind. Be alert to small details - after all, the world needs more "lerts."

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.