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Three of the mistakes I’m willing to fess up to

Writing about all of the intelligent things you’ve done seems to be in vogue in boating magazines and books these days. I may have even been guilty of this from time to time. But I’m here today to set the record straight — or straighter.

Here are three mistakes I’ve made that have taught me there are lessons to be learned out there, even if I haven’t learned them.

I’m not proud of any of these mistakes, but I can live with them more easily than I can with plenty of others I’m not telling you about.

It didn’t help that it was Fourth of July weekend. At first I actually thought it would help because I could show off my 53-foot motorsailer, Chez Nous, to the huge throngs on the dock, not to mention my seamanship skills. The slips were perpendicular to the shoreline, and the current, of course, ran parallel to the shore. This meant it ran across the slips. When I use the word “run” I use it meaningfully. “Gallop” might be more descriptive.

All of this means it was a particularly difficult place to dock without disaster, especially for Chez Nous. She has a single screw and at the time didn’t have bow thrusters. She has a long cruising keel. The tide’s power against her side can be awesome. But I shrugged off these thoughts. This was an opportunity to put on even more of a show. And boat after boat already had docked, with one version of crash landing or another and the usual cacophony of less-than-complimentary shouting and screaming between mates and captains.

The crowd strolling on shore had had plenty of time to know it was “show time” whenever a boat came in. That crowd had grown steadily because red-faced earlier dockers had left their boats as quickly as possible to anonymously blend in. They weren’t only watching latecomers for the fun of it; they were hoping future disasters would diminish theirs. I didn’t disappoint them.

One of my tactics for docking Chez Nous in situations such as this is to slowly, just barely moving against the current, lay my shoreward bow — about a quarter-way aft, if I can manage — against the outside down-current piling of the slip. I then get a line around it rigged to become a spring when I get far enough in. I then slowly warp around the piling, rudder hard over and with just enough bursts of forward power to start turning the bow in without pushing the boat ahead to crash into the boat in the upstream slip. I was doing all this as the crowd grew silent, perhaps feeling the disappointment of a boring docking. I guess they figured it was going to be like watching a NASCAR race with no pileups.

Joysticks and pod drives make docking easier, but they take away the entertainment of a less-than-perfect performance.

But they didn’t hear the crack. I did. At first I hoped nobody would notice, given all the hubbub. But when the piling you are warping around starts floating away downstream from the slip you are trying to enter, it becomes somewhat conspicuous, especially if your line is still tied to that particular piling. The situation presents some conflicting interests. In the first place, nylon lines are expensive. In the second place, we all hope for a diminished degree of conspicuousness in times like this. So you have to quickly toss off the expensive line from your cleat while maintaining as nonchalant a composure as possible. The trick is to do it behind your back while everyone else is pointing and looking at the piling. On this particular occasion it didn’t help that it was the Fourth of July.

I can understand why the marina was upset. This piling was worth keeping. It had so much prehistoric marine life attached they could have sold it to the Smithsonian. It carried its heritage about a foot below the surface, so how was I to know as I slid in alongside? But it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see the growth; I wouldn’t have realized there was a problem, anyway. Even from under water there would have been no way to know that, under the hundreds of layers of barnacles and crustaceans, whose lives had just been shattered by the combination of a slight nudge from Chez Nous and years of their contented munching, the piling was about as thick as a pencil — a well-sharpened pencil.

No problem, I thought. It’s clear that this isn’t my fault. But my jumping up and down and yelling, “The barnacles did it! The barnacles did it!” didn’t seem to help much in clearing up the obvious misunderstanding among the growing crowd. And the fact that the dockmaster had been leaning on the piling didn’t help at all. The kindest of the spectators might have been thinking, It wasn’t his fault; he was exercising a well-known and long-accepted maneuver. He didn’t hit the piling, he was just warping around it, and you’re supposed to be able to do that.

Well, maybe — maybe not, and thanks for your kind thoughts. However, two mistakes are clear: I should have undertaken this feat of maritime maneuvering at midnight, and I shouldn’t ever try to impress a crowd.

This mistake didn’t happen at midnight but in the morning hours not long after first light. However, midnight played a role. We had recently returned from a winter in the Bahamas. Depending on weather and breakdowns and a host of other possible problems, this can be a wonderful time or a very trying time. Our trip that year had been trying, and we were tired. But we prefer making the East Coast trip out in the Atlantic rather than on the ICW when the weather is good, and we had a friend who wanted to help us. So, with a great weather forecast, we headed out Cape Canaveral Inlet, cleared the shoal waters and rounded to a northeasterly course.

We would be passing that coastal curvature where Florida, Georgia and South Carolina seem to wisely retreat from the full brunt of the horrific storms that sometimes embroil the “western ocean.” This meant that we were, for a while, well more than 100 miles out in a slow but well-found boat, which is a wonderful pleasure when the weather is good. It’s another world, another time, another mindset, and it can be incredibly beautiful and restful.

I wasn’t very restful, though, because we had our two very young daughters aboard, we’d experienced some breakdowns that were fully repaired but left a lingering sense of worry, and we felt the need to check everything frequently. And I knew that decisions and well-being were my ultimate responsibility, notwithstanding the excellent help from my family and friend. And I was already exhausted from the passage recently finished. All went wonderfully well at first. It was the second night that brought that omen.

There was no moon. This can be quite a negative at sea because a good moon can make visibility almost as good as daylight and add an aura of indescribable, unearthly beauty. It can also be a positive thing. You tend, perhaps, to be a little sharper in your watch-keeping, not lulled as much by the magic of the world around you, and you can see, sometimes in vivid splendor, the phosphorescence of sea creatures large and small — large as they silently drift down beneath your hull and smaller as they broil away astern in your wake.

High-voltage spears were being thrown all around us, sizzling as they hit the water. It was as if Zeus was really ticked at us but had been drinking so much wine his aim was off.

The fact that you can see the stars, the meteorites, the planets is also a positive. Most of us don’t ever see the universe like this because lights from the shore, the islands, the ship we may be on all dim what’s out there. Even dust and smog from the mainland detract from the experience. So this night, as we always do, we were ecstatically enjoying the lights in that black dome above. Until, a little after midnight, the dome seemed to shrink a bit.

It was as though the northern edge of it had collapsed in toward us a little. And this was the direction we were heading. We knew what it meant: clouds to the north — not a big deal, necessarily. But at sea you learn to not pass things off as “little deals,” especially alone at night with your family aboard. We knew it could be a storm building, and it would have been in that area where dangerous storms seem to spawn in a life cycle of their own. It would have been in the area of Cape Fear.

Cape Fear is where we were headed. Naturally, we kept watching the night sky ahead as stars, stars and more stars disappeared. The clouds were growing. “At least no lightning yet,” I said. Less than 5 minutes later we saw the final signs. Light in the black sky, far to the north, behind the clouds. When that happens, you can begin to see the roil of the clouds. They’re no longer just an obscuring blanket; they have form, and their threat becomes more real.

When you go to sea you expect storms from time to time. People have been dealing with them for, I suppose, millennia. It’s not the end of the world. Many storms die out before they reach you. Many just give you a little cooling air, some temporary variation in the waves and a nice freshwater washdown. Many can be seen on radar, and you sail around them. But we saw nothing on radar, and when the lights came on far up ahead they flickered longer, and you could see that the cloud bank was huge.

As the area of lightning continued, you could tell it was spreading across the east-west horizon. But close in, around us, astern and even in the skies just ahead of us, all was serene, the bright stars still filling our part of the universe and the sea creatures lighting the waters below. But now we were beginning to see not just background illumination up north, but also flashes of lightning. It was getting worse, and it was getting closer.

We were getting weather from the SSB, and nothing was said about anything unusual going on. The forecast was still ideal. Don’t tell me … I finally started calling out via SSB and raised a Coast Guard station to the north to ask about the weather. He started reading me the official version, the same stuff I’d been hearing on the SSB. When he stopped I pressed my PTT button and said, “Sir, thanks for that, but would you please stick your head out the door and tell me what’s happening?” When he returned to the air, his voice seemed very different. “Sir, it’s raining and blowing like - - - - out there.”

I’d been tired since the beginning of the trip, not sleeping when I should have, and I wasn’t about to start getting sleep now. I’d been watching the barometer, as is my custom, and it had begun to fall. It wasn’t supposed to be doing this. We could turn and head in another direction, but when the weather service didn’t know what was going on, and considering the area we were in, there wasn’t much sense in turning around. We’d been in many storms and this was probably just one of those things — nothing more.

Our plan was to enter the Intracoastal Waterway at the Cape Fear River, rather than make the long trip out around Frying Pan Shoals to Beaufort, N.C. This made even more sense now. But as we approached those waters and gray light began to sullenly wash out the night, the storm began around us in earnest. It wasn’t one solid mass of storms but storm after storm, nonetheless. Some were gale-force, some were mild thundershowers. But we could tell the weather was going to hell. And now, marvelous to behold, the government weather service was catching on and speaking of a subtropical low forming. We were glad to be near our point of re-entry to the ICW and anchorages and marinas, but not really: First we had to get in.

Approaching the Cape Fear entrance from the south, the view is confusing. The big ship channel meanders in on the northeast side of the entrance. A huge wide-open area of shifting shoals stands between you and the channel, and it’s critical to find the sea buoy and enter there. Once you get to the sea buoy, you’ve got to follow the other ATONs carefully because the relatively narrow channel is hardly straight, with the beaches of Bald Head Island close to starboard and shoals, raked by towering breaking ocean waves, seemingly everywhere else. Before we got to the sea buoy, we were overwhelmed by a huge lightning storm. High-voltage spears were being thrown all around us, sizzling as they hit the water. It was as if Zeus was really ticked at us, but had been drinking so much wine his aim was off. This suddenly stopped, but black clouds and other lightning broiled around us.

Reefing before you need to is nice in theory but not always practiced.

“We’re heading in,” I said.

“Maybe we ought to think about standing off a while before going into that channel,” my friend and my wife said.

I told them we were going for it, and that we did. But when we got into one of the worst areas of the channel, the full fury of hell broke again, with lightning striking the waves all around us and rain so thick in the high wind that you couldn’t see the bow. Radar, of course, was useless. And that was before chart plotters. We had to alternate between trying to hold station — largely a matter of guessing — and feeling our way to the next ATON — again, largely a matter of guessing. But we made it.

I should have gotten more rest before and during the trip. It turned out in retrospect to have been a good decision to continue on course once we saw the storm, but a horribly poor decision to not stand off awhile before we entered Cape Fear Inlet. Lightning could have hit us out there, but it could have just as easily, I suppose, hit us among the shoals. My boats have been hit by lightning. The seas could have grown much larger out there, but we would have had plenty of water under the keel and plenty of sea room to head into them. If we had entangled in the shoals, I don’t want to think what could have happened. And I shouldn’t have, in those particular circumstances, disregarded the fact that sometimes staying at sea awhile longer is better than seeking the illusory safety on the other side of the inlet.

The sage sailor’s pearl of wisdom — the one they always talk about in “how to sail” articles, the one they always harp on in sailing schools — is to reef when you first think about it. Never wait until you need to. It may then be too late. Well, guess what: It’s not always that easy.

We’d made a glorious passage from the Florida Channel across to the Bahamas. Our planned point of entry was the passage between Gun Cay and Cat Cay in the Bimini chain, to the south of Bimini. We’d used it before. Weather — in particular, wind — is very important for this passage. You must cross the Gulf Stream, which flows with force and speed between the continental United States and the Bahamas Banks. Wind blowing against it makes it hump up with very treacherous waves. Many times I’ve stood on the beach at Fort Lauderdale or Miami and looked out on the Stream during a northerly. The waves are like drunken skyscrapers, trying to walk about, crashing into one another, sending themselves into the air like erupting volcanoes of water. I’ve seen this from out there among them also, and I won’t belabor the point. You don’t choose to do it.

So we were grateful this day to have a nice sou’westerly. We’d normally avoided them in the past for two reasons. First, our favorite mode of crossing the Stream is flat calm. We’d run into too many surprises out there. Second, we know they usually herald a cold front. But we were anxious to get across and knew we would be happy enough to anchor, waiting for good winds to cross the Banks. Often post-frontal winds blew northwesterly for a while before clocking nor’easterly. That would be fine, and that was what was forecast. Also, a sou’westerly makes for a great sail, with winds on the quarter and blowing at least somewhat in the Stream’s direction, which would keep the waters from becoming leaping mountains.

We were right. The ocean did develop a good swell the farther we got out from the lee of the coast, but that’s what you expect in the ocean when the wind is blowing. It’s a great feeling to have wind from a good direction pushing you along through normal, easy, rolling ocean swell. It’s like you’re part of the heartbeat of the sea. This wasn’t at all like the rough of a northerly against the Stream. It was the type of rough in which a good boat like Chez Nous handles well. So when we first raised the landmarks of the Bimini chain ahead, we were glad to be so close but still enjoying our ride.

Not for long. To enter the Bahamas here, as is true at many other entry points, you must leave exceptionally deep water, sometimes thousands of feet, and cross over a near-vertical wall rising up from the deep until it levels out to the shallow table of the famed Bahamas Banks, around which so many beautiful islands are sprinkled. And this table is ringed by beautiful coral reef and rock. So you can use only certain passages, and you must use them carefully.

The passage between Cat and Gun generally has you running straight into the rocky cliff of Gun, going up rather close, and making a sharp turn to starboard, continuing on until you reach a deep passage inside, at which you must turn abruptly to port at just the right place. If you don’t, you find yourself on a brown bar of solid rock. If you get far afield from any part of the passage in, you’re in trouble. We’d done it enough times to know this and felt some degree of the comfort that comes from familiarity.

The passage between Cat Cay (left) and Gun Cay can be tricky, as Tom experienced after a miscalculation.

That degree of comfort quickly began to dissipate. The tides in much of the Bahamas flood onto the Banks as they rise, through all of the many wide and narrow openings. As the tides of the ocean lower, all that water on the Banks hurries to catch up, flooding out of the many wide and narrow openings. Therefore, at times of strong tides, you may not want to negotiate an opening with the wind against a strong flow of water. We knew this.

But there were two things we hadn’t expected. The tide had changed along this rim sooner than usual, and it was running out. This can happen sometimes because of the moon, wind, storms elsewhere and other natural phenomena. Also, that nice sou’westerly had been steadily picking up as we sailed across, so by the time it (and we) reached the Banks it was a lot more than the benign 15 knots we and all the gazillion weather forecasters had expected. As we approached, I stood on the bow with the binoculars and watched the seas wantonly breaking all along the wall and then rolling in to break in the cut, over the rocks and coral and against the rocky walls of the island. And we had to go in there and do some pretty fancy maneuvering. Laying offshore on the west side of the chain was unthinkable at that time, considering weather changes coming.

I knew the boat would be whipping back and forth on those seas and that, considering the current and the tight channel, it would be prudent to rely primarily on the engine to get in. I knew also that with the turns we would have to make, any sail up would be flogged and slammed and jibed unmercifully by the wind. That might make precise control of the boat very difficult and could result in destruction of sails or a dismasting.

If we had a crew full of big, tough guys, as you see on the fancy racing yachts, it would have been different. But all we had was my very capable wife, Mel, me and our two young daughters. At least we had a good old 130-hp Perkins 354 for muscle, which I always kept well-maintained. Usually we keep at least the main up for stabilization going into inlets, but I made the decision to douse the sail before we got to the inlet to give us better maneuverability and hopefully avoid losing the sail and mast altogether.

The foresail was easy because it was roller furling. The main was not. We had to round up into the wind, but this put the seas on the beam because they were wrapping around the island. I headed to the mainmast and started pulling the sail down. The boom was high, and I’m not particularly tall. The seas began an unexpected ricochet off the wall as I went to work, whipping the boat from side to side as I hung on. I was repeatedly thrown from my feet, my body streaming out in the air as I held on to the sail, boom or whatever. Time after time, I almost went overboard. If I had gone over, neither Mel nor anyone else would have been able to maneuver the boat to recover me without very likely losing the boat. And despite my tethering line, I probably would have drowned as I was banged about at its end, which could have, under the circumstances, entangled in the prop, had I gone over.

Long story short: I got the main in, and we powered into our anchorage and had another great winter in the Bahamas. We had miscalculated the effect of the sea at the end of the passage. It’s seldom going to be the same at the end as it was when you began. Ever since then, absent unusual circumstances (such as very calm water), when we go into an inlet we definitely do so under power, but usually we also have the main up to hold the boat down from raging seas or raging wakes.

Now for the rest of the stories I could tell … you can only imagine.

November 2013 issue