Skip to main content

Bay Tripper

Sailing into the golden years

Lately I have come across a lot of stories and letters in boating magazines about geezer sailing — a subject dear to my heart, as readers of this column may have noticed. There is something admirable (and occasionally amusing) about older sailors who refuse to turn over their passion to power.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but when I bash about alone out of Annapolis, Md., in my 22-footer, I often notice smiling sailors giving me a thumbs-up and a wave. I send a smile and a wave in return. Having a sense of humor about one’s self in this sport definitely prolongs life on the water.

Sailors, it seems, are inveterate (and sometimes inventive) storytellers who can laugh at themselves and others, appreciating tales that produce more smiles than fear. For example, decades after events involving an older Chesapeake Bay sailing buddy now retired in NewportR.I., I still rehash with glee his early episodes and embellish them, although tampering with their purity is unnecessary.

“Please get your facts straight,” he has admonished me in a good-natured way. I explain that I return to his amusing events of yesteryear because his stories have since diminished in quantity and quality as he improved his sailing ways. His last event a few years ago, however, was a doozie: He hit a moored battleship in Newport harbor.

Gentle Burt Hoffman sails Flirt, a vintage 32-foot Van Dine cutter, and Little Flirt, a wooden Beetle Cat, and I cannot imagine him ever turning to power beyond tooling about the harbor in his 8-foot dinghy pushed by a couple horses. I have a feeling that many sailors over the age of 65 look at such a drastic transfer of affection as an irreversible decision. For me, going over to the dark side just because of a slowing-down process involving creaky joints and other ailments is just not an alternative. Eventually, of course, there may be no other option, but why give up good sailing years and rush into something too early that I may regret? My three sons have asked me to change my ways as a preventive measure before it is forced ingloriously upon me and I embarrass myself. I explain to them that I already have power (a 5-hp outboard hidden in the lazarette), but if I trade off I will no longer have the option of sailing.

Solo geezer sailing in a small boat on protected waters like the Chesapeake doesn’t mean I can avoid trouble. Vicious squalls come regularly, though usually with some advance warning. I have been caught in a few — hurricane-force winds once sent one of my boats to the bottom — and being prepared is key. The paramount safety objective, as I see it, is to remain in the cockpit while performing the necessary duties to successfully handle stressful situations and bring things calmly under control.

Bear with me while I toss a barrage of nuts and bolts into this confusing mix. To start with, I believe all sail control lines should be led aft. I sail a full keel/centerboard, Sparkman & Stephens-designed 1962 Sailmaster 22 with 15 control lines of one sort or another within reach in the cockpit. A lazyjack system will catch, corral and tame a dropped mainsail, and I lead those control lines aft, too. I have a one-line jiffy reefing system with one deep reef in the main and only three reef points, used mainly to tie down the furled sail at the dock.

A main downhaul line led aloft pulls the sail down quickly because the upper part of my main with two full battens used to press the sail slugs into the mast slot and force me to leave the cockpit and haul it down. That downhaul, once made fast, also restrains the sail from rising in a high wind. This all might sound like a lot of spaghetti, but it can be easily organized even though it can create a bit of a bewildering, temporary mess when all hell breaks loose.

I prefer only a roller-furling jib, and mine was installed by a professional rigger. The Schaefer SnapFurl works beautifully, although my high-cut, overlapping jib doesn’t take on an efficient shape when reefed. I don’t like to sail under jib alone anyway, but I’ve done so when the wind blows really hard.

About the only time I go to the foredeck is to anchor or rig a whisker pole, which “lives” on the mast. The lifting line leads to a swivel block on a bale high on the mast above the spreaders and extends to the outboard end of the pole. When dropped, a stopper knot halts the pole at the proper level.

Even with a self-steering rig to guide the boat on a broad reach, I don’t have a lot of time to set the pole for downwind sailing before I must run back and tend the tiller. After unhooking the mast end of the pole, I grab the lazy sheet and snap it into the outboard jaw. I have two knots tied into the ends of both jib sheets at the clew of the jib so that if I miss snaring one space I have another to snag, which prevents the pole from strolling along the sheet.

Port and starboard pole downhauls are snap-shackled to the lifelines forward of the shrouds, from which they can be removed and snapped to a bale through-bolted in the center of the pole. The lines lead aft to vertical clam cleats just behind the jib sheet winches and from there can be adjusted to keep the whisker pole level. A Danforth anchor is secured to the inner port shroud with shock cord for quick removal to a shackle at the end of the chain-and-rope rode, which leads through the hawse pipe and into the rope locker.

The self-steering tiller is a rather simple arrangement, but this spring I may install an autopilot that will follow a compass course rather than trying to follow the changing commands of the wind. Incidentally, a wooden tiller extension lives under the tiller. When extended, it’s held in place by an eye bolt dropped through matching holes in the tiller and the extension.

In foul weather I can motorsail or just motor from a protected perch in the companionway with the lower part of my body hanging out in the dry cabin. I can also stow a removable, folding cabin step and stand on the sole with the main hatch pulled back, leaving only my head exposed to the spray.

Rather than spending a lot of money on a complicated mainsheet traveler system, I rigged a line with a snap shackle at one end that snaps to the mainsheet cam fiddle. A pair of vertical clam cleats centered below the mainsheet track secures the line to position the fiddle. Other safety features include a VHF radio, whistle, horn, flares, life jacket, harness and possibly jacklines.

On the remote chance that I fall off the boat, I installed on the transom a telescoping ladder that dips into the water. A large handle in the center of the lazarette hatch provides a lift back aboard. Once I lost my balance on the foredeck because of a large powerboat wake that tossed me over the side. Rather than expend energy swimming furiously to the boat, I dog-paddled and waited for it to head up into the wind, stop and wait for me. I lost my sunglasses and a favorite hat in that mishap, which took place at the mouth of the Severn River off Greenbury Point, where an old friend drowned after falling off his sailboat more than 30 years ago.

Thankfully, it was not an omen, and it was the last time I fell off a boat.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.