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Know-how November 2006

Five memorable mishaps

Five memorable mishaps

I’ve learned from the mishaps I’ve made over the years, and I’ve also learned a lot from some excellent seamen who’ve shared their knowledge. May you find such seamen. Here are some of my more memorable mishaps, and the lessons I learned from them.

1. Our first sailboat was a 26-foot caravel-built centerboard cutter. I painted her in early March and wanted her launched later that month or early the next. I was in the boat when we tried launching her on the first Saturday of April. As fast as she entered the water, the water entered through her seams and centerboard box. We stopped launching, and the marina agreed to leave her in the slings as long as they could. Soaked and covered with oil and grime, I squished into our launching party that night. There was stunned silence as I told them the boat sank.

Lessons learned: Never buy a boat without having her surveyed. In this case the centerboard was rotten. Also, caravel-built boats need time for the planks to swell and close.

2. We were motorsailing in dead calm conditions to our new home port, and as we entered Frenchman Bay, a Force 4 to 5 southerly blew up, catching us overtrimmed and burying our port rail. Caught off guard, I dropped the sails without furling them or setting the topping lift. The boom crashed down, and with billowing sails obscuring my vision I tried for an open slip. No go. Turning upwind, we narrowly missed several boats moored nearby. Getting clear, I put the boat into a turn, gave my wife the tiller, and got things more or less sorted out. We finally entered the slip to the amusement of just about everyone in the marina.

Lessons learned: Whatever the task, take the time to think it through and give it the time required to do it correctly. Remember the six Ps: proper prior planning prevents poor performance.

3. We had anchored in an open roadstead very close to shore in about 6 feet of water. Our boat drew 5 feet. That night the east wind came up, and we woke to the impact of the keel pounding on the bottom. The bottom was so disturbed we dared not start the engine to leave under power. We buoyed the anchor, let it slip and sailed to deeper, more sheltered water, where we anchored with our second hook.

Lessons learned: Never anchor too close to shore. (We had to heel the boat to reduce draft, and barely began making way before becoming stranded.) Don’t anchor in water that’s too shallow for your boat. Here, a 1- to 2-foot sea almost finished our cruise. Don’t start your engine in disturbed water; the intake likely will clog, and you’ll have lost valuable time. Always have more than one anchor on board.

4. We left the dock one morning in a northerly Force 6, gusting to Force 8. The engine died as we turned north, and the wind drove us astern toward a barrier beach. Had I been with anyone other than Ivar Slater, an excellent seaman, our butt would have become kindling. But with Ivar calling the shots we sailed the anchor out and left the harbor.

Lessons learned: Don’t leave the dock in bad or threatening weather. Trying to adhere to a timetable causes more problems than anything, except for stupidity, ignorance and incompetence. Learn how to sail an anchor out under tough conditions. This skill has stood me in good stead many times.

5. I almost ran a boat I was delivering onto the rocks below Sheep Point on the east side of Newport, R.I., in heavy fog with a south wind blowing Force 7. We missed our waypoint at Sakonnet Point, and I ordered a course change 30 degrees to port (south). I was below plotting the course change when we came to the rocks. At the time, I was unaware that the binnacle light was out and the helmsman was using a flashlight to see the compass. Perhaps the batteries in the flashlight affected the compass.

Lessons learned: In bad weather, always personally check that course changes you’ve ordered are correctly applied. Have the crew report anything on board that isn’t as it should be when they discover a problem. All course changes — no matter how minor or short in duration — should be logged. Even if you have a GPS/chart plotter on board, regularly plot fixes on a paper chart.