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A hapless group on a maiden voyage

Forty years ago this summer, I recruited three newspaper buddies to help sail my older, newly purchased and painted sloop from Washington, D.C., to Annapolis, Md., on my introductory long-distance cruise of Chesapeake Bay.

Two of those proud fellows, John McKelway and Dave Braaten, were never to set foot aboard a sailboat again after what they said was a "hell trip."

Jack Sherwood

The captain/navigator and I, however, continued our wayward sailing ways - Duncan Spencer as a bluewater man and myself, who remained content to focus on the Chesapeake and more or less stayed there.

In 1970 we were all veteran reporters and close friends at the now-defunct Washington Star, which folded in 1981. Dick Victory, editor of the newspaper's weekly sports tabloid, asked each of us to write an honest account of our grand adventure. When he finished editing the four stories, he signed off by declaring himself "guilty of commissioning a multiple trauma" to get at the truth.

Here are four excerpts from our shared experiences, which when looked at in a clear light unfortunately focused on the first hell night part of the trip and ignored the two delightful days under sail.

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The late John McKelway: "The study of exactly why people do certain things is a fascinating one. My decision, I have concluded, was prompted by temporary insanity. We sputtered out of the harbor, but the inboard engine soon conked out for good. Also, there was a fair breeze, and the captain, a man who had sailed the Atlantic in a Cal 22 with a former classmate, lost his hat overboard almost immediately. It was a shame, on such a fine morning, to feel doubts beginning to build up."

That evening, after a beef stew dinner with noodles and rounds of congratulatory martinis and rum, "the sun said farewell in a blaze of glory, and life was a joy. But black terror followed. The wind picked up to windward, the boat heeled under the press of sail, and we discovered this newly varnished vessel to be leaking badly. Our running lights also failed, and we plunged ahead, down a blind alley, pumping and probing. The captain was determined to sail all night. I decided he was mad."

McKelway soon imagined "ghostly schooners immediately ahead in the blackness. I closed my eyes and waited for the thunk and the rush of water through a caved-in bow - and we kept on pumping with something the owner picked up in a toy store."

A few other memories:

  • "In the moonlight, the captain suddenly had a skull for a head."
  • "Bearded Dave Braaten actually went to sleep at the pump - but kept on pumping. Remarkable."
  • "Those who get seasick (me) do turn green and appear to be lost forever. But they do bounce back, provided a wave crashes over the deck and drenches them completely."

Dave Braaten: Braaten recalled "violent, sickening motions, accompanied by the sound of wood creaking and water gurgling."

"I was lying in a small puddle, and my first thought was that I had been entombed alive in a swampy cemetery being riven by earthquake. When the initial panic subsided, I realized I was in the coffin-sized hold of a sailing vessel in imminent danger of sinking. A numb, deep-seated terror gripped me."

Assigned to man the pump, shut up and obey orders without question through a "series of incomprehensible commands, I was never to understand a single one of the myriad orders aimed my way - a circumstance that invariably sent the captain into a frenzied hornpipe of ungovernable rage. McKelway translated the gibberish with which the captain and owner communicated."

The trip itself, he concluded, was a "kaleidoscope of disaster in my memory, with scalding coffee poured on my wrist for some fancied breach of discipline, endless pumping to keep the Royal Danish Colander Works afloat in 7-foot swells, and cracked shins and skull suffered in sharp contact with various wood and metal outcroppings."

(Braaten, who jumped ship and fled to an inn at our only overnight stop in Oxford, Md., also imagined that I turned into a Wolf Man look-alike from the old Lon Chaney movie - with hairy arms and fangs for teeth.)

Duncan Spencer: As the only veteran sailor in the hapless group, he saw the voyage as a "piece of cake, but that's not how it is with newcomers to the sport. The boat heels over a bit, and they think that damn thing is about to capsize and sink. A tiny bit of water seeps through the seams, and they think the damn thing is about to plummet to the bottom. A little chop and a bit of breeze, and their heads are hanging over the rail.

"The owner was a real enthusiast who would try anything involving sailboats. McKelway was slow to anger and had a calm head in a gale. Braaten, a cheerful fellow who loved his nips, generally kept spirits up with his lively, witty comments."

By midnight, "we were tacking into a hefty breeze with the rail down and spray flying, and to tell the truth, the ship was weeping a bit at the seams, as she wanted, swelling up after having been in dry dock so long. The crew refused to go below and sleep for fear the water would rise on them, although there was some pumping activity at regular intervals."

(And he also saluted Braaten's devoted diligence at the pump.)

The owner (yours truly): "The mainsail was raised and immediately dropped to install the battens; the lovingly varnished main hatch, which had not been secured, blew overboard in the night, and we had to turn around and fetch it; the eerie dimming of the failing running lights was unnerving; the misplaced binoculars were found floating in the deep bilge; my shameful bout with mal de mer was followed by a great recovery after a blazing sunrise; and the frantic challenge to find an invisible red nun off Ragged Point was solved by McKelway, who tapped me on the shoulder and reached out to touch it as we shot by it with spray flying and almost hit it."

By midnight of the first day, all our joking and witty wisecracks about one another had been put aside, and we grew silent as concerns of foundering set in. "Life was miserable. The wild night would last forever, like the endless, embarrassing leaking. I was at the tiller, and Spencer scanned the darkness ahead with a little flashlight. McKelway saw vessels ahead where there were none, and Braaten pointed at me, giggling and howling like the Wolf Man, which at least brought a smile to our otherwise scowling faces."

Out of the Potomac River and on a swift spinnaker run up the Chesapeake, the leaking slowed considerably as the seams tightened up, and Braaten was pulled off duty and allowed on deck. Sailing was delightful from then on, with a restful overnight in Oxford.

On the final day, we came across two boatloads of laughing colleagues who welcomed us in their sailboats as we blasted by them under spinnaker to Annapolis, where more co-workers greeted us as we landed. McKelway kneeled down and kissed the dock, reciting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, I'm free at last!"

That one-night leg of the 180-mile voyage would be far from the last hair-raising sailing event on the Bay for me in the following decades. Thirty-two feet of wood eventually gave way to my current vessel - 22 feet of seamless fiberglass I have owned since 1984, which has never had a leaking problem.

One more thing: I can also reflect on those famous words of Dr. King as uttered by landlubber McKelway, only I reverse the situation and declare myself "free at last" whenever I leave the dock.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.