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All is not lost for this solo sailor

Robert Redford’s survival situation aboard a sinking sailboat in “All is Lost” was filmed on a movie set, and sailors roundly criticized it. My “survival” situation was quite benign by comparison and focused solely on whether I could continue to sail on Chesapeake Bay.

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Facing a potential life-changer without even leaving the dock, my challenge in March centered on something as outrageously simple as testing my ability to pull the starter cord on a 5-hp outboard.

Recovering from a debilitating spinal infection late last year and dealing with worsening osteoarthritis in my shoulders, knees and one ankle, I was facing the fact that if I could not leave the dock alone under power I could not continue solo sailing, which is how I prefer to enjoy the Bay.

My 2011 Tohatsu 4-stroke has been dependable and efficient, thanks to “Outboard Mike,” who maintains it. But starting it was something I had to do alone, so bracing myself in the cockpit with cord in hand and taking a deep breath, I began to pull and pull and pull some more. Although the winter-stowed engine didn’t start, my ailing shoulders and arms did not fail me, and that was the whole point of this drill. It was a celebratory moment because I didn’t dislocate a shoulder, and I knew then and there that I would be able to continue solitary sailing during the coming season, as I have for 45 years.

Raising the mainsail and handling sheets and other lines alone will provide a further test, and my son Eric will join me, not as crew but as an honest observer to judge the old man’s ability to return home in one piece.

Putting aside further self-congratulations, I rushed off to Fawcett Boat Supplies after the non-start for a new spark plug. This time the outboard started on the second pull and ran smoothly. I had gained an extension of my sailing years and dismissed for the time being a haunting fear of being forced over to the Dark Side.

With that barrier resolved, my thoughts suddenly returned to the regular spring chores of fitting out. It was just like the old days — sort of. As I age (I’m north of 75) I have adapted, changed and discovered ways to continue doing what I most love: single-handed sailing. But even though all hard boatyard work is a thing of the past for me, I look forward to some light sanding, painting and varnishing.

Last season, I had already nixed risky foredeck work, such as rigging the whisker pole for downwind sailing. And this season I will reduce sail earlier when the wind pipes up or go under power as the situation dictates. Wearing a Mustang inflatable vest and signing up for tow service are also at the top of my safety list.

I hope to return to Bob Muller’s Boatyard on Back Creek late this spring for a roller/brush paint job on the topsides. Last September, the boys there stripped my full-keel Sailmaster’s bottom of an accumulation of 25 years of ablative anti-fouling paint. To cut down on those labor costs, I had begun sanding patches of the hull from my dinghy last October to prep the boat for Muller’s master painter. During that process, however, I accidentally cut my ankle with a razor blade, opening an ugly swath of flesh but with no blood or pain.

I blew it off and continued to splash about in the dink, inviting polluted Spa Creek water to enter the wound. By the third week of October, nasty bacteria had attacked my lower spine and infected my left leg. After a week in the hospital and 36 consecutive days of 30-minute antibiotic infusions, the infection was eliminated. After a four-month recovery, X-rays showed the arthritic lower spine area had properly fused, and spinal surgeon Dr. Randy Davis cut me loose from his care.

But even though I might consider knee-replacement surgery next winter, I refuse to surrender to painful discomfort just because I can no longer scamper about gracefully. Wearing knee and ankle braces will slow me down this season, and my otherwise swift tacking procedures may suffer, but I hope my fellow sailors will be kind and overlook any malfunctions. Fortunately, my active pursuit of sailing can be carried out in a seated position because my 22-foot classic is properly rigged and tricked out for single-handed geezer sailing.

* * *

I am pleased to report that liveaboard Joe Fernon, 66, survived his first Chesapeake Bay winter in his 20-foot, home-built shantyboat moored in a protected Anne Arundel County cove. I reported on Fernon’s new floating residence in last November’s column, and this spring update was deemed necessary because of the brutal Chesapeake winter.

Locked in the ice a short paddle from shore, Fernon’s Lilypad established wiggle room in a hole in the ice, enabling him to continue his commute to and from his part-time job at Fawcett Boat Supplies in Annapolis. To reach his floating mini-cottage, Fernon assumed a kneeling position in his 10-foot pirogue and slid out over the ice like an emperor penguin, scampering home on the flat-bottom belly of his skiff.

“I screwed fastenings in the ends of my kayak paddle to bite into the ice and also picked my way with a Phillips-head screwdriver,” he says, laughing.

Wearing a full Mustang survival suit, he would immediately fire up the propane heater after boarding. Within 90 minutes the 20-degree, insulated interior warmed to a toasty 60 degrees. The shanty’s 20-gallon water tank did not freeze, but the plumbing sprouted icicles.

“I plan to haul out at nearby Whitehall Yacht Yard to check the bottom and raise the waterline,” he says. “I have no plans to move ashore next winter, however.”

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings

May 2014 issue