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He passed the test, but there were new challenges

Last Nov. 1, after my eight days in the hospital ended, I made an April 4 entry in my 2014 calendar notebook that posed this question: “Will I be sailing on this day?” The question can now be answered: Yes.

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My son Eric joined me on that early-spring day as judge and jury to assess my ability to sail solo, which is what I prefer, no matter my infirmities. Departing the dock was the first challenge — in my handling dock lines and, of course, being able to start the outboard. A new 4-hp, 4-stroke long-shaft Yamaha had been installed the day before by Jesse Tucker of Fawcett Boat Supplies, who lugged the outboard into the boat as if it were a six-pack of beer. Being over 75 in years but well under 100, that kind of lifting is beyond me.

After Jesse installed and tested the engine, it was my turn, but I could not pull the starter cord hard enough to start the damn thing, even though Jesse and Eric started it with no problem. “It is a bit tight, being brand new and all,” Jesse explained.

I was able to start my old Tohatsu outboard, as you’ll recall from last month’s column, but signs of a potential cracked block were discovered while draining the engine oil. With labor, costs estimated at $600 for an engine that cost $1,300, I opted to buy the Yamaha.

“Let’s get on with the drill, and we’ll do that test starting again out on the water,” Eric said.

I handled the dock lines successfully, as Eric watched. We backed in reverse and headed out of Wells Cove, into Spa Creek and toward the drawbridge. It was delightful to be moving on the water again after nearly six months. I raised the mainsail, using a winch handle a bit more than before, and called the bridge tender to open. He responded by saying, “Good morning, Erewhon!” It was quite pleasing that he recognized my boat, and he gave me a thumbs-up as we motorsailed through the span.

Once out of the harbor in a light but chilly northerly breeze, I rolled out the jib, and we sailed around a bit at the mouth of the Severn River to test my tacking.

My mind was soon in a different place, focused on a different intention: my first cruise of the new season. I imagined the sun was shining, and it was warm again, with a gentle breeze from the southwest, perfect for a reach across the Bay to the middle Eastern Shore, with a quick passage through Poplar Island Narrows and then a short transit through Knapps Narrows to the Choptank River and beyond to historic Oxford. I never tire of sailing to Oxford, one of the Bay’s most charming villages, and it’s usually my first destination with each new season.

Jack passed the sailing part of his solo test.

Greeting the mouth of the Tred Avon River, my boat must be under sail for the sprint to Town Creek. There is no way to do it but the traditional way. Tucked into a deep-water cove off the creek is a place that never changes: the Cutts & Case Shipyard, where I usually tie up for one overnight in order to poke around this delightful place that focuses on wooden sailboats. Brothers Eddie and Ronnie Cutts usually greet me in friendly fashion and provide wise guidance on advice I might be seeking.

But my reverie was interrupted when Eric laughed and said, “Hey, old man, your mind is adrift. Let’s get back to business and do some tacking.” And soon there was a chill in my soul, and we were back in April again.

The wind had dropped to a dead calm, so we headed back, but not before I rolled up the jib and dropped the main. So far, so good. “Now start the outboard,” Eric said. I tried and tried, but could not.

“Well, you failed that important test, but let’s resolve it back at the dock,” he added, starting the outboard with one pull.

Approaching the dock, I went through my usual solo landing drill, as I have done there for the last 15 years. Once tied up, it was back to the outboard — still a no-go. Again, Eric started it with one pull. “I cannot give you a passing grade until you resolve this,” he said before leaving.

Maybe it’s the small hand grip, I thought, so I bought a large one to rig the following day. But as I removed the small handle, the starter cord zipped out of my fingers and disappeared into the confines of the winding mechanism. Arrgghh! I was unable to remove three bolts securing the winding unit at the top of the engine because the job requires a socket wrench. Why I have never owned a set of socket wrenches in my 45 years of sailing is a total mystery. So it was back up the hill and off to the hardware store to buy socket wrenches.

The new Yamaha outboard installed by Jesse Tucker presented a new challenge for Jack.

Down the hill and back at the boat, I removed the bolts with ease and freed the cord winder. I jiggled the starter cord until I could retrieve the lost end, which I secured. But when I reinstalled the unit and pulled the cord, it wouldn’t budge. I called Jesse, who asked me to bring it to him because it needed rewinding. The bolts came off again, and it was back up the hill with the winder in hand.

At Fawcett’s, they rewound the winder and I returned to the boat, struggling with the hill again and hobbled by an arthritic ankle. I rebolted the mechanism and got ready for the starting pull with a new, improved handle to better help someone also afflicted with arthritic fingers. Eric had discussed my problem with a mechanically gifted buddy, Kenny Lilly, a waterman whose aging father-in-law had the same difficulty but resolved it. Eric told me to grab the new handle grip underhand and, while pulling the starter cord in a long and straight manner, swivel my upper body to add more leveraged power. I followed those instructions, and the outboard started on the second pull.

I was, as they say, a very happy camper.

I should note that I have never gotten along well with outboards and that most of those troubles rest with my ignorance of all things mechanical. The Yamaha will be my best and final outboard, and I pledge that I will care for it. I can change a spark plug and engine oil and lube the lower unit, but that’s about it — and now I know how to remove the starter cord winding mechanism.

So now I know how to start the Yamaha in my arthritically cursed condition. And that, my friends, makes all the difference. Perhaps it would be easier to simply give up and quit, but solo sailing is a passion that I will not relinquish easily for whatever dark side might await me.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

June 2014 issue