June 2, 2018 – Maiden Voyage

“There’s no dumbass vaccine”  — Jimmy Buffett

Launch day is hottest day we’ve had yet this summer.   After the Coming Out party disperses I spend most of the afternoon wrestling the trailer bunks to fit the bill, and installing seats, floorboards, anchor, and rigging.   I’m dying to get the boat in the water.  But everything takes longer than I expected, and by the time I get the trailer hooked to the car, drive down to the nearest launch ramp, rig up the boat, and launch, it’s 5pm.  Plus I am solo.  No time for champagne or photos, just float and go.   My goal is to get the boat into the water and sail it to my yacht club in Larchmont.  Our club doesn’t have a launch ramp, and the nearest ramp is about 3 miles away over water, at Glen Island Park in New Rochelle.  I figure I’ll still have time to sail around.

From the ramp to water open enough to sail is about a quarter mile of rowing.  The boat rows well for its size once I get the feel for it, but it’s still a BIG dinghy so I’m sweating like crazy in the 90 degree heat and humidity.   I clear the channel, ship the oars and hoist the sails.  Mizzen first, since it will help keep the boat pointed into the wind while I hoist the main.   Then the main.  Man this sail is huge!  105 square feet.   The mast is 16’9” and the lug yard extends at least 4 feet above the masthead, so it’s a tall rig.  My dory has a 67 square foot mainsail.  The wind is light, and I find that the boat moves pretty well with only 3 or 4 knots of wind.  I even experiment with cleating off the mainsheet and tying off the tiller and I’m able to find a balance point where the boat pretty well steers itself.  Sweet!  I’m loving the boat already.

It’s hot and super humid, just the right conditions for a late afternoon thunderstorm, and I was aware of that before I headed out.   But I was determined to get on the water today.  So l keep a close eye on the sky.  After sailing about a mile off shore to round Pea Island and head for Larchmont, I see some ominous looking clouds ahead.   A few minutes later the wind starts to build and then an ugly wall of rain appears a couple of miles ahead, right over the shore where my destination is.  Not wanting to get caught out in a thunder squall, especially alone in a boat I’m just learning to manage, I decide to reef down and turn tail back to Glen Island where I started.  The boat is going back on the trailer, and I’ll have to get it over to Larchmont some other day.

The mizzen, which seems to add about zero power to going to windward, proves its value as I heave-to to reef.  Just sheet it in hard, let go of the main sheet and the tiller, and the boat will lie more or less bow to wind.  At least that’s the theory.  I’m getting seriously nervous and thinking what a foolish idea it was to venture out in this weather in the first place, but fortunately the theory works and the boat lies into the wind with the main luffing while I tie in the third reef.  My reefing arrangement, which so far I have only tested in my backyard with the sail on the grass, works well and I am quickly reefed down to something like 65 square feet of mainsail.  The wind is now up to maybe 15 knots.   Back at the tiller, I ease the mizzen, sheet in the main and get up enough way to tack around and high tail it back downwind to Glen Island.  I’m afraid to try a gybe, that pre-capsize downfall of so many dinghy sailors.

The wind builds to maybe 20 knots but it’s now on the quarter and I am flying along in smooth water in the lee of Pea Island.   I should be focused on sailing the boat but I really want to know how fast Grey Fox can go so I juggle for just a minute with the tiller, the mainsheet and my handheld radio/GPS to check the speed.  5.5 knots with the triple-reefed main and a half-luffing mizzen.  Not bad!  It’s a bit hair-raising but I manage to get the boat back to within a few hundred yards of the Glen Island entrance channel, without getting hit by any major rain, and then the wind subsides.  Flopping around in almost no wind, I shake out the reef for the final sail back to the launch ramp.  With the full sail back up, I cleat off the mainsheet and settle into a seat on the side thwart for a leisurely final sail in.

About 3 minutes later, a gust comes up, the boat heals over sharply and the rail dips under the water.   Like a deer in headlights, I am frozen and just watch the water gush over the rail.   Next thing I know, the boat is on its side with the masts in the water.   Damnit!   I have managed to swamp the boat in almost no wind. ON MY FIRST TIME OUT IN THE BOAT.  What a bonehead…

Basic dinghy sailors’ lesson #1:  Never, NEVER cleat off the mainsheet!!!  Yeah, I broke that rule and now I’m finding out how tender this boat can be with that big tall mainsail if you don’t or can’t just let it out because, like a blinking idiot,  I CLEATED DOWN THE MAINSHEET!  As Homer Simpson would say, Doooh!

Now that I’m swimming, let’s take stock of affairs:

–          The water is not too cold by early June, maybe 68 degrees, so I’m ok

–          The water is not very choppy at all, so it shouldn’t overtop the rails of the righted but full-of-water boat

–          I’m only a few hundred yards off of land, even if I can’t move with a swamped boat

–          The boat is designed with ample flotation tanks to make it self-rescuable

–          The hollow spruce masts, boom and yard are flotation, so the boat isn’t going to turtle, and

–          There are plenty of boats in the general vicinity if I need help.  I’m not going to drown or drift out to sea or anything really horrible.

Still, it’s not the position I wanted or expected to be in.  And as a reasonably experienced sailor, I am embarrassed as hell.

I swim around to the bottom (now the side) of the boat and climb up on the daggerboard.  The boat rolls upright pretty easily.  I jump off the daggerboard and into the boat as it comes up.  So far so good.  But that big round-bilged voluminous hull has a WHOLE LOT of water in it!  You could have a pool party in here.  At this very moment, it seems a little like an “Olympic size pool”.  A pool party for you and several close friends.   I’m guessing with scientific accuracy, something like a million gallons.  Or maybe 250.  Let’s see, with a 2-gallon bucket that’s just 125 bucket-fulls, and each bucketful will weigh about 16 pounds…

I reach for my trusty bucket to find that… in my hurry to get the boat on the water, I left it back at home.   Along with the Thirsty-Mate bilge pump.  Ok, now I have gone from bonehead to uber-bonehead, an more advanced species in the evolutionary tree of the bonehead genus.  And my embarrassment has now turned to worry. How am I going to bail this thing out – with my one liter water bottle?

Fortunately, a friendly guy in a bassboat sees me in my distress and swings by.  “You OK?” He asks, while I assume he is laughing at me behind his friendly mask.  “Well, I’m fine, and the boat is ok, but if you have a bucket, I could sure use that… I have some bailing to do and I forgot mine” [sheepish grin like I’m not feeling about 6 inches tall right now].  Well, he has a most excellent bucket, and a thirsty mate, both of which he tosses over to me.   “Need me to do anything?” he asks as I assume the position of a frightened man with a stout bucket, whom we all know can move a lot of water fast…   I reply “if you could just stand by, that would be great, while I bail”.

While I always intended to do a capsize test and practice recovery before heading very far from land and certainly before heading up to the cold water of Maine, I didn’t intend to do it ON MY FIRST OUTING IN THE BOAT…  But Clint’s design is sound, and Grey Fox floats with about 8 inches of freeboard and with the water level below the top of the daggerboard trunk.  It’s also remarkably stable with me sitting in it along with all that water and the “free surface effect” it represents (you can look it up).  After about 10 minutes with the bucket I am almost completely bailed out, and another 3 minutes with the pump and I’m good to go.  I thank the good Samaritan bassboater profusely as I throw him his bucket and pump back, and he – and I in Grey Fox – are on our respective ways.

Notes to self as I head back in:

–          NEVER cleat down the mainsheet

–          EVERYTHING in the boat must be lashed down or tied in with at least a leash.   Several things were not when I went over, and before I could deal with the boat I had to grab those several things that were about to swim away.  As it turned out, I think the only thing I lost was a beer coozie.

–          EVERYTHING that needs to stay dry must be in a dry box or drybag.  Fortunately, my iPhone was in a waterproof case. Not so my car key which was in my pants pocket.

20 minutes later I have the sails furled and row into the dock to put Grey Fox back on the trailer.  My maiden voyage was successful, if you consider success that I went out, I sailed, I rowed, I reefed, the boat worked, I got back, and I didn’t let the ocean into the boat.   OOPS.., I actually failed on that last one…  but the consequences were learning and embarrassment, not any real problems.  It’s good to learn in benign conditions, as they will not always be so.

Of course, I assumed that the electronic car key that had gone salt-water swimming along with my pants would not work. Kudos to Toyota though, because as I walked towards my parked RAV4 I pushed the unlock button just for yucks and lo and behold, the lights flashed and the doors unlocked!

Author: Larchmont Jim

A 50-something investment banker from Larchmont, New York (about 15 miles from midtown Manhattan). Amateur small boat sailer, boatbuilder, kayaker, musician. I grew up spending summers sailing the New England coast on my grandfather’s beautiful 47’ 1952 Sparkman & Stevens wooden yawl. I’ve lived in Larchmont, a major and historic sailing center on Long Island Sound, for 25 years, but career and family obligations kept me off the water for all of my 30s and 40s, and only about 7 years ago did I get back on the water, first in sea kayaks, and then in small boats.

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