Some things you have to learn more than once

September 8th

Labor Day weekend came and went with the first cool weather we’ve seen all summer.  But I was out of town so Grey Fox stayed firmly secured on the floating dock.  Anxious to get out as much as possible before the season ends, I’ve determined to head out today even though we have another weekend of cold and windy weather upon us.  It’s blowing out of the Northeast, which means the wind has 30 or 40 miles of fetch coming straight down the Sound to build up some decent size waves. Only in a Northeast wind do we get anything resembling real ocean conditions in our narrow end of the Sound. But with a couple months of sailing Grey Fox, I’m feeling comfortable enough in the boat and my sailing abilities to go out into 15+ knots and what promises to be 3 to 4 foot waves.

Comfortable enough, even, to have friend and fellow HHYC member Marcia join me as crew.  Marcia is significantly older than I, but about as adventurous as someone her age can be,and she’s been bugging me to take her out sailing for quite a while.  I saw her Thursday at the club (barbecue night) and agreed to take her out Saturday afternoon.

We meet early afternoon on the dock and rig up Grey Fox.  I tie one reef in the main before we launch and we suit up for windy, 70-degree weather and the expectation that we’ll take plenty of spray over the bow.  With the usual routine, we row out, hoist and go. It’s not too lively in the harbor, but once we clear the breakwater the waves get pretty big.  We both sit on the rail but that’s still not much weight/ballast for these conditions. I’mgetting quite a workout and have to pay attention to the trim, as each gust will put the leeward rail close to the water if I don’t ease the main or point up closer to the wind.  But man, this is fun sailing.  I’m thinking it might be a little too hair-raising for Marcia but she’s loving it too, so we head to windward, more or less northeast, parallel to the shore.  I figure we’ll beat our way up to Milton Harbor in Rye, tour the harbor there, then head back downwind for a very fast return to home. 

Headed almost parallel to the shore on port tack, we’re going into the waves and our speed is knocked down by the bashing.   Occasionally a wave top will come over the bow, but the amount of water we take on isn’t particularly concerning.  When we tack over to starboard and head straight towards shore, the bashing stops, but with the waves more on the beam the rolling is accentuated.  I really have to be on my toes to keep the leeward rail out of the water on the down-roll.  It’s a bit-hair raising and I’m anxious to get into the lee of Milton Point.  I wouldn’t want to swamp in these big waves.

After about an hour of sailing to windward, we’re in the lee and enter the mooring field in Milton Harbor. The water becomes smooth, the wind is more moderate and now I can relax.  Compared to the exciting sailing outside, this is a piece of cake.  My hands are really tired from keeping an iron grip on the mainsheet and tiller extension all this time, so once we’re safely up into the mooring field and the calm water, I tie the mainsheet off on the cleat and try to un-cramp my hand. We proceed nicely up through the moored sailboats. And then…

A gust of wind comes up and with both sails sheeted tight, our weight on the gunwale is not enough to hold the boat upright.  The port gunwale goes under the water and… Niagara Falls makes its way into the boat. Yeah, it happens really quick. 

Great, just @#%&*! Great… I managed to sail through big-ass waves and gusty winds to get here with no problem, and in the flat water of the harbor I’ve swamped the boat.   I have an elderly lady aboard who’s probably about to panic (well, she was aboard, but now she’s in the water, as am I) and even though the situation isn’t panic worthy for me, as I know I can bail out the boat in this calm water, my guest is probably terrified, and I’ll never live this down back at the club. 

Rule #1 of dinghy sailing:  NEVER tie down the mainsheet.  In case you forget the other rules, remember Rule #1.   Readers of my blog from its earliest days will remember that I learned this rule back in June on my first outing in Grey Fox.  Clearly my memory is fading faster than my boyish good looks, as it’s only September and here I am back in sailing grammar school again.

Fortunately Marcia is no panicker, and while calmly floating in Milton Harbor and holding on to the floating main boom, she simply asks “what do you need me to do?”.  Having practiced this whole capsize thing once before, I’m able to act quickly.  I recently purchased a sea anchor/fishing drogue, and keep it stowed “at the ready” in the bow of the boat.  I swim around to the bow and deploy it.  That will keep Grey Fox from drifting downwind too fast, and will help keep the bow pointed into the wind.  Then I tell Marcia to get her butt over/inside the submerged gunwale, so that when I climb up on the now-horizontal daggerboard, it will scoop her up and into the righted boat.  It works, and even though the boat is full of water when it comes back to upright, it also has Marcia in it. 

I climb in from on the daggerboard and, as the “frightened man with a bucket”, start furiously throwing water back into the ocean where it belongs.  Marcia offers to bail with the other bucket, but as each bucketful weighs 15 pounds or more and Marcia herself can’t weigh more than 90 pounds soaking wet, I tell her it would be best if she can just sit low in the boat for stability.  Of course right now she is about as soaking wet as one can get, since low in the boat means sitting in a foot of temporarily contained seawater.

I’ve got the boat about halfway bailed out when one of the race committee/ utility boats from American Yacht Club spots us drifting half-submerged through their mooring field. Concerned about us, and also probably not wanting us to drift into one of their club members’ fancy sailboats, the guy in the powerboat offers to tow us to their dock where they can pump out the rest of the water with an electric pump.   He grabs our sea anchor, secures it to his boat and starts towing us slowly upwind to the dock, which is maybe 200 yards away.  I’m not crazy about the idea of being towed with Grey Fox still laden down with a lot of water, and with another 5 minutes of bucketing I would have the boat emptied out and ready to sail back home.  But we are drifting uncomfortably close to a moored boat, and as long as he doesn’t go too fast it’s ok. 

Once alongside the AYC dock, our friendly rescuer Gareth gets the pump going and we’re emptied out in no time.  He comments on the “nice boat – what is it?” and I explain.   Of course, I would be happier bragging on my nice boat if I weren’t embarrassed by my not-so-nice sailing demonstration.   He sees Marcia starting to shiver… the water is still 75 degrees, but once she was out of the water and all wet, the wind really got her cold.  I’m not exactly comfortable, but since I was bailing, I worked up some heat and I’m fine.  

Gareth offers to give Marcia a ride back to Larchmont in his fast powerboat. Figuring that will get her home a lot faster and allow her to get warm, Marcia opts for the lift.  When Marcia looks at me to make sure I’m not offended, I give the nod.  After all, a dunking was not part of the plan when I offered to take her out sailing.  As I cast off for the sail home, Gareth says he’ll probably pass me on the way as he ferries Marcia back to HHYC.

The sail home is almost dead downwind and once I get out of the lee it’s still blowing 15+ knots.  I average around 5.5 knots all the way home. I keep looking over my shoulder for the AYC boat with Marcia in it, butdon’t see them.  When I get back off the cove at HHYC I heave-to to take in sail before rowing into the dock.  One of my kayak buddies from HHYC is out and paddles by, asking “What did you do with Marcia?”  Do I plead ignorance?   Act like I didn’t notice she was missing?  Claim that I threw her overboard for insubordination? Or fess up to the truth? I opt for the latter, and say that I expect her to whiz by any minute in the AYC powerboat. 

I get Grey Fox back into its den on the floating dock and start hosing everything down with fresh water.   That’s done, the boat’s unrigged and the mast is put away, and still no sign of Marcia. It’s been at least an hour since I left her in Rye.  Am I suffering the insane delusions of a murderer covering up his crime?  Did the whole AYC rescue thing really not happen, I just left her to drown in the middle of Long Island Sound?  I’m about to call over to AYC and see what happened when Gareth zooms in with Marcia in the fast boat.  She’s bundled up in a borrowed jacket and not shivering anymore, but still looks cold.   It seems that it took a while for her chauffeur to tend to some other pressing activities before he could make the 5-mile roundtrip to Larchmont with her. 

With a profuse apology I offer to do anything I can for Marcia but she says she’ll be fine as soon as she gets dry.  But it would be great if can I drive over to AYC in Rye to return the borrowed jacket to Gareth.   That I can do.

In the evening, having taken the jacket back, I email her to let her know and make sure she’s ok.  Her reply: “All’s well that ends well!  When do we go sailing again?” 

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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