10/11/10

The weather started getting rough.

OK, I promised you guys the story that went along with all those new sailing terms I've been learning, so here goes.

A few weeks ago, I had a Friday off, so my father and I decided to take the sailboat out and get some more practice. Our first few times out had been pretty uneventful, mostly because there hadn't been much in the way of wind. The last time out, we had done some very light sailing for about the first 30 minutes, and then when we were in the middle of the lake, the wind died completely. We sat there for another 30 minutes with our sails hanging slack like a pair of old lady boobs. I've never seen it so calm on this lake -- it was eerily still, like the whole lake was waiting for something to happen. A few other sailboats were also doing their best impersonation of ghost ships, all of us waiting in vain for any sort of breeze from anywhere. We must be wimpy sailors because when we started roasting in the sun we used the electric trolling motor to get back to the marina and eat burgers and drink beer.

On this Thursday night, however, the weather report for Friday morning looked pretty good. The forecast called for sunny skies and 5-10mph winds, which is just about perfect for a couple of noobs like us.

The lake is about an hour away for my father, and probably 30 minutes for me, so I got there first. I paid my parking fee and drove down toward the lake. I wasn't really prepared for what I saw. Clearly, our weatherman had been smoking crack again, because the wind was fierce. There was no way in hell it was 5-10 mph. I had no idea how hard it was blowing, but I knew that much at least. The waves and the whitecaps were huge. I don't think I've ever seen this lake so angry while the sun was shining, and I've been going there since I was a kid.

I called my father and told him the situation, but he was already almost there. When he pulled up next to me, he looked out at the water and just said, "Wow." It was a sunny day, so we decided we'd wait it out a bit and see how it went. About 30 minutes later, the whitecaps had let up a little, but it was still blowing pretty good. It was steady at least, and not really gusty, so we had that going for us. We figured we would get the boat ready and by that time we hoped it would have mellowed out a bit.

We stood around for a while waiting, and talking to a British guy who clearly knew what he was doing. He said that it was blowing around 15-20 knots. We didn't know what that meant in human terms, so we just nodded. I didn't have a good feeling about this, and neither did my father, but we both just stood there looking out at the water, asking each other, "So...what do you think?" Neither one of us wanted to call the game. After another 30 minutes, the whitecaps looked like they had abated a bit, so we decided to go for it.

My father backed the trailer into the water, and I tried to push the boat off of it. It wasn't deep enough, so I walked a bit farther in and he backed into the water a little more. This time I succeeded, but just barely, and my plan for not getting my underwear wet went south when the first cold wave slapped me in the nuts. I held onto the boat while he pulled the trailer out of the water, barely missing my foot with the trailer wheel. On this particular lake, the water level is lower than normal this year which means the dock next to the ramp is about 3 feet above your boat when it's in the water, so it's very hard to control it from the dock when the waves are coming in hard and the wind is blowing like a bitch. I climbed out of the water and tried my best to keep the boat from bashing itself to death on the dock. That was the first problem.

My father finally returned from parking the truck, then stripped down. Off came the boots, the socks, and then the pants. He tossed them inside the cabin and climbed in the boat. I can't for the life of me figure out why the hell he can't just get undressed at his truck, or for that matter, just drive to the lake in his bathing suit. Instead, he always puts his pants on over his suit, so it looks pretty funny when he starts dropping trou right there on the dock. It's like he's doing some kind of disturbing old guy strip-tease. That might very well be considered the second problem, but I'll leave that for you to decide.

The next problem was that the wind was blowing from North to South, and this marina is at the south-most end of the lake. We only have a 47 lb thrust trolling motor. Normally it can move us along at around 6 miles per hour if there's no wind, but this time it was barely strong enough to get us out of the launch area. Before we were completely clear of the launch and into open water, we put on our life jackets, because we may be dumb, but we're not stupid. Using top speed, we were eventually able to put a little distance between us and the boat launch.

We were getting slammed around pretty good, and my father looked at me and said, "I think we're a little out of our depth here." I agreed, but we weren't going back without giving it a shot. We dropped the rudder, and then I attempted to put the sails up. I discovered it's a lot harder to climb around on the front of the boat raising sails when the boat is bobbing around like a cork. Somehow, when I was hoisting the mainsail, it got all jammed up and I had to drop it down again and start over. Of course, while I was doing that, the damned wind was trying like hell to blow us back to where we started, and mostly succeeding. So we cranked up the motor again, and put a little more distance between us and the shore and tried one more time. At this point the waves were so big, the trolling motor was coming out of the water because of the chop.

As soon as I raised the mainsail the wind grabbed it and slammed us around. "Rounding up" I think it's called. Whatever. I call it suck. Next, I raised the jib and as soon as I did that, we started moving. When the wind first caught the jib, it snapped it over so fast I thought it was going to rip it right off the boat, me along with it.

I crawled back to my seat and things started looking a little better. My father ran the tiller and I worked the sails. We were mostly in control, and we finally had a chance to raise the trolling motor and get it out of the way. We headed in a direction that was not South for a change, and the first thing we realized is that we desperately needed some weight in the front because every time we hit a wave the whole front end of the boat slammed down into the water. It sounded like someone beating the shit out of a stand-up bass with a croquet mallet. It was bad, and I even though I knew we built the boat to be strong, I kept expecting pieces to start falling off of it at any second.

We finally figured out which direction we needed to sail in to surf the waves, rather than chop through them, and we started making some progress. We were perhaps three miles away from the marina and heeling over pretty good when I noticed one of the port shrouds (the cables that hold the mast up) looked a little funny, in that it was no longer connected to the boat and was instead just sort of waving in the breeze. I yelled "HOLY SHIT!" and in answer to my father's questioning look, I pointed at the cable. At almost the same instant, we both looked up to the mast to see if it was listing to one side, knowing the sort of stresses that we were placing on it in this kind of weather.

"We have to get the sails down!" I yelled. "If a second one goes, we're screwed!" Afraid the second cable on the same side might snap, I handed the mainsail line to my father and climbed back up toward the front of the boat. As I was climbing, we got hit by a gust and the boat heeled over so quickly that my father did the only thing he could do, and that was to let go of everything and hope the boat didn't turtle. I remember slamming my knee and seeing water about 6 inches from my face, and then I scrambled back to the high side of the boat just in time to watch the entire rope slither out of the boom. The mainsail was now just swinging free, threatening to slam back and forth and it needed to come down fast. I climbed back up front, and I dropped the shit out of that sail. I was going to drop the jib too, but the damned thing didn't want to go. The bad thing about this gaff rig design is that when the sail is down, it basically falls right into the cockpit. If you've ever seen a cartoon where someone gets all tangled up in a parachute, you know what we looked like. The entire cockpit of the boat was now full of boom and sail.

When we finally bundled everything up and were no longer in danger of capsizing, I took a look at what had happened. It was the fault of that shitty hardware store cable and those cable clamps. I determined that what had happened was mostly an issue with the vinyl covered cable. The clamps were tight, but when under this sort of stress, the wire came out from inside its vinyl covering and worked its way out of the clamp.

We couldn't really effect repair on the water because we were getting tossed around too much, so we decided to head back. I dropped the trolling motor, preparing to motor back, when I realized that we were moving much faster than the motor was capable of propelling us - because the jib was still up. Luckily the wind was blowing in the right direction, so we used the jib to sail back. Of course, even though the lake was pretty much empty, four other boats decided at that exact moment they needed to be out of the water too, and since they were power boats, they blew by us, and now we had to try to circle around and wait until they were loaded up and out. We couldn't do that with the jib flying, so that meant another monkey climb over everything to drop that.

We finally made it back in, and that was another disaster. The wind was still blowing so strongly that there were huge swells. Apparently, between swells the water was low enough so our rudder could hit bottom. Since the boat wasn't moving forward so much, instead of the rudder popping up, it hit vertically and lifted the entire rudder, tiller and rudder box off the boat. Now we had no steering because the entire steering mechanism was currently floating away.

It was still so rough that it was almost impossible to keep the front of the boat from slamming on the dock, and the entire boat kept wanting to turn sideways in the launch area. I tied a rope to the front and back, and then jumped for the dock. I barely made it, and immediately sat down and started hauling on the rope. I managed to get the boat straight again, and it was finally under some semblance of control. I brought it close to the dock so my father could get out. As he stood, ready to step to the dock, a big swell hit the boat and he lost his balance -- he reached out to the remaining shroud on the port side to steady himself and that one came apart like wet tissue paper. It was a good thing we dropped the sail when we did, and didn't try to sail back with just a single shroud. At the very least we'd probably have snapped the mast. At worst, we'd probably be renting scuba equipment to retrieve our car keys.

At least I was able to keep us from the complete embarrassment of washing ashore sideways.

We finally got the boat back on the trailer, retrieved our tiller and rudder, and called it a learning experience. The first thing I did when I got home was to order real stainless steel cable, real sailing turnbuckles and real swaging.

Sometimes you have to learn not to cheap-out the hard way, I guess. But on the flip side, what's life without adventure?

Still, I think I'll invest in some sailing lessons next year. Or at least a helmet.

23 comments:

  1. Holy crapmuffins, I got a little seasick just reading that, and I didn't even understand 97% of the sailing terms.

    Glad you and your dad made it out unhurt!

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  2. Wow - that was dramatic! I hate when you take something on and 10 minutes in, you know it's a mistake, but by then you've invested too much time/money/trouble/heart to give up. Those power boat guys were asshats; they should've let you go first, since they had way more control than you did. Anyway, I'm glad you both got back safely, and the boat is fixable.

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  3. Can I buy some life insurance on you two?

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  4. Silliyak, I'll take a piece of that action.

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  5. Not your usual rhythm or color JV...but a developing theme continues to be consistant; the lakes, or at least this particular pond, and the oceans of the planet join the Bermuda Triangle in a combined - not loving you back.

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  6. If I read the last little bit correctly, it appears you've never taken lessons to learn how to sail!! Uhhhmm,might I suggest you do so before you attempt further voyages?? You were damn lucky, but you can't count on luck!! The wind and the water are not very forgiving and they don't care a pig's snout about you!

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  7. Oh. My. My heart's still beating fast just from the telling of it.

    I cannot imagine---I just don't DO ocean---and this adventure of yours was told in such ringing tones, I think I may be seasick.

    And I told you---good writing. Superb---a grab-you tale that almost took us all down with the ship, and of course, you had me totally onboard, so to speak, at "affect repair."

    More, please.

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  8. Perhaps a decent lifejacket and a waterproof GPS locator would be a good investment. You know, just in case.

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  9. I'm with ~ellen~. Although I didn't understand 97% of the technical stuff, I know edge of my seat action when I read it. I'm glad you and your Dad made it out of the lake ok. Wow. Bravo.

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  10. Geeez dude!!! Be careful!! ( I say that out of genuine concern )

    Lesson learned I bet!

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  11. Holy crap!

    Reading this was like watching the "Perfect Storm".

    Only a sailboat instead of a fishing boat. And no monster wave, just inexperienced sailors.

    But basically the same thing.

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  12. That sounded like an episode from The Weather Channel's Storm stories - most of which seem to center around water and hapless sailboats.

    Yes, get better hardware and take some lessons please. We all need you to survive to write your book.

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  13. it's official. i never want to go sailing again. your story and the rope burn from my last sailing adventure are enough to keep me in canoes only. maybe a kayak.

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  14. I am a fisherman and fisherman and sailors do not have much in common other than a love of being on the water. But in our quest for adventure we both can look at foul weather and think, it's not so bad, it's doable, no hill for a climber, etc. The experience is often not good.

    I love the way you write.

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  15. "The tiny ship was tossed. If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost. The Minnow would be lost."

    Cool story! All of the sailing ones have been. I'm glad it turned out OK.

    I'll have to blog one of my weird experiences sailing a little 15' Starfish back when I was a kid! Not as harrowing, more BORING!

    Peace <3
    Jay

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  16. JV, I had never been on a sailboat until my honeymoon, when my husband almost killed us on a sunfish. 20 years and 3 sailboats later, I have learned to love sailing. I won't race with him -which often involves conditions like you just described- but on a nice day, with a gentle breeze, there is no better way to spend an afternoon. Keep at it, sailors are very generous with their knowledge and most would be happy to take a new sailor out.

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  17. ellen, my wife was supposed to come with us that day -- I am soooo glad she didn't.

    KC, yeah. This was more like 30 seconds in.

    Silliyak, too late. I think my wife beat you to it!

    GP, yeah I haven't been diving in a while. Maybe I shouldn't push my luck.

    Mellodee, you are correct, madam. I read a lot though. I have friends who sail...probably like those friends who ski and take someone who's never skied before to the top of the mountain.

    Rachel, thanks. "Affect repair" - that's funny! I had to go look to see where I wrote that! Must be my first year engineering coming to the forefront.

    BG, It's hard to get lost on this lake. Not hard to drown, though..Lifejackets always.

    Jen, it was more like seat of your pants slapstick.

    Hunde, yeah, definitely. Whitecaps != us. At least not right now.

    Ed, yes. Think I can get Clooney to play me in the movie?

    Jeny, it's done! Well, all but the proofreading and printing.

    Marianne, the jury is still out for me. I have a bunch of years into this boat. It would be a shame to not like sailing after all that.

    Woody, you got that right. Also, first thing on the list to find -- a gas powered outboard with enough nuts to get us out of trouble.

    Jay, my only experience before this was with a sunfish about 15 years ago.

    Trish, you're right. When the wind is steady, and the day is sunny, it's the most relaxing thing there is.

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  18. scary story, I couldn't breathe when I was reading it. Of course I knew you were ok because you lived to write the story! speaking of which, the book is done?! That is awesome. when can we expect to see it? If you make it an e-book you won't have to print it. Just a thought.

    Reiven

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  19. I lost your blog in one of many computer deaths, erasing all my bookmarks. I was perusing blog profiles, and someone subscribed to you and I was all OMG. Anyhow...

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  20. Dina, welcome back to the nuthouse.

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  21. Just curious how you know what it sounds like to beat the crap out of a stand up bass with a croquet mallet. Oddly though, I could readily imagine the sound.

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  22. Great, I have the theme from "Gilligan's Island" in my head now :)

    One reason I don't owe a boat (besides I have a money pit called a house) you have to take it out a lot to get your ROI out of it.

    My son took a Coast Guard Aux sanctioned boating course so he can legally pilot a boat. More people need to learn how to boat. You are lucky guys

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  23. Anonymous7:09 PM

    You both had a lot going on there, good read. Dad had a Lido 14 and he learned the ropes on the SF bay, plus I think he read up on it some. We'd take part in the races (in our class of boats) on weekends. Maybe once the conditions were as dire as you had it. We capsized once during a race; the thing of it was how fast it happened. One minute we were rounding the buoy ("come about"), then just after I scrambled to the other side, we went in the drink. Like you, we must have been assaulted by a sudden gust.

    Jeff

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