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.