Archive for the 'seamanship' Category

Aug 22 2014

Go Ride Boat

Published by under Cape Cod,seamanship


Just a lazy cruise around Grand Island in the gloaming of an August evening and what do we see but this vision out of The Great Gatsby, the magnificently restored 104-f00t Trumpy Fantail, Freedom of Newport, RI (naturally). I gave her all the channel she wanted.


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Jul 14 2014

The Charles W. Morgan Comes to P-Town

I NEVER go to Provincetown in the summer. In 56 years the thought of driving a distance equivalent to a trip to Boston, down perilous two-lanes of distracting tourist drivers to visit the clogged streets of the zoo that is P-Town has never even crossed my mind. But yesterday, in lieu of beating over to Martha’s Vineyard in southwesterly breezes gusting to 30 knots, I easily agreed with the suggestion we show my daughter’s boyfriend the “real Cape” and head to the outermost tip of the peninsula. As we walked down from the parking lot behind the high school at the Pilgrim Monument I looked out over the harbor for the masts of the Charles W. Morgan, the oldest floating commercial vessel in the United States, the last of the wooden whaling ships, recently restored at Mystic Seaport and now on its 38th voyage, the first time it has sailed in decades.

“I knew there was a reason he agreed to do this,” said my wife, long ago having resigned herself to a lonely marriage of antisocial, agoraphobic behavior by me, the man-who-does-not-dance. There were masts abounding, but none of a New Bedford whaling ship. I had followed the progress of the Morgan from Mystic up to Buzzards Bay and then through the Cape Cod Canal, and knew she would be in Provincetown.  I’ve been aboard the ship a few times in the past at Mystic Seaport, where she has been the main attraction since 1941, but always assumed she was just an exhibit, too fragile to risk the sea.

The six of us walked to the end of the town pier, bustling with little shops, visitors arriving from Boston on the fast ferry, charter captains hosing off their decks and getting ready for their next set of sports. At the very end of the quay was a replica of a merchantman from the 1700s — a Mayflowerish sort of thing — and a not very pretty schooner, but no Morgan. A big inflated sperm whale was tethered down, nose into the southwest wind pushing white caps out in the bay into the Wellfleet and Truro shores.

“There’s a ship,” my daughter said. Out of the harbor, on the other side of the little flat-sided lighthouse at the tip of Long Point, were the masts of a bark-rigged ship slowly sailing in from Cape Cod Bay.

It was the Morgan, returning from a day sail out to Stellwagen Bank, a fertile marine sanctuary a few miles north of Race Point where right whales and finbacks cavort all summer. The ship was in port for some sort of whale awareness event, and around the inflated whale on the pier stood an helpful young woman answering questions about the state of the whale preservation movement. The exhibit had a sense of apology about it, that yes, this was a magnificent ship that embodied a rich part of America’s maritime past, but all those whales the Morgan helped slaughter were, well… the past when people didn’t know any better and petroleum hadn’t been discovered yet.

The ship rounded Long Point and tacked around into the wind to pick up a mooring a half mile off the end of the pier. She was not coming dockside. I was a little disappointed, the sight of an actual whaler riding at anchor was such an anachronism I turned to my son and said, “Imagine hiding in the bushes in Samoa in 1850 and seeing that arrive and drop anchor.”

“With a crew of syphilitic, dregs-of-New-England sailors,” he cracked wisely. The rest of my entourage was profoundly bored by the fact that a piece of American history was riding at its anchor in front of them in the same harbor where the Mayflower arrived in the late fall of 1620. They headed back to the insanity of Commercial Street where a man in an orange skirt and orange cat-in-the-hat hat was riding bicycle hawking tickets to an appearance by Baltimore’s pencil-moustached auteur and director of Pink Flamingos, John Waters. My son and I sat on edge of the pier, legs dangling down, and appreciated the view. Being a pedantic bore, I started the history lesson of the Morgan.

She was built in New Bedford in 1841, at the height of the American whaling fishery, a time when Nantucket and New Bedford whaling ships were exploring every corner of the Pacific from New Zealand to the Arctic, from Baja to the Okhotsk Sea of Siberia. This was the world of Herman Melville which he captured in the two books that made him a best selling author — Oomoo and Typee — an account of his voyage to the South Pacific and desertion with another sailor to live among the Polynesians.  This was a time when New England whalers were the most well-traveled people in the world.  Pushing  into uncharted waters — literally — at huge risk and discomfort to fill their holds with whale oil, bone and baleen.

The ships were slow. Built big and heavy to hold a lot of barrels of oil, a crew of 35 men, and the brick fireplace — or “try works” — that sat amidships where the big blankets of whale blubber were cut into chunks and rendered over the flames into big iron kettles into oil like big blobs of fishy Crisco. The decks were soaked in oil: slippery, rancid, foul and treacherous.  Only the Captain and the officers got rich. They worked for the ship owners — the Coffins of Nantucket or the Howlands of New Bedford — and received a share, or fraction of the profits. The crews were drunks and petty thieves, sea sick farm boys, Wampanoags and Pequots trying to work off debts, escaped slaves, Irish immigrants, veterans of the War of 1812. The only things that kept them in line were the fists of the officers and their ignorance of celestial navigation. Oh there were mutinies, but for most whaling voyages — generally lasting three years — the biggest risk was falling overboard, being killed by an angry whale, or merely suffering an accident on deck in a pre-OSHA era.

The Morgan was of a classic type of ship; a couple thousand were built in Mattapoisett and New Bedford. This is the type of ship the Pequod — Captain Ahab’s ship in Moby Dick — was. Melville wrote in the novel, published in 1851 — ten years after the launching of the Morgan: 

… a rare old craft…She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull‘s complexion was darkened like a French grenadier‘s, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts…stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Beckett bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed…She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the Sperm Whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe…A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.”

The Morgan escaped the fate of most whaling ships. A lot were lost at sea, sunk by storms, wrecked on uncharted reefs, driven onto lee-shores, unable to beat their way to the open sea. One, the Essex, was rammed and sunk by a pissed-off whale.  A bunch were lost in the arctic, done in by greedy crews who overstayed their welcome and were frozen into the pack ice. The Civil War took its toll when the “Great Stone Fleet” — about 40 whaling ships — were filled with rocks and scuttled by the Union Navy in an attempt to blockade Charleston, South Carolina. The end of the age of sail and the rise of steam did in the rest, but somehow the Morgan escaped the wrecker and even found a second career in the early silent movie era as a prop in three movies. She was rotting in New Bedford harbor in 1924 when a steamer caught fire and nearly destroyed her in the process. The fire — which was extinguished by the firemen of Fairhaven — raised awareness that the Morgan should be preserved, and eventually the one-legged Colonel Edward Howland Robinson Green, son of the notorious “witch of Wall Street,” Hetty Green, was persuaded to pay to have her restored and towed to his seaside mansion in Dartmouth, Mass. where she was pulled into the mud and put on display.

Green, who lost his leg in childhood when his miserly mother refused to pay a doctor to set a broken bone, was the heir to the great Howland whaling fortune and kept the Morgan in decent shape until his death in 1934. Four years later the Great Hurricane of 1938 demolished New Bedford and the Morgan was damaged.

In 1941 she was dug out of her mud and sand berth, towed back into New Bedford harbor, patched up, and eventually towed to Mystic, Connecticut to become the nucleus for Mystic Seaport, an amazing maritime museum (where I spent many month in the late 1970s while majoring in American maritime history at Yale).

She was patched up and put into another muddy berth, and over the years millions of visitors explored her decks and learned about the amazing history of whaling. But she never sailed again.

Occasionally they’d unfurl her big sails at the dock — sometimes one could see them luffing uselessly as they sped by in a car on Route 95 — but she was basically beached. I never expected the Morgan to sail again.  A few years ago, at the Coastweeks rowing regatta, my son and I explored the Seaport after my race. It was his first visit and we had a lot of fun exploring the exhibits, the old rope walk, the sheds of catboats and sharpies, skipjacks and pinkys. The Morgan was in dry dock to be rebuilt from the keel up. We were able to go aboard even though work was being done, and poked around the decks, me droning on about his great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Chatfield’s ship, the Massachusetts, and speculating what life must have been like for a Cotuit man in his early 20s to be given command of a 100-foot long ship and sail it from Edgartown to Siberia and back. And then do it four more times before the outbreak of the Civil War.

So yes, there’s an ancestral connection to these ships. A reminder that somewhere in my DNA is the stuff that made a man run away from home, go to sea, and live a life killing huge beasts in strange oceans on a floating fireplace.

The fact I actually saw one of those ships under sail yesterday — not being ceremoniously towed around like the USS Constitution is every summer  (the Constitution is the oldest floating American ship, the Morgan the oldest commercial one) but actually sailing— was very emotional and more than worth the long drive from Cotuit to see. I’d give a lot to experience such a thing. A few years ago I organized an expedition of a couple dozen friends down to Newport to sail a pair of America’s Cup 12-meters, and those five minutes I spent at the big wheel made me smile all over.

The Morgan heads to Boston, then back through the Canal. She’ll be n display at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on July 26 and 27.

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Apr 21 2014

Getting underway

I launched the motorboat yesterday afternoon after two weeks of working on it in the middle of the yard. Some years the boat manages to go in early, other years it goes in late. This year was late because of the winter-that-wouldn’t-end. Some years the boat needs multiple visits to the mechanic, other years I get her running on my own. This year I tackled a few overdue projects and one nasty recurring problem which required a sledgehammer. As my Cousin Pete (who lives across the street in the western half of the Chatfield family compound) likes to to say, watching a Churbuck with an internal combustion engine (lawnmower, pressure washer, automobile, chainsaw, outboard motor) is like watching a monkey with a hand grenade. I know he likes to sit on his front porch with a cocktail and laugh at my best efforts to destroy anything that lives on gasoline and I am sure he noted my application of a sledge hammer to my Honda 40 horsepower outboard for future retelling.

Back in March, in a fit of optimism, I dragged the boat out from behind the garage, cut off the useless blue tarp that collapsed during the first snow storm, noted that the trailer’s ten year-old tires are still hanging in there (which is good because the wheels are rusted onto the axles forever), and started the familiar recommissioning process which is becoming second nature now that the boat is twenty-two years old and on engine #3.


The calm before the failure

The battery went onto the charger.  I grabbed a broom and swept out the sticks and leaves, sand and shells, dragged out the clam rakes and baskets, and winced at the beard of dried slime along the waterline and the crust of barnacles on the keelson — proof I didn’t do much of a job last fall when I yanked the boat for the season. I had a feeling my neglect would mean the boat would bone me so I drove up to see Dow Clark, my mechanic and asked him if he could tune things up. He pointed out that there was a blizzard coming (this was last month), and he wouldn’t work on the boat if the temperatures went below freezing because he needed to run a hose through through engine’s water intakes in the parking lot and didn’t want to turn it into a skating rink for the other tenants in the little row of garages behind Peck’s and the Domino’s Pizza place.

The blizzard came and went, I returned to the boat (glad I hadn’t launched her in time for an evening of 60 mph gusts out of the north), replaced the battery, and lowered the engine. The first boat problem of 2014 emerged immediately: the steering was frozen, a common occurrence which meant the push rod system that pushed and pulled the motor on the transom was seized. Inside I went to Google and YouTube, read about the problem, watched about a dozen different possible solutions, and returned armed with a propane torch, a hacksaw, a length of rebar, a cold chisel, a ball-peen hammer, a mason’s hammer, a grease gun, and a spray can of white lithium grease, another can of “PB Blaster, and finally, a can of carburetor cleaner. I disconnected the motor from the steering assembly, got rid of all nearby gasoline, lit the torch, and started heating the steering tube. For the next six hours I feebly tapped at the end of the stainless steel ram with the hammer, tried a 2″x4” lever, reapplied heat, sprayed various fluids, and finally, in a fit of total despair and destruction, broke out a sledgehammer and started whaling away at the end of the pernicious steering gear.

That did it. If it is stuck, whack it. A couple applications of the precision tool and the ram started to budge a tiny bit with every smack. I finally drove the thing all the way into the tube, then continued the brutal repair with a piece of rebar, clocking my knuckles so hard when the sledgehammer missed that I was convinced I’d broken my hand.  After countless attacks on the piece of precision Japanese machinery, the steering ram popped out and I performed a little Dave Dance of Happiness on the brown lawn. I reamed out the tube with brushes and carburetor cleaner, cleaned the ram piston off and regreased it, then reassembled the whole mess until the steering wheel spun back and forth with silken, greased ease. Success. I spared myself a new $125 steering cable and a trip to the mechanic.

A past winter launching which ended in a rescue after water in the gas killed the expedition.

A past winter launching which ended in a rescue after water in the gas killed the expedition.

Then to the greasy manual for a refresher in changing the engine oil and lower unit lube. I siphoned whatever water I could find out of last year’s gas and drained the fuel lines, changed the fuel-water separator, and tightened the drain holes on the three carb bowls. New spark plugs followed, a change in the fuel filter and I was ready to test it. Professional mechanics use these “headphone” sort of clamps that attach to the water intake of the motor and then run a hose through them so they can work the running motor on dry land. The last time I did that I melted the water pump. This year I hooked the trailer up to the car and drove the boat down Old Shore Road  and backed the trailer in deep enough to lower the motor without launching the boat (I have learned that launching prematurely always means the boat will not start and will need to be paddled back to the trailer, winched back on, and taken up to Dow Clark two miles inland on a trailer with no lights and an expired registration that is one flake of rust away from collapsing.

I climbed aboard, lowered the motor, inserted the key, said a prayer, and started cranking. It astarted after 15 seconds, a feeble, barely combusting ignition that I nursed to life like a freezing man lighting a fire in a Jack London story. I let it strangle and shudder, then dared to give it a bit more gas, let go of the choke and it LIVED! Do another Dave Dance of happiness, feel like a master mechanic.

I let it run for 15 minutes on the trailer, relishing the opportunity to hog the entire boat ramp by myself on a Saturday afternoon ; a ramp that in three months would have a line of impatient boaters waiting for their turn to launch or haul their boats while some ass clown clogged things up by deciding to clean his Bayliner while everyone waited and honked their horn. The off-season in Cotuit is the season of the Townie Prerogative: when those of us stupid enough to live here from January to April get to put out our dinghies on the prime spots, get to hog boat ramps for as long as we want, drive fast in areas of the harbor usually confined to 6 mph, and then clam in places that get closed on May 1.

I let the motor run for a quarter hour because the second rule of Churbuck Outboard Failure is that a motor that runs well near the beach will fail as soon as it is about 500 feet away from the beach — generally because of water in the system, or a failed water pump that sets off the dreaded alarm sound which means a $500 repair bill is coming soon. A sub-rule of Churbuck Outboard Failure is that failure in the off-season means there aren’t any other boaters around to come to one’s rescue and the possibility of being stranded and having to swim in 40 degree water is very real. These are the lessons learned over 22 Cape Cod Springs, proof that wisdom is nothing more than the accrual of repeated failures.

I resisted the temptation to back off of the trailer and bomb around the bay. The bottom was unpainted and there was more work to do. Driving an unpainted boat would definitely draw the curses of the Gods of Maritime Failure and I only get superstitious when I am on the water.

Back to the yard and then off to the marine supply store for the annual BOHICA* (nothing will trash a bank balance faster than a can of bottom paint or any sort of marine hardware). The harbormaster nearly wrote me a ticket last August for being on the water without navigation lights.  I had to invest in a new sternlight and green-and-red bow light, wire, connectors, switches, etc.. Back to the boat and my favorite liquid after a smoky peaty single malt scotch — Hull Cleaner — an evil solution that is swabbed around the waterline of the white hull which turns brown over the course of a summer like a smoker’s lungs. Hull cleaner must be washed off, so down into the cistern under the grape arbor I go — through a manhole cover into a dank dirt floor chamber under the birdfeeders to turn back on the outdoor faucets. Then back into daylight in search of the hoses, replacing washers and finding a working nozzle while the birds act inconvenienced because I dare interrupt their springtime binge diet.

Hull Cleaner magically bleaches everything  away like a blessing from the Pope, but it also eats into the trailer’s galvanized frame one whiff of the stuff and the disconcerting sensation of burning lungs makes me believe it is an evil fluods. I hose it off, get the bottom wet, and drag my 55-year old ass under the boat with a scrub brush and scraper to vanquish 2013’s barnacles and slime. This results in my being crippled later in the evening, forced to lay on my back on the floor while watching 60 Minutes and moaning that I have strapping sons who should be crawling under boats on wet grass littered with stinky evicted barnacles.

The next day my son thoughtfully volunteered to crawl under the boat wearing a set of disposable Tyvek overalls to paint the bottom with antifouling paint while I masking-taped the boot top line. When we were done the boat looked about as good as it did the day in 1992 when I picked it up from the builder in Vineyard Haven (the best $7500 I have spent in my life).

The wiring of the lights was a sobering reminder that I am a terrible electrician. My first attempt succeeded in turning the new lights on, but my mis-wiring also  turned the circuit into one big electric stove top that started to turn red, smoke and melt the plastic insulation off of the wire. Back to the Internet for assistance, but finally I figured out enough 12V electrical wiring theory to get the job done correctly.

By this point in time it is noon on Easter Sunday. Easter dinner starts at four pm. I look for volunteers to join me for the maiden voyage and a  quick clamming expedition to secure enough littlenecks for appetizers. No takers, everyone is occupied with deviled egg construction. So I break out the new waders, find the VHF radio, cellphone, clam license, buckets, oarlocks, oars, temporary mooring float, throw it all into the boat, insert the drain plugs, connect the gas tank, back up the trailer hitch, and off I go under bluebird skies and a nice spring day.

The boat started on the first try. I backed off the trailer, brought the boat into the beach and left it there while I parked the trailer on the side of Old Shore Road. Back to the boat, off the beach, restart, back away and head for the winter stick that marks my mooring near the yacht club’s beach to tie on a temporary painter until the mooring guy can get out there and swap the wooden winter stick for the regular rode.

The alarm horn goes off just as I pull up to the mooring. SHIT! Off with the engine before heinous amounts of destruction occur. I tie the boat onto the winter stick before addressing yet another spring launching spoiled by Honda. I turn it back on. No alarm. I note the engine “pisser” is not squirting water. Proof the water pump isn’t work. Off with the engine, find the hidden paper clip, tilt up the engine, and ream out the little piss-port under engine cover. Restart, long satisfying stream of pee and no alarm horn.

I headed off to Sampson’s Island to clam, and opened up the engine all the way as I skipped across the chop of Cotuit Bay, the wind chill plummeting the temperature and bringing wind blown tears to my eyes. No alarm horns No surges in power as the carbs drink in water. Just a well working boat on a sunny day. One month of weekends and one boat is in the water in time for the first stripers, squid and bluefish. Now to start on the big sailboat and another month of messing around.



*Bend Over Here It Comes Again

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Oct 22 2013

I Guano Kill Em All

There’s this bird called the cormorant, also known as the “shag”, which has been a part of the local wildlife for the last decade or more, arriving from the south and taking up residence along with the gulls, terns and ospreys. They are big black birds with long necks and cape-like wings they hold open to let the breeze dry them off. They feed on the bottom on mussels and crabs, popping to the surface to shake their heads and paddle along until spooked, at which point they windmill and run over the surface until they achieve escape velocity and can get airborne.

I want them all dead.

Cormorants exist to shit on my boat. I have strung up old CDs on strings like the rearview mirror of a teenager’s first car to scare them away. I have spent a hundred dollars on bird spikes for the spreaders on my mast. I have festooned my boom with old plastic grocery bags until the poor boat looks like a tree on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.

But they shit and they continue to shit. And then they shit some more. They deposit prodigious amounts of fish-imbued filth all over the decks, the wheel, the cleats, lines, seats, dodger, windows, spars, winches and lifelines, coating the boat with a thick coat of white guano mixed with undigested mollusks, pebbles, and some sort of toxic waste that is impossible to remove. Flies love the stuff and the whole affair is just an invitation to salmonella, shigella, giardia, diarrhea, MRSA and whatever other flesh-eating bacteria you care to contract.

Yesterday was pull-the-boat day, so Sunday I put-putted out in the motorboat with my son to get things ready for the pulling of the mast at Town Dock. My buddy Tom K. was standing on the shore and bore the bad news. “Good luck with the guano” he said. Sure, I knew they had found a little gap in the bird spikes on the lower starboard spreader and one had managed to spackle the dodger with a blast of ass vomit, but that was okay, I saw that mess the weekend before as I returned triumphant with a bucket o’tautog, but like an idiot I didn’t clean it up. Leaving it there was tantamount to declaring the Bald Eagle was now a designated cormorant port-a-potti and they took advantage of the invitation. It’s a matter of dwindling opportunities, sort of like musical toilets where as the days go by the music stops and they take away another boat to poop on. Stay in past Columbus Day and the ratio of bird butts to available boat toilets get worse and worse until the last boat standing is a heaping, stinking mess of avian fertilizer.

It reminds me of the islands off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean that were so coated in bird shit that fortunes were made mining the stuff and shipping it back to the world as fertilizer. Guano was big bucks. But not my guano. No, my guano is my cross to bear.

So I get the boat into the town dock and start calling around for a power washer in the belief that I can use the dock’s faucet and some high pressure blasting to tidy things up before the kibbutzers and bored amateur wharfingers of Cotuit can point out the obvious and tell me it looks like birds have taken a massive dump (why are all dumps “massive?) on my yacht. I tie up. Test the faucet. Dry. The powers-that-be in the Town of Barnstable evidently believe the world stops on Columbus Day and have disconnected the pipes for the winter. Another boat arrives, also frosted with a nice layer, the owner asks me “Is the water on?” Nope. The term “shit out of luck” is invoked and I tie the end of a poo-covered jib sheet to the handle of a bucket and start hauling five gallons of sea water aboard every thirty seconds to try to soften it up and sluice it over the side.

The first helpful rocket scientist arrives with a cock-a-poo or a labra-dump on a leash and says, “Hey, someone got hit hard.” Ha ha. Very funny. Really? No fooling? You think? Scrub, scrub, scrub. Flies going up my nose. Backsplash in my mouth. The other boat owner has rubber gloves on. Not me. I just start rolling in the stuff and compose my obituary: he died a coprolagniac.

Six hours later and the sails are off, the turnbuckles on the rigging are loose, the neutral stop-switch in the throttle is fixed and the engine is running but the boat is still smeared with stalagmites of cormorant. I have been told to use lime remover, Comet, warm soapy water, screw-it-let-the-rain-wash-it-off, and to-hell-with-it–just-shrink-wrap the whole mess and pretend it didn’t happen. Being a nice day the dock was busy with spandexed cyclists, panting joggers, shoulder season tourists, local wise guys and friends and neighbors. Every single one of them expressed some rueful condolences over my messy boat.

Only one said anything that made any sense. I salute him.

“Next time put out mousetraps. All it takes is one and they get the word and won’t come back and if you’re lucky, you might see one trying to shake a trap off it’s claw.”

Thank you. I shall have my revenge.

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Sep 23 2013

The America’s Cup is Actually Interesting

I may be a traditionalist when it comes to racing sailboats — I like them wooden, leaky and gaff-rigged — and I have bitched about how the America’s Cup needs to come back to Newport, Rhode Island and be raced in those oh-so-elegant 12-meters of my youth. But after spending a rapt half hour on the couch with my tablet and a half-hour of coverage from San Francisco Bay I take it all back. AC-72 catamarans are amazing things.

Catamarans have the reputation of being the jet-skis of the sailing world. The people who sail them tend to be adrenaline freaks who zip back and forth looking for speed and little else. The boats point into the wind like square-riggers, require elbow and knee pads and a crash helmet, and beg to be sailed while yelling “yee-hah.” They entered the America’s Cup under desperate circumstances in 1988 when Dennis Conner showed up in one to kick New Zealand’s ass after they showed up in a 90-foot mega yacht and convinced a judge to uphold the move away from 12-meters as perfectly legal under the terms of the “Deed of Gift” — the rules that govern the strange and venerable competition. Dennis and his catamaran sailed circles around the New Zealanders, the credibility of the America’s Cup hit an all-time low, and all semblance of dignity went out the window. But catamarans were in.

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Not that the America’s Cup was ever a fair fight. As my buddy Charlie points out, the name of the game has been getting a technical edge from the very beginning when the American’s sent an overpowered schooner over to England to kick the best butts in the Royal British Yacht Squadron. Half the battles have been in the courts, with challengers and defenders contesting the ambiguous rules every chance they get and giving full credence to the cliche of the “sea lawyer.” Winged-keels,  crews of ringers from foreign countries, billionaires with more bucks than brains … what’s not to love?

Whatever. I tip my hat to Larry Ellison for making it a total tech fest on Silicon Valley’s home waters. These boats represent the cutting edge of aquatic technology, use nothing but the wind to scream along at more than 35 mph, and thanks to overlaid graphics, helicopters, onboard Go-Pro helmet cams, and crazy color commentary that would be more in place in a UFC cage match, finally putting to rest Mark Twain’s old tired complaint that watching yacht racing is less exciting than watching paint dry or grass grow.

The US is behind — docked two races for cheating — and it’s do-or-die with them needing to win all of the remaining race to stay in the game.

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Mar 04 2013

Sterling Hayden: An Appreciation

One of the most influential books in my youth was Sterling Hayden’s autobiography: Wanderer.  For a young writer restless to get out of the confines of college and into the “real” world, his life’s story was an inspiration of boot-strapped pluck, luck, and determination to find some meaning on the deep blue sea. That he was a leading man during Hollywood’s Golden Era, married to starlets, called before the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Committee, then revived in  the 60s and 70s as an actor’s actor in Dr. Strangelove and the Godfather was mere trim and icing on a life spent before the mast on a Gloucester fishing schooner and tall ships. Sterling Hayden was the real deal, a manly man who deserves a revival.

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Hayden wrote two books: Wanderer is still in print and a very worthwhile read. His one and only novel, Voyage: A Novel of 1896 is out of print, but worth tracking down from a used bookstore. It is one of the better maritime novels on my bookshelf. As for his films, other than Strangelove and Godfather, his other big contemporary film was The Long Goodbye. His early stuff — beginning in 1941 after he was discovered by Hollywood on the deck of a Gloucester schooner because of some newsreel footage shot at the annual schooner races in Boston — is pretty obscure, B-movie stuff. He hated the studio system which cast him as a pretty boy/beefcake but he put up with it to finance his expensive tastes in wives and boats. Hayden was a self-admitted bad actor.

He spent World War II in the OSS, working behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with Marshal Tito’s band of resistance guerrillas fighting Nazis. That built some admiration for the Communists which got him into hot water after the war during the Hollywood witch hunts, a period in his life he long regretted after he uncharacteristically named names.

I met him once, in Sausalito, California in the early 80s, shortly before his death in 1986, when I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing as the Bay Area stringer for Soundings, a weekly boating newspaper. I read a profile of his first mate, Spike Africa, in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned Hayden was in Sausalito and tracked him down. I was 22 and the two interviews I had with him were my first experience with true hero worship. I never wrote the profile, the editors at Sounding weren’t interested and I was too flaky to freelance the piece elsewhere, a mistake I kick myself for.

There is a great appreciation of Hayden, the sailor and writer, by Captain Paul Watson at Sea Shepherd International’s blog. I’ll borrow his quote of Hayden’s because it was the kind of sentiment that fired me up as a confused and rudderless young sophmore:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

– Sterling Hayden

4 responses so far

Sep 17 2012

My Personal America’s Cup

Published by under General,seamanship

When I grew up in the sixties and seventies I was into the America’s Cup the way most kids are into the Superbowl. It was one of those things that comes with growing up in New England and racing sailboats. The America’s Cup was the pinnacle of the sport, an event that the United States had never lost, in what I still think are the most beautiful boats ever designed and sailed by mankind: the 12-meter sloop.  The names of the skippers were like the names of famous race car drivers to me. Some people were into Sterling Moss, I was into Bus Mosbacher, Ted Hood, Ted Turner and Dennis Connor.

12-meter yachts were the standard class of sloop in which the America’s Cup was raced from the 1950s into the 1980s. The “12-meter” has nothing to do with the length of the boats, but is the result of a formula involving various measurements to arcane to delve into here.  The boats were made out of wood until the 1970s, when the rules were changed to permit steel, and eventually Fiberglas. By the 1990s they were gone, replaced by the gross over-commercialization of the sport that turned the boats into billboards and make the event an arms race for billionaires with bigger egos than souls.

Here’s the current state of affairs:

Once we had this:

Now we have this:

I blame it on RedBull, marketing departments, branding experts, and over-Adderalled dickheads who pay to watch technology and not sportsmanship. Now it’s called the “AC World Series” and the crews wear helmets. Bring back Charlie Barr and the J-Boats and ban the logos.

The beginning of the end came with  the infamous winged keel that the Australians snuck into the 1982 series (and won it, breaking the American hold on the Cup and threatening to rename it “The Australia’s Cup”), and suddenly the “purity” of the 12-meters was threatened (the rules that govern the America’s Cup, the “Deed of Gift” are beyond weird and were constantly changed by its longtime sponsor, The New York Yacht Club, however it pleased them) a threat that was realized in the stupid series of 1987 when New Zealand showed up with a monster maxi-yacht and the American skipper Dennis Connor countered in desperation with a speedy catamaran. Thus ended the 12-meter era, setting off a round of silly court cases, and today the Cup is raced in ridiculous (to my eye) extreme catamarans which require their crews to wear helmets and pads.

Thankfully, the 12-meter fleet of yesterday lives on in Newport, Rhode Island, the traditional battle ground for the Cup.  Last winter, while spending a weekend in Newport with my wife, I muttered something about wishing I could have sailed on a 12-meter. She told me to Google that thought, and a few dayss later I was spamming the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club’s email list with the suggestion that a dozen of us charter one of the boats for a sail in September. Twenty-four people signed up, trusted me with their deposits, and over the spring and summer I pulled together a half-day of sailing aboard the Columbia (winner in 1958) and the Heritage (a contender for the defense in 1970).

We carpooled to Newport on Saturday morning, our arrival coinciding with the annual Newport Boat Show, gathered on Bannister’s Wharf under grey skies, and counted heads until all were accounted for.  I called out the names of the two crews, having been advised by counsel to have the boats selected before arriving, and flipped a coin to choose which crew would sail which boat.  Then we split up for a day of match racing. Meredith from 12-Meter Charters herded us aboard a launch for the short ride out to the two  boats moored in the lee of Goat Island.

The skipper and two crew members stowed our stuff below decks, delivered the obligatory Coast Guard approved safety lecture, and within ten minutes we had the sails up and were gliding across Narragansett Bay towards Jamestown. Everyone started exchanging glances of surprise as the boat took off in the light air. This wasn’t like sailing a typical sailboat, this was more like sitting on top of a floating locomotive with the potential to turn into a bullet train.

I was disappointed it wasn’t windier and sunnier, but there was still hope as it was only 11 am. The front had already blown by and there were hints of sun peeking out to make things encouraging.

We raced informally by crossing each other’s sterns and then beating up to windward into the northwesterly breeze under the Jamestown Bridge to a bell buoy up by Gould’s Island where the Navy used to test fire torpedos. Heritage won the first race, credit taken by Judge Swartwood who had the privilege to steer the boat over the finish line. We taunted the Columbia in the best Monty Python and the Holy Grail sense of taunts , and then broke for a relazed lunch sail out into Block Island Sound. The sun came out. The box lunches came out. The wind started blowing, and we each took our turn at the wheel.

Here’s the picture that says it all: Heritage has the natural, vanished hull; Columbia is the white hull in the foreground. That’s me standing on the Heritage leaning against the boom.

The full photo set is on Flickr:

Having a chance to steer Heritage was like being a Formula One fan who gets to drive a classic Grand Prix car.   Here is me trying to look all nonchalant about the experience. I wasn’t. I actually got a little choked up thinking about my old writing teacher John Hersey, and his making me feel very jealous in 1978 when he told me about the time he got to steer Intrepid and used the locomotive simile.

The best part of the day? That actually happened the day before the sail when a taxi pulled into the driveway and my daughter stepped out, a surprise arrival from San Francisco thanks to her godfather Charlie Clapp’s incredibly thoughtful generosity. Charlie is a serious 12-meter junkie. As a kid growing up in Barrington, Rhode Island, the America’s Cup was literally happening in his back yard. This was his fourth sail aboard the boats. Hell, he even owns the shirt.

I’m definitely doing this again.

4 responses so far

Sep 11 2012

Death, taxes and boat trailers

My skiff, the Tashmoo, was looking a little disheveled these past few weeks, ignored by me and never even taken out for a spin to keep her bottom clean, her engine purring and her various weak links not-so weak. Being ashamed of the beard of barnacles that rimmed the waterline, I pulled her out of the water on Sunday in between rain showers, rowing out for the first time in a month to see how she was doing.

Everything had gone to hell. The barnacles were merely a clue to the real neglect that lay within. The steering was frozen. The bilge pump had failed and nearly a foot of rain water sloshed over everything. The power tilt that raises and lowers the motor wasn’t working either. I was a bad owner and I had to pay.

So I bailed the rain water out, let the motor drop down into position, fired it up and let it cough and stutter for a few minutes while I whacked the steering rod with a clam rake and wrestled with the wheel until finally the salt and corrosion let loose and the motor would steer again. I cast off the mooring, backed away from the dinghy, and ran down the little channel out into to the harbor to open up the throttle (making sure Jared the harbormaster wasn’t around to bust me for making a wake). I pulled the transom plugs and put the boat up on a plane to drain the rest of the rainwater, noting that it didn’t take more than one weekend and a couple of tropical squalls to drive everyone off of Cotuit Bay for the season. I had the place to myself.

Water drained, I put the plugs back in and returned to the landing to haul the boat and deal with its ailments. I horsed the motor up without the power tilt, tossed out the little danforth anchor and backed the trailer down the concrete ramp with the Polar Bear Drowner, my wife’s bizarrely over-sized SUV. The trailer bounced over the cracks in the ramp, submerged itself with a gust of bubbles, and when the rear tires were in the water I stopped, put the car in park, and set the emergency brake.

Back to the skiff, back to the balky motor, and out I  drove into a tight circle to line up the bow with the license plate of the car for a gentle slide up onto the 12 year-old trailer’s rollers (which I had to rebuild at considerable cost of many bloody knuckles two years ago).  The barnacles crunched as the hull slipped up the rollers. As I listened with some satisfaction as the parasites-with-the-world’s-longest-penis-in-relation-to-their-body-size got flattened. Of course the Karma God decided to bend me over and teach me a lesson for my barnacle murder. An immense fart bubble surfaced from the general vicinity of the starboard trailer tire. It had gone flat. Ruptured. Deflated. Punctured.

Now a long digression on boat trailers. First you spend $1000 to $2000 dollars for a galvanized frame equipped with a winch, a hitch, a set of rubber rollers and an axle bracing two wheels, two bearings, and two big old-fashioned looking leaf-springs.  Add a pair of red brake lights,   safety chains, wiring harness, and you end up with a recipe for perfect failure. Murphy in Murphy’s Law makes his home inside a boat trailer. He comes out when the trailer is rolling at 60 miles per hour through the South Station tunnel in Boston, the Cross Bronx in New York, or the middle of a crowded boat ramp on Labor Day.

Trailers are meant to humiliate men in many ways. First is the ass-backwards way they have to be backed up. This is a serious test of one’s saltiness here on Cape Cod. I have seen Federal judges fail at trailer backing. Turn the steering wheel one way and the trailer goes another. If you don’t back up trailers for a living then every time you do it you have to rewire your brain, craning your gaze backwards over the seats and out the back window at the barely visible end of the trailer which swings wildly one way and then the other as you spin the steering wheel to and fro.

Now submerge this contraption in saltwater and watch it slowly die. The first thing to go are the brake lights. They submerge, flood and short out almost instantly (which is why the commercial clammers rip them off and rewire them onto a 2×4″ that they strap on top of the boat where the electrics will stay dry. You can assiduously rinse your trailer off with fresh water each and every time you use it, but that won’t stop the cancer.

So now you get your boat onto the trailer. My cousin Pete says his YouTube guilty pleasure is trailer bloopers. I strongly recommend the genre as a leading example of man’s penchant for public humiliation and failure. There are many ways to screw things up. You can gun the boat onto the trailer in what we locally call a Bass Master Exit; you can clean, wax and preen over the boat while parked on the ramp and a dozen other trailers wait their turn, or you can be intoxicated and drive away with the wife and kids still sitting in the boat like beauty queens on a Rose Bowl float.

Driving a trailer with a boat on it is a total sphincter-clenching hell. I have seen boats bounce right off the trailer because the driver didn’t secure it with tie-down straps. But the real devil is the hubs, where the ball bearings let the wheels spin around the medieval axle. Trailer owners are told to be very  paranoid about their hubs. My trailer, which is a dozen years old, has never had any hub maintenance. Why should it? I only use the thing three times a year to go from my yard (behind the tin shed known as Little Jamaica) to the launch ramp at the bottom of Old Shore road (an even 400-meter round trip). The first round trip is in February after the ice leaves the harbor so I can go clamming, the second is in September to clean the bottom after the messy summer, and the third is in December to get the boat out before the ice. I don’t drive the boat to New Jersey, New Hampshire, or even Barnstable. I just haul it up and down the Ropes Hill to and from my yard. In those 12 years I would estimate the trailer has done maybe 50 miles of driving. So why worry about the bearings?

Why worry indeed. My friend David Rickel had saved a phone message from my other buddy Doctor Dan, who borrowed Mister Rickel’s old trailer to fetch a new Cotuit Skiff he had built from New Canaan back to the Cape for its maiden voyage in Cotuit. There are many things wrong in that previous sentence.

First: Cotuit Skiff. Cotuit Skiff’s are where trailers go to die. There is still a 100 yard groove in the hill on Putnam Avenue from Old Post Road to Lowell Avenue because one eager Skiff owner lost their trailer wheel and decided to forge onwards and dragged the stub of the axle through the pavement like a plow. I have seen skiffs fall off of trailers. I have seen 30 of them get hauled in a single afternoon to beat an oncoming hurricane, and each and every time some trailer fails under the pressure. Skiff trailers are particularly neglected to the point that only one or two are known to be trustworthy thanks to the care of their owners. The rest are failures waiting to happen.

Second: “Borrowed.” A trailer which can be borrowed is a trailer that is unloved, un-maintained, and likely to fail once it gets a mile away from the thicket of briar and golden rod where it rusted for the years before the borrower arrived looking for a favor.

Third: Route 95. Combine a skiff with a questionably maintained trailer with an interstate highway …. the result is the phone message from Doctor Dan to Mister Rickel. This recording occurred one afternoon in June in 1993 and was made in the breakdown lane of Route 195 on the old elevated highway that used to twist through Providence, Rhode Island. The bearing had seized, overheated and eventually caught on fire, forcing Doctor Dan to pull over and throw handfuls of road sand onto it.  The phone call, if transcribed, roughly went something like this (add in the sound of semis barreling past in the background at 70 mph).


Mister Rickel eventually called Doctor Dan and told him to strip off the license plate (which had expired anyway, no one ever remembers to register their trailer in Cotuit) and abandon the wreckage where it lay. This was done, and doubtlessly the Rhode Island State Police will read this and track Dan down to collect their fine for abandoning a menace to the public safety on their highway.

Back to last Sunday. So I see the big stale air bubble float up from the rough area of the punctured tire, sigh, and do what every good Cotusion would do, I forge on and drag it up the hill to the house anyway. The plate is expired. The brake lights don’t work. The only thing good about the situation is there isn’t a swarm of yellow jackets living inside of the trailer like there was six years ago, a swarm that got very annoyed when I backed their nest into the bay and ruined their lives.

I got into the Polar Bear Drowner, and dragged the mess up Old Shore Road, watching the flat tire shred itself in the right rearview mirror. A quick left onto Main Street, 50 yards to the drive way and I was home, safe and unobserved by the Barnstable Police Department.

I unhooked the hitch from the ball, listened to the beard of barnacles gasp and sputter in the air, and examined the disaster before me. Here was 2000 pounds of Fiberglas and Honda sitting on 12 years of corroded Karavan trailer, with a flat tire. So off to the hardware store I went for a jack, a lug wrench, a can of Fix-A-Flat, some Liquid Wrench and a lot of false hope.

Once equipped I spent an hour in the gloaming banging and squirting and swearing at the five lug nuts that were so corroded they had blossomed into fat little roses of rust. After scaling off that rust, I was left with little lug-nut ghosts that weren’t going to budge for any man. Stymied, I broke out a scraper and a rubber mallet, spread a blue tarp under the hull, and knocked off about 20 pounds of barnacles, cleaning up with an application of that lovely substance called Hull Cleaner.

Yesterday Cousin Pete came over with an electric impact wrench and was able to get two of the lug nuts off. The third sheared off, leaving a stub of half a bolt. So now it was time to call in the professionals. I phoned Peck’s Boats and John Peck came over, inspected the sad wreck, and told me to buy a new trailer. Sure, I said,  my new trailer is spending its Freshman year in college, and that doesn’t solve the dilemma of what to do with the boat still sitting on the broken one. John asked me if I had used heat on the lugs. Sure, I said, brandishing my new propane torch. He sneered — for John builds his own trailers, big monsters that can haul 50 foot sailboats from Cape Cod to Florida and back again — and said he would be back with a real torch.

Soon enough he bounced over the lawn in his Subaru. In the back were two huge cylinders and a torch. He hooked it all up, sparked it ablaze and set to cutting the frozen nuts off with pure hissing acetylene, sparks popping and snapping over his head while I looked on stupidly trying not to look at the light. Five minutes later and the wheel was on the ground, the lug bolts banged out, and I was ready to go wheel and tire shopping.





I suppose, once the boat is back in the water, I could consider doing away with the concept of a trailer altogether, and do what this brilliant jet-ski owner has done.

YouTube Preview Image

5 responses so far

Jul 06 2012

Time for a boat operator’s license?

Published by under General,seamanship

Two weeks ago the local yacht club invited the harbormaster and fire department to speak to the sailing instructors about how to handle emergencies on the water. The assistant harbormaster — who has personally and justifiably pulled me over and chewed me out in the past for speeding across the harbor while running a race — made a great comment that started me thinking: “You go in, you pay your money, your check clears, and they hand you the keys and that’s it. No license, no training, no nothing … and you’re boating.”

YouTube Preview Image

What isn’t funny is the Fourth of July tragedy on Long Island that left three children dead after an overloaded boat (Silverton 34) swamped and sank in 20 feet of water. Obviously that accident has me thinking about a licensing system for boat operators.  I have no knowledge of the person who owned that boat and allowed more than 20 people to crowd onto it, but a system that permits that kind of negligence is one that sets people up to fail in the first place.  There are no regulations governing the passenger capacity of a boat that size, according to the New York Times (there are Coast Guard passenger limits in effect for smaller boats), but there are for commercial vessels such as ferries and launches.

I’m as libertarian as the next person and need another government issued license or registration like I need more taxes and bureaucrats, but the reality is that bad boaters not only put themselves and their passengers at risk, they can also wipe out an innocent swimmer or a rule-abiding mariner in an instant.  The old barriers to boating were considerable. Boats were wooden, expensive, and too heavy to easily trailer in and out of the water.  Today we have “PWCs” — personal watercraft — from jetskis to strange hybrid boats made by skimobile manufacturers. The waters are more crowded, the speeds and blood alcohol contents are both higher ……

If you consider the difficulty a commercial captain faces in getting a Coast Guard license — hours of classroom study, memorization of navigational light patterns, navigation, safety regulations — then why isn’t there anything in place for the average recreational boater?  I can’t go out and buy a Piper Cub and start flying it without a license. I can’t drive a car without one. Why should I be able to fire up a big powerboat, load it up with 30 people,and drive it around in the dark without someone giving me a simple test?

I hate legislators who want to make the wearing of lifejackets mandatory. Every so often some poor kayaker flips and drowns and a local state rep files a bill to make lifejackets a requirement. Yet I wear one because I don’t want to be that guy they find with his zipper down, drowned a mile off the beach because I went over the rail while relieving myself during a moonlight sail.  The majority of boaters abide by the rules, take courses from the Coast Guard auxiliary, and make sure their boats are equipped with the proper lights, flares, PFDs, and other safety equipment. But all it takes is one idiot and headlines are made.

I’ve been on boats that have gone wrong and seen how bad things can get. I laugh at the pictures of the boats stuck on jetties after their clueless owners run into them in the darkness, find YouTube videos of boat ramp bloopers as amusing as the next guy, but a lot of it could be avoided if states would start to extend their boating licensing laws to cover adults. Most have a requirement that underage operators complete a boating safety course and get a safety certificate. But in New York, page 39 of the Safe Boating manual states:

“Adults 18 years of age and older may operate a mechanically
propelled vessel without an approved boating safety certificate.”

I think it’s time to license adult operators as well.

4 responses so far

May 10 2012

Yo ho ho and a bottle of ….iPad

Published by under General,seamanship

I once “taught” myself celestial navigation. I borrowed a sextant, studied the excellent and concise six-page how-to penned by the late William F. Buckley in his account of a trans-Atlantic passage, Airborne, and took it all aboard an aging 60-foot plywood catamaran I was silly enough to agree to skipper from Falmouth to Florida in the fall of 1980. What most navigators spend years learning I tried to master over the course of a weekend and on Loop Beach in Cotuit.

The crew on that voyage were all recruited from a classified ad in the Boston Globe and had no idea what was going on at any time, a situation which meant I had to pretty much steer and sail and navigate by myself bewcause the boat insisted on sailing WAY too fast for any one to be trusted on the wheel.

Somewhere south of Long Island, around the shipping lanes into New York City, I broke out the sextant, braced myself in the rigging, and took a noon shot to establish our position. This was 1980, way before Global Positioning Satellites. Oher than LORAN (which the evil catamaran lacked) or the notoriously flaky radio directional finder, there was no other way to accurately fix one’s position other than measuring the angle between the sun and the horizon the way Columbus and the Portugese did in the 14th century.

I took my shots — feeling all Melville and shit — gathered my numbers, and went down below to the nav station to work out the math. I got my cartesian solution, looked at the chart, and discovered my first attempt at navigation placed us somewhere in the vicinity of Troy, New York, about twenty miles north of Albany. Since the entire crew was watching — everyone more than a little terrified since we were way out of the sight of land and careening off of the top of immense winter Atlantic waves in a plywood boat creaking and groaning like a gut-shot moose — I realized that putting the point of the pencil down on Troy, New York was a very bad morale move. So I reached for my big plastic right triangle and pretend-extended the line southeast about 400 miles to a fictitious spot I figured was roughly in line with where we might be. With great conviction I made a little X, wrote down the data and time, and declared this was the spot.

An hour later I saw an outbound tanker on the horizon. I told the crew I was going to get a position check over the radio as that was standard maritime practice. I hailed the unknown boat by saying something relatively retarded as “Tanker heading east, Tanker heading east. This is the sailing vessel SinkaLot looking for a position check.”

The anonymous mariner on the bridge of that tanker responded and had a little fun with me.

“Where do you think you are Cap?” he asked over the VHF.

“Uh, about fifty miles south by southeast of Montauk Point Cap.” I replied.

“What’s your last fix Cap?” he asked. I thought I was the one asking the questions. But no, this Mass Maritime grad was going to have his amusement with the yachtsman in the silly sailboat.

All was well a day later when we sighted the beaches of Delaware and were able to grope our way into Chesapeake Bay. Two weeks later and I abandoned ship in Brunswick, Georgia, thoroughly cured of any desire to sail big cruising catamarans in the Atlantic in the late fall. I also sold my first magazine article because of that trip, receiving a massive $100 from Multihulls magazine for my trouble.

As I get ready to launch my sloop tomorrow, I’ve been elbow deep in everything from marine diesel water pump impellers to six coats of Epifanes varnish. The boat is 27 years old and has no navigational instruments to speak of. For the past two seasons I’ve owned the boat I’ve used the Navionics Android app on my smartphone to get the occasional fix on my position, using the phone’s GPS to zero in on whatever spot I happen to be sailing through on Nantucket Sound. But what I want is a big fancy chart plotter mounted on the binnacle. A nice electronic chart to steer my tall ship by.

Those things cost at least $1,000 and would be comparable to installing a $2000 stereo in a $50 car. In the grand scheme of things to throw money at aboard that hole in the water known as a boat, a fancy GPS chart plotter is low on the list. So, I have embarked on a mission to ruin my two-year old iPad in the service of DIY modern navigation.

Other than Navionics, who publishes excellent digital versions of the official NOAA charts for my Android (and the iPad) I am very fond of the iNavX app and have been busy plotting all sorts of waypoints and courses around my home waters …. from my armchair. The iPad has a faux GPS and internal compass, but to really enable it as a navigational aid I need to drop $100 on a little GPS dongle that plugs into the charging port. There’s the BadElf device, which looks perfect once I figure out whether or not my antique iPad is indeed a “66-channel, SBAS/WAAS, 10Hz” model.

Assuming that the GPS dongle will make the iPad plot my position, the next issue is how to protect it from the elements. I won’t ever submerge the tablet (unless I sink), but it will get splashed and rained on and saltwater is cancerous when it comes to anything electronic. I was conned out of my money by a clueless clerk at Radio Shack who sold me an Otterbox case — which I discovered won’t work with the original iPad and has since been bequeathed to my son who sports an iPad II. It looks like I’ll have to go with a plastic bag sort of solution (some online yachting and marine electronics forums say a big Zip-Loc is up to the task).

Once water-protected I have to mount the iPad to the stainless steel guard rail on the binnacle — the stanchion that supports the boat’s wheel, engine control and compass. That should be simple enough, as long as I stay away from the binnacle’s manufacturer — Edson of New Bedford — who is hideously overpriced and does its level best to uphold the nautical adage of ripping up twenties while taking a shower.

I’ve used RAM mounts in the past on the motorboat, so will probably go in that direction despite their proclivity to corrode and peel psoriasis-like over time.

I’m banking that this set up will get me fully chart-plotter capable for under $200. The advantages will be the relatively long battery life of the iPad versus the two-hour lifespan on my HTC Evo phone. The screen is big, but, as any beach reader knows, iPads are useless in sunlight. That means seeking out a glare screen — some matte finish film that will give me a hope of seeing the screen in bright light. I am concerned, on the flip side, of night brightness, as other sailors who have kludged together an iPad nav solution say the lack of a brightness control means they trash their night vision. The map software from iNavX does have a “red light” mode for night use, so I think I’ll be okay, indeed, given that 95% of my sailing is done within the sight of land, the only real need for the plotter other than amusement is for night sailing and in fog (no, I do not own a radar).

The entire effect of smartphones and iPads on the electronics industry is well understood by anyone who owns one. They manage to consolidate lots of dedicated devices into one handy package and in doing so completely kill the market for stuff like digital pocket cameras, music players, and dashboard navigation systems. These multifunction swiss army knives eat into any application they touch, hence I am amused when I read the discussion forums on the marine electronics sites and listen to the proud owners of $10,000 NMEA capable Raytheon or Datamarine navigation systems diss the iPad as a failed solution no one should consider.

They may not be advised to contemplate the solution, but the reality is they will, so I predict the market for dedicated marine electronics is going to rapidly erode over the next few years as Apple and the Android tablet makers address the daylight-screen issue and waterproof-ruggedness. I have my eye on the Panasonic Toughbook Android tablet, but the alleged price on the soon-to-be-introduced  device looks like more than $1000 which makes that a failure.

Once I figure out the iPad issue the next step is to install a WIFI station on the boat and look into integrating the depth, apparent wind, and knotmeters into the iPad display. I’m also fascinated by the AIS technology, which basically is a transponder system that overlays information about AIS equipped vessels onto the iNavX charts. Think of it as radar without the radar, giving me everything from vessel name and size, to distance, speed and bearing.

Oh, and I am still determined to get better at classic sextant based navigation as there is no doubt in my mind that when I need the electronics the most, they are sure to fail. And, when escaping the zombie apocalypse, one has to assume the GPS system will eventually fail and those with the knowledge of the ancients will survive.


7 responses so far

Mar 18 2012

Boating begins

Published by under Cotuit,seamanship

I launched on a super low tide and before I could return to the boat after parking the trailer my son had the motor running without any issues. So off we bounced across the deserted harbor, spooking flocks of sea ducks before us, for a 5-minute eye watering spin through the inner harbor. Clams are in my future.

Flickr Video

2 responses so far

Mar 12 2012

Boating begins

Published by under seamanship

Yesterday I pulled the tarp off the Tashmoo, charged up the battery, and started making lists of part numbers and necessities so I could launch and get on the water as soon as possible.  This in turned forced me to turn on the outside faucets so I could use some hull cleaner to chew off the harbor slime from last season, and within an hour I was in a car on my way to West Marine in Hyannis on a fool’s errand for fuel and oil filters they never have in stock. Still, I managed to part with $60 in painting supplies, and estimate I’ll be back in the store at least ten more times until the end of the 2012 boating season in early December. The big sailboat looms on its stands, begging for 20 hours of my time (at least), the Cotuit Skiff in the garage is going to need painting and launching (10 to 15 hours), my rowing shell needs to be spruced up and moved to the shore rack as soon as my arm heals up, the dinghy needs some fiberglas work done to the skeg where dragging it over the sand has worn it down … my ditty bag needs to be sorted out, launch service renewed, registrations, Coast Guard documentation, FCC mobile radio license, beach parking stickers ….

It never ends. But still I love it.

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Nov 18 2011

The Wreck on Horseshoe Shoal

Ten years ago, on a perfectly windless day when the water of Nantucket Sound was flat and mirror smooth, I ventured a few miles offshore from Cotuit to Horseshoe Shoals — a long curving sandbar that can be a great place to catch bluefish throughout the summer months. I had my son and daughter with me and after we caught a nice 12 lb. blue for dinner, I shut off the engine and enjoyed the strange experience of floating calmly over the shoal without the usual three to four feet of surf and chaos that usually cover the two-mile long crescent of glacial sand and pebbles during a brisk southwesterly breeze and a flood tide.  The Horseshoe is a fascinating place. Remnants of an ancient forest have been discovered out there. The controversial Wind Farm is proposed for the general vicinity (which I support). And, navigationally, it’s interesting because it is the location of both the shallowest water in Nantucket Sound and the deepest — the two extremes only less than half-a-mile apart — an indication of the massive hydrodynamics of the east-west current flows and infamous shoals that have long made the Sound a bad place for shipping.

I stood on the bow of the skiff, fly fishing, casting in hopes of tempting a spanish mackerel or bonito, but nothing was biting. The current would sweep us across the shallow, the bottom rising pale green, then yellow up from the depths until the boat passed over the shoal itself, the bottom just a few feet below us.

I gave up the fly rod and just watched the bottom, at one point, as we crossed over a new section, I swore I saw a pipe or something man made sticking up from the sand. I turned on the engine, circled back and took another look. Gradually, as I opened up my field of vision, the perfect outline of a boat revealed itself… just the outline, no hull, as if someone had drawn the concept of a boat on the bottom.

It was a wreck. The first I had ever seen in the Sound.

But which wreck? What had happened out there and when? Had people died? Was it fifty years old, 100? It was both creepy and thrilling in a macabre way. It was definitely something to avoid as there were some portions of the superstructure that seemed to be close to the surface.

Once ashore I started researching the wreck lists for the area and found nothing. There had been a light ship at Cross Rip (a nearby shoal) in 1918, but that vanished during a winter blizzard, carried off station by ice and never found with all hands lost. Since that ship, the LV-6, was last seen adrift at the eastern end of Nantucket Sound, 15 miles away, I ruled it out.   I recalled old navigational charts of the Sound showing an icon for a half-submerged wreck south of the Horseshoe, yet I never saw any such boat out there as a kid.

Here’s a 1968 Coast Guard chart of the area.

And specifically, here’s a zoomed-in look at the spot where I saw the hulk that day ten years ago.


Once ashore, I started telling people about the wreck, asking if anyone knew what it was or if they had ever seen it.  “Ask Leonard Peck,” someone said. He’d been around for a long time and was one of the saltier people in Cotuit, but Leonard passed away before I could ask. Other old timers shrugged and said they didn’t have a clue. So I gave up but talked about it with my fishing and sailing friends, looking for some information about the hulk I had glimpsed lurking out there.

Then, this morning, in the Barnstable Patriot, the local weekly newspaper, the “Early Files” section that excerpts news from past editions of the paper had this entry under 1971:

“Three hundred pounds of explosives demolished the submerged Navy patrol boat off Horseshoe Shoals last Thursday after several weeks of delay caused by weather and tides. The Ad Lib II struck the wreck last month, resulting in the deaths of Dr. James L. Chute of Osterville and Harland L. Matthews of Cotuit. The explosion removed all the wreck’s superstructure and part of the submerged hull. Coast Guard expects the wreck buoy will remain at its present location.”

Mystery solved. Sort of.  A little knowledge makes one thirsty for more.

First I went looking for any information about the tragedy that occurred in the fall of 1971 when the Ad Lib II struck the wreck. I found this lawsuit filed by descendants of  the two dead local men against the Federal Government. Made sense since Horseshoe Shoe is outside of the state’s three mile territorial limit and officially in federal waters. Second, it was a US Navy ship. But why was it there? How had it come to be wrecked? What kind of ship was it?

The lawsuit, Chute v. The United State of America, dated February 17, 1979 has the details:

“…plaintiffs have brought this action to recover for the deaths of their respective fathers as a result of the sinking of the boat AD LIB II on September 30, 1971 in Nantucket Sound. Both decedents had been guests on the AD LIB II, which was owned and operated by Dr. Robert L. Baxter, a friend. Plaintiffs allege the AD LIB II sunk when it struck a submerged wreck on Horseshoe Shoals in Nantucket Sound, approximately seven to eight miles south-southwest of Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The plaintiffs contend that the wreck was improperly marked by the defendant, the United States. The wreck consists of a Navy ship, PC1203, which had been deliberately grounded on Horseshoe Shoals in 1949 for use as a bombing target.”

The law suit tells the story of how the Ad Lib II sank:

Between 7:00 a. m. and 8:00 a. m. on September 30, 1971, Dr. Robert L. Baxter (aged 69); his wife; John Ohrn (aged 34); and the decedents, Dr. James L. Chute (aged 75) and Harlan L. Matthews (aged 77), departed from Lewis Bay on the AD LIB II and proceeded to Nantucket Sound to fish. The AD LIB II had a length of 24 feet, a width of approximately 10 feet, a mean draft of 3 feet, and a fiberglass hull. Dr. Baxter was an experienced mariner in the Nantucket Sound area, having fished in the area for some 40 years. He had also taught local courses in navigation and therefore knew that a wreck buoy is not placed on top of a wreck.

At approximately noon, the boating party decided to head toward home. The weather was “hazy; not foggy.” Tr. Vol. 1 at 4 (Dec. 17, 1976). The vessel was in the vicinity of Horseshoe Shoals somewhat south of the location of the wreck. Dr. Baxter was at the helm and headed the vessel in a north-northeast course on a heading of 30° magnetic at a speed of 14 knots. At this speed the boat was semi-planing. Dr. Baxter observed the tower on the hill at Hyannis Port and decided that his course would take him back to Hyannis. Shortly after choosing his course, Dr. Baxter expressed surprise at the shallow depth of the water. Moments later, a sound was heard indicating the vessel had struck something. One of the party went below to check the hull and discovered a break in the fiberglass skin on the starboard side which was then stuffed with rags.
No one on the AD LIB II saw precisely what the boat struck. The plaintiffs claim the boat hit the wreck of the PC1203 which could not be seen since it was under the water. The defendant contends that the AD LIB II did not hit the wreck, but hit Horseshoe Shoals themselves. After careful consideration of all the evidence presented at trial, the court finds that the AD LIB II sunk as a result of hitting the wreck, and not the shoals.” 

According to the lawsuit, a few days immediately following the Ad Lib II tragedy, Chester Crosby, chairman of the Town of Barnstable Waterways Commission (and owner of the Crosby Boat Yard in Osterville) asked the Coast Guard to mark the wreck.

“The plaintiffs had sought to introduce two letters of correspondence between Chester Crosby and Lieutenant Commander Ransom K. Boyce, then the Assistant Chief, Aids to Navigation Branch of the U. S. First Coast Guard District. Crosby was Chairman of the Waterways Committee, an advisory committee to the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Barnstable, Massachusetts, with regard to problems around the harbors and waterways. Writing to the Coast Guard in his capacity as Chairman, under date of October 4, 1971, Crosby expressed concern as to the adequacy of the marking of the wreck of the PC1203. As will be discussed in this court’s Findings of Fact, the buoy set up to mark the PC1203 was not placed directly on the wreck, but at some distance from it. The letter from Crosby, Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 15, refers to a previous request to have the Coast Guard attach a day beacon to the wreck and the fact that that request had been refused. It further acknowledges the problem of placing buoys close to submerged wrecks, but suggests that “since the United States Navy placed the wreck on the shoal, couldn’t an eventual solution be to have them dynamite the remains [of the wreck] during the late fall after the fishing season and remove the debris.” Boyce’s response, dated October 13, 1971, Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 16, states that the Coast Guard had decided “to blow up the remains of the wreck and wire drag the area to the depth of five feet below the reference plane,” and concludes that “[i]t is felt that this is a satisfactory solution to the problem.””

There are no online archives of the Cape Cod Standard Times or the Barnstable Patriot available for 1971 — so I need to get in the car and drive to the Sturgis Libraryif I want to read the contemporary accounts of the wreck of the Ad Lib II.

As for the PC1203 — she was a 175-foot patrol boat with a crew of 59 men, of the PC463 class, built in 1943 by the Consolidated Shipbuilding Corporation of Morris Heights, New York. I have no information where she was assigned or if she ever saw action. Apparently the 1203 was decommissioned, towed out to the middle of the Sound, and scuttled on a sandbar to serve as a target for pilots flying out of Otis Air Force base. The Cape and Island were very active with military training activities during and after World War II, with landing craft operations practiced out of Cape Candoit in Cotuit’s North Bay and Mashpee’s Popponnesset and Waquoit Bays.  Another famous target practice ship, the Longstreet, was a Cape Cod Bay landmark for years off of Wellfleet off of the shore of the Cape’s northside, and Noman’s Land, the island south of Martha’s Vineyard, was pummeled for years by strafing fighters and practicing bombers.

According to the lawsuit:

“…little, if any, of the remains of the PC1203 wreck was above the water’s surface except at low tide when small portions of the vessel broke the water’s surface. The depth of the water in the vicinity of the wreck varies according to the tides from approximately 2 feet to 4.8 feet. From 1949 to 1961, the area where the PC1203 was grounded was designated as a danger area. In 1961, the danger designation of the area was removed. During this period, the PC1203’s location was unmarked except for a pipe affixed to it by persons unknown. This pipe, however, was destroyed during a hurricane in the mid-1950’s.

In July, 1963, as a result of requests from local maritime interests, a can buoy with a visual range of one and a quarter miles was established 275 yards, 270° True (west) from the wreck. This buoy was black and red with a reflector, but had no light or gong. It was designed for a semiexposed area, having a water depth of 15 to 540 feet. The draft of the buoy was 6 feet 8 inches. The height of the buoy above water was 6 feet 10 inches. It had a 5000-pound sinker to moor it.”

Obviously for Mr. Chute and Mr. Matthews, that wasn’t enough to prevent their deaths by drowning after the Ad Lib II succumbed to the gash in her hull and sank.

I can only imagine the chaos out there that foggy afternoon as the water gushed through the rip in the Fiberglas hull. Despite an experienced skipper, life jackets, and relatively warm water. Two men died.

From the law suit:

After the AD LIB II struck the wreck, the decision was made to “try to make it” back to shore. However, the boat was taking on a lot of water and subsequently Dr. Baxter turned the AD LIB II toward the shoal, hoping to be in shallow waters. While in the turn, however, the boat sank and the parties were forced into the water.

To stay afloat, all persons put on life jackets. Additionally, Dr. Baxter had constructed an ice chest which was capable of floating. A rope was tied to the ice chest and then to each of the passengers except Mr. Ohrn who decided to try to swim to the wreck buoy, some two to three hundred yards away from where the AD LIB II sank. Dr. Baxter was closest to the ice chest; Mrs. Baxter was next; Mr. Matthews next to her; and then Dr. Chute. Some time later, Mr. Matthews swallowed some water and regurgitated, and shortly thereafter the others heard him “snoring.” Dr. Chute checked Mr. Matthews’ pulse and found he had none. The cause of death subsequently stated on the death certificate was drowning.
At approximately 4:30 p. m., after drifting for some four hours, the group, including Mr. Matthews, was picked up by the C/C JOHNNY B IV. The owner of that boat called the Coast Guard which dispatched its own boat, the POINT TURNER, and a helicopter. The group was then taken aboard the Coast Guard vessel. Dr. Chute was considered injured and the helicopter was to airlift him to a hospital. However, Dr. Chute was reluctant to go and the captain of the POINT TURNER did not force him to go. Dr. Chute was taken ashore by the POINT TURNER where he was met by an ambulance which drove him to Falmouth Hospital. He died the next morning at the hospital—cause of death, according to the death certificate, being “coronary insufficiency following immersion and exhaustion after boat accident at sea.””

In the end, the court ruled for the plaintiff, and found the government liable for not adequately marking the wreck with a buoy, light, rip-rap or structure directly on the wreck itself.

I can’t find much about Harlan Matthews, the Cotuit man who drowned. His daughter Helen Dottridge,  one of the plaintiffs in the 1978 lawsuit, passed away in 2007 at 86,and was a well known figure in the village historical society and Federated Church: the Dottridges being one of Cotuit’s oldest families. The owner and skipper of the Ad Lib II, Dr. Robert L. Baxter, was a former commodore of the Hyannis Yacht Club and navigation instructor.

If you pick the right day and tide and have a good pair of polarized sunglasses, the remnants of the wreck of the PC1203 are still out there, perfectly outlined in the rocky sands of Horseshoe Shoal.  The modern edition of the chart may not show the half-exposed icon any longer, but some versions do show the simple word “pipe.”





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Aug 29 2011

The Day of Nailbiting: Irene Blows Through

John Steinbeck opens his memoir, Travels With Charley with an account of rescuing his 22-foot motorboat from Hurricane Donna in 1960. I remember reading that story before ever experiencing a hurricane myself, and I was impressed by Steinbeck’s willingness to risk his life for his beloved boat, wading into the waters of a harbor on Long Island Sound to free her from the clutches of some other boats and then power her up and steam safely to a safer anchorage. Since then I’ve repeatedly suffered the peculiar paternal anxiety of a boat owner confronted with the possibility of losing a boat, especially during those terrible storms where there just isn’t enough time to pull it safely from the water. When that happens it’s just wait and watch.

I own a 26-year old 33-foot Endeavour sloop — the Bald Eagle Too — a gift from some good friends who were going to consign her to a charity auction after her last owner passed away (I’ve retained her name out of the superstition that a renamed boat is bad luck). The boat is a total joy — who can argue with a gift? — and it has become the center of summer life for me and my family these past three years.  The first  twinges of boat anxiety began to build when Irene started to threaten early last week. I phoned the local boatyard on other business — to organize the pullout of the yacht club’s motorboats — and the owner answered his cell phone with an abrupt: “If this is about your big boat, tough titty…..” I never expect to be on anyone’s priority list for boat hauling as I maintain the boat myself to save money. Big spenders get pulled first so they can continue to spend.

On Friday my son and I stripped off the sails, took down the dodger and spent an hour attending to the mooring lines, insuring the chafing gear was in the bow chocks and running a third backup line from around the mast, down the bow roller for the anchor line and then down to the splice in a bowline where the mooring pennant met the chain in a blob of sea squirts and barnacles. Somewhere down there in the black muck was a fairly new 500-pound mushroom anchor. Hefty, but still, past hurricanes have ripped moorings that size out of the mud before. When we finished pumping the bilges dry, switched off the electrical system, and made one last paranoid check we motored up the harbor to check out a hurricane mooring I was given last year during the threat of Hurricane Earl. Alas, it had a little swim float tethered to it — 2,000 pounds of serious yacht insurance for a little wooden float — but hey, not my mooring, not my place to bitch and moan, and the Bald Eagle was just going to have to tough it out on her own.

All around us, out on the edge of the mooring field, the other owners of the big sailboats were making the same preparations we had. You can instantly gauge the saltiness of a boat owner from how thoroughly they approach their storm preparations. My good friend the Judge, who has been through hurricanes dating back to the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, was doing the same thing I was — get all the canvas off the spars and spend a lot of time on the mooring pennants and chafing gear. Less experienced owners were leaving their roller reefed jibs on — a fatal mistake as the gusts will pick them open until the boat is literally sailing unattended at the mooring, wildly tacking back and forth until the mushroom is dislodged.

The danger in a mooring field isn’t necessarily what happens to one’s own boat, it’s what the 0ther boats that break free will do to you. In fact, late during yesterday’s storm a very new and hot looking racing sloop just to windward of me broke free late in the storm — probably due to the lines rubbing through, and blew down wind, just missing me but hanging up stern to bow on a small sloop that had stoutly made it through the worst of the blow, only to get dragged off by the combined weight of its own hull and the runaway. If I were the owner of the second boat I would be irate this morning, as he’s totally high and dry on the northern beach next to the boat that took him out.

I first went down to the water at 6 am on Saturday, just when the first storm bands were blowing in, and things looked fine. A party barge had broken free, but otherwise it was a good eight hours before the peak gusts were scheduled to arrive around 2 pm. I took the family out to breakfast at a seaside restaurant, but the windows were moaning so loudly in the gusts we lost our appetites. We returned home and for me, the worst was just starting.

The helplessness one feels during a storm is overwhelming.  You stand at the shore, pick a good angle to view the boat, and with every hard gust that blows the tops of the waves into the air, every blast of green water that goes over the bow, the boat hobby-horsing on its tether at a 45 degree angle up and down into the air and troughs ….. Yes, I could have spent the storm out on the boat. The thought occurred to me. One tactic is to keep the diesel running and then feather the throttle during the gusts to relieve some of the tons of pressure from the mooring. But, as I learned in my younger days as a surfcaster when a wave nearly flooded my waders and drowned me while I was fighting a striper –no fish, and no boat, is worth drowning for.

The crowd at the foot of Old Shore Road was mostly gawking at a motorboat thrown into the middle of the street and the occasional sailboat dragging down onto the sands. A gorgeous Tartan sloop from Annapolis came in right at my feet, the mooring float still tied to the cleat on the deck, the boat a victim of bad chafing gear. The fact the sails were still on the spars and a big inflatable dinghy was still hanging from the stern davits was an indication the owner hadn’t prepared for the worst, yet I heard him on his cell phone being very angry with the boat yard that rented him the mooring.

I’d watch for an hour then walk back up the hill to the house for a drink of water, some food, and a few minutes of pacing around telling myself que sera, sera — no need to go back down, what will happen will happen and there isn’t a thing you can do about it. That blithe rationalization lasted about a half hour until I pulled the orange Grunden back on and made my way down the shore road, nervously watching the tree limbs over my head, convinced I would get crushed by a falling maple branch on the next puff.

At noon the police arrived and kicked everyone off of the landing, putting up crime scene tape at the top of the hill to keep gawkers from driving down. High tide followed 30 minutes later at 12:30 — the storm surge coinciding with the new moon extreme tide — and Old Shore Road flooded, carrying a sportsfisherman right onto the road and blocking it closed. A big cruising catamaran, the Split Ticket, dragged ashore — the wind catching under the cabin sole between the two hulls and just muscling it slowly down the harbor into the beach grass. Blocked by the police from the beach and losing my mind at the house, I called a friend who lives on the water and has a view of my boat to see if I could come pace and fret on his lawn.

“I’ve got bad news,” he said. “She’s gone.”

That sucked. She had broken loose. “Do you see her on the beach?” I asked.

“I don’t see it. It might be up in Inner Harbor near the Oyster Company.”

As soon as I dropped the F-bomb my wife and son knew the worst had happened. We piled into the car and starting driving to the section of the bay where she would likely come ashore. As I turned the car past the cemetery the phone rang again.

“Never mind. I see her now. I guess I couldn’t get a good angle from my kitchen.”

I said another bad word. This was like the punchline of a bad doctor joke. “I’ve got good news and bad news ….”

We drove to his house and with a beaming smile (Har, har, April Fool’s!) he handed me a set of binoculars. The Bald Eagle was still out there, getting pounded as hard as I’ve ever seen any boat get hit at anchor. I handed the binocs to my wife. She stared for a few seconds, handed them back, and turned away.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that,” she said.

I snuck back down to the landing and remained there all afternoon. Pacing. Staring. Wincing. You could tell who the boat owners were. We all stood silently, arms crossed, staring. The gawkers and spectators were snapping pictures of the boats canted over the road, laughing, socializing, caught up in hurricane fever; but we owners were together but lost in our thoughts.

The Bald Eagle late on Sunday afternoon

Then more bad news as the gusts started to hit even harder. The Polaris, a gorgeous blue ketch, perhaps one of the prettiest boats in the harbor, was ashore just north of Lowell Point. I felt for the owner and his sons as they slogged through the surf and eel grass towards the spot just out of sight where she was rolling in the shallows. Then the C-Team, a grey sloop went on the beach at Handy’s Point. A sportsfisherman went into the trees under the bluff. The Lowell’s finger pier vanished in a tangle of planks. As I stood and spectated I felt a sharp twinge in my neck, and for the rest of the day couldn’t turn my head without wincing. I dug my finger into the spot — the kind of pain one gets from sleeping wrong — but nothing would make it go away.

My boat continued to plunge. And plunge. And careen under the impact of the williwaws and gusts. The hull heeled at a crazy angle under the force of the wind. At one point I thought I heard a jet engine out over the harbor — perhaps a stormhunter or Coast Guard Falcon jet from Otis Air Force Base? No, it was the sound of the wind honking through the spars and rigging of the 30 boats in the bay, an eerie mechanical, unnatural wail. I started to lose it. Just make it stop now. Throw a switch. Enough is enough. The boat had been riding hard for eight hours. I visualized the mooring lines where they came through the bow chocks and ran back to the cleats: a cartoon image of frayed dacron line, down to one Coyote-and-Roadrunner thread, waiting to snap with a little “plink” …..

I walked through the flotsam and wrack to Lowell’s Point to see if I could help with the Polaris. The owner and his sons were wading big anchors out into the surf and then using the jib winches to kedge the stern off of the beach. Coming ashore at half-tide was a good thing if they could keep her from being pushed any higher up on the sands. The next high tide might float her enough to be tugged free; otherwise, as in Hurricane Bob, a big Sikorsky SkyCrane helicopter with slings might be needed to get her off.

The Polaris ashore

And so it went through the late afternoon. At 7 pm I made my last trek down to the harbor. The wind had veered to the southwest, sustained at 40 knots with an occasional gust up to 60. They had said Irene was not so much a high impact storm as a big, long duration one and they were right. It blew for 12 solid hours. The longer it blew the more chafing I had to fret about, and as boats continued to break free and drift down on her right up until darkness there was no celebration on my part that the worst had passed. Coming home for the last time before nightfall I saw the boat’s mooring ball on the deck. A friend had found it on the beach. Ironic the float made it ashore while the boat didn’t.

I must have knocked on wood a dozen times yesterday, looking for a tree every time I said, “She’s still out there.”

By the twilight's last gleaming ....

At ten I went to bed, mentally exhausted. My wife and son were both exhausted and enervated by the long day of worry and helplessness. We all crashed.

….At so, at six today I woke to bluebird skies and the ringing of the first chainsaws. I pulled on fresh pair of shorts and walked down the lane, stepping over the downed limbs and pushing through piles of green leaves. More boats had come ashore during the night. One had a white hull with a blue stripe …. was it my boat? I thought for a moment my luck had run out.

In the blazing twinkling sun, too bright to see through with sun glasses and a hand visor, I looked out to that space in the harbor where she should have been and with immense relieve saw her hull, placid and bobbing safely on her mooring. She made it. I could safely celebrate without knocking on wood.

And the pain in my neck is completely gone.

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Aug 10 2011

How to sink and be saved

Published by under seamanship

Mark Cahill posted this on his blog this morning. Having gone through the same experience himself I can only imagine how he felt watching this. Moral of the story … there are many. But first and foremost is how fortunate these guys were that their handheld VHF radio popped to the surface after their boat sank.  While I’m generally not a lifejacket guy, I am seriously considering a set of survival suspenders after nearly buying the farm on Sunday jumping from my sloop to my motorboat in a big swell during the squalls. I came this close to doing the big swim.

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Aug 06 2011

Insanity sailing

Published by under seamanship,WTF?

A buddy at a cocktail party told me he wanted to buy an “International Moth” but thought he wasn’t up to the physical challenge. “What’s a Moth?” asked I? I fired up the smartphone and searched this out on YouTube. Now I want one.

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We got on the subject of weird hydrofoils because another friend raffled off a ride on his Rave Windrider. This I need to try.

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Leave it to the French to build the fastest sailboat in the world, the Hydroptere

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May 09 2011

Goodbye Old Paint

In 1999, flush with a bonus (those were the days, when IPOs were in everyone’s future and even had a shot at millions) I bought a brand new 40 horsepower, four-stroke Honda outboard engine. This was a good purchase, one of the best I’ve made, living up to all the pre-purchase expectations of owning a precision piece of machinery that was dependable, clean, and ran with the elan of a sewing machine.

It replaced a POS Johnson outboard, purchased when the skiff was new in the thinking that if Johnson was good enough for my grandfather, it was good enough for me. Alas, American manufacturing had already shit the bed as far as two-stroke outboards were concerned and the Japanese in the form of Honda and Yamaha were kicking their ass. I went on a poisonous-letter writing campaign, demanding satisfaction from OMC, the parent of Johnson, but alas, they weren’t going to replace it, so I showed them and spent $5,000 of ill-gotten riches on the Honda.

I babied it. I learned how to change its oil, the filters, the spark plugs. It never let me down, carrying me south of Martha’s Vineyard and all over Nantucket Sound in search of squid, stripers, bluefish and fluke.

Last year, Andy at The Boat Guy, my trusty mechanic, told me I had better start thinking of a new one. “This one doesn’t owe you anything, ” he said, but I squeezed one more season out of it, becoming, by October, the only person on the planet who knew the exact combination of throttle, choke, and cranking to get it start. The time had come.

But, hope springs eternal in the spring, and this March I was in the driveway changing plugs and filters and to my surprise, the old trusty silver engine turned over and bubbled away happily with a garden hose connected to the water inlets. I re-registered the old trailer, painted the bottom a spiffy new coat of copper antifouling paint with a jaunty red boottop — and launched on a bright spring day.

As I motored out to the mooring, happy to be afloat in April, I decided to run up the RPMs and give it a little shakedown cruise. Everything was copacetic until the warning horn went off.


Limping back to the launch ramp I popped off the lid and was met with a cloud of steam and a blast of heat. Something was very wrong.

So back on the trailer she went, and off to The Boat Guy with feelings of profound pessimism.

Andy called late last week. “She’s toast Cap’n,” he said. “But don’t despair, another customer is selling his old 40 hp for $2,500 if he can clear the financing for a new one.”

So it goes, tearing up dollar bills while standing in the shower. But the squid are out there, the bluefish and stripers have arrived, and I am itchy to get waterborne as soon as possible.


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Feb 04 2011

The Electric Eldridge – Currents, an Android App for sailors

I’ve blogged in the past about maritime Android apps I find useful on my HTC EVO. I can definitely see a future where a marine-version of an Android Honeycomb tablet is fixed to the binnacle of my sloop and offers me a multi-function nav device for GPS enabled chart plotting and a wealth of navigation data from tide tables to an anchor-drag alert. A new app will definitely be on that device.

Vernon Grabel, who founded (my ISP) and is a personal baseball/sailing friend, has released a free app into the Android Marketplace called Currents. The premise is drop-dead simple but very convenient as it acknowledges that for most sailors the most important tidal information is not necessarily the time of high and low tide at a specific point, but the velocity and direction of the current caused by the ebb and flood of the tide.  A boat’s track from point A to point B is affected by “set” — the lateral movement of the hull due to leeward drift (which is why sailboats have keels or centerboards) and general current direction. which can accelerate speed if coming from astern, slow down if coming head on, or push the boat downwind or upwind.  Currents in constricted areas, such as canals, guts, and harbor entrances, can mean the difference between successfully transiting an area or meeting with disaster.

For more than a century, Cape Cod mariners have relied on the familiar yellow covered annual edition of the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book to determine the current’s velocity and direction for any given point and time. The process of calculating current based on the time of the tide in the major observation points listed by Eldridge and then off-setting that time for the specific spot being transited (e.g. if one is entering Cotuit Bay, one needs to find the time of the tide in Boston and add one hour and seven seconds for high tide, and subtract 45 minutes for low) … it’s time consuming, a serious pain in the ass under sail, and a distraction as one pops below for the book, brings it up to the cockpit, and starts flipping pages back and forth.

Grabel nails the problem with Currents for not only New England but most of the coastal United States. By using the public data published by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration  (NOAA), mashing into Google Maps, and overlaying arrows of varying thickness and length and direction, Currents gives a perfect, zoomable, and accurate current and tide reading for the hundreds of coastal stations tracked by NOAA.

So, this may be the year I save $14,00 on yet another copy of Eldridge and rely on my phone for yet another essential piece of navigational information.  Currents is listed in the Google Marketplace under “currents” or “yoyana” or you can scan this:

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Nov 08 2010

Feats of Seamanship

Published by under seamanship

Uncle Fester found this clip on Boing Boing. It’s a sloop attempting to enter an inlet on a Danish island in the Baltic Sea under very adverse conditions.

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Sep 23 2010

Frisbee on the roof, halyard at the mast top

Published by under seamanship

The main halyard has needed replacing all season — the braided cover frayed and parted halfway up the line and was sliding and bunching up like a snake skin. I’d stand on deck and stare upwards, 52 feet up the aluminum pole and wonder how in hell I was going to re-reeve a new line without going up the mast. The smart thing would have been to temporarily splice a new one to the bitter end of the old one and haul it up through the mast-head sheave … but no, procrastination and a temporary fix tided me over until Tuesday afternoon.

I went for a solo sail in the afternoon, unreefed, full sail, charging out of the channel into the teeth of a boisterous 20 knot southwesterly. Just as I was about to kill the diesel and winch open the jib my phone rang.  A buddy sitting in the parking lot at Loop Beach had seen me steam by and was calling to express his admiration that some idiot would try to singlehand a 33-foot sloop by himself into a smoking Nantucket Sound afternoon. Ha-ha, I said, unconcerned about the single-handed part. Solo sailing isn’t hard. It comes down to using one’s foot to steady the wheel and being very efficient in one’s movements to the main and jibsheets.  It’s actually harder to hold down a small boat in a breeze with one’s weight than it is a 15,000 pound keel boat. One person or two doesn’t make a lot of difference.

I hung up the phone, sheeted everything down nice and tight, turned off the engine, and hung on for dear life as the wind indicator showed 25 knot gusts and started to push the boat around in the chop. Down below, in the cabin, crashes could be heard as the hull heeled and ditty bags, cups, 12 packs of soda, fog horns, boathooks, and other detritus started to fly around.

I enjoyed a very vigorous close-hauled reach out to Bell Eight, on the edge of Horseshoe Shoal where the wind farm is planned. Tacked around, and broad reached back like a comet to Cotuit, making the channel despite an extreme full-moon low tide, and sailing gracefully all the way into the bay without resorting to the engine. Handling the mooring alone is a challenge — my missing left big toe nail is a testament to running forward to snag the pennant and stubbing my toe on a big-ass jib car —  but I manage to get the splice onto the bow clear and run the skiff back to the transom without too much chaos.

The main sail was luffing like a thunderstorm so I got it down quickly, uncleating the main halyard, complete with the frayed off cover, and letting it slump to the deck. Silence. Big exhalation of relief. Safe and sound. I ducked down below to find the sail stops and the shit-stick (my homemade comorant deterrent device) and when I came back on deck I notice an awful lot of 3/16th’s wire cable on the cabin top. Hmm. That’s strange.

The wind had caught the halyard and blown it out into a big belly, sucking the rope part of the steel-rope halyard to the top of the mast. I looked up, mouth open like a gaping idiot. Total amateur move losing a halyard to the top of the mast. I should, of course, have cleated the bitter end to prevent such idiocy from occurring. In the old days the rule was you lose it, you climb and get it. That made perfect sense when I was 16 and my father was making up the rules. At my age there’s no consideration of such aerial ascents.

Pissed, I tugged the remaining halyard and let the whole affair fall to the deck. Now the boat has no main halyard, rendering it esseentially into a big motorboat unless I can find a replacement, buy a bosun’s chair, and con my skinny son into riding the chair aloft while I haul him up with the jib winches.  Taking it to a boat yard will yield a $1,000 bill. The other option — the safer one at least — is not to do anything, declare the sailing season over, and wait until the boat is hauled on October 15 and then make the replacement when the mast is unstepped and laying across a set of sawhorses. Decisions, decisions. This is a nice time of year to sail, would be a shame to throw in the towel now, but do I really want to go through the contortions?

Update: the ever helpful Uncle Fester sent along this video which made me want to vomit.

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