Let’s revisit some of those classic screw-ups

October, 2001

By Dodge Morgan
How about a column consisting of random thoughts? Hark, I hear some protests. “Why not?” Some shrugs (yes, one can hear a shrug. I once heard a bank VP’s nether orifice shrink). Some “What the hell?” And a few “Don’t waste my time and money.” To the latter chorus, I remind you that this publication is free. Well then, thanks for the forgiving nature in all the rest of you guys and gals.

It is Labor Day weekend, and I have been joyfully watching many jubilant sailors on the Gulf of Maine. The day broke in blustery rain, but cleared in an eye-blink to one of those gorgeous, clean northwest days that bring Maine sailors to their knees in thanks. I was sailing Wings of Time nowhere alone.

I was sailing my age. Which is a reach instead of a destination. Because it is known that a sailor should never sail higher on the wind in degrees than one’s age plus 10. When I was out of sight and nothing had gone wrong yet (“yet” is a Zen concept), I ruminated on some of the most memorable sailing mistakes I have gotten away with.

One delightful mistake, often repeated, was committed while sailing the old schooner Coaster to places from South America to the Society Islands in the South Pacific. I would anchor and row ashore to ask where I was. Not only was my chart inventory almost as light as Columbus’s, but my celestial skills suffered from dependence on the “noon fix” that requires precise time and I had no accurate timepiece or reliable radio to pick up the WWV or WWVH tick-tocks. As often as not, I still didn’t know where I was even after getting the name of the place from a native.

The time I fell overboard sailing American Promise in the Southern Indian Ocean ranks right up there. She had a ladder on the transom and I was leaning over on it to pop gooseneck barnacles proliferating under her counter, slipped and went in. I have not been able to again reproduce the exact tone of the “Oh shit!” I uttered watching the boat slip away, or the words of my short prayer when I realized I had remembered to attach my personal lifeline. The sea temperature was 40 degrees.

I was not asked back as a presenter in a Safety at Sea seminar for a whole year after this unwanted remark. A person in the audience asked me, of all people, why they attach whistles on PFDs. I answered that solo sailors replace the whistle with a harmonica. I also told one audience that all the seminar crap about EPIRBs and helicopter lift-offs and liferaft deployment and seasickness and hypothermia and flare firing should encourage all reasonable people to stay ashore by the fire.

I once had a short sail on Warren Luhrs’ Thursday’s Child and found myself unable to keep the water ballast on the weather side of the boat so sailed with a continuous 30-degree angle of heel. I once sailed the schooner Coaster for three days applying variation the wrong way to get my magnetic heading; this amounted to a mere 34-degree error. I sailed Coaster into an Oahu yacht basin slip without engine, came in a bit fast and watched the bobstay saw completely through the float ramp. Two of us were engaged in an extended amorous cockpit adventure well off shore in the little schooner Eagle. When finished, to a small round of applause, we found Eagle was settled in the mud inside Nantucket Harbor, having negotiated the channel and missed all the moored fleet on the way. Is it dyslexia that has made me wind a line the wrong way around a winch about one time in 20? I tied a trolling fish line around my big toe and damned near lost the digit when a fish hit.

This has been fun. Believe I will do a book of memorable sailing mistakes. Readers’ material welcome.

We also want to hear about your boating mistakes. Send a note to editor@pointseast.com or Editor, Points East, P.O. Box 17684, Portland, ME. 04101. Circumnavigator Dodge Morgan lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.