A close call and a story to tell

September, 2004

By Marjorie Perrin Mehler
For Points East

Marjorie Perrin Mehler and her husband, Ken, can smile about it now, but their encounter with a tanker was anything but funny.

Why do men take to the sea in boats? Or, more aptly phrased, why do men and their trusting wives take to the sea in sailboats? It’s not for the thrill of the hunt as in Captain Ahab’s day. And the pleasure – as in “pleasure boating” – is sometimes missing.

There is one pleasure though, however backhanded, that is gleaned from the boating experience. That is the telling and retelling of harried mishaps aboard, of the near-capsize, mayday escapades shared at the bar with other salt-encrusted sailors. With trembling hands, they lift the suds and remark, “Boy, that was a close one!”

The boat broker never told me of this perk; it comes only with experience.

Here’s our story. We lost the motor on Time Out, our Hunter 27, the last time out last season. My husband Ken and I had dropped the sails and were under power toward our mooring off Peaks Island, Maine, when a horrific, screeching sound and glaring red warning light came on to announce the Yanmar engine would shortly explode or at least overheat.

Ken, being the prudent sailor and lousy mechanic he is, shut the engine down. We raised the sails and tacked toward the mooring.

That presented a dilemma, because Time Out was scheduled to be hauled for the season the following day, and Spring Point Marina, land of mechanics and winter home for Time Out , was a 4-mile jump across Casco Bay at the mouth of Portland Harbor.

We had planned to motor over in the morning. We knew we could sail there across the bay, but getting into the service dock without an engine would be a challenge. The channel at Spring Point is dredged and at low tide we’ve already had the embarrassing pleasure of running aground.

Our buddy, Joe, on board his 16-foot outboard, was just returning to his mooring and after hearing of our dilemma agreed to meet us at the entrance of Spring Point and tow Time Out to the dock. So we hoisted the sail again and set out.

The sail across Casco Bay was beautiful. The wind had shifted and we were able to make the passage with only a few tacks. It was a sparkling Sunday afternoon in late August, and the harbor was full of activity. The chop from lobster boats and pleasure craft of all sizes was fairly significant and several times we had the wind dumped from the sails as we rocked in a heavy wake.

We dropped the sails about 100 yards from the marina and waited for Joe in his outboard. Ken rigged a towing yoke for the bow of the sailboat and I climbed into Joe’s boat to handle the lines. The plan was simple: Joe would tow us in, and all would be right in the world.

Right.

Joe put the motorboat into gear, the line tightened and we were under way. So far so good, at least until Ken waved as he passed by. That wasn’t supposed to happen! Not only did Time Out pass us, but she also managed to turn us around and drag us like a snagged lobster trap.

Once we straightened out, we tried again, with the same result. We collectively scratched our heads, and that’s when we saw it coming – a huge oil tanker being ushered into Portland Harbor by several tugboats. One of Portland’s oil docks and site of the Canadian pipeline sits next to Spring Point Marina, and this apparently was the destination of the tanker.

The race was on. We abandoned the towing harness and instead opted to raft the motorboat to Time Out. We secured the bumpers and lines amidships and tried to maneuver. This time we went in circles. Circles! And by now we were attracting a bit of attention.

The tugboats were booming. Dock handlers on the oil dock were whistling and waving their arms for us to get out of the way (duh!) while we performed sailboat pirouettes. After several pas de deux, some unknown disgusted person called TowBoat, a triple-A service for broken down vessels, and we were approached by a young man who for a mere $125 offered to tow us 60 yards. Testosterone tempers flared. Male ego would not allow it. I checked my wallet for my MasterCard.

We went round and round a few more times while the towboat operator watched and waited. We had also drawn the attention of several Sunday afternoon go-for-a-ride boaters, who circled us for amusement. They were circling our circles — a water ballet! The Duck Tour boat, a funny looking yellow floating bus thing, and the Casablanca, a dinner cruise boat, swung by for a peek. Oh, the comic relief we provided the French Canadian tourists that glorious afternoon. I started to giggle, and waved at the tourists. Ken and Joe glared at me.

It was, however, the deep resonating bass of the tanker that stifled my guffaws and to this day strikes terror in my dreams. We knew we were in trouble when the tanker laid on the horn and all 100 vertical feet of bow bore down on us.

The towing guy had given up on making a buck and coached us on towing technique. We retied the motorboat so its engine was behind the sailboat’s stern and would push like a tugboat. No good, still circles. Someone from a passing sailboat suggested we tie the motorboat to leeward. The tanker was dangerously close. I could hear the dock handlers’ rough language from the bow. I brushed my hair and put on fresh lipstick, my equivalent of wearing clean underwear in case of an accident.

The rafting wasn’t working, despite the lipstick. Expletives and bumpers were flying. Ken suggested we try the towing harness again, cranked the engine for a last spurt of power and presto, we were making headway in a loosely interpreted forward motion when I suddenly had a horrible thought – How were we going to stop? Somehow in the heat of tanker turmoil we had neglected to plan that far ahead.

I was on the bow of the motorboat waving frantically as we entered the channel, and luckily there were enough dock angels, spectators who had front row seats to the ballet, waiting to help. Ken scrambled to secure bow and stern lines and we stayed to the left side of the channel as Time Out passed us by and careened into an open slip. I jumped to the dock while Ken threw me a line, and the dock angels and I managed to tie her off before she jumped the dock.

Catastrophe averted, I sat down on the dock and put my head between my knees. The crowd broke into a cheer and the Casablanca tourists hooted. Even the towing kid applauded. The usual exchange of good-natured nautical advice flowed, and from somewhere a cold beer found its way into my hand. I held it to my forehead.

Then one particularly crusty dock angel piped up. “Oh missy, that was nothing. Let me tell you ‘bout the time I tried to outrun a storm front off Cape Ann…”

I smiled weakly. Perks, huh?

Marjorie Perrin Mehler and her husband, Ken, have a home on Peaks Island, Maine.