The dumbest (boating) decision ever

camareta-160201Michael Camarata
Sometimes dumb choices work out okay. Sometimes they don’t. Mostly they don’t.

It’s been more than 30 years since we got a boat large enough to sail and cruise on Long Island Sound out of the Connecticut shore. In that time, we’ve made countless decisions that have not turned out well. Fortunately, these mistakes only cost money to remedy – not many bruises, no broken bones, and only a little blood shed while doing maintenance or repairs in tight spaces.

A few years ago we graduated to a boat large enough to live aboard full-time and live the snowbird lifestyle. We’ve made five round trips from southern New England to the Florida Keys and/or the Bahamas, but we don’t cruise very much while home in Connecticut in the summer.

However, we decided to join the 2015 summer cruise of our local squadron of the United States Power Squadrons. Our daughter was joining us as this was going to be her summer vacation trip with us. Her vacation: We were just providing the transportation. Just moving our home around for her benefit. Not going to enjoy ourselves at all. Hmmm, buying this?

Anyway, our group of Long Island Sound boats (four power, three sail) gathered at Cuttyhunk, Mass., one of the Elizabeth Islands that border Buzzards Bay. During a social hour, we were working out the details of our cruise going forward. During the discussion aboard our boat, Infinite Improbability, it was decided to go to Vineyard Haven and anchor inside Lagoon Pond.

We’d all been to Martha’s Vineyard, but none of us had gone into this inner-lagoon anchorage. To get into Lagoon Pond, you must pass through a bascule bridge with a horizontal clearance of 30 feet. Not a huge problem for most boats, even though it’s a construction zone for the building of a new leaf to create a second travel lane. There’s also a bit of current at times.

And so we come to the dumb decision part of this story. Improbability decided to join the group. Why was this a questionable choice? Improbability is a catamaran with a 24-foot beam, and the approach to the passage is an angle before the turn right at the bridge.

We’ve been through small passages before, but couldn’t find our log references to our previous narrowest passage (Dismal Swamp Canal RR Bridge). At the appointed time, we approached the Lagoon bridge very slowly, and only after consulting with the harbormaster. We had to make sure the bridge would open to a completely vertical position and there was nothing narrowing the passage.

A local marina that offers a tow service through the opening strongly recommended we not attempt this. The harbormaster said the opening was the full 30 feet, and lifted to a true vertical position. He felt it would be no problem. The conflicting advice was confusing, so we decided to take a look at the passage. This gave us another chance to avoid a bad decision. We didn’t take that chance.

The 45-degree approach channel gave us almost no view of the passage, but we went in anyway. Dumb again. The curve to the opening had two I-beams sticking into the channel but they were painted red. Passing them, we turned and entered the span area. A gasp from Improbability’s co-captain, at the port steering station, indicated we were very close on the port side. The helmsman, steering from starboard side, got the boat within 18 inches of the bridge’s fender system, and we squeaked through. The construction workers above us took photos and made comments, and the bridge tender made a bit of a joke about putting grease on their fender system.

But we were in.

We had a great time with our fellow squadron members over the next few days, traveling around the island, but …. we also had to get out.

The approach to exit the lagoon is straighter, but we had our entire group of boats behind us, watching. Taking photos. They had made encouraging comments, but I wondered if they really wanted to see one of their safe-boating instructors make a fool of himself. Pressure? Ya think? Anyway, we made it through with no contact with the bridge. It was easier than the entrance passage.

Conclusion? Our group of squadron members did see foolish and dumb actions. This was much too tight an area to try to squeeze through. The fact that we succeeded does not make it a good, smart boating decision. Even though we didn’t damage our boat, or injure anyone, we should not have tried to go through. And we won’t try this again. Learning lessons from situations that could have gone bad but didn’t is part of gaining boating knowledge and experience.

Later, we found our record of our previous times through the Dismal Swamp Canal RR Bridge. Going through there made us nervous, but we found it was 12 feet wider than the one at Vineyard Haven. If we had found that info ahead of time, we might have made a different choice. Again, learn from bad or dumb decisions even if they don’t actually have an adverse result.

Michael Camarata and his wife and co-captain Carol Zipke are full-time liveaboard cruisers, mostly snowbirds, whose home is the 44-foot catamaran, Infinite Improbability. They have been boating for about 35 years, and, Mike says, “no longer do we own any dirt-based property.” They are both Senior Navigators and Past Commanders of the Waterbury (Conn.) Power Squadron of the USPS.