I, too, have been somewhere

October, 2017

By Lawrence Smith
For Points East

I went hard aground, and I tried to blame a lost boathook, a trailing jibsheet, a shallow anchorage, big winds, an ebb tide, and a craving for fried clams. But it was the skipper who messed up.
Author Roger F. Duncan put it more eloquently: “We have waited for the tide to lift us off the mud; we have left our red paint on rocks up and down the coast; and we have been somewhere.”

Sounds implausible, you say? Another far-fetched tale of old Neptune doing his worst? Believe me, it was the fried clams. And the loss of a boathook, and an unseen jibsheet trailing in the water, and a swiftly ebbing tide, and an unmerciful shoal at the lee end of the harbor that caused me to leave my own green bottom paint on the rocks.
Some years ago, I chartered a beautiful 33-foot sloop out of Orrs Island, in Casco Bay. This was only the second time I had chartered – and skippered – a cruising boat. But lacking in confidence I was not. I had sailed and raced all sizes and classes of one-design dinghies for a good part of my life. I had sailed with friends all over Long Island sound on their family’s Hinckley Pilot. I owned a wonderful old 23-foot Pearson Ensign.

I thought of the Ensign as my training vessel for the bigger boat yet to come. I practiced reefing in a blow, anchoring off various lee shores, maneuvering under power, and sailing off the mooring. I’d tie up to the sailing club dock using the complete inventory of bow lines, stern lines, forward spring, after spring, after bow spring, forward quarter spring, and the odd breast line if those first six weren’t enough. I even ran aground once or twice, just to . . . um . . . practice the techniques for getting ungrounded.
My 16-year-old son accompanied me on this trip. He was big and strong, as fit as a Greek god, and he had sailed with his old dad all his life. To cap it off, he had just completed the grueling Outward Bound Maine Sailing Course. Think you’re tough? They make these youngsters get out of bed very early each morning, and then they have to take a running leap off a shaky dock into the icy waters of Penobscot Bay.

With my eager young Richard Henry Dana by my side, we dropped the mooring and took off on our week’s cruise. The first day’s sail was spectacular. We sped across Casco Bay on a fast beam reach, headed up the New Meadows River, and anchored in The Basin for the night. The next day, as we left that quiet, dreamy anchorage we discussed our next destination.
“I’ve read about the Five Islands Lobster Company,” I said. “The reviews praised their fried clams. And I just love fresh, succulent fried clams, French fries, and a cold beer.”

“Dad!” yelled my son. “Don’t use that word. I’m just a kid.”

“What word?”

“You know that word you said.”

“What, succulent?”

“Ya, that word.”

“What’s the matter with it?”

“I’m an impressionable youth. It has a rude and obscene connotation.”

“It does?”

“Yes. It most definitely does.”

“Well,” I said, “I never knew that.” With that settled, we made our course for Five Islands Harbor and the fried clams.

We sailed under a clear blue sky, wispy high clouds, and a freshening breeze. By the time we were ready to enter the harbor, it was blowing about 20 knots from the south. “No problem,” I said. “Let’s furl the jib and douse the main.” I started the engine, and we proceeded into the harbor.

As we entered, I surveyed the scene before me. There were very few vacant moorings, and the cruising guide said nothing about a good anchorage here. As we ran slowly into the harbor, I spotted a potential mooring away at the north end. “That’s the one,” I said. “That’s the one we’ll head for. We’ll pick it up, and when we are secure we can inquire about its owner.”
I steered toward the mooring. It was growing increasingly windy, and worse, the tide had turned and was rapidly draining the harbor as it ebbed. Rocks and shoals were starting to peak above the dark waters at the treacherous north end. With the engine at idle speed, I made for the vacant mooring. When I was just past it, I pushed the tiller hard over to point the boat into the wind.

My approach was perfect, just like I had practiced it with my Ensign back home on the calm lake. I pulled the gear lever into neutral, and the bow stopped dead right over the mooring ball. But that wasn’t all. The engine, a brand new Westerbeke diesel, also stopped dead. There was suddenly no vibration, and no rumble, from under the cockpit. It was stone-quiet. “Quick,” I said to my son, “grab the boathook and pick up the pendant. Get the loop through the chock and onto the cleat.”
“What boathook?” came his response.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. When we left our base, I had failed to lash the boat hook to the cabin-top. It had sat loose and vulnerable the whole time we sailed. At some unseen moment, as the boat heeled to the fresh breeze, the boathook had rolled off and dropped into the deep, fast-moving waters of the bay, never to be seen again.

“Damn!” I cried. “Crouch down over the stem and try to grab the pendant by hand.” He tried valiantly, but it was no good. The deck was too high off the water, his arms were too short, and the pendant too slippery to get a firm purchase on it. The strong wind quickly pushed the boat away from the mooring, out of reach, and suddenly, it was too late to make a grab at it.

I reached down and tried to restart the engine. It rumbled to life, and I shoved the control lever into gear. It stalled again. I tried it again. It stopped dead – and now it wouldn’t restart.

By this time, the afternoon southerly had blown us back into the rocky end of the harbor. There were no moorings to grab. The boat slowed with a sickening crunch. The tide was falling fast, the current was strong, and the boat wasn’t moving. Within minutes, we were nudging the bottom and going nowhere.

A lone man in a small, outboard-powered skiff came alongside. “Toss me a line and I’ll try to pull you off,” he shouted. I secured a long dock line to the mooring bit and threw it to him. He tied it on and gunned the motor. We didn’t budge. If he had arrived 10 minutes earlier, he could have easily towed us back into the harbor where I could have grabbed at another mooring or dropped the anchor.

But now, it was too late. The fast-moving ebb was emptying the harbor as if the plug had been pulled from a vast bathtub. The rocks and shoals, previously hidden deep beneath the waters, now emerged like wet, glistening moonscapes, large and sharp, unmoving and unforgiving.

A lobsterman roared up and tossed me a heavy, weed-encrusted rope. I tied it on at the bow, and now it was his turn at futility. His big diesel growled as he opened the throttle. With all that power, he succeeded in turning our poor boat around on its keel. From the bottom came sounds of fiberglass rubbing itself raw on the rocks. He gave it his best try, and I am grateful for his kindness, but this time we stuck – hard aground.

My head was spinning. I was the captain. I had to do something. I dashed below and switched on the VHF. I clicked the dial to Channel 16, keyed the mic, and started my mantra: “This is the sailing vessel Corvus. Mayday mayday. We have run aground at the north end of Five Islands harbor. Requesting assistance. Repeat. Mayday. This is the sailing vessel….”

“Dad! Oh Dad!” I looked up and there was my son looking down at me from the cockpit. “Dad. You’re not supposed to use that word!”

“What word?” I asked. “You know, the word you said.” “What, mayday?” “Ya. That word. You’re only supposed to say ‘mayday’ if someone’s life is in danger. You should be saying ‘pan-pan.’ I learned that at Outward Bound.”

“Pan-pan, eh?”

“Yup. That’s it, pan-pan,” he said proudly.

Suddenly, the radio crackled. It was the Coast Guard. They asked a lot of questions: Anyone injured? Where are you exactly? What’s the condition of the boat? And so forth.

Within a short time they arrived. And within an even shorter time, I learned the role of the Coast Guard in today’s complicated, litigious world. In the case of a grounding like this, with no injuries and no immediate danger of losing the vessel, they will do nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. They will take stock of the situation, check for lifejackets and safety gear, inspect the ship’s papers, and fill out reams of government forms.

And they will generously place a call for you to the local Sea Tow, Towboat U.S., or Shipwrecks R Us. And they’ll stand by until the rescue arrives in their powerful, bright-orange rescue boat.
The crew was skilled and professional. They placed big inflatable bags around the lifeless hull to provide a soft cushion when the rising tide started to lift her. I put out the anchor so she wouldn’t drift or move about when she started to float. Everything was ready as we waited for the high tide that would peak at midnight. With the excitement over for now, I climbed down and stepped onto the rocks.

The entirety of the hull was exposed. I made my way over the rocks and into the crater where the rudder and prop aperture were accessible. In a moment, I saw the reason why the engine had stopped at the worst moment; one of the long genoa sheets was wrapped around the prop. It was knotted into a tight ball that kept a death grip on the shaft.
Seeing this, I realized that, even if I had managed to make a perfect mooring, I would have had to hire a diver to untangle this Gordian knot that held my boat. Feeling even worse than ever, I pulled and struggled until I finally unwound the whole mess.

After the boat was refloated, we made sure there were no leaks from the stuffing box or seacocks. The engine ran just fine. But when I attempted to maneuver, a serious problem became obvious. The rudder was stuck, and the tiller wouldn’t budge. The damage was done. While lying on the rocks, the bronze heel fitting at the base of the rudder had been pushed upwards, jamming the rudder and preventing any movement.

Later, after conversing with the owner – who had been patient and understanding throughout the ordeal – it was agreed that the long-suffering sloop would be towed to a nearby boatyard to be hauled and fixed. The owner, despite having the burdensome task of dealing with the insurance company and the negotiations with the tow company, kindly insisted that I finish the rest of the charter after the boat was repaired.

That, we did, and there were no more incidents. The sad facts of the grounding made logical, rational sense when I thought about it late at night, in the quiet of the boatyard. One thing had led to another to form a fateful chain of events. I failed to secure the boathook, and it was lost overboard. I didn’t see the long jibsheet trailing in the water, and it killed the engine at the worst possible moment. I chose to attempt to find a mooring at the dangerous, leeward end of the harbor, with no room for error. And I sure did want those fried clams.

Larry and his wife Pam sail the southern New England coast on their 1982 Nonsuch 36 Cracker Jack out of Noank, Conn. He naively expects all sailing seasons to be trouble-free and will proceed swimmingly. Larry has been sailing all his life – first on a Penguin, then a Thistle, then a vast array of one-design racers, a Pearson Ensign, and now cruising boats – all in a futile attempt to escape from the myriad annoyances of life, great and small.