Scary stuff

They don’t look scared: Jim and Joan Haas relaxing on Patriot. They weren’t always so calm. Their story is below.

April, 2003

Showdown in the Cape Cod Canal

By Warren Price
East Dennis, Maine

Fortunately I have had very few events over the years which could be considered scary. Perhaps the scariest of all occurred as part of an overnight trip in our Sabre 34 from Point Judith R.I. up Buzzards Bay and through the Cape Cod Canal to points north. It certainly qualifies as the most embarrassing. My crew consisted of my ex son-in-law who is not terribly well endowed with intelligence, common sense or moral character. We had made a beautiful overnight passage and entered the Cape Cod Canal as the sun was rising.

I was beginning to feel the need for a little rest and after we safely passed the railroad bridge I felt that I could trust my crew to continue through the canal without getting into any serious trouble. After about a half-hour I got up to check on things. What I saw was terrifying. We were tracking down the center of the canal and I was looking up under the bow of a really large cruise ship, very large, very close and closing.

I forget my exact words as I bolted into the cockpit, grabbed the wheel and made a quick turn to starboard but they couldn’t be printed here anyway. My crew’s comment was, “It’s OK, he’s slowing down.” As he spoke the cruise ship let loose with five blasts of his horn, clearly not happy.

Perhaps even scarier than all of this was the fact that I had been dumb enough to trust him with our safety and that of our boat.

Crossing the line – twice

Jim and Joan Haas
Barrington, R.I.

We sailed out of Newport, R.I. on our 27-foot Pearson Renegade, Patriot, at about 11 a.m. in bright sun with excellent visibility. We were sailing to Cuttyhunk on the start of a week of cruising in our old familiar areas – Cuttyhunk to Hadley Harbor, then across to the Vineyard and then back to Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island, back to Cuttyhunk and home to Barrington, R.I. – easy beautiful sails that we had done many times before.

My wife, Joan, was stretched out on the cushions, working on her tan as I lazily motorsailed across Rhode Island Sound into Buzzards Bay. It was getting a little hazy, although the Massachusetts shoreline was clearly visible as we approached the shipping channel to Buzzards Bay. Looking at the loran, Cuttyhunk was about 3 miles ahead on a course of 110 degrees magnetic. I looked to the south as a large ketch was passing about half a mile away, probably going back to Newport. The sail plan looked strange, and I realized that the tops of the masts were hidden by a fog bank which was rolling in quickly from the south. I alerted my wife to go below and get the radar reflector, and we were suddenly totally socked in with about 300 feet visibility.

As Joan was coming up the companionway with the radar reflector, I was very much aware of strange seas around us – they had flattened out and there were flat, swirly patterns on the surface. As Joan climbed into the cockpit, I looked at my starboard beam and stared down the bow of a large barge coming right at us, which I realized was in tow. I quickly looked up and saw no hawser. My conclusion was that I was about to sail over the hawser and probably snag it, then slide up to and under the barge, and who knows after that. So, as the barge was bearing down on me, I spun the boat 180 degrees and hit the throttle. To my horror, I now realized I had clearly crossed a hawser from a tugboat that I had never seen or heard a horn, and I was now crossing back in front of the barge. Thank God, we cleared the barge and retreated to the edge of the shipping channel. We never saw the tug, but finally heard its horn in the fog, as the stern of the barge slipped away in the fog.

As we sat quietly in the fog on the edge of the shipping channel. I felt like someone who tried to cross a street and was nearly run down by a car, but made it safely back to the curb. And now it’s time to cross the street again. So, after listening for horns, and with our fog horns in hand, we moved quickly and noisily across the lane – about 300 yards – and then proceeded to Cuttyhunk where we anchored in the pond.

By now, the adrenaline was really starting to flow, and over a glass of wine (several) we started to reconstruct what had happened. I realized that as we left Newport there had been a tug with a barge in tow out on the horizon to the south. A fog bank was moving in from the south and it masked the tug. So we were gradually closing on each other as the tug was moving through the fog, both of us on converging easterly courses. Unfortunately, in those days we did not have radar and maybe this whole incident could have been avoided. But we never heard a horn and never saw the tug, although we heard a horn later. We can only assume that he saw us on his radar and was slowing down as he entered the shipping lane up Buzzard’s Bay, allowing the hawser to go slack and sink beneath the surface.

As events unfold, it’s amazing how you react under stress. There’s no time to worry or panic – the brain goes into slow motion. I very clearly saw what had to be done. When I looked down the bow of the barge, I first looked for the hawser – it’s beneath me! My next thought was, “Don’t catch the keel or rudder on the hawser and get dragged under the bow of the barge! Turn this boat as quickly as possible and bear off away from the track of the barge.” Unfortunately, after I did this, I looked back at the barge and realized I had already cleared it, and I was now crossing that submerged hawser and path of the barge for the second time! But by bearing off and running, we cleared the slow-moving barge with a fair amount of room to spare.

Lessons learned: If you’re cruising, especially in a potentially foggy area, have radar to back up your loran or GPS. It’s great to know exactly where you are, but much better to know who or what else is out there with you, especially when they may be right next to you. Second, fill out a float plan and give it to family or friends, even if you’re going to a familiar area. When thinking of all the “what ifs,” the scenario would be: “ I wonder where Jim and Joan are? They said they would be home Sunday. You don’t think those pieces of blue fiberglass they found could have come from their boat, do you?”

We certainly earned our pints

Betsy Morris
Marblehead, Mass.

The closest I’ve come to disaster on the water was rounding the Lleyn Peninsula in northwest Wales in Jadocam, a borrowed 29 ft. Van de Stadt Trintella sloop, a half hour before slack water. The entire Irish Sea squeezed itself and Jadocam between Bardsey Island and mainland Wales. Except for the sea, it was a quiet day, but the sound of the water rushing through that narrow strait and over the killer rock in the middle was something like the last suck of the bathtub drain and something like the hungry sigh of Neptune’s evil twin.

Flying an American flag from the spreader, my husband and I had been warmly welcomed in every little harbor. We couldn’t pay for our own beers in the pubs; someone was always picking up the tab. We couldn’t get our own anchor down; some sailor or meistr yr harbr (harbormaster) was always offering us a free mooring. And we couldn’t believe our good fortune, sailing in this remote and often hostile part of the world; we’d had fine weather and were relieved that we would never join the hundreds of 19th century shipwrecks that littered that coast, unable to make safe haven on the run to or from busy Liverpool.

So, with all the confidence of happy sailors, we pushed out of Cardigan Bay a half hour before the good folks of the town of Pwllheli had told us to – from a half mile away, the strait appeared glassy smooth. Well, smooth is what happens to water when a strong invisible, pitiless force has it in its grip – smooth, fast, and boiling. Within moments Jadocam was also in its grip, crabbing sideways toward the rock at double hull speed. Usually she sailed fast, straight and true, but she wasn’t going to sail herself or us out of this inevitability.

“Start the engine,” one of us cried, panic evident in the entreaty. Jadocam’s one-lunger had never failed us, as long as it received exactly six full squirts from the oilcan first. Not five, not seven. One of us grabbed the can; the other tore the hatch off the engine space. One-two-three-four-five-six. “Push the button. Hurry.” The dreaded rock showed itself as a slight bulge in the smooth water, not 30 feet away. Its boil and overfall grabbed for the bow just as the trusty engine growled to life and pushed sweet Jadocam out of harm’s way.

We turned the corner of the Lleyn Peninsula, and sailed peaceably in its lee past lush green hills dotted with sheep. We turned into the port of Dinllean, and the meistr yr harbr came out in his skiff. “Here’s a mooring for you,” he cried out. “I’ll meet you in the TyCoch for a pint.”

Wrong place at the wrong time

Charlene R. Solomon
For Points East Magazine

Twas 2 a.m. on a very dark June night in 1978 and I was in the major shipping channels of the Chesapeake on a 37-foot Tayana named Holonunani. What was any recreational vessel doing out there in the middle of the night with all the shipping traffic? Murphy’s Law: good friends, good plans, all gone awry.

Our friend Bill, a racer and a long time sailor, had just the month before taken possession of his new home, a double-ended, cutter-rigged, Taiwan boat. Unfortunately, the month in Annapolis turned out to be too little time to properly rig her, outfit her, commission her, and do a shakedown cruise on her. Thus the trip home to Marblehead became the shakedown cruise. And we did shake with enough stories to last a lifetime, filled with laughter and fears.

The crew – Judy, Bill’s 16-year-old daughter, John and Marvin, experienced racers (Marblehead to Halifax, Marion to Bermuda, etc.) and Mark and me, experienced stink-potters, arrived early in Annapolis and finished provisioning the boat. There were enough spare parts and provisions to drop the water line of the boat down by at least three inches. Still, there was no time before we left even for a short sail to see what worked and what didn’t.

Nothing went as planned. We had 250 gallons of water but Capt. Bill, too weary from preparing the boat, forgot how he had valved it. Thus we had no access to water and brushed our teeth with apple juice and used the scuppers instead of the head. The only part for which there were no spares available was the red light bulb to the compass. Of course it blew out the first night of the trip. After many surprises the biggest surprise of all was to find us in the major shipping channels of the Chesapeake at 2 a.m. instead of 2 p.m. as planned.

We were on a Swedish Watch System (4-4-4-6-6) and John, Marvin and I were on deck. As we stood watch in this busy channel we spotted the lights of one ship. Within moments we spotted the lights of a second ship and then a third. Each ship was heading straight at us from a different direction. John instantly went to the VHS radio, but to our utter dismay none of the vessels responded to our many radio calls. We had no way of knowing if any of the ships were aware of our position.

Unaware of the extreme danger, Bill and Judy slept away. Mark joined us on deck. After some consultation and more fruitless hailing of the ships, it was decided that we would circle in place so the ships, if they were watching, would always know where we were and that we weren’t moving about. Marvin manned the wheel. John gave me a quick lesson on using a hand-bearing compass. He, Mark and I each became responsible for watching one of the ships, hoping that the compass angle would increase as the boat came closer indicating that we would not collide, time passed very slowly and it felt like an eternity as we awaited our fate.

After 25 years none of us remembers just how long we stood watching, worrying, hoping and praying that someone was awake on each vessel and aware of our presence in the channel. Nor can we all agree on what type of ships we were watching except that one was a barge under tow. My heart still pounds rapidly as I picture my babies home with my Mum and I remember wondering whether I would see them again and how they would survive without Mark and me. We watched, wearing our life jackets complete with flashlights and whistles ready to jump at the signal that a ship was about to collide. Obviously, since I am here to write the story the compass angles did increase and the ships safely passed by us one by one. Still shaking, we were able to continue our trip. The guys have each had more harrowing moments. But for me none is scarier than thinking of my babies without us and missing the joys of watching them grow.

The story ends with us all arriving happily at Marblehead Harbor ready to take off again on our own boats. Before heading home, however, we pulled into Atlantic City for repairs. Our crew looked so grubby and tired that it appeared we had made the voyage of our lives. John, always sharp and in command, very cleverly shouted to the hands on the dock, “Is this America?”