The libation of salvation

Guest perspective/Michael Long

The wine bottle and duct tape “fix,” partial contents of the bottle displayed on the hull to leeward. Photo courtesy Michael Long

What good is a 1,000-mile delivery run without a bit of melodrama? Creature comforts and picturesque anchorages are in short supply when you leapfrog down the coast from Portland, Maine, to Jacksonville, Fla., in October. So some compensatory excitement is a welcome prospect.

That was my attitude at the start of the trip, anyway. It was likely not shared by the skipper, who was bound and determined to reach Florida in three drama-free weeks and leave his boat there as a snowbird. Still, we were all pretty gung-ho, with the four-man crew stuffed into the cozy cabin of a Sabre 30 with an 8-horse diesel.

When I secretly hoped for excitement, I envisioned something like 24 hours (and no more!) of really punishing weather. Just something to write home about, within reason. After all, we deckhands had just a mere pinch of offshore experience between the three of us, and were in need of some seasoning. What we got instead was no less dramatic, but far from the first choice for someone on his first long-distance cruise.

Five days out of Portland, we stopped overnight in Cape May, N.J., and then signed ourselves up for a double-reefed slog to windward. The first few hours saw us hurtling from crest to trough in the radiant weather of a gale’s leftovers. Getting tossed about by the steep swells was hardly relaxing, but any inconvenience had to be weighed against the sheer brilliance of our surroundings. That afternoon the Atlantic was a sun-lit mirror, shattered into thousands of reflective shards, all rushing past our bows.

I was already feeling plenty entertained, when the Atlantic decided to make good on my impious wishes for “excitement.”

“We’ve got water coming in on the cabin sole!” That was Steve, upon discovery of the last thing any sailor ever wants to see.

“Oh, that always happens on a starboard tack,” the skipper called down below.

“It’s a LOT of water!”

In cold-blooded retrospect, I can’t recall it being a lot of water. There is still some disagreement on how many minutes it took for a gallon to run out from behind the companionway steps. But it was enough to see Steve employed full-time, lying on his stomach in a berth with sponge and bucket in hand. With considerable distaste, I envisioned crawling out of my bunk for the 4 a.m. change of watch, and stepping into that salty puddle.

The skipper protested that there couldn’t be a leak; he had just gone over the hull with a fine-toothed comb. As if to prove that the water was benign in its intentions, we tacked. The leaking stopped immediately. With the crew less excited, and the port rail no longer crashing through waves, diagnosis could begin.

“It looks like it’s coming from aft on the port side. Take a look at that scupper there.”

In keeping with my role as the junior (by four decades) deckhand, I clambered out of the cockpit to perch near the dodger. The suspected culprit was a scupper located just abreast of the companionway. It would have been submerged in the stronger gusts, and a leak between the grating on deck and the drain in the side of the hull could be sending water into the cabin. There was nothing but a few inches of pipe between grating and drain. I leaned over the rail and felt around inside, searching for a crack in the scupper.

“Find anything?”

“My finger’s stuck.”

Yes, there I was. Clinging to the rail as we barreled along at six knots in a cloud of spray, the boat heeled over on its ear, my head outboard and my right index finger jammed into the hull. Having an extremity trapped tends to call up some sort of primal fear, as your DNA urges you not to fall victim to a sabre-toothed tiger, or the scupper drain of a Sabre 30. I yanked back hard.

Out popped my finger, only now it was wearing a three-inch length of PVC pipe.

“I think we found our leak,” I said. “Or else I’ve just created a new one.”

“Right, go find something to plug up that scupper,” the skipper called.

“There’s that bottle of red wine in the cooler,” Steve offered. “We only drank half of it yesterday.”

Laugh if you want, but on 18th-century warships the carpenters employed large plugs made of cork in order to repair shot-holes near the waterline. Who’s to say a wine cork wasn’t good enough for us?

As I climbed below to retrieve the libation of salvation, the captain took my place near the damaged scupper.

“Now we need something like a hammer,” he said as I handed him the wine cork.

“What about the bottle?” It was a struggle to keep my poker face as I said that. Were we really going to save the ship, using nothing but booze?

No one came up with a better idea.

“Of course, you’ll have to pour the wine out first.”

Half a bottle of Italian red went overboard as a sacrifice to Neptune. In the heat of the moment, the captain poured to windward. The wine immediately blew aft and spattered liberally across the hull, so that our damaged scupper was now trailed by a dripping violet starburst.

Un-phased by the whiff of wine and absurdity, our bottle-wielding skipper plugged the leak in a matter of moments. The next step was to reinforce the plug for when the starboard tack rolled it under, and also to seal the other end of the scupper where it meets the deck.

These repairs were effected using another method of considerable vintage: duct tape. Given that our starboard watch was manned by two carpenters, the optimal means of reinforcing the plugged scupper was debated at some length.

Duct tape engineering accomplished, captain and crew were in high spirits. The travails of a head sea were forgotten as we declared the entire episode a triumph and a tribute to the ship’s company. Celebrations were in order, and the log was duly updated in deliberate, deadpan detail.

Thus concluded our effort at making repairs underway. Through certain rumors circulating on shore, you may have heard that the actual source of the leak was a back-siphoning bilge pump. The scuttlebutt would have it that we started taking on water again as soon as we tacked, and that we then turned tail for shore. But I am bound to report what the log says concerning this episode. Anything beyond that, I can neither confirm nor deny.

Michael Long lives in Portland, Maine, and sails on other people’s boats whenever he gets the chance. His previous story, “Life As a Human Spar,” appeared in the May 2018 edition of Points East, available online. He can be reached at mikhailjlong@gmail.com.

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