The Upsizing Imperative

Ryan, Kate, Jim and Steve Humbert aboard Elfin, the Humbert’s “tweener” boat, an O’day 22. Photo courtesy Pam Humbert

By Pam Humbert
For Points East

“Seriously? You want to race?” I asked my husband Jim, who had just proposed we sign up for our club’s Friday races. Jim and I studied each other – he gauging whether I was open to the idea; me trying to decide whether or not he was serious.

I saw that he was serious. By virtue of the question at hand, I knew we’d really come a long way since that phone call in late March 11 years ago. Looking away from him and into the darkness beyond, memories of the boats and experiences that had led up to this question played before me.

* * *

From the distant past, I heard Jim’s voice on the other end of the phone speaking in an excited whisper. “There’s a sorry looking 14-foot sailboat in John’s front yard.”

“Really? How bad is it?” I asked, as happy childhood memories of buzzing freely around Long Island’s Northport Bay on our old 12-foot Minifish – a scaled-down Sunfish – crossed swords with the old saying, “A boat is a hole in the water, into which you throw money.”

“Well,” he began, “the hull is oxidized, it’s full of leaves and water, the trunk is rotted, the seats are pitted, and there are serious scars in the transom, almost as if it had had a car accident. He says he has the sails. Oh, and the trailer is shot, too.

“To really know if it’ll float, or even stay afloat, we’ll have to go over it more carefully than I can here,” he continued somewhat boldly. “I can make a deal with him. Do you want it?”

Caution flew into the abyss as I answered, “I do.” My mind raced through the possibilities. If we could just save this little boat. I hung up the phone and looked at the driveway, imagining the fixer-upper there. Then I told our three small children the news, “A little boat is about to hit the driveway, but don’t get excited. It may be leaving as suddenly as it comes.”

Jim, my rigger/mechanic brother and I walked around the dilapidated Neptune 14, critically calling out concerns as we spotted them. With proposed solutions to each, we decided to go for it, to save it from the scrapyard. My brother filled her with two-part flotation and installed inspection ports. Jim rebuilt the trunk, sanded the seats, and repainted the inside. I replaced the stays, halyards and sheets.

Jim and my brother rebuilt the trailer and included features to make it easier for me to handle. We compounded and waxed the hull and painted the bottom. We rigged her with a topping lift and, on it, clips to hang an American flag and the Lion Rampant of Scotland our son Steve had brought back from the British Isles. We finished as the sun set the night before Memorial Day weekend. Sitting in the boat in the driveway, grinning like teenagers, we celebrated with a toast, “Here’s to Little Dutch. Tomorrow we sail.”

It was sunny and hot for our first outing. We were all watching a butterfly fluttering around us in circles when Jim looked at me and said disgustedly, “We’re not sailing, we’re drifting.” Later, when her bow scraped on the sand back at the ramp, Jim was relieved and practically ran for the trailer and the air-conditioned car. Little Dutch was rocking gently as I sat in the bow with the halyards running through my fingers, the sails piling up in my lap. I was in paradise.

Sure, the first day out was simple enough, but could we trust her in trying conditions, and did we actually know how to sail her? Would our repairs hold under strong winds and chop? Would she flip over, tossing our kids, terrified, into the drink?

Determined to really test her, the two of us took her out in heavy winds. Wearing our life jackets, we did our best to keep her sheets taught, driving her as hard as we could. Spray flew in our faces, we bounced in the waves, and we felt exhilarated. She coped with the inexperience. She didn’t flip, and nothing broke. She could cope with the strain, and, by extension, she could handle all of us while we learned how to sail.

“This is crazy,” I said, looking at the family calendar and tide chart years later. My face was twisted with frustration as I vented, “Between the tides, weather and schedules, another weekend will come and go without us using the boat. You know Jim, we can’t even all go out at the same time now that the kids are so much bigger. What we need, Jim, is a bigger boat!”

Late that summer, my daughter Kate and I sailed to Northport Harbor from the boat ramp at Asharoken, a village in the Town of Huntington. It was a long way to go in the midday doldrums, but we finally drifted into our destination, quickly spotting a well-kept 22-foot O’Day with a for-sale sign. “Kate,” I said pointing to it, “look at her. Such a pretty, little big boat. Let’s leave the seller’s number on our answering machine.”

We hadn’t made it much too much farther when Jim called, asking us to pick him up at the town dock. “I called the number Kate left on the machine,” he said. “The owner’s waiting on the boat to show it to us.” A fun sea trial that afternoon followed by a handshake made us the proud new owners of Elfin.

On Labor Day weekend, just three weeks later, we jumped aboard Elfin with Kate and Ryan, our two youngest, and headed east about 25 miles to Port Jefferson for our first overnight trip. Yes, this was ambitious, but I didn’t think it was crazy. It was slow going, steaming there in the heat, and it seemed longer still when we realized she was taking on water and required hourly bailing. The engine was sputtering as we picked up a mooring in Port Jeff, but this was quickly forgotten with a jaunt to town for a walk and dinner.

A weather front was due late the next evening, but it rolled in 18 hours ahead of schedule. We lay wide awake all night, weighing our options, as Elfin pulled and jerked on the guest mooring. Our concern grew with every howl in the rigging. No moorings were available for the following night, and staying on our lunch anchor wasn’t an option, so we headed nervously north down the channel into steely skies, bound for home.

We watched with dread as two much bigger sailboats ahead pitched in the seas beyond the jetty, masts swinging wildly in Long Island Sound’s rough seas. We had just cleared the harbor’s opening when the outboard conked out. Jim failed to get it started again. Defeated, he ran his finger across his neck making the death sign. The engine had breathed its last. We found ourselves bouncing in a five-foot chop like a rubber ducky.

The tide was out, the winds were up; our sails were down. We looked hurriedly around. The jetty was upwind of us, and the rocky beach was approaching fast. The big sailboats ahead were still steaming. How were we, novices, going to sail in this if they chose not to? I grabbed my life jacket and fought my way forward. Jim had the tiller all the way over, trying to point her into the wind, but Elfin refused to go there. Sitting on the cabin top with my legs wrapped around the mast, I pulled and pulled on the main halyard. The sail rose one painful inch at a time until, finally, she took off like a rocket toward home.

Jim adjusted our course, trimmed the sheets, and reassured Kate and Ryan as I made my way back to the cockpit. We exchanged confident looks as we surfed at high speed in a following sea. We relaxed. The kids relaxed. We figured we could run until Eatons Neck. We’d have a beam reach down Huntington Bay, and the wind right on our nose from there until Northport Harbor, with the tide against us. We hoped the wind would shift just a little by then.

“See?” I said to Jim, enjoying the ride. “I told you she could run.” I looked back at the horizon and saw the bigger boats were still steaming. “Why are they steaming?” I asked. “Sailing through this is a breeze.”

Rounding the green off Prices Bend, at Eatons Neck, the wind hadn’t shifted, and the tide was running hard against us. The kids had been seasick much of the way, and, without enough coffee Jim and I were uncomfortably decaffeinated. We knew our little, shoal-keeled Elfin couldn’t handle the conditions at hand. I looked at Jim, stone-faced, and said, “I’ll keep her sheeted in as tight as I can; you point as high as she’ll go. We have to make every tack count.” Jim looked concerned as we approached the beach. “And beach her if you have to.”

Rubbing my rope-burned hands later that night, I recalled how my dad would tease the sailors in his club because they sailed so infrequently on their cruises. “Hey,” I boldly declared, “we took a cruise and sailed.”

“If we’re going to cruise we need a bigger boat,” Jim responded, one with an inboard, and big enough to handle what the Sound has to dish out. And definitely one with a keel.” Remembering the painful coffee deprivation that morning I added: “And a stove.”

The gut-wrenching seller’s remorse I felt as I watched Elfin taken away was forgotten as we arrived off-hours to a dark yacht club to sign the papers for our 30-foot “big boat.” It had been love at first sight: We’d wanted her as soon as she came into sight from the launch.

It was September as we set out for our first real sail, in a gusty 15-knot easterly, with our son Steve and our friend Henry. With me at the helm, Steve raised the main and unfurled the jib. Henry adjusted the sheets and she immediately put her nose down and heeled. My heart pounded, my face paled, and my knuckles turned white as they held the wheel. “Ohhhhh!” I cried.

Henry looked startled, then laughed. “Really, Pam? On my boat, you’re happy reefed with the water gushing over the gunwales.” Realizing I was uncomfortable, he looked at me with disbelief.

“That’s your boat,” I explained, “an open daysailer. This one is big, and it has a mind of its own.”

Henry pointed to Eatons Neck, instructing me to head for it so we’d be blanketed by the land. “Pam,” he continued as I adjusted our course, “she won’t flip, you know that. She’s a solid, well-engineered boat. She can handle more than you can.

“You just have to get to know the boat. Practice. You’ll get it.”

On a sailing scale of one to 10, I figured harshly I was at a three, and wondered how long it would take before I was as confident on our new Pearson 30 Morgana as I had been with Elfin.

* * *

We sailed through the following two summers. Jim had grown as a sailor. He was making his own course and trim choices. On cruises, he did all the navigating. He was a natural at docking and maneuvers. I was a nimble and capable partner, but I still couldn’t resist easing the main whenever she heeled over 20 degrees. Cruiser-style practice wasn’t doing it. Reflecting on Jim’s initial question, I thought, “Well, maybe we should race,” and considered what racing might mean aboard Morgana.

Sail trim: We’d really have to pay attention to sail trim – in ways we’d never bothered with as cruisers. We’d have to learn how to approach the starting line. There’d be no cherry-picking weather conditions. Even though they were billed as “fun races,” I couldn’t – no, wouldn’t – ease the main. If the kids joined us, it would be amazing. Win, lose or draw, racing could mean more family nights on the boat.

Having taken a trip down memory lane and weighing it out, I looked back at Jim and indirectly answered his question. “If we race, skippering is all you. I’ll crew.” Jim cocked his head with a quizzical expression that was replaced with a grin. He’d heard the “yes” in my answer. “You’re going to have to heel,” he said.

“And you, Dear, are going to have to endure drifting.”

“Fair enough.”

We had a blast racing. We practiced sail trim, used the whisker-pole, and balanced our weight. We enjoyed moments that made us laugh until we cried. We witnessed breathtaking skies. No two nights were the same. We also worked through our limitations. Jim realized an evening calm at 6 p.m. could still offer a memorable sail as the sun set and dropped beneath the sea. I found heeling bearable if I sat on deck, but racing didn’t eliminate my anxiety. A helicopter did.

One summer evening, a fair breeze under cloudy skies greeted sailboats leaving Northport Bay. Morgana was among the group, sailing easily north up Huntington Bay when a filming helicopter approached. It was harmless, of course, but Morgana caught the helo’s prop wash. I stood next to the helm wide-eyed and frozen, watching the boom get closer and closer to the water, then almost hitting it. Having taken a beautiful picture of Morgana under full sail, the helicopter veered away. Morgana popped back up in a heartbeat and continued on her merry way.

Weeks later, we were heading west out of Northport Bay, into the geographical “Centerport Blast.” Jim and Ryan were deep in conversation, and from the low side I was listening to them with my camera, poised to take a video of water rushing over the gunwales. Morgana leaned deeply into her groove with the increasing winds. “Ease the main,” Jim called out as she rounded up. “Ease,” he insisted more loudly. But I was having a fantastic time filming the water gushing over the gunwales and boldly ignored his order.

* * *

A picture I’d taken of Jim being taxied on Little Dutch to inspect Elfin appeared on my screensaver the other day. It amazes me still how that little wreck of a sailboat shaped us into a sailing family, all of whom have learned to naturally adjust the sails and the courses in their lives as we learned to do the same under sail.

Pam Humbert, a Northport/East Northport, N.Y., native who’s been boating since she was 7 years old, is a devoted wife and mother of three grown children. She is also founder of P.K. Services, providing start-ups with the skills and services they need to help keep their sails trimmed. Pam, her husband Jim, and their family cherish their days aboard their Pearson 30 Morgana, a Celtic name meaning “dweller of the sea.”