Monday, June 20, 2011

A Boating Tale

June 30 is an anniversary of sorts. On that day twenty one years ago we had a challenging boating experience, one of many in retrospect, but I had written something about this particular one at the time so there are details I had completely forgotten until coming across the article in my files. Much of it happened at our favorite anchorage in the Norwalk Islands, long before the advent of the GPS and boats that can be handled with bow thrusters and joysticks. That same anchorage today is even more crowded as the GPS has diminished "local knowledge" as a factor and joysticks and chart plotters have reduced the entry level barrier to handling a larger power boat without previous experience. It makes me want to stay at the dock nowadays.

Ironically, the article makes reference to friend's boat, a 39' Chris Craft which now is the boat we live on during the summer, having bought that classic from a friend he sold it to. And we are still good friends with Ray and Sue who figure prominently in the story so there are threads of continuity between then and now. Our boat at the time of the article was a 37' 1986 Silverton, one we had taken all over the Long Island and Block Island Sounds, Buzzards Bay, and the Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds. We were more adventuresome then.

So here is what happened on that day in 1990:

It was a Saturday like so many others we experienced at our customary anchorage in the Norwalk Islands, but what would evolve that night was like no other we have ever lived through. We arrived as the sun was setting the night before. Our friends, Ray and Sue, on their 38' Ocean, 'Rascel', had already arrived, and as ideal weather was forecasted for the weekend, we were reassured that rafting with their boat would be secure and tranquil.

Although we had the anchorage nearly to ourselves that Friday evening, by late Saturday morning, with the tide nearly at high, thus allowing easy passage into the anchorage, other boats began to join us. Our friends Tony and Betty on their 39' Chris Craft dropped their hook nearby and other boats, unknown to us, made their way into the spot between Copps and Chimon. A stately, classic, two-masted schooner set their anchor somewhat to our starboard, while smaller powerboats were spotted here and there. A 30' catamaran skimmed in on the surface like a water bug, anchoring well behind our stern, and a descending plow anchor and chain announced the arrival of a 42' Grand Banks to our port.

The anchorage began to take on a party atmosphere, anticipating the evening, as the late afternoon sun shimmered over the Long Island Sound. A sea breeze had picked up and small white caps could be seen in the haze towards Eaton's Neck. I turned on the weather radio as we were expecting guests for dinner, and it would be far easier to run into the Norwalk harbor in my new Achilles dingy than to take our boat in. There, in the harbor, I could pick up our son's Boston Whaler, meet our guests and then, as the sun sets, bring them back to the dock, and return to the anchorage in the Achilles raft.

The weather radio announced complete cooperation for this plan: some thunderstorms to the north, with little chance one might drift over the Sound and a 10 to 15 knot breeze out of the southwest overnight. Since our anchorage is well protected from all directions except east, I lowered our Achilles and its new 4HP engine, and prepared to run into our marina, only about a mile away.

The new dingy and engine performed flawlessly and the 4HP engine even enabled me to effortlessly plane, making my time back to Norwalk less than expected. I tied up the new dingy at our slip and went to the one in which my son's 13' Whaler was berthed, Its 40 HP engine started without much coaching and I awaited our guests.

The run back to our anchorage was uneventful, and my wife's usual culinary feast was appreciated by all. So, the waning hours of the hazy sun were consumed by good food and talk. As the sun began to slip below the horizon, I readied the Whaler for the return trip. The southwest breeze had now picked up to 15 -20 knots.

After tying up the Whaler I got into the rubber dingy and started up her engine. The sky had changed from its usual sunset red and amber to a foreboding autumnal and stormy gray, laced with red. Worse, the wind had changed to the east so I tried to hurry back, getting up on plane well before the 5 MPH marker to return to our boat, on which my wife was on alone, still tied up to the boat of our friends, Ray and Sue.

Before completely exiting the harbor I was stopped by the Norwalk marine police. Although I assumed I was being stopped because of my speed, they said "where are you going, haven't you heard that there is a storm that is supposed to hit this area?" The increasing wind and the prematurely black sky in the west gave credence to their warning. So much for the promised tranquil weather as announced on the weather band.

I explained my predicament to the police. "You better get out there fast," cautioned the police. I resumed my flight on plane, with difficulty as the easterly wind now easily surpassed 20 knots.

Many years of experience at the same anchorage told me that within a short time it would become a maelstrom where we are anchored. In a westerly flow, it was a paradise. Out of the east, our pond became the ocean. It was important to get back to my vessel soon. Approaching the northern end of Chimon Island, in the gyrating water of the easterly wind, the outboard engine died. Repeated attempts to coax the engine to life were fruitless. With no anchor, my only hope was to make some headway by rowing to a sailboat anchored about 100 yards upwind. The time seemed to be interminable, but eventually I was able secure the dingy to the sailboat's stern. In the distance in the west the lightening lit up the descending night.

No one was on the deck of the sailboat so I knocked on her hull. A very inebriated women stumbled to the deck, entreating me to climb on board. Luckily, a more sober gentleman followed and I explained my predicament to him. I needed a few minutes to work on the engine and to get back to my boat.

As I had a handheld in my bag, I decided to call my wife or Ray on 72, our unofficial station for communication. As I suspected, the weather conditions, combined with my long absence, resulted in my near hysterical wife standing by.

Ray got on the radio offered to get into his dingy and come around the island to possibly tow me. I asked him to standby 72 and let me work on the engine for a few minutes. I thought that even if I couldn't start the engine, at least I was safely ensconced and the most important thing is that our boats do not go unattended.

So, as the storm meandered its way towards Norwalk, I tried to diagnose the problem. I went through every possible way of starting the engine, but without success. Maybe salt through the air vent had clogged the fuel line. Disconnecting the fuel line, I pumped some fuel overboard, and reconnected the line. Once primed, I pulled the cord again, and it started. At the same time Ray came around the sailboat in his dingy. "I said I would call if I needed help," I cried over the rising wind. "Why did you leave the boats?" This was a rhetorical question, knowing Ray would not miss an opportunity for an adventure.

We began to make our way in the dark around the island, knowing, from the muffled thunder, rising wind and flashes of light, that we had little time to return to our vessels. Finally, we arrived. As I suspected, the unrelenting easterly wind had churned up the anchorage and the, now, low tide had made us and the remaining vessels captives of the anchorage. We would all have to ride out whatever nature intended to deliver.

We dodged a bullet this time as the threatened blow never fully materialized. Thunder and lightning was followed by a brief, intense shower, but the fireworks we had sometimes the misfortune to experience at this very same spot were absent. While the storm passed, the east wind refused to abate. It foreboded an uncomfortable evening as our rafted vessels lurched and pitched in response to the seas. But we were tied well and had plenty of fenders out, and we felt sufficiently exhausted to sleep through anything so we bedded down for the night. At least our intention was to sleep for no sooner than our heads had touched their pillows the uncompromising sound of fiberglass clashing with fiberglass filled our ears. The scraping and the gashing sound said this was not a simple problem of a fender popping out between our boats.

From the cockpit I made my way in the darkness along the gunnels to the bow to witness the enmeshing of our bow pulpit between the railings and gunnels of the 30' catamaran which I had remembered setting its anchor well to our stern in the, then, more cordial westerly breeze. Now that the wind had shifted nearly 180 degrees, it had broken anchor and was now totally impaled by our bow pulpit.

It was that night when I learned how imperfectly matched a catamaran, broadside to the wind, was with a powerboat at anchor, our boat rising as the cat fell. Remarkably, in spite of the smashing and scraping of the mismatched fiberglass, my wife and I were the only ones on the bow witnessing this spectacle. I speculated that the boat was unattended. We were calling out for our friends who, later I learned, were busing watching a movie, their generator contributing to drowning out all other sound.

Their anchor line kept the stern of the cat in abeyance from their own boat. I pounded on the side of our friends' boat, who finally heard our clarion call for help and joined us on their bow. Since the cat seemed to be abandoned, Ray was preparing to board their boat off my pulpit between the pitching of the sea when, suddenly, a dazed woman emerged from the cat's cabin. She made the leap to hysteria in a few short moments. Her impulse was to fend off our bow by planting herself on her gunnels and pushing off with her legs, failing to realize that the windage of the cat's pontoons was acting like a sail to the strong easterly wind abeam.

The force was beyond the ability of even a small army to extricate the boat that way. The lurching and pitching of the bow, the anchor hanging from the pulpit and smashing the gunnel of the cat created the danger of breaking this poor women's legs but screaming warnings to that effect went unheeded. Ray hollered "lady if you don't get out of there I'm going to get over there somehow and drag you away." She retreated.

Finally, a man emerged from the cabin and perhaps, now, we had enough hands on deck to figure something out -- if nature gave us enough time before serious damage was done to our vessels. The anchor line was caught by the tiller of the cat so we thought that if we could release their vessel by raising the tiller, we might be able to make some headway in untangling the boats. Meanwhile, the incessant pitching and crashing of the vessels reminded us that time was of the essence.

"Raise the tiller" we shouted to the new deck hand who was stunned, trying to take the picture in which his vessel was a prominent co-star. "I can't, I don't think I have the strength with all the pressure on it from the anchor line," he cried back. Now, it was our turn for hysteria.

In a voice that I last seem to remember coming from 'Rosemary's Baby,' our friend Susan growled, "Mister, get your ass over the tiller and pull!" Ray jumped on to their boat and was able to disentwine the line from the tiller. By this time, our bow and their railing had become such good friends, they still refused to part. It was now apparent that the only way we are going to break was for us to untie from our friends and to try to drop back. This was going to be very difficult for with an easterly wind, our stern was not more than 15 feet from a rock which was very much apparent at low tide. I fired up our 350 crusaders; no time to run the blowers or check the bilge, I thought.

We began to untie our lines and I realized that as soon as I dropped back, we would be abeam of the wind and immediately would have to get the bow into the wind. Thankfully, we disengaged from the cat which looked like a locus predator as it slipped away from my bow. As expected, we rapidly progressed toward the rock while abeam of the wind. With port engine forward and starboard in reverse, I steadily increased the throttle on the port.

The vessel pitched in the rolling seas and began to slowly respond. Too slow, I thought, and I continued increase the port throttle. We cleared the rock by less than 5 feet as our bow turned into the wind and began to make our way through the anchorage while the cat also was free.

Now our enemy was the dark night and the crowded anchorage. We threaded our way upwind, seeking a spot to drop our own hook; it would be dangerous to try to retie to our friends downwind, so close to the rock. We had never fully appreciated our windless, one that could be operated from the bridge, until that night. The choppy seas, combined with the darkness of night, made going on the bow dangerous, so dropping the hook from the bridge was not a luxury, it was a necessity.

The anchor was successfully lowered, letting out as much scope out as feasible, given the wind and the room in which we had to swing. Finally, we were able to rest. In the clear light of morning, it seemed as if we were on a different planet. The east wind had departed in favor of the more friendly, westerly flow. There was no sign of the commotion of the night before, other than our exhaustion.

I dingied to the bow of my boat and inspected the damage. The bow pulpit took most of the hit but there were some gelcoat scratches on the bow. The catamaran was now anchored, again, to our stern, perhaps by 100 yards. At 7: 30 AM there was no one awake. I circled the boat, 'Gull Wind,' and saw that my anchor had bent their bow rail and had done some damage to their port gunnel. Later, by 9: 00 AM, the owner aroused and, once again, I went over to discuss the incident. We exchanged names and address. He agreed to pay for the repairs which surprisingly turned out not to be extensive given what we experienced.

Boating is a inexplicable way of life. In how many other recreational activities can a leisurely pleasure turn into tumult without warning? The day and night of June 30 showed that while we might be able to take what the seas might dish out, there is no way to prepare for all contingencies.