Backstory, Chapter 2

Chapter Two – Bigger Boats

As of this writing, Dallas is not a coastal city. I grew up in Dallas, so people are surprised when they discover it was there that I took up sailing. The terrain around Dallas is flat and dull, but it is pockmarked with man-made lakes containing water with varying degrees of muddiness. I spent my early big-boat sailing days in the coffee-colored waters of Lake Dallas.

One of my best high-school friends, Jim, was a sailor. Jim’s father owned a Catalina 28 named Matchless. They raced this boat each weekend. I was brought on as crew with three specific jobs. I was to crank the winch to bring in the jib when they yelled “Winch!”, I was to stop turning when they yelled “Stop!” and I was never, ever to drop the winch handle overboard. Though I was successful in all of these tasks, I still have nightmares about dropping the winch handle, watching hopelessly as it disappeared into the mocha-hued depths. The races involved tension and yelling and endless opportunities to make colossal mistakes. When the racing was done everybody seemed extremely happy and complimentary and we felt, in our matching tee shirts, like a well-bonded crew.

After the racing Jim and I and a few friends would load up the Matchless with libations and sandwiches and just go sailing, often overnight. We learned the pleasure of just cruising around. Since we had no charts, we ran aground with alarming frequency. With no tides to worry about we would drop the sails and climb out to the end of the boom and rock the boat until we backed the keel off of the muddy bottom, engine reversing.   My early keelboat experience was largely comprised of these outings, and gradually I came to consider myself a sailor.

I did not sail much at all through college, just a few trips on friends’ boats. Mary and I got married directly out of college, at the ripe age of 23. Our first couple’s sailing trip was on a chartered Pearson 33 on lake Travis, near Austin. This is a beautiful clear lake bounded by high limestone cliffs in the Texas Hill Country. I remember first spotting the Pearson as I was looking down the steep hill through the live oak branches into the clear, steep-sided cove, thinking it was just too beautiful, too big, too much.

“They are never going to let us take that boat.”

Mary, my most ardent supporter, looked at the boat, then at me, and said “You are right, there’s no way.”

Somehow, they let us charter the boat, despite my lack of any real experience as a captain, except on the Scamper, which hardly counted. We had a lovely weekend, with our dear friends Doug and Susan as well as Willie and Lisa. Willie was a colleague of mine and Lisa was his wife of only a few months. I remember thinking the lake was small for the boat, as we were forever tacking. I also remember, rather vividly, that Willie and Lisa made happy noises all night long in the aft cabin. Mary and I were in the v-berth, at the very opposite end of the boat, and still we heard the commotion.

Several years later, again with Doug and Sue, we chartered a Morgan Out-Island 41 for one day in the Virgin Islands. This was to be my inauspicious beginning as a salt-water captain. There is a fairly serious guideline among charter companies that you should not be allowed to charter a boat bigger than one you have sailed before. I found this rule a practical impossibility and was in St Thomas, walking down the dock, about to break the rule yet again. I spotted the Morgan, looking long and intimidating in its slip.

“They are never going to let us take that boat,” I said, for the second time in my life.

“Oh, sure they will,” said Mary, striking a different chord. There is a delicate point to be made here. While she did in fact have confidence in my abilities, she had simply reasoned this out and knew their commercial tendencies would overcome any doubt. She is extremely smart and seldom wrong.

As it turns out, the swarthy charter-company gentleman who was to check us out on the vessel and show us the ropes was most miserably hung over. I am pretty certain I could identify the brand of alcohol he had over-imbibed just from the leakage through his suffering pores. He pointed and grunted and suffered through our abbreviated check-in, looking near-death. The blazing mid-morning sun and stultifying boatyard humidity did him no favors. He had neither the energy nor the inclination to inquire after my credentials. He was most delighted when we left and I am quite certain he was fast asleep within moments of our departure. I recall only two instructions. The first was a rather vague warning about not “cutting the corner” leaving St. Thomas except near high tide. The second warning was very explicit. We were to be especially leery of the coral reef if we planned to enter the harbor at Jost Van Dyke. This was a sinuous pathway to be navigated with the utmost in nautical care.

We had a splendid sail across Sir Francis Drake Channel, with strong steady breezes pushing the Morgan along with aplomb. We dropped the sails and began motoring very carefully through the aforementioned passageway into the harbor at Jost Van Dyke. It actually seemed pretty simple. We had a lookout stationed on the bow, eyeballing the reef and pointing out directions. Right smack in the middle of this passage, far enough in to be committed, the engine died. Dead died. My heart leapt into my throat and I stopped breathing. I asked someone, I do not recall whom, to help unfurl the jib, as we had no time or room to raise the mainsail. We got half of the jib rolled out, picked up a bit of breeze, sailed into the harbor, gybed (that is, turned around with the wind passing behind us), and headed back, reversing our course. There was no way on earth I was going to attempt to anchor under sail in that small and unfamiliar cove. I suspect the patrons at Foxy’s, the famous beach bar that had been our destination, wondered over their margaritas what madness could have possessed the rubes in the charter boat to perform a sloppy U-turn and head back to sea.

We were proud of our clear-headed action in avoiding the reef. We had performed deftly and were back under sail. These pleasant feelings were soon to be dashed. We could not get the engine restarted despite repeated attempts. With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect a simple fuel filter issue was the culprit. At the time I knew too little to even begin to troubleshoot. So now the problem, where to go? With no ability to drop the sails and motor, I had no intent whatsoever of attempting to navigate us back to port. To this day I possess a dreadful fear of docking, even with a perfectly functioning engine and extra hands on deck. We had neither of these. So we needed a safe place to stop. This was, incredibly, before the ubiquity of cellphones had asserted itself, so we couldn’t simply call for rescue.

We decided to anchor at Caneel Bay in St. John. This bay was chock full of all manner of lovely boats on moorings and at anchor. While we would have preferred to keep our distance from the other boats, the seas and water depth forced us into the midst of the other craft in the anchorage. It was an awful dilemma – closer to shore provided a better chance of anchoring securely but also a markedly higher number of expensive vessels into which to careen. We sailed up into Caneel Bay, dropped our sails, drifted to a stop, and let the anchor go. I made sure we let out enough scope, or anchor rope relative to the depth, so that the anchor would have a chance to dig into the sandy bottom from a sideways angle, as it was designed to do. We secured the anchor line to the bow and held our breath, no longer in control, counting the excruciating seconds as the anchor line tightened. The wind seemed to strengthen and strain the tackle. Within one minute the painful truth became clear – the anchor was dragging.

The next 10 minutes remain to this day my most humiliating moments as a skipper. We were drifting inexorably toward a giant motor yacht, not four boat lengths away. We had no way to stop. I compounded the shame by trying to tow the 27,000 pound Morgan with our tiny dinghy and its 8 horsepower outboard motor. This was akin to towing a Suburban up a sloping driveway with a tricycle. We were helpless and hopeless.

Not for the last time in my sailing career I was rescued by the selfless bravery and kindly pity of a beefy motor yacht crew. The sleek 100-foot power yacht that we were about to smash into, backwards and with alarming momentum, dispensed several of its crew in their “dinghy” with its 150 horsepower outboard. These tanned and brawny youth with their manly, hairy legs, tossed us a line and calmly towed us well up into the anchorage, safely in the lee of the shore and out of the biting breeze, and waited patiently until they were sure our anchor held. I was deeply grateful but severely diminished. They were gallant and would accept no recompense.

We took the dinghy to the dock and walked to the hotel bar. We ordered something with extra rum and licked our wounds. We found a phone and called Mr. swarthy hangover and told him our tale of woe. We also said we were catching a nice safe ferry back to St. Thomas and they could do whatever they pleased with their sailboat, as long as we never again set foot upon it.

It was the last time I captained a sailboat of any size for five full years.

 

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