Back in the early 90’s a coworker and I decided to rent a sailboat for a week. We both took all but one shift off (that’s the breaks when you work in the medical field). This is one trip I shall never forget.
The day came and we made the short drive to Annapolis Maryland to where the sailboat was moored in a slip. On the way we stopped to pick up beer, soda and some snacks. When we got there, we had to park a good ways from the boat. Fortunately, they had a cart there we could use to transport the snacks and beverages to the boat. It took 2 trips to get the stuff down to the dock.My friend, let’s call him Thurston, was 5′ 8″ tall and weighed roughly 170lbs. His light brown hair was cut to a regular men’s haircut but his voice was anything but regular. He talked through his nose with drawn out words. At first it annoyed me, but after working with him for about a year, I got used to it.
Anyway, Thurston took on the task of loading the goods on the boat while I began getting the boat ready to motor out. We were waiting on two friends of Thurston’s that I had never met before.
Thirty minutes or so later, Thurston came to the stern of the boat to introduce me to both of his friends. The first was a 6′ tall, twenty-something, wiry, blonde fellow named “Mike” and the second a 5′ 11″ tall, stocky, dark haired gentleman in his 30’s called “Jim”. I checked the fuel gauges and saw we had a full tank so I fired up the eight cylinder diesel and asked everyone if they were ready to go. Three affirmative responses later, I put the transmission in reverse and guided us backward out of the slip. We were off.
Now, in order to understand the rest of this story, you’ll need to know some nautical terms (for those of you that are unfamiliar, please skip to bottom where you will find definitions of various terms that are relevant to the story).
Once I had her through the channel and into the Chesapeake Bay, I asked Mike to take the tiller. I was thirsty. I got up, opened the cooler and low and behold, there was no soda in there (I hate beer).
I asked Thurston, “Hey, where’s the soda?”
“Oh… I forgot… It’s sitting on the dock.”
I wanted to strangle the man. He didn’t forget the essential beer, but left the only thing I would willingly drink on the dock. I cracked open a Budweiser and sipped it.
I looked around and all three of my shipmates had beers in hand. This trip wasn’t starting out so well.
We were making a trip south from Annapolis to Solomons Island. This was a sixty mile stretch along the coast. We wanted to keep the coast in sight so we didn’t have to worry about navigation. The wind was against us, so we were going to have to motor the whole way south. We didn’t want to take the time to tack back and forth all the way down. Our speed was 20 knots (about 23mph) so we were making good time.
We forgot one little detail. It was mid April. The days were still short. Not only that, on our starboard there was a forty to sixty foot rise so the sun disappeared sooner than we thought it would. It was still light out, but finding the red markers was getting harder and harder as we headed south. We had no choice, we had to slow down and move closer to shore.
The light was fading fast, so we dropped our speed again. Now we were moving at 13 knots (about 15mph). We broke out the flashlights. These were the big lantern battery, watertight flashlights.
I was standing at the bow with Jim. I had one hand on the fore-stay and the other shining back and forth on the water looking for the markers. I kept calling out for the depth reading. Thurston dutifully shouted it out each time I asked. He was on the tiller. I was shouting, “Port!” whenever I saw a red marker and he would swing the boat away from it.
Mike was sitting in the Admiral’s seat at the top of the ladder below. He also had a flashlight and was making sure we weren’t too far from shore.
I heard Jim shout, “Kick it up 2 more knots!”
I heard the engines rev up and I asked, “Why?”
“We’re trying to get there in time for the opening of the Tiki Bar,” he answered. The opening of that bar was a huge event all along the Chesapeake.
“If we run aground, you’re going to regret this.”
“It’ll be fine,” he said with a stupid grin.
I started asking for the depth more often to compensate for the speed increase. Thurston shouted them back. “20…22…24…20…26…19…,” and so on. With an eight foot keel we were fine.
Fifteen minutes later, I shouted, “Depth!”
Thurston started to answer, “Eight…” He never got to finish that sentence.
Time slowed way down for me. At exactly the same moment the boat stopped dead, Jim went flying out over the water and I heard a yelp and a “thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, BANG!”. My flashlight sailed from my hand as I grabbed the fore-stay with both hands. The stern of the boat rose as I heard Jim splash headlong into the bay. I’m 6′ 2″ tall and my feet were in the water.
The next second I looked up and the stern was starting to come down as Thurston was doing a hand-stand on the tiller with an “Oh SHIT!” expression. When the stern hit the water there was a loud thump and I heard Thurston say, “Oooouch,” in his drawn out nasal speech. I was laughing my ass off.
I got my feet under me and looked forward where two flashlights bobbed in the water. I could hear sloshing. I assumed it was Jim and it sounded like he was wading through about 3 feet of water. We had hit a sandbar.
Jim made it to the bow, handed me my flashlight and started to clime aboard as I heard Mike cuss from down below. I don’t normally use language like you are going to read, but please bear with me, it’s important to paint the picture.
“What the fuck happened?” he asked.
I pointed my flashlight at him and burst out laughing. His head and the tops of his shoulders were all that were above the stairs. What I saw told me exactly what the thumping and the bang were. When the boat stopped, he did a headlong run toward the bow. I imagined his arms flailing to get a hold of something to stop himself and then doing a header into the forward bulkhead. He had a large egg forming on his forehead, turning black and blue as he talked. By now, Jim, dripping wet, had started to laugh as well.
“What the fuck is your problem?” he asked us.
I wanted to tell him to look in a mirror but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t speak. Jim managed to get out, “You’ve got a huge egg on your forehead.”
“No shit Sherlock! What the fuck happened?” he responded as he climbed the ladder and dropped into the stern. “The depth gauge says 18 feet. How the hell did we run aground?”
That’s when Thurston piped up, “Ohhh…I forgot…It’s ten off.”
Jim promptly grabbed him and threw him overboard.
It was twenty minutes before I could convince the others to let Thurston back aboard and that was only after we learned we could just back up and were free of the sandbar. We were lucky. We had just “polished the keel” as they say.
It took another two hours to get down to Solomons Island, but we made it. Thurston never said a word for the rest of the trip down. We docked for the night and I headed to the bar to see if they had bottled water and coke. I drank a full bottle of water and finished off a coke before heading back to the boat. I took the bunk in the bow and passed out.
It was 11am before we got moving again. The guys had been out late. We asked where to get a good meal that wasn’t seafood and were told how to get to a good restaurant. The trip involved going a short ways north then into a small channel that led us to a set of docks. Thurston was at the tiller.
I heard Mike say, “You aren’t going to clear that.”
I looked up and ahead and sure enough, the trees were just at the top of the mast. a moment later Thurston said, “Shit!” as the wind speed indicator was knocked off of the mast. It hung by the wire.
“So much for knowing the wind speed, Ahab,” Mike taunted.
Thurston didn’t respond. I think he was worried that Mike would throw him overboard this time. I wasn’t worried about the damage because Thurston had signed for the boat.
Lunch was good and everyone started to feel better after partying all night. When we got back out to the bay, we headed north. The wind was with us this time, so we raised the sail. We were moving at 18 knots (20 mph) and had all day so we enjoyed the wind and the feel of the boat under sail. It was good not to hear the diesel engines anymore.
It was twenty minutes later. Mike had the tiller and was sitting on the port side. I was sitting across from and rear of him. Thurston was right across from him because I had my legs stretched out.
I saw Mike reach back and release the gripper on the line that held the boom. four seconds later he swung the tiller hard to starboard. This had the effect of causing Thurston to lean forward at exactly the moment the boom move toward him and we heard a loud “Bink!” as Thurston’s forehead impacted the boom.
“Oooouch! What the fuck’d you do that for?” Thurston asked. When he pulled his hand away I could see a lump forming.
Mike straightened out the boat, pointed to the big egg on his forehead and said, “I’m ten off!”
I lost it.
Nautical terms used:
- The bow is the front of the boat.
- The stern is the back of the boat.
- Starboard is to the right.
- Port is to the left.
- The lights on the front of a boat are green on the starboard and red on the port.
- When coming head on at another boat, keep the green to your left.
- Along a coastline there are red markers telling you where the shallow areas are. Always keep red to your right.
- The mast is the big post in the center of a boat that the sail is mounted to. Ours only had one mast.
- You will hear me refer to the fore-stay. Think of a sailboat as a big triangle. One point is at the bow, the second at the stern and the third at the very top of the mast. The fore-stay is the cable that anchors the mast to the bow of the boat. There is another that attaches to the stern.
- In a larger sailboat with a cabin below, the area right at the top of the ladder leading below is called the “Admiral’s seat”.
- While some sailboats that are thirty feet long have a wheel to steer the boat, ours had a tiller instead. It’s essentially a stick three feet long that flips up on a hinge to move it out of the way when you are anchored or docked. It’s attached to the rudder.
- The boom is the long beam that attaches to the mast and extends toward the stern. It is where the bottom part of a triangular sail is mounted and where the sail is stored when not in use.
- There are lines on either side of the back of the boom to keep it from moving port or starboard. The lines are adjusted to make catching the wind easier. They run through pulleys on either side and then through a gripper catch to hold them secure. The grippers are behind you when you sit in the stern.
- Our boat had seats on either side of the stern, so three or four people could sit on either side, facing each other. The boom extended half the length of the seating and was just above eye level.
- There is a depth gauge to let you know the depth of the water below the main body of the boat. It keeps you from running aground on shallow areas not marked.
- Our boat had what is called a swing keel. It is attached to the center line of the hull and swings port or starboard as the boat tilts. It helps keep the boat moving on a line.
Lesson over. (phew)