Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 30, 2011

Ship’s Log: Charleston Lady – The Gathering Storm – A Tale of Low Adventure


I don’t get to sail nearly as much as I would like.  The biggest problem is the “job” thing.  Apparently, I need to “work” in order to get “money” in order to pay for the slip fees, maintenance, and pretty new bangles for my boat.  Oh, and food.  I have to have some money left for food.  And then there’s the fact that I live in East Tennessee.  I am often quoted as saying that there are three types of wind:  not enough wind, too much wind, and wind blowing the wrong damn way.  In East Tennessee, it’s mostly the former.  Many times when I go sailing, I bring a book to pass the time. And finally, I have those dreaded Other Responsibilities.  A Peer in the SCA has an obligation to Apprentices, his Order, and his Art, not to mention The Crown.

The upshot of all of this is that I go sailing in marginal conditions.  I go sailing when there is no wind.  I go sailing when it is 34 degrees.  I’ve sailed in snow, in the dark, and once in an ice storm.  (It was a mild storm, but those were ice pellets accumulating on my hood.)  So it comes as no surprise that last Wednesday when my friend S called, I was jonesing for some time on the water.  He watches the weather, and when conditions are good, he calls and tries to be a bad influence. I stuck it out at my job until quitting time, but then headed to the dock.

For those of you reading this at a distance of space or time, last Wednesday was when the largest and most powerful storm system hit the South in about eight years.  There were around 211 tornado sightings in the South on those two days, hail the size of golf balls, and over 300 people died.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I do that a lot.

S beat me to the gate and so was waiting on my when I keyed the automatic gate in the fence and we drove onto the marina grounds.  The sky was clear, with white, puffy clouds.   There was a stuff breeze blowing in from the southwest  at about twelve knots.  All in all, ideal sailing conditions.  Except for that dark line down by the horizon, way off to the south.

The winds in East Tennessee, when they show up at all, are typically afraid of the dark.  They can often blow merrily all during the work day, and just when I get off work at 5:00, they die down to nothing, so I generally work pretty quick to cast off.

In the distance, a freight car rumbled by.

Without much thought, we transferred the beer to the icebox, hooked up the outboard, uncovered the sail, and cast off.  The weather to the south looked pretty bad, but the wind at ground level was from the southwest, and I figured we had a least a 50 – 50 chance that the rain would pass to the south of us.  The leading edge of the clouds were at least ten miles away.  As soon as we cleared the slip, I put S on the helm, and we proceeded up the fairway.

A train went down the tracks nearby.

It was at this point that I noticed that the wind was rising.  Now, that’s generally good news on a sailboat, especially when the sun is shining down and white puffy clouds are scudding across the sky.  Like now. I ordered S to set a course south by southwest into an elbow of the Tennessee River.  If you don’t have a destination in mind, it’s always best to start out beating to windward, because it takes about four times as long to sail to windward as it does to sail downwind.  That way when you have to quit for the day, it doesn’t take you as long to get back to the dock.  The sunlight simply sparkled on the wavelets as our little boat moved through the mooring field and S turned us into the wind in preparation for raising sail.

Then I looked, you know, up.

Two heavily loaded freight cars collided the sound making the ground shake.  There is not a train track within ten miles of the marina.

The storm front that had been ten miles away less than ten minutes ago was now just a mile off, and while the ground level winds were still blowing across its path, it was unmistakeably clear that the winds at altitude were blowing almost due north, and straight for us.

“Mr. S, we’re screwed.  180 degrees about and best speed back to the slip.”  I talk like Captain Kirk when I’ve actually got crew aboard.  It’s kind of stupid, but I have command pretensions.

And so off we went.

I took over the helm from S to get through the docking.  Braking with an outboard requires a little practice and I’ve only got the one boat.  Plus, I’ve done fiberglass repair, and don’t want to do it again.  We docked fairly quickly and got the port side bow line and both stern lines in place.  Then the wind hit.  The little boat began to pitch and jerk on the three lines we had in place.

I’ve never heard anything quite like it before, but now I think I have some idea of what the writers say about a trip around the Horn:  the wind howls in the rigging.  My rigging consists of an aft stay, upper stays (2), lower stays (2), and baby-stays (2), plus the roller-furler for my foresail.  The stays are made of stainless steel cable, about an eighth of an inch thick.  The upper and aft stays help the mast stay up.  The lower stays help keep it straight, and the baby stays keep the mast in line with the keel when it’s being raised and lowered.  All are moderately loose, only tightening up when the mast tries to move.  It sounds like a lot, but it’s actually a very simple rig compared to the larger boats.  Right now, it’s a giant eight string guitar, and all of the strings were vibrating, and the wind whistled around each one, with clashing harmonics.

It sounded like a seven-part banshee chorus warming up to sing a concert of Metallica covers.  The rigging of the other thirty boats on my dock were singing backup, and I was, I confess, intimidated.

I wanted off that dock, but the knots have to be right, or the boat will work herself loose, especially under these conditions, so I forced myself to slow down and do it by the numbers.  We got the starboard bow line tied down and started in on the spring lines. (Bow and stern lines keep the boat from moving too far to the left or right.  Spring lines keep her from moving forward and backward.)  Ideally – a properly tied boat will be suspended away from the dock, unable to beat against it, but close enough to step on to.  Fenders are only for backup, in case a line fails.

The little boat bobbed in the rising swells.  That’s right – swells on Fort Loudon lake, the lake I complain about always looking like glass.

I off-loaded the valuable cargo (our beer) and sent S to get under cover.  I disconnected the outboard and stowd the fuel line.  I knew better than to raise the engine under these conditions.  It would just fall back down, jarring the motor mount.  Large, fat raindrops began to splatter onto the dock and cabin top.  I still needed to cover the sail.  It was beginning to work its way loose from the tie downs and would tear itself to pieces in this wind, and might take the mast with it if it got loose.  The sail cover about seven feet long, three feet wide, and made out of canvas.  At this point, the wind was blowing in excess of twenty miles an hour, and putting the sail cover on was like trying to staple and epileptic eel to a sewer pipe, but I got it done, closed the main hatch, and sprinted for cover.

The floating dock was seriously beginning to pitch, but I cleared it quickly and made it to the two vehicle, where S was waiting with the beer.  We got inside, popped two brews, and settled in to wait out the storm.  It’s an old saying:  “it’s a far better thing to be standing on the shore wishing you were on the water, than on the water wishing you were ashore. “

Our plan was was to sit quietly and watch the storm while sipping a brew.  I took my first sip, set my beer down, and looked out toward the lake, grateful that I was not on it.

Me: “S – that yacht is loose.”

S: “What?  Where?”

Me: “That one, bearing down on the dock and the boat ramp.”

There was a twenty five foot racer, no sails showing, headed for the dock at about five knots.  No one was at the helm and no one appeared to be aboard.  She was not showing any canvas and appeared to be utterly out of control.

S: “Think we can save it?”

Me: “I’m going to try.”

I immediately stripped off my shirt, flung it into the back seat, and stepped out into the rain.  It was cold and wet out there, and I wanted a dry shirt to get back into.  I stepped back out into the storm.  The cold rain slammed into me.  I jumped back into my van, kicked off my shoes, and took off my pants.  I wanted dry clothes when this was over.  Jamming my feet back into my shoes, I raced out into the storm.

Fortunately, I am a boxer/briefs kind of guy, and my wife started buying me dark underwear to reduce the size of the “white load” in the laundry.  Accordingly, my underwear actually covers more than my bathing suit.  So yes, if you were insane enough to be out in the weather at the marina, or worse, on the lake, I was the guy on the dock wrestling a yacht in his underwear.  (How that yacht got in my underwear, I’ll never know.  – Thank you Groucho Marx)

I beat the incoming yacht to the dock by a narrow margin and reached out to stop it.  This is a specific skill, and the consequences for getting it wrong can be severe.  For starters, never get any part of your anatomy you care about between the boat and the dock.  Most of them weigh over 2000 pounds and will crush any puny human flesh like an egg.  What you can do is push against them.  Given enough time, you can slow their momentum.  Between S and I, we were able to slow the boat down so that the bump against the dock was just that, a light bump.

Then it got harder.  With the freeboard and rigging acting as windage, the storm was working awfully hard to grind the boat up against the fixed dock, and there were no cleats on the fixed dock, anyway.  To tie up the boat, we’d have to move it out onto the floating dock.

At this point, the wind was probably running about 28 – 30 mph.  The lake I say always looks like a mirror looked like the ocean. Those swells I mentioned earlier had turned into into breaking waves at least two feet from crest to trough.  It was a real challenge to maintain our footing on the floating dock.  S just about got thrown into the air.  We had to hand-over-hand the yacht past a tall bollard and when we got to her waist, I had to lean out disturbingly far, but we managed to tie her off without incident and returned to cover.

Dry now, and clothing restored, it occurred to me to ask myself just why I had done that.  It had been dangerous – perhaps greatly so.  Not merely the boat, the wind, and the water, but the lightning as well.  It wasn’t my boat.  Neither me nor mine had been at any risk.  I’m not real tight with any of the other folks at the yacht club yet.  Between my other personal obligations and wanting to sail, I haven’t been to many group activities, and would be hard-pressed to call any of them by name.  (I’m beginning to know their boats though:  Defiant, Second Wind, Hydro-Therapy . . . I wonder what that says about me?)

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