Posted by: wrmcnutt | December 10, 2009

Ship’s Log: September Blue – Ooops! Part II

When last we left our story, I was taking my bride on her first ever sailboat ride on our new-to-us sailboat one.  Lake Loudon, Tennesse. The air was very light and the day was chilly but not cold.  The Potter – 19 is not, strictly speaking a “keelboat,” yachting jargon for a boat with a “fixed keel.”  Technically, it is one of the largest of the “drop keel dingys.”  A flat-bottomed boat with a heavy steel daggerboard that can be raised and lowered.  It makes her far easier to trailer than a keelboat of the same size.  I can get her off and on the trailer in much shallower water.  But when the daggerboard is in the “up” position, three hundred pounds of steel is now above the waterline, and she is much less stable.  It’s not safe to raise sail when the daggerboard is up.  A sudden gust of wind could put her on the side.  The ramp we have been using does not have enough water by the dock this time of year to allow us to sail away from the dock.  We have to leave the dock, motor to the center of the lake, and then lower the daggerboard and raise sail.  It’s a pain, but it beats going swimming.

So, as is my custom, we motored out, lowered the dagger board, and got under way.  Because the air was so very light, after about 15 minutes of basic instruction, I gave my companion K the helm, and she did her first sailing.  We spent about twenty minutes going over the basic skills: vocabulary, tiller operation, and basic sheet maneuvers.  She learned to tack and jibe.  But she did all of this in very, very light air, and frankly, even learning something new in those teeny zephyrs was not exciting.  So she decided to go below and try out the V-birth and see how it napped.

We had initially attempted to head upstream on the Tennessee River, but the wind was too light to manage the narrow passage up the river mouth, and any progress we were able to make was almost offset by the current.  Not wanting to motor and with K napping, I steered upwind and started making my way back out onto the main body of the lake.  We’d seen a two-master moored at the yacht club, and K had expressed an interested in seeing if it was still there.  (Yes, I decided to check it out while she was napping.  When you’re out sailing, your goals do not have to be logically consistent. )  As I started my second tack, the wind started to come up.  Naturally, my randomly chosen goal was to windward, and I had to start beating to windward.

Fellow sailors, tell me, does the wind ever blow in the direction you want it to?

[iframe width=”1″ height=”1″ src=”″%5DBut the sailing had gotten good.  Several calls below to K did not raise her interest in coming back up to take the helm in better wind, so I set my mind to going as far up into the cove next to the river egress as I could get.

I learned a couple of things that day.  First, I came to appreciate how different the nature of the bottom of the river/lake can be.  Since I got September Blue, I’ve been sailing in the main river channel.  That channel is both dredged for commercial barge traffic, and on top of the original river channel that was there when the dam was built.  So I have not had any problem keeping thirty feet of water under my keel.  Often, in the narrows, I see seventy feet of water or even more.  Leave the channel, the lake gets much shallower.  The middle of the lake is only about twenty to twenty five feet deep this time of year, as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has lowered the water level in preparation for both winter storms and the spring thaw.  I continued past the Concord Yacht Club west into the little spur that’s off of the river there.  There’s a beach for swimming there on the north shore, and I was startled at how far out in the lake the shallows began.  I was still way outside the “no wake” markers when my depth finder started registering under ten feet of water.  So tacked back the other way, still working myself up into the spur of the river.

I tried several times to wake K from her nap. This was much better, more intense sailing, but she was out. “Zzzzzz . . . . ” And us with what I guess was about a 20 degree heel!

As I sailed up into the spur, I’m pretty sure that I annoyed a family of fishermen, although I didn’t say anything.  I had gotten into some fairly shallow water, and the lake had gotten pretty narrow.  I was still beating to windward, and that boat kept ending up right where I needed to sail.  I tacked around them twice, but the wind was driving me so fast and the water was so shallow that with the complication of the fishing boat, I was constantly having to adjust course to avoid running into something, and not getting any farther upwind.  Eventually I admitted out loud, “Ok, I give.  I just need more lake.”  So I came about and headed downwind.

I set a course directly downwind and about twenty yards south of the outermost buoys of the Yacht Club.  I wanted to go by close enough to to check out the boats, but far enough out to have room to maneuver should I suddenly need to change direction.  Didn’t want to get pinned between the dock and, say, a power yacht or commercial barge.

A Lateen-rigged Sunfish

Now, most of my small craft experience was on lateeners.  Single-sail boats with a spar/boom rig like the one pictured here.  When running downwind on a lateener, you just let the sheet out and let the sail stand out at roughly a ninety degree angle on one side of the mast and let the wind push you along.  When you are sailing a boat with multiple sails, you have more options for sailing downwind.   When you turn downwind and the wind is coming from behind at a 45 degree angle to the keel of the boat, and the sails are set almost 60 degrees from the keel, you are said to be in a broad reach. This set is still efficient in a sloop because the wind blows between the sails and allows both the foresail (jib) and main to continue to pull the boat along.  Once you pass a broad reach and the wind is directly behind the stern, the wind is no longer able to blow across the sails, but instead blows into them. In this configuration, the boat is said to be running. In a sloop, you can, when running downwind, deploy the foresail (jib) on one side of the mast, and the mail on the other.  This is said to be sailing or running wing and wing. From above or behind, the sails look kinda like birds wings.

It was a new maneuver for me, and on a West Wight Potter – 19, it requires close observation and management.  If the wind were to shift, or I were to veer off course, it could lead to an unintentional jibe.  These suck.  Jibing is where the helmsman moves the aft end of the boat through the wind, causing the boom on the mainsail to move from one side of the boat to the other.  Planned and remotely properly executed, it’s harmless.  The sudden, accidental jibe is dangerous.  Not only can the boom sweep the deck clean of equipment and inattentive crew, the sudden change in the heel (tilt) of the boat can cause falls and equipment damage below deck.  And I was sailing in the stiffest winds I’d yet had September Blue out in.

To manage sailing wing-and-wing, I had to watch the main sheet, the jib sheet, the tiller, and the wind vane at the top of the masthead.  I was doing a pretty good job, too.  I’d gotten the sails trimmed nice and wide, and I had the boat doing about 3.5 knots.  Slightly more than half her maximum speed.  Not bad for a downwind run by a novice.

So I have a riddle for you.  When you take a mountain river and damn it up, what do you get?  Why you get a lak in your mountains.  And what else do you get?


You get mountains in your lake!

Twenty yards south of the yacht club, and almost fifty yards from shore, I went from having twenty feet of water under my keel to having three feet of water under my keel.  And since my boat requires four feet of water to stay clear of the bottom , I was aground, hard. Four things happened simultaneously:

  • September Blue swung broadside to the wind.
  • She jibed and began to heel over, the dagger board holding her locked in place broadside to the wind and her sails pushing her over.
  • Half of the dagger board hold downs tore free of their mountings and bounced around the cabin like jumping beans in a maraca.
  • K was thrown forward in the V-berth and hit the chain locker.  And stayed asleep. “ZZzzzzz . . . . .”

To get September Blue off of the mountaintop I have just  run into, I’m going to have to raise the dagger board until I can get into deeper water.  But for that to happen, someone is going to have to go below into the cabin (or maybe just wake the hell UP) and release the remaining dagger board hold downs.  But there’s a more immediate issue, the wind is trying to push us over on our side.  I have GOT to deal with these sails, no matter what the nasty grinding noises coming from below mean.  I quickly released the jib and main sheets and lets the sails flap free.  This greatly reduced the sideways pressure on the rigging, but did not completely resolve the problem.  Even flapping free, they were being used by the west wind to try to push the boat sideways, and were grinding her dagger board and rudder on the mountain peak.

“K! Wake up!  I need help!”

With the jib cracking like a whip I released the main halyard an hauled down on the main, while groping for a bungee cord I could use to tie it to the mast.

Okay, the main was down.  The jib continued to pop and crack, whipping the sheets around like tentacles.

“K!  Wake up!”

Damn – I can’t drop the jib. It’s on that roller-furler. There’s no halyard.


Yank on the single line.  Jib furled.  Should have done that first.  Grab the tiller, attempt to turn her into or away from the wind.


“Oh, this does not feel right.  Feels like that time when one of the rivets tore out of the Snark rudder. Quick look over the transom.  Sure enough, the lower pintle (pin) has come out of the gudgeon (socket), leaving the rudder held by only one pin.  One pin and the strength of my right wrist is all that’s holding the boat on course.  And we’re still grinding on the mountain top because I can’t raise the dagger board because the forward hold downs are still in place because nobody has released them.


Deep breath.  Remember your theatrical training.  Shoulders back. Head straight.  Open the back of your throat and remember to PUSH from the diaphragm, not pull from the vocal chords.  Oh, and some of the vocabulary you learned when you worked for the Navy might be in order.



“ZZZZzzzzz . . . .  what?”

“Sweetie, I very much need you to take the remaining hold downs lose from the dagger board, so I can free the boat, k?”

“Huh, oh.  Okay.”

I always forget in times of crisis, and it would server me well to remember: the magic word in dealing with an ER nurse is “stat.”  It will cut through all fog, sleep, and medication, bringing immediate attention, wakefulness, and at least brief sobriety.  One day I’ll remember it, and save myself a lot of grief.

Once the hold downs were release, I pulled the dagger board up two feet, and our windage from our bare poles started to push us off of the mountain top. Since the dagger board was only partially up, I risked the jib to get us moving, and soon had ten feet of water under us, and dropped the dagger board back down.

Compared to that, the rest of the sail was uneventful.



  1. wow.
    so what would have happened to you if the daggerboard wasn’t “raise-able” ie fixed in place. ????

    • Actually, that was why I was striking those sails so fast. I was reacting like a keelboat. Step 1 would have been to strike the sails. Step 2 would be to drop the motor in the water. Step 3 would have been to motor backwards off of the mountain top.

      In the pre-motor days, I would have had to get out onto the mountaintop and shove. Or wait for another boat to come pull me off.

  2. Love reading your stories. When I first read you saying you were locking down the keel in a lake I went ‘uh oh’ – I have a a P15 here in DC and the Potomac is pretty shallow in places and I do *not* lash the keel down – I know its a bit diff than a P19 because it can swing up but still, dude, don’t lash it down unless the wind is crazy strong, you can do some serious damage to your beautiful new boat! Cheers and fair Winds!

    • Hmmm. Ok – I’ll have to think that through. The manual is pretty firm about locking it down when the sails are up. But you’re right, chunks of lockdown hardware went all over the cabin.

      • Well if it is super windy you can lock it – does your boat have a depth finder with alarm? this guy’s has one – he has some great videos and in one the alarm is even going off so he tacks pretty quickly… if its not windy I’d say not to lock it – mine bounces backwards so its a bit less traumatic if I hit something, except the time I hit a log and then tried to motor backwards and it actually stuck worse – doh! you will learn where its shallow pretty quickly I bet! fair winds, jealous youre still at it, we are done here in DC!

      • Oh – all my friends and relatives think I’m crazy for sailing in this cold. By all rights, I should be done. But . . . it’s new. I had a depth gague running, but I took my eyes off of it for five seconds. That underwater mountain is steep.

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