Archive for August, 2010

A Quick Course in Capsizing

Friday, August 20th, 2010

I tied in a reef, reducing the sail area so the boat would handle easier in the gusts, and got ready to step onto the foredeck to release the mooring line.  The weather conditions were spectacular: temperature in the mid seventies,  a rich blue sky, a procession of wampum-colored clumps of cloud moving along the northern horizon, the air clean and dry, the visibility vivid and unlimited. The only hitch was that the wind was gusting to fifteen, sixteen, eighteen knots. I thought I’d make a shortcut by cleating off the mainsheet before I let go the mooring so I could get past the rocks that lay close by. I waited for a lull and jumped onto the deck.

I was still untying the line when the gust hit.  I was crouched on the lee side, making the boat list, and the boat rounded into the wind. She heeled over harder and I jumped up to shift my weight to the windward side but because the sheet was cleated the sail stayed stiff, taking the full force of the wind. The boat tipped higher and I slid off the deck into the water.

When I surfaced I thought I’d lost my glasses, but my bleary eyesight was only the seawater sluicing off my lenses. At first I couldn’t believe I had put the boat on her side. The mast and sail lay flat in the water. What had happened?

Then I realized what I had to do—and it wasn’t to flog myself for making a greenhorn’s mistake even though I’d been sailing for five decades.  I swam around to the centerboard sticking out into the water and set my feet on it. Then I reached over the rail to heft backwards to try to lift the boat with the force of my weight. But a twelve-and-a-half-foot catboat has a cockpit as big as a jumbo hot tub, and it was already awash in water by the time I made my first attempt. That wasn’t going to work.

I retrieved the boom crutch and a cushion that were floating off  and stuffed them into the submerged compartment beneath the foredeck. I scanned underneath for my two bailers and my hand pump, but I couldn’t see them. Then I swam back around to the sail and fumbled to release the sheet, then tugged the sail through the water to pull it down from the mast.  I lashed the sail and swam around to try to right her again.

No go. I had to try to bail her out, but the water—clear and relatively warm for New England—was washing over the coaming and pouring in through the centerboard trunk. She was nearly sunk. But when I leaned my whole weight on the starboard side I could get the coaming—the wooden lip that runs around the perimeter of the cockpit—far enough out of the water so no more water sloshed in. If the wind had been blowing southwest, the way it usually does in the summer, waves would have been climbing in. The northerly wind, though the cause of my capsizing, broke up over the landmass, and the water was only scalloped with wavelets.

In the midst of all my attempts to right our boat, I noticed that the submerged cockpit was thick with translucent bell-shaped organisms that I believe are ctenophora, or comb jellies, organisms that don’t sting but glow phosphorescence at night.

I was heaving back on the rail again when Jay Smith, a fellow catboat sailor and a retired physician in tiptop shape, swam out and grabbed two bailers off his boat, which is moored next to ours.

With the two of us bailing, I finally succeeded in getting enough water out of the boat so the entire bay was no longer pouring in the centerboard trunk, through the rudder hole, and the mast hole in the foredeck. I liberated my hand pump, crawled into the cockpit, and finished off the job. At last Finn was bobbing like a gull.

Don’t ask me how many times I kicked myself for making such a blunder. But at least I never needed to use the brush and dustpan I’d brought down to clean the cockpit of accumulated sand. After her saltwater bath, our little boat was clean as she has ever been.