So it's summer of 2006, and I purchased my first sailboat. I'd learned to sail with the Navy
several years back, and I'd gone out on several boats with my dad and some friends, but I never owned one and I'd always wanted to. So I decided to take the plunge. My better half (girlfriend at the time) seemed a bit leery at first, but she decided to take sailing lessons
. She loved it, and became really excited about having a boat. We lived in Portsmouth, NH at the time, and found Icefire, our Sabre
28, in Yarmouth ME, about 60 - 70 nm north. I had acquired a mooring
at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and just needed to bring the boat down the coast. Given the distance, and wanting to make the trip in a day, I planned to leave early in the morning (I was thinking underway at 0700 or so - it was early July, so that gave me another 12 hours +/- until darkness in that area of the world - at 5 kts, that's plenty of time, right?) and be willing to just motor
if the wind
wasn't favorable. Thus, I asked the boatyard to commission the boat and make sure the tanks
were topped off. I bought NOAA charts
of the entire route
(and studied them) as well as CMAP charts
for the boat's chartplotter
. I felt ready, so the night before, I loaded the dinghy
atop the truck and packed up as much as was feasible.
The plan started to fall apart almost immediately. Of course, even though we got up early, SWMBO and I didn't get out of the house until well past my planned underway time. And of course we had to stop for more munchies. So we got to the boatyard at ~10. Then I put the dinghy
in and paddled her over to the boat, and we got things situated aboard. And then we waited, because her parents really wanted to come on the cool first cruise
, and who were we to disappoint? While we were waiting, I noticed that the GPS
wasn't getting a fix, and the unit thought it was still 2004 (apparently the last time that the previous owner had taken her out). This puzzled me, because GPS
receives date/time info from the sattelites themselves, and I spent some time rifling through the manual trying to figure out how to reset it. I was annoyed at it, but not worried, because I had good charts and I know visual navigation
rules. So after a few minutes, I said "screw it" and went to check out other things on the boat....but I didn't check the gas tank (I assumed the boatyard topped it off when they did the water, like I asked).
Well, the in-laws finally arrived, and we got underway just after noon. The first bit of calamity occured not 1/4 mile from the dock, going down the river. We approached another small marina on the north side of the river, and I noticed a green buoy maybe 20 feet from the end of the pier. Now, I know it's "red right returning" in the states, but that green guy seemed just too close to the dock to actually be a channel marker......but it was. As we approached the dock, we stopped quickly, the keel
in silt. Well, great, the the tide was going out, and so were other boats, and there we sat (meanwhile, my girlfriend and her parents were looking at me, the professional naval officer, with no small amount of amusement and consternation). Fortunately, skulling the rudder
and jockeying the throttle on the motor
ahead and backwards got us clear, and I got back into the channel where I was supposed to be, feeling a bit chastened and embarrassed. But that's ok, we got down-river and out to Penobscot Bay, and once again all was good.
Except that there was almost no wind
, except in spurts. And while I and SWMBO had some sailing experience, her Mom had none, and her dad had very little. Tacking just wasn't going well in the light air, so after an hour or two of trying to make decent way under sail, I restarted the engine
and motored us past Portland
and Peaks Island, heading south to Portsmouth.
So once more life was good. A few hours later (about 1730), we're nearing Biddeford, Maine
, and I start thinking about the timeline. I knew there was no way we could make Portsmouth before dark, but I'd been studying the navigation
aids around Portsmouth a lot in preparation for getting my submarine underway from the shipyard in the fall, and I knew the Piscataqua river well. The approaches, though, I didn't feel good about, and with the GPS out, I was hesitant to continue. I thought about pulling into the harbor at Biddeford for the night. I saw a yacht club on the chart plotter; it wouldn't have been hard. I took a minute to try to get the GPS working. Sure enough, in a few minutes, I found out how to reset the unit, and soon we had a good fix and the chartplotter
was showing our track nicely. Feeling more confident, I decided to press, figuring that at worst we'd make Kennebunk by nightfall and we could stop there if we wanted to, or just push on to Portsmouth. Even if we lingered outside the river mouth until morning, it would be better than stopping, right?
We rounded the point passing south of Biddeford, and lo and behold, we encountered actual wind: a good 12-15 kt westerly that promised good close-reaching or close-hauled sailing for a while. So we hoisted sail once again.
Now, this was the first time for any of us on this particular boat, and the Sabre
28 likes to heel (I've since comes to appreciate that Icefire likes to go to 25-30 degrees and just sit there). It had been some time for me since I'd heeled over that far, SWMBO's only experience was in 420s and had thoughts of capsizing, and her folks didin't know what to think. The sudden heel to 25 degrees or so freaked us all out (even the dog). Everyone started screaming, so I dumped the mainsheet and turned up, and we lowered the sails
and returned to motor (having decided to just get there and get used sailing the boat later).
15 minutes later, the engine
Yep, you guessed it. Out of gas. Apparently, the tank WASN'T topped off before we left, afterall.
So now what? Well, looking at the chartplotter, I found the phone
number to Biddeford Pool yacht club. A quick cell phone
call later, they agreed to let us tie up at their sole remaining mooring buoy for the night. I told the guy on the phone
(who was on his way out the door to go home) that we were out of gas, and could he have someone come out to help us? The answer was, of course, no but the channel's easy and you ought to be able to sail right to the mooring, then take the dinghy to get gas.
So, I unrolled the genoa
and gybed back toward Biddeford. On a broad reach on genoa
alone, we made 5 knots back to the channel entrance, and I was feeling good again. But the sun was setting, and as I turned into the channel, I realised that we were turning dead into the wind, so we'd have to tack our way into the mooring area. We'd not had much luck with tacking well earlier, but we did ok for a while. But as the light faded, I began to think it'd probably be better to head
out the channel and figure out a different plan. We were tending to lose control of the boat at the end of tacks as we lost hull speed
, and I knew there was a big rocky island to the north, maybe a quarter of a mile away.
At some point, I realised it would be a hell of a lot easier to tack if I'd just raise the main and furl the genoa, with the mainsheet traveller right behind me and no winches to screw around with So after a tack, I had SWMBO and her dad raise the mainsail
. Well naturally, no sooner did we do that than we completely lost
it through the next tack. The genoa was luffing like mad, we were making almost no way, and the main was now only hurting matters because I had no steerageway, but the wind and current
were setting us north to the rocks. Looking at the chartplotter, I realised we were in big trouble and were going to hit the rocks.....soon. SWMBO and her dad were still up forward, so I shouted "Drop the anchor!"
"How????" was the response. Oh, crap!
By the time I rushed up to the bow and released the anchor
, we were maybe 50 ft from the rocky island, literally, and it was way too late. We slide into a crevice between two rocks and started getting pummeled by waves.
So now everyone was really REALLY scared. I made MAYDAY calls on CH 13, 16, 9 and received no response. So we broke out our trusty Boat-US cards and called for towing help. "Sure," they said, "we'd love to help. Our towboat is in Portland
. He can leave right now." Crap! It took us 2.5 hrs or so for us to get there from Portland, and towboats don't go fast, so that wasn't going to work. The BoatUS operator connected us to the Maine Marine
Patrol, who asked if we'd be willing to pay any costs of assistance. Naturally, we said "Hell yes!".
For about the next 20 minutes, we sat against the rocks, being knocked about. SWMBO's dad and I managed to pull us off the worst of them by hauling in the anchor
line as much as we could. We were hopeful we might be able to extricate ourselves completely, but the rudder
wedged between a couple of rocks, and we'd gotten as far out as we could.
Finally the Marine
Patrol showed up. When they arrived, I conveniently removed my Navy
ball cap and hid it, then helped them make up their lines to us. In short order, they had us off the rocks and heading to the Yacht Club pier. They had to cut our anchor line, but another boat of theirs stayed behind to retrieve the anchor itself.
When we got to the yacht club, the manager showed up (smelling of alcohol), and asked who the hell we were and generally behaved like an ass. He gave us 5 gallons of gas, but made it clear that he didn't want us there. The Marine Patrol officer told him that we were to remain at his pier, and gave us his card for help in the morning getting a tow to a local boat yard for haulout and inspection
. Well, no sooner did he leave than the manager told us we could use the mooring, but we couldn't stay at the pier, nevermind what Law Enforcement just said, or that we were a vessel that was just in distress
. I coudl have, and probably should have pressed the issue, but I was in no mood for a pissing contest. I quickly tested the rudder and made sure the engine would start, and then we cast off.
Well, quickly we realised we had problems still, because although I had the wheel
hard right, we were turning left! We were doing donuts in the water just off the dock, and the manager started yelling at us! After making it clear that we couldn't steer, he had his boys get into a boat and tow us to the mooring. We actually spent a rather nice night on the boat once we were moored, amazingly.
The next morning, I hopped in the water to survey
the rudder, hoping that there was an easy fix to the problem so we could maneuver ourselves to the boat yard. I'd checked the bilge
many times throughout the ordeal and the rest of the night, and we hadn't taken ANY water onboard, so I was hopeful that we may have escaped really serious damage.
My hopes seemed confirmed when I found a lobster pot buoy wedged between the rudder and the hull
. No wonder we were having trouble with helm
control during those last few tacks! We'd snagged a buoy!
The buoy removed, I clambered up the boarding ladder, full of high hopes. But as I turned the wheel
and observed the rudder post, I realised that it wasn't turning all the way.
So we went ashore on the yacht club's launch and got picked up by SWMBO's brother, and arranged for the boat to be towed and hauled.
It turns out that the rudder stock had bent and twisted , so that the rudder could not turn to starboard without contacting the hull
. The seals
held, though. The rudder had to be replaced, some denting in the keel re-shaped, and the bottom paint
redone, but that was it. I'll tell you, Progressive did a great job helping us out with the bill. I'd literally had a policy with them for 2 weeks, and they didn't give me any problems with an $8,000 claim.
The really annoying part of the whole thing is that we'd been delayed for a month getting the rudder fixed from some problems that the pre-buy survey
found, and now we were replacing it! Oh well....
I have subsequently taken Icefire out on several more successful journeys, but SWMBO hasn't come out that much because we were living apart for almost a year. We just went out last weekend, though, and she commented that she felt really confident before this incident, but not so much since it. So she's going to take some more classes
to get back into the swing of things, and we're going to cruise
around the Chesapeake as much as we can, now that we're in Annapolis
So all's well that ends well, I guess. I was really impressed with how tough Sabre made the boat. I know how bad it is to be caught on the rocks in wave action. A lesser boat may have broken apart!
Anyway, I learned a lot of lessons (all of which I already knew from my professional life):
1) Always check the status of all systems and tanks
before getting underway.
2) Always carry a backup fuel tank
3) Don't try to continue with a plan that's already going wrong
4) If you think you should stop for the night, do it! Don't try to push through because you think you can!
5) Be blatent about your need for help, and call for help early. I'll bet I could have gotten the Marine Patrol of someone to run me out a gallon of gas if I loitered outside the channel and called for it.
6) NEVER DO BUSINESS WITH BIDDEFORD POOL YACHT CLUB!!!!!!!!!! THEY'RE A BUNCH OF TOOLS!
That's it. My worst moment onboard my sailboat.