|nonoctave.com / Rebel Yell / Part I / Chapter 4|
|Rebel Yell||Jason Scott||Part I - First, Get Your Feet Wet... Real Wet!|
....It’s my song! They’re playing my song again!
With some of us there is a single mindedness which can lead to more than one downfall. Sometimes there is an eagerness to get on with a show which appears to others to be an exhibition in foolhardiness or a genuine lack of concern for personal welfare. If one does not have that kind of personality, it is impossible to explain just how much it means to complete a project once started. It is true that in following that precept, eagerness can outrun reason.
Most storied discoveries for mankind involved a great deal of that kind of eagerness. Oftentimes those discoveries are made just when defeat is about to be acknowledged. It is at that moment that a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel shows itself and that glimrner is all that is needed to try just one more time. True, the light is more in the mind of desire than in reality. Whichever, it appears to the beholder to be real enough and that one last try is made!
That is the way it is with me and sailing! Of course, it makes it a lot easier to go an extra step if one is in good health. Things were different when the attempt was made to bring SIBLING from Seattle to San Diego under rather adverse sea conditions. It was hard to admit it. While waiting for the paid crew to sail the yacht into San Diego’s Mission Bay, a light appeared. Just when it looked as though my sailing days were through, I got a reprieve! Someone was playing my song again!
The weeks following the fiasco off the Columbia River and the return to San Diego with quest unfulfilled were a real low. The reality that I had been unable to complete the sail really got to me in spite of the fact that it was human failure which prevented completion, not the boat or lack of seamanship.
After a week of feeling sorry for myself and moping around, positive thinking started seeping through the gunnels. All was not lost! When the boat arrived, I reasoned, we could spend pleasant weekends and days sailing with the family and friends. There were the channel islands and, even closer, a short trip into Baja. And, let’s face it, 99% of the time the weather was fantastic! With those things in mind, a slip for the boat was obtained in beautiful Mission Bay. That done, plots were laid about what could be accomplished in the summer. After all, the delivery was short and relatively easy and, surely, weather wouldn’t present much of a problem that time of year.
A letter arrived saying that the hired crew would start for San Diego approximately the first day in June. I wondered why the delay but, even so, the estimated time of arrival of late June still left the greater part of the summer for sailing. It was better that the crew make the trip in a leisurely fashion. Even Chris seemed to be satisfied that we could all combine our heart’s desires. Her peace of mind living comfortably in San Diego...Jeff attending a school he liked, and I could relax with cronies and family enjoying the easy sailing in Southern California. What more could anybody desire?
Another message arrived from the crew advising us that they were clearing port in Astoria on June 2 with a first stop in San Francisco no later than 10 June. A conservative and most reasonable schedule. They were experiencing no undue difficulty in their preparations. Lucky sea dogs!
June 10 rolled around and passed. Then June 20th and still no word. We became quite concerned as to what was happening. All sorts of things were conjured up. We looked at the weather reports from the area and even read the San Francisco papers to see if there were any reports of a shipwreck. It wasn’t looking all that well for the boat. I was about to call the Coast Guard in San Francisco to determine if they had any word on the progress (or lack of it) when, on the morning of June 21, the phone rang. It was from Lieutenant Garcia of the Coast Guard station in some obscure little village in Oregon.
He advised me that SIBLING had surfed through the inlet of the river at Bandon, Oregon, had been tied haphazardly to an open dock and summarily abandoned by a crew that looked to be in a state of shock! The appearance of the sloop in the channel drew a considerable crowd of locals who had been betting heavily on the odds against the boat making it in one piece through the a minimum of four waves breaking across the inlet.
“Your crew stayed around long enough to ask where the nearest bar was located,” the Lieutenant advised. “They left town with nary another word and we’ve not seen them or heard from them since. Are these friends of yours?”
“God, no! They were hired to bring my boat down to San Diego!”
“Well, they didn’t make it. There’s an awful surge here and we’ve gone through two sets of lines trying to keep her afloat. If something isn’t done and done soon, she’ll pound herself to pieces.” He paused to let that sink in. “What do you want us to do in the meantime, and when are you going to get up here and take care of this? You know you, as owner, are responsible for keeping her afloat so’s she’s not a danger to herself or the other craft in the area.”
The wife, Chris, had been listening to all of this on the extension and immediately started packing me a bag. After what we had just gone through up in Astoria, however, she was not really enthusiastic about what had to be done. I advised the Lieutenant that I would leave immediately for Bandon.
“You don’t need to say anything,” Chris cautioned. “I knew what you were about. Just don’t involve me again. If you have another problem, Captain Cardiac, just tell them where to drop the body off. I don’t even want to pick it up!”
It wasn’t necessary to confide in her at that time that I was feeling rather elated by this turn of events. The boat was safe, and there now was another opportunity to finish what had been aborted before. This time, I told myself, I’ll be sure of the crew. No more problems in that area! (The eternal optimist was I!)
Chris placed one more condition on my leaving. The boat was not to be brought to San Diego. She had enough of my sailing adventures! The boat was to be brought to San Francisco, cleaned up, and sold. I knew this was coming and, under the circumstances, could not fault her reasoning. It was enough that this one last opportunity could be grasped. I didn’t know at the time that the sea had hooked me so thoroughly! And, I told myself, my final destination involved sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge! HOT CINDERS!
One cannot get to Bandon directly by air. From San Francisco I had to take a puddle jumper to Eureka, then a Greyhound to Bandon. The Coast Guard was immediately notified of my arrival, I took a cab directly to the dock for a cursory look at my girl, and satisfied that she was OK, turned in for the night at the local Motel-of-No-Consequences.
From the reports of local witnesses, a review of the charts, an examination of the log and the reading of a note left by the brave crewmen, I was able to reconstruct the events leading to the abandonment of SIBLING. Instead of sailing well off the coastal shelf, they...being the local coastal fishermen they were (how could Chris have known otherwise?)...had clung to a course within sight of land. They had started around Cape Blanco (notorious for its winds and confusing seas) and really hit it tough. Under those circumstances, as the sea is wont to do, breaking waves started coming at the yacht from all four quadrants at the same time. It scared the hell out of them! Instead of turning seaward into deep water where it was safer and smoother, they turned directly downwind. It was then, in a 30-knot wind, that they jibed. This is a rough maneuver even in light winds, but in this case the least inevitable thing happened; the boom swung violently to the other side and the topping lift snapped. Of course, this prevented them from being able to douse the main easily, at which point the “sailors” panicked and decided to make for the nearest inlet instead of the much safer Coos Bay harbor just a few miles north of Bandon.
The bar at Bandon is so dangerous that, up to that time, no ocean going sailing vessel had crossed it safely in anything but very mild weather. Usually there are at least three breaking waves in the channel at any one time. Some outstanding seamanship or sheer luck is needed to keep any boat from broaching while going through. The crew had been very lucky!
Their note was interesting. It read, “This boat does not sail well into the wind!”
The yacht had been tied up with very expensive woven dacron sheets. As they frayed from the surge and tides, the CG had cut and retied them on numerous occasions. All of them had to be replaced, but that was better than having to replace the boat!
Repairs on the rigging could not be made in Bandon. They had no facilities, because no one in his right mind would keep a sailboat in that harbor. The only solution was to jury rig and sail for Eureka where proper repairs could be made. All we had to do was get out of the harbor in one piece and get around Cape Blanco in less than favorable weather. Eureka itself was not all particularly becoming as an all-weather harbor but, once inside, it was palatable. The boat was straightened out, reprovisioned (the crew had done quite well going through the 45-day supply), and jury rigged for the short trip. Word was passed that crew was being solicited for the next port.
Finding a sailing crew in a small town such as Bandon is not easy but, finally, an ex-Navy Lt. Cdr. and his wife were recruited. They assured me that they had considerable experience sailing off Nag’s Head, and confided that the weather and sea conditions were much like those common to the east coast. They were the best I could find under the circumstances but I suspected that pulling a crew off the docks like this was a mite better than dragging drunks out of a tavern.
There was no way in the small confines of the river to check their prowess but it was encouraging that they talked salty enough to be sailors. I was to discover that being in the Navy a sailor does not make! Lots of seamen, but few sailors!
Some three weeks passed before the bar was calm enough to attempt an outward crossing. The best we could hope for was a single breaking wave before getting clear, an exciting prospect. I don’t know how the word passed so rapidly, but as soon as it was known that we were going to try the channel, a great number of local inhabitants lined the jetty to watch. According to them, the odds were such that we would, in all probability, end up on the rocks as so many others had. The sea ghouls were gathering! My mind was made up to disappoint them.
The jetty extended out to just past the normal breaker line and the depth at high tide across the bar was only 20 feet. The distance across this sand trap was less than 100 feet but luck had it that a small craft advisory had been posted the afternoon of the day we chose to leave. Waiting for better weather, though, would probably have meant leaving sometime in late August!
We left the harbor inlet shortly before noon and cleared the incoming breaking waves smartly to the cheers of the 50 or more people who had gathered. I felt a distinct exultation at our success and was reassured by the fact that the boat had made it out into the open sea and was away from the dangers inherent to landfall. We moved toward the bosom of Mother Sea and SIBLING leapt for joy over the incoming swells.
What a feeling! The old guy with the beat up heart had another chance to turn defeat into sweet victory! It was my song the gods were playing and now I could join in the chorus. Standing at the wheel, heading directly out into a breaking sea, the prow dipping into each salty wave, I shouted the words which swelled into my heart:
This was my first real opportunity to test the crew, so no time was lost in placing the Commander’s wife, Jill, at the helm so as to determine her competency. Much can be learned about someone’s ability and experience in a very short time as they handle the wheel. In her case, it took less than five minutes. She snaked through the sea as though she were dodging gates on a ski slope. Not wishing to embarrass her any further, the wheel was turned over to the Commander himself and she went below to prepare some sandwiches. There was a marked improvement in topside performance; below decks, it was something else.
Peor es mas que nada, as the Mexicans say. A little bit of something is better than nothing. At least there was one crewmember who could share the watches with me and, after all, it was to be only overnight. My rose-colored glasses were working once again!
The wind freshened at a constant rate. We were heading out on a relatively straight westward course on a port tack. With weather brewing, it was necessary to get outside the rough shoal water off Cape Blanco as soon as possible and, while the wind still seemed within reason, we took a double reef in the main just to be on the safe side. The working jib was up and we were riding fairly stiff, as we should be. It started to drizzle, so the hatch was closed. I hoped Jill would hurry up with the sandwiches as venturing out in rough seas on an empty stomach is not a good idea.
After about an hour and a half on the outbound tack, we came about and set a new course somewhat southward down the coast, still maintaining a respectful distance from shore. The wind by this time had come up considerably and so had the sea. As usual, the forecasts were somewhat misleading. (By this time I had enough experience to listen to the CG weather reports with jaundiced ear.) Meanwhile, ther came lingering suspicions that all was not well below, as two hours had gone by and Jill still had not appeared with our food. She was either damned slow or one hell of a gourmet cook! In either case, it seemed appropriate to take a look.
Jill was nowhere in sight, but had left her mark on the trail. It looked as though the White Tornado had struck and dumped his garbage inside after a rough night. Pickles, broken glass, eggs, instant oatmeal, bread and condiments were strewn from one end of the cabin sole to the other...all mixed with Skippy’s chunky peanut butter and spiced with the unmistakable slime of vomit! Jill had managed to make it up the trail to the forward bunk, tied herself in and crapped out!
The boat was now pitching convulsively. All that could be done below was to close the cupboadr doors, sweep up as much glass as possible and, on hands and knees, clean up some of the slippery goo before retching from the odor.
Meanwhile, two things happened topsides. The wind had shifted rather drastically, and we tacked. Everything not tied down or secured in a closed cupboard took a fast dive to the cabin deck and mixed quickly with the trail of regurgitation which had been left behind. No “galley slave” with even a modicum of experience would ever pull things from the cupboard in a sailboat and leave them unattended for even a moment while under sail. So much for her Nag’s Head experience!
Gasping for air, I made it back to the cockpit and informed her husband of the problem. Now, there was a macho man if ever I saw one! He merely shrugged in a most noncommittal way and continued the watch as if nothing had occurred. She could have been overboard for all he was concerned.
The wind and sea continued to increase. Soon, it was obvious that we were dealing with much more than a small craft advisory. In the space of a few hours, the wind went from 30 knots to a little less than 40 knots.
“Roughest small craft warning I’ve ever seen,” I commented. The Commander’s response was John Waynish.
“If you can’t trust your good old CG weather, just who can you trust?” I asked.
No comment. So much for the snappy conversation!
Another look below was in order. It seems that, by this time, the oatmeal had combined rather nicely with the scrambled raw eggs and was working itself up into a new type of souffle. Unless out of dire emergency, there was no way I’d be caught down there again with the deck in that condition. Something else had to be done.
The bailing bucket was filled and sea water was tossed into the cabin. At least the impromptu omelet somehow disappeared into the bilge where it was handled overboard with the excess water. The odor gradually dissipated. God knows how long a bilge pump would handle the garbage. By now the sea was breaking regularly over the boat, so the hatch had to be closed again. Out of sight and smell and out of mind!
In all this there was one fortunate thing; we were now headed more or less downwind. Surprisingly enough, SIBLING was riding well within her design hull speed, even with just the working jib up and two reefs in the main. The anemometer was intermittently registering 40 knots, and we were surfing. This had to be watched carefully, as a dangerous condition could arise if we went much over hull speed; a pitchpole would be a somewhat tragic maneuver! There were several alternatives to consider.
Pulling down the main was not advisable, except as a last resort (the topping lift was missing). Some sail is always good as a stabilizer (fishing boats use this technique). The primary reason for not dropping the main was that, without a topping lift, the only thing which held the boom up was the sail itself. In a pitching and rolling boat, trying to put a free-swinging boom into a crutch would be most difficult to manage, even if there had been a trained and practiced crew onboard. Then, there is the problem of keeping the crew aboard. Normally, this open ocean full-keel cruiser would sail quite well in winds of 40 knots under this configuration. After all, went the reasoning, the CG had forecast just a small craft warning so, in all probability, what we were experiencing was the worst of it. If it did get higher, drogues could be deployed. And, higher it did get!
As the sea came up accordingly, we were pressed to steer while surfing down the crest of each wave and struggling up the next. Wheel hard over one way on the swell and hard over the other way when she passed. It was hard work even for someone who was in good shape, which (at that time) I was not. The difficulty was so great that each of us could pull no more than two hours on the wheel before becoming exhausted. (One thing learned here. On a boat 35 feet or less, a tiller is much more practical in weather than a wheel.)
The Commander’s watch came due and I headed for the quarter berth to get a couple of hours rest before my stint. He was advised to watch for overheeling due to wind shifts or an increase in intensity.
“If the wind continues to increase much more, get me up and we’ll change configuration,” I told him.
That order seemed to me to be sufficient for someone who had promoted to the rank of Lt. Cdr. in the U.S. Navy and, in addition, had sailed Nag’s Head. With that comforting though I hit the sack and immediately dozed off in spite of the still ripe odor below.
An hour later my eyes sprung open, and I was overwhelmed by that unhappy feeling a Captain usually gets when something is wrong with his boat. One glance at the anemometer was enough; it read 55 knots with gusts to 70. My God! A full storm and we were still under working sail! While struggling to get into harness came the sound. A horrible tearing sound. The sails! It seems I always end up on deck with nothing on but harness and undershorts. No time to think of decorum. The sight on deck was not pleasant.
The Commander was still holding on to the wheel for dear life while the main (reefed as it was) had ripped and was whipping merrily in the breeze. It was partly on the mast, partly on deck, and partly in the water. The sea appeared to be well over 25 feet and breaking. Being careful to hook harness each step along the way, I inched around the cabin and on to the cabin top on my belly where what sail was reachable could be gathered and tied down. The boom, now unrestrained by the sail, was swinging wildly from one side of the boat to the other while attempting to dislodge me with every surge of the sea. The jib managed to keep us under way in the right direction, but it too had to come down. The boom was now scudding across the cabin top, beating the hell out of the woodwork instead of me; it had to be placed in the crutch.
The rip in the main was complete from leading to trailing edge. I managed to tie the lower part then, crawling like a worm, I got far enough forward to where the rest of the sail could be let down before anything else went. This maneuver did not help the wild swinging of the boom but at least what was left of the upper part of the sail could be secured. Once that was done, I grabbed hold of the boom, and using it for what support it would give, inched my way aft to where the crutch was stowed. Before I got there, a wave broke over the stern, inundated the cockpit, and pushed the boom forward again . . . with me hanging on to it for dear life as it swung out over the water. Then, on the downhill side of the wave, back we came again, until my body held us up by smashing against the side of the cabin. One would think that in all this action there would be no time for an upset stomach. Not so! The stench below in which I had been sleeping coupled with the confused sea had its effect. The whole time this was going on, my stomach somehow managed to empty itself. But, things were too busy to worry about being seasick.
On the next boom swing, I managed to drop into the cockpit and was somehow able to push the crutch up into position and secure the boom. Then, again on hands and knees, I made it back to where the Commander stood trying to maintain a semblance of course. How in the hell can he be so damned taciturn through all of this? I wondered. He either has more guts than sense or is just too scared to give a damn!
Wordlessly I sat, exhausted, alongside my one and only crew. The Commander’s face was stoic, giving no indication that he appreciated the seriousness of what had happened. There was absolutely no point in chastising him now for neglecting to call me earlier; it was time for further action. I reached over and started the engine. The silent one finally spoke.
“That does relieve the helm somewhat,” he said.
“I’m going forward to lower the jib,” I shouted over the wind. “This is going to be tricky so listen carefully. When you see me wave my arm, you must head slowly into the wind. For God’s sake, be careful, and don’t let her come about to a point past the wind, or she will jibe. If you do that we’ll lose the sail and maybe me! Got that?”
“Just hold her slightly off the wind on this same tack. Can you manage that?”
Normally during a critical sail change, the best man is at the helm, and a chance must be taken that he knows what he is doing. The Commander was not only my best man. . . he was the only man. Girding my loins, I began the snake trek forward along what should have been the high side, if there was such a thing in this kind of sea. About three-quarters of the way to the pulpit, the entire boat went under water as the sea broke from all four quadrants simultaneously. I managed to get all the way forward to where the jib halyard could be reached and tied myself in such a way that both hands would be free to let her down. I signalled the Commander to head up into the wind, but instead of a gentle turn that would permit the sail to fall on the deck and be secured, we swung around hard and just kept going. Naturally, she jibed and the sail snapped to the other side. The force was sufficient to part the topmast forestay fitting, ripping the jib halyard from my hands and dumping the sail into the water.
I held my breath when it happened. It was bad enough that the sail was now in the water, but the real problem was that the steel cable, sheet, and halyard were now trailing behind the boat where they could get tangled in the prop. Another imminent problem was that the loss of the forestay could very easily cause dismasting. Without the forestay, only the double-rigged side stays held the mast in place. The most important thing, though, was to get the lines out of the water. If they fouled the prop and we lost the engine, we would really be in deep yogurt.
When we jibed, the force of the now 60+ knot wind on 400 square feet of sail had thrown me off the cabin top and on to the deck where I hung precariously in my harness (without which I would have been in the drink with nothing else to worry about). Pulling myself up into a semi-sitting position, I was able to survey the damage; fortunately nothing but the casting had given way (it had a tensile strength of over 5,000 pounds). Communication with the helm was not possible in the din, so it was back to the cockpit on hands and knees.
“Get the damned thing downwind now. Keep her in a large circle until you reach that position, but watch the waves and don’t broach us. You must turn gently to keep from fouling the prop. That’s our last resource.”
What else could be said at that time? Once again, in their zeal to get a free ride, crewmen had overstated their experience. Ninety percent of the time they could get away with it, for there would be plenty of time to gain experience in safe waters. This time, however, we were not blessed with such a convenience.
The trek forward had to be made once again. Crawling and reaching amidships it was necessary to lean over the side in a vicious sea to pull the jib and its trailing lines aboard and tie them to the stanchion. Half the time in that position, I was banging against the cabin and the other half my head was underwater as the rail was swamped. Fun, Fun, FUN!
On to other things. With the wind still increasing, the danger of pitchpoling was very real. I was beginning to suspect that we knew something about the weather out there that the Coast Guard had failed to reveal. Not having much faith in their assessment, I decided to prepare for the worst. Three old deflated innertubes, kept on board for just such an emergency, were lashed to the end of two 300-foot lines. The lines were secured to the jib winches on either side and the tubes thrown overboard. This provided the necessary drag to slow the boat down and keep her stern to the wind and following sea. It also tended to smooth out the sea before hitting the stern. The engine was kept running to maintain control, which also kept the sea from inadvertently getting into the engine via the exhaust. (There are other procedures; these have worked for me.)
The wind blew itself out after some 15 hours at full storm fury, during which time the maximum wave height reached some 30 feet! (Have you ever been in a small boat and seen a 30-foot breaking wave coming at you?) Abruptly the storm died and we took a bearing on Eureka. We were but a few hours from our destination. Jill eventually managed to move herself from the confines of her bunk and joined us on deck. The sea was still up a bit, but was getting calmer by the minute.
We limped into Eureka God-awful tired. The Coast Guard was advised of our condition and asked to provide escort through the jetty. This proved both a blessing and a curse as they insisted on boarding us for inspection and cited me for sailing with torn life jackets! They were new when we started, but a few holes developed from the beating we experienced. Considering the circumstances, one could hardly expect polished decks and pressed whites!
The good Commander and his wife left the boat without even suggesting they help clean it up. Just as well. I slept for two days in port before I had the energy to even move.
The parts needed were shipped from San Fran and a young Indian was hired to help clean up the boat and rerig. I sent Chris a card saying “having a great time, wish you were here,” and signed aboard a crew for the short trip to the Bay. It happened to be one of the best crews I ever had. . . before or since.
There was more to be learned about crews and heavy weather sailing in that one cruise from Seattle to San Francisco than most people learn in a lifetime. A lot of blue water has passed beneath my hull since and never have I experienced such weather again. Now, I never try to sail in latitudes higher than the forties; nothing but the trades for me!
There is another great truth. When it comes right down to it, one has to be prepared to go it pretty much alone. If you get something from an entire crew in an emergency, it’s just frosting on the cake.
P.S. SIBLING was sold in Alameda and, I understand, still sails the bay. For me, it was back to San Diego with a lot of memories under the belt.
|Part I||Part II|
|Chapters 2-3||Chapter 4|