Copyright © 1996 by Kent Multer
It seems that everyone who's spent any time on boats has at least one Funny Boat Story, which I define as a story that (1) involves a boat, (2) is funny, and most importantly, (3) was not funny at the time it happened. My first one happened to me on my second day of owning a boat. I don't know if that makes me a good student or a bad one. Sometimes I like to reassure myself about such things by believing that more mistakes equals faster progress.
After being an avid windsurfer for nine years, I was getting the urge to go sailing on something large enough that I could sit down, take a friend, eat a meal, and even spend a whole weekend on it. After months of research and shopping, I chose the Sea Pearl 21, a camper/cruiser with freestanding masts, light weight, and a draft of just six inches (see sidebar). I thought these features would make it a real low-stress, relaxing boat, easy to sail, easy to trailer. I was right; unfortunately it takes more than a good boat to make for trouble-free sailing.
I drove to Tarpon Springs, Florida to pick up the boat from its maker, Marine Concepts. Ron Johnson and his associates were very friendly and patient with this beginner. On Sunday, March 31, I sailed from nearby Sunset Park, and everything went fine. The wind was very light: a bit boring, perhaps, but perfect for a first day out.
The next day was April 1; maybe that explains some of what follows. I decided to sail from Sunset Park to Howard Park. Being almost dead upwind, it took about 45 minutes. The wind was quite strong -- for a beginner, at least. I decided to reef the sails before heading back.
I landed on the beach for a rest and a snack. By the time I left, the tide had gone down enough that I couldn't push the boat off the sand. A couple of passers-by came to my rescue. As I was sailing off, I heard one of them call, "put your rudder down!" Oops, I had forgotten to release the line to the kick-up blade. I can just imagine the caller chuckling at the dimwitted tourist trying to be a Real Sailor.
As I ran downwind, I was watching for the buildings at Sunset Park. I saw what looked like the right ones, but as I got closer, I saw that there was no flag. There had been a huge American flag flying there, so I thought this must be some other park with similar buildings.
I sailed a bit further downwind before I decided that these did not look like the waters I had been puttering around in yesterday. I had been right the first time, and someone had taken down the flag at Sunset at 3 in the afternoon, don't ask me why. Probably because of the wind. As I turned back toward Sunset, it seemed to have picked up some. I was having a little trouble tacking.
The water was so shallow, I couldn't put the leeboards all the way down. Sometimes I couldn't even put them half way down. I was constantly checking the depth by lowering the board till it touched bottom, then raising it back up a few inches, in order to keep it down as far as possible at all times without letting it drag. I was working the leeboard lanyard as busily as if it were a third sheet. So I struggled on in about a foot of water, getting some satisfaction from knowing that not many boats could do that. And it was reassuring to know that if things really got bad, I could always just get out and walk to shore.
I knew that I couldn't be making much progress upwind with the leeboard so high.
But I didn't want to sail out into deeper water, since I had noticed that it was windier
out there, and I already had plenty. So I went to Plan B. I came ashore on a
vacant stretch of beach (another thing most sailboats can't do) behind some condos, and
used the anchor line to tie the boat to a tree. I walked up to the condos and asked
the first person I saw if I could use her phone to call a cab, explaining my
predicament. As we rode the elevator, she told me her Funny Boat Story about being
stuck on a sandbar for six hours.
After recovering my car and getting some supper, I went back to check on the boat around 9:30PM. The tide was in, and she was barely afloat, rocking gently and leaning against a large rock. I moved her to a better position, checked my knots, and stopped to think. Then I went to Wal-Mart (thank God a lot of them are open 24 hours), and bought some more rope and a couple of fenders.
The check-out lady at Wal-Mart said, hi, how are you, and I answered with something about boat trouble. She said just about everybody around here has a story like that, and paused. I asked her what hers was. She paused again, and said quietly, "Oh, ... I get lost." I nodded sympathetically and talked about something else. Obviously a touchy subject.
Returning to the boat around midnight, I found that the tide had receded and she was beached. I put a second rope from the stern cleat to a dock post, after wrapping a towel around the square post for anti-chafing. I wedged the fenders under the hull in hopes of preventing the boat from rocking, tying them in place with more Wal-Mart rope and some of the spare lines that had come with the boat.
Clearly, in order to get the boat back in the water, I needed to know when the high tides came. Back at the hotel, I turned on my weather radio and listened to the tide report. It called for high tides around 1 o'clock AM and PM, and lows around 7. But that didn't seem to agree with what I had observed, since the tide under my boat was lower at midnight than at 9:30. I decided to get back to the boat by 10 or 11AM the next day so I wouldn't miss the next high tide.
The next morning I discovered that my car had a flat tire. Shortly thereafter, I found that the spare was also flat, or at least too soft to drive on. My aggravation was tempered by thankfulness that the tire had gone flat at the hotel, instead of the many other places I had been yesterday.
Thanks to some friendly folks at a local shop that didn't normally do roadside service, I was able to get both tires fixed fairly quickly. The guy from the tire shop consoled me with his own Funny Boat Story, about an afternoon from hell towing an improperly balanced trailer.
Returning to check on the boat at around 1PM, I found it was still pretty far above water. Have successive tides been pushing it up the beach? To prevent that, I ran another line, walking my anchor out and setting it by hand in knee-deep water 20 or 30 feet out from the boat.
Then I went up to Marine Concepts to discuss my predicament with Ron. From him I learned that it had been blowing 25 yesterday. No wonder I was having difficulty sailing; that's a lot of wind for my boat, even with reefed sails. Especially so when it's being singlehanded by a beginner; good thing I had Plan B ready.
I checked the boat again around 8PM. It was a beautiful night: full moon, starry sky, water like glass. But the tide was lower than before, down so far that my anchor was almost out of the water. This was getting frustrating.
Back at the hotel, I called the Coast Guard for more tide info. I spoke to a very nice sergeant who answered my questions and called me "Skipper;" he obviously mistook me for a Real Sailor. The numbers he gave me were about an hour earlier than the ones I had gotten from the weather radio. That might help explain the mystery, but still didn't seem to square with what I had seen at midday. Perhaps the combination of full moon and high wind caused an unusually high high tide. I also heard there was a total lunar eclipse this week; I suppose that could cause some unusual tides.
You know, I'm not superstitious, but I have noticed that weird things seem to happen more often when the moon is full. But this was the one time in my life when I could look up at the moon and say with total certainty, "This is your fault!"
By this time, I was just about down to the point where my vacation plans, and my return home, would be jeopardized if I didn't get the boat back in the water by tomorrow. The new tide numbers still didn't seem to fit what I had seen. I would just have to keep driving over there and looking for myself. It's like I became some sort of ancient mariner; even my pattern of sleeping and waking was being controlled by the tides and weather.
What if a combination of winds and freak tides had pushed the boat so high that the water wouldn't come back up to it any time soon? Think, man. The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids; surely you can manage to move a 600-pound boat a few feet. I thought up Plans C, D, and E, but all involved another trip to Wal-Mart for shovels, block and tackle, or other hardware. The Coast Guard sergeant had given me the name of a towing company, but I shuddered to think what that would cost.
The sergeant had called for a high tide at 12:18. At ten past midnight I was back at the shore. Still a gorgeous night. A light mist had formed above the water, giving the scene a bit more mystery.
Finally, some good news. The tide was in. The water's edge was still a few feet from the boat, but the beach's slope was nearly flat, and the sand around the boat was soggy and very soft. I pushed the stern towards the water, and it moved: good! -- but there was still a problem. Because of the boat's shape, when I pushed the stern, the bow swung in the opposite direction; the boat didn't get any closer to the water. And if I pushed in the middle, nothing happened; too heavy.
But I had thought this might happen, and I was ready with Plan F. I took up all the slack in the line running from the stern to the anchor, then I went forward and pulled the bow towards the water. The anchor kept the stern from sliding. Then I moved the anchor line to the bow, and pulled on the stern; the anchor kept the bow from sliding.
Would it work? Would the anchor hold well enough in the soft sand, or was it dragging? After a few repetitons of the bow-stern cycle, the tracks in the sand made it clear that I was making progress. A few more rounds got the bow floating, and at 12:35 she was free!
I spent the next hour enjoying the night as I rearranged the lines to secure the boat a little farther out. I would come back tomorrow for the noon high tide to sail back to Sunset, and I wanted to have some safety margin in case tomorrow's tide was not as high as this one.
Standing on the bow, swinging the anchor a few times to get its feel, then lobbing it smoothly so as not to lose my balance, I felt like a Real Sailor. The night was so serene and beautiful, I was tempted to break out the oars and row over to Sunset. But no, too many things had been going wrong lately; it was time to be prudent.
Late the next morning, I returned to the boat. As I walked out from the condo parking lot to the beach, I couldn't help wondering if Mother Nature had yet another prank in store for me. She did, but it was a good-natured one this time. The tide was in, way in, higher than I'd seen it any time in the last three days. I could have left the boat where it was last night, instead of doing the ancient-Egyptian thing, and it would be floating now. Oh, well, I got a good lesson in tides and boat handling for my trouble.
The sail back to Sunset was routine in very light wind. When I got to my trailer, it had a flat tire. Yes, that makes three in two days. I put the spare on and drove over to Marine Concepts. While I did paperwork with Ron, his associate Eric took the tire to a service station. About an hour after he got back, he noticed that his truck had a flat tire. I have no idea what the cosmic significance of this is; the find-a-silver-lining circuit in my brain burned out several coincidences ago. I was beginning to dread the 1200-mile trailer trip back home. Fortunately, the trip was without problems, except perhaps for the eight hours of driving in the rain, six of which were after dark.
My next few months of sailing will take place on local lakes, with familiar waters and no tides. Maybe that will be more stress-free. Just to make sure, I think I'll stay home on full-moon days.
For more information about the Sea Pearl, you can contact Marine Concepts at (813) 937-0166, or (800) 881-1525; or see them on the World Wide Web.