As a consequence of sailing both for pleasure and for a living for the past 17 years, I've made a few mistakes—passing harbor entrances, hitting a reef and a rock, running aground, fouling a prop, bungling a docking—and each incident has been made even more unforgettable by the presence of witnesses in the form of crew or shore-based onlookers. The mortification has only been tempered by time. I know this experience is not exclusively mine—we've all been there. Visit any harbor watering hole and embarrassing tales turned anecdote are more common than flying fish in the Caribbean. I have a good one of my own, a "foul-up" that was so humiliating at the time I could not imagine it ever mellowing into a story more humorous than crushing, more absurd than disturbing.
About 10 years ago, a "crappy" performance taught me a lesson I will never forget about heads and holding tanks, especially since an audience was on hand. Shortly before I had the first of my two boys (who put a stop to any aspirations of earning a living by delivering boats) my husband, Olivier, and I joined an owner and a couple of his friends to help bring a newly commissioned boat from a shipyard in France across the Atlantic to the Chesapeake.
The Amel Yachts dock in La Rochelle was a long and impressive avenue of shiny, brand-spanking new and recently refurbished Amels lined up and ready to begin making cruising dreams come true. Our boat's owner was as proud and excited about this Atlantic crossing as a parent with a newborn, and as excessive with his boat's inventory as the same overindulgent parent would be if he were locked in a room full of baby catalogs.
The boat was a thing of beauty, especially in the technical department. Until then, my sea-going education had been limited to primitive vessels—"primitive" meaning that all the systems were manual: mainsails that had to be reefed on deck, by hand; anchors that had to be raised on the windlass one link at a time; foresails that had to be hanked on and off in every weather condition; cockpit and mast winches that had to be hand-cranked; backing, turning, and docking that depended on the propeller, rudder, and skill of the helmsman. These systems I knew were simple but they worked and I trusted them.
This baby was a creature of a completely different caliber, and in my opinion, far too vulnerable to crippling malfunctions. The Amel had winches and a windlass that were electric, controlled by the push of a button in the lofty center cockpit. There were other buttons for reefing, hauling, tightening, and furling the main and jib. Red and green arrows indicated the direction a switch needed to go to operate the bow thruster. Then, there was the VHF; the permanently tracking, newly installed, deck-mounted GPS; the Autohelm; Sat Nav; another GPS; radar; depth sounders; a second VHF; SSB; and weatherfax. Oh, and we had survival suits, inflatable harnesses, a first-aid kit bigger than any third-world clinic, and the best provisioning French supermarkets could offer. All we lacked was a fish finder.
Nowadays, all this equipment is more financially accessible to the small-boat owner, but back then, I had never seen such dependence on technology. The last time I had crossed the Atlantic, it had been alone on a 26-foot puddle jumper with a sextant, VHF, and depthsounder, and it was with great apprehension that I watched things such as the EPIRB come aboard. Instead of the traditional small red or orange cylinder, we were introduced to a white, dome-like thing that resembled R2D2 from Star Wars. All I can remember now was the ridiculous size of this thing intended for a cruise ship now needing its very own locker on a 47-foot sailboat, the symbolic icing on an already over-decorated cake.
While the new owner regarded this maiden voyage as the big adventure that would earn him some stripes, he was also not quite ready to captain his own ship, so three out of five of his crew were licensed captains, Olivier being chief captain.
Nothing was smaller when it could be bigger, all was more instead of less; no page had been left unturned in the interest of research, no expense had been spared in the outfitting—this promised to be a trip of incomparable comfort, but it made me nervous. I kept thinking of the old saw about too many cooks.
Nobody else was losing any sleep. The guys were like little boys with a new LEGO construction, eager to program all the electronics and test them out, to go over the electrical systems, to do the sea trials, swing the compass, tighten this and that, to get out there and play, to take on the ocean with all this sophistication. But with so many things to maintain, monitor, and operate, I thought, it was only a matter of time before something we hadn't noticed would rear its ugly head. And sure enough, the ugly head did rear, quite literally, before we ever even left the dock.
It was a beautiful day with calm winds and clear blue skies, perfect for drying laundry. The lines were strung with freshly cleaned towels, shirts, and boxer shorts, creating a low-rent ambiance in the tony line-up of expensive new boats, and I felt a little self-conscious, as if the neighboring Frenchmen were eyeing us Americans with distaste because of our excess and our lack of aesthetic sense.
During the day, as the laundry dried, I noticed curious flecks of matter gathering on the clothing; I didn't think much of it until late afternoon when my trip to the lifelines coincided with somebody's visit to the head. As I began to unfasten clothespins, a geyser of finely misted, holding-tank effluent shot up from the deck-mounted air vent at my feet all over me, the laundry, the deck, and neighboring boat.
"Yikes!" I shouted, and everyone came running to see—my shipmates, other owners, crews, neighbors, boatyard guys, Amel staff, assorted rubberneckers, and harbor gossips. There was no doubt that now, we had definitely left our mark in a corner of La Rochelle, and it wasn't because of an impressively appointed new boat or our skill. Although I can't speak for the rest of our crew, my pride couldn't have felt much dirtier after having this horde of critics discover why we were airing our soiled laundry.
What we all learned was that while so much attention was being paid to other high-tech details, the fact that Amel had even managed to innovate the function of a simple head into something complicated and potentially problematic had been overlooked. Instead of installing a Y-valve, they told us we needed to pump more than usual in order to flush matter through the tank before it went overboard. Somehow, an anti-return valve wasn't working properly, the tank filled incredibly fast with all the extra flushing, and plenty of pressure had built up, creating the film now covering a considerable radius about us.
This is why I said there is nothing like public humiliation to make for a memorable lesson. After that, nothing that happened on the rest of the trip quite measured up to this spectacle—getting caught in the tail end of a hurricane was child's play, the enormous shark that swooped up from the depths seconds after the owner had clambered back aboard from a swim, the third-degree burn on my arm from a spilled kettle—all took a back seat in the memory department. I will still jump overboard to bathe (if I have to), I will still boil water for my tea at sea, I will still get into storms, but never again will I not pay meticulous attention to the arrangement and operation of a head with a holding tank, while simultaneously noting the capacity and the location of the closest pumpout station.