When Everything Was Right
"Can you run over to Freeport and fetch a boat for me, John? Shouldn't take long and there is two-day's pay plus expenses in it for you."
Four hours later, my friend Dave and I were gazing out at Little Bahama Bank, the turquoise shallows that suddenly erupt like an angry Dorado on the end of 20-pound test line out of the steel-blue Straits of Florida. Two hours after the prop job landed, Dave and I were negotiating the Bell Channel out of Port Lucaya, racing darkness to the sea buoy. Amazingly, eight hours after receiving the broker's call, we were close-reaching off the south shore of Grand Bahama Island, reveling in the magic of spontaneous sailing—and pitying the poor souls ashore slinging the handles of slot machines.
Lonesome Dove, a Tayana Vancouver 42 cutter had been purchased sight unseen by a young family from Alaska. Their deal was still subject to sea trials, not by them but by me. I was to give them a report when we arrived in Palm Beach. If the boat sailed well and had no glaring defects, they would sign the contract—and launch their cruising dreams. Dave, a doctor from Dallas and a life-long sailor, was intrigued by this arrangement.
"First," he said shaking his head, "you set off across the Gulf Stream on a boat you've never seen before after one hour of preparation. Second, this family is going to trust you to tell them if the boat is right for them or not. Amazing."
The southerly breeze was warm and building and our three sails were drawing nicely in 15 knots. I explained to Dave that I knew the Tayana 42 well, having passaged on others before. Also, after years of delivering boats, I have honed a skipper's checklist that quickly sizes up a boat's vital signs. From scanning the swage terminals to checking the rudder quadrant, through-hull fittings and shaft stuffing box, I know which sailboat elements can make you miserable and which can be dangerous—and it's important to know the difference.
A sliver of a moon three fists up in the western sky was conveniently poised over Lake Worth Inlet at the port of Palm Beach. Once we cleared West End, Grand Bahama, all we had to do was steer toward the moon, at least until it hid beneath the horizon. In contrast to a north wind, which can create lumpy conditions in the Gulf Stream, a southerly tends to lay down the seas. If you are not headed south of due east or west, a south wind coupled with the three-knot north set of the current is like riding a magic carpet. It is a beautiful thing.
I was sailing and navigating by the seat of my pants. I knew that the drift and the speed of the current would increase as we gained sea room. For the moment, we could steer for the moon; in a couple of hours I would begin to compensate. It is roughly 60 miles between Palm Beach and West End. You usually begin to feel the current about 10 miles from West End, while the maximum current, or axis, lies about 20 miles off the Florida coast. I made a quick calculation. Assuming we would make six knots from the sails and, because of the angle of our heading, gain another knot or two from the current, we would need about eight hours for the crossing. In eight hours we would be set 20 to 25 miles north. If, in an hour, we steered two horizontal fists south of the setting moon, we'd likely lay the inlet. If we sailed faster, I'd compensate less. I didn't feel like spoiling the moment—or my night vision—with the glare of the GPS. Besides, I didn't even know if it worked; it's not on my vital signs list.
Luckily, the sailing instruments didn't work. Dave and I were forced to use our senses. An experienced racer, Dave was obsessed with finding Lonesome Dove's groove. I think, in general, the cutter rig is overrated. From 60 through 120 degrees, cutters trim up smartly, but so do most rigs. Unfortunately, cutters are not particularly weatherly and are ineffective on a broad reach. But Neptune had no quarrel with us; the winds even backed a little, content to stay abeam and being easily monitored by the stubble of my beard.
Dave worked on the headsails first. He moaned that it didn't make sense to have an inboard genoa track with outboard shrouds and scouted around until he found two snatch blocks for the rail. We changed the lead blocks and then trimmed the high-cut yankee. Dave laughed at my rule of thumb; I simply adjust the lead so that the sheet angle runs through the middle of sail. He had to confess that after a lot of fiddling, my rule of thumb for both the yankee and staysail was pretty accurate. The wind continued to build and back as Dave worked on the main. He added some draft and dumped the traveler a bit. Twenty knots aft of the beam was just what the doctor, Doctor Dave that is, ordered. He was having the sail of his life. The speedo/log weren't working but I was sure we were sailing consistently at above seven knots.
I had established a watch schedule, but it became unnecessary because neither of us ever left the cockpit that night. It would have been absurd to miss this sailing. The warm breeze steadied at around 25 knots and Lonesome Dove charged forward as if she were on a mission. We probably should have reefed, but the helm was responding and we were flying. The sheets were straining. Our senses were heightened in the darkness. I switched off the deck-mounted running lights and opted for masthead tri-color. Although the moon had set, we at least knew from where we had come from and there was an impressive wake outlined in phosphorescence. The distant loom of Florida Power and Light's handiwork turned up sooner than I expected. We were sailing faster and getting more kick from the current than I thought. We eased sheets, thankful to slow down a bit so we wouldn't arrive before daybreak. I served coffee.
"So what would you say to the prospective buyers?" I asked Dave.
"I'd say thank you," he said and smiled.
A Delivery Captain's 'Vital Signs' Boat Checklist
|1. Stand on the dock and take a good hard look at the boat? Is it listing? If it is, find out why. Is it bow-heavy, stern-heavy? Often, it is just a matter of trim; sometimes, however, it is an indicator of a structural problem or design flaw. I usually check the ID number on the stern to see if the year of construction matches what I have been told.|
2. Make a quick survey of the deck. Typically I look at the swage fittings and for obvious signs of leaks. If the mast has steps, I always take a climb and have a look around, especially at the spreader tips. Otherwise, I use binoculars. I always check the roller-furling line for chafe. Do the hatches secure properly? If you don't need the ventilation, pull out the cowl vents and drop in the plugs. Count the turns of the wheel. Do the stops feel solid? You never want to force a wheel past the quadrant stops. Rotate the throttle and gear lever controls; it's better to find out if they stick before you leave the dock. Take a few minutes to sit at the helm, just to get a feeling for the boat. Can you see very well from the helm? Maybe you should lower the dodger initially.
3. Check the anchor setup. Make sure that an anchor is ready to deploy immediately. Never lash the anchors for an offshore passage until you are in open water. Make a mental inventory of spare lines, rodes, and hardware.
4. Down below, look for signs of a recent sinking. A stain line is a sign of this. I usually check the maststep first and then spend a few minutes probing around the bilge. Pump the bilge for a better view and also to see if it is filling up. I suspect a pump left on automatic. While in the bilge, glance at the keelbolts; any obvious leaks? Look at the floors; they will usually reveal evidence of a bad impact. Check molded liners or pans for cracks and other signs of oilcanning. It is good to know how hard you can push a boat to weather.
5. Identify the through-hull fittings, especially those below the waterline. Look closely at the hose ends and clamps. Use cable ties, which are easy to cut after the delivery, to lash wooden plugs to through-hull fittings.
6. Look closely at the engine. Your nose is almost as good as your eyes. You can always smell an engine that burns oil, and the stench of antifreeze is a good indicator that the engine overheats. Do the routine maintenance. Don't forget to check the transmission-fluid level, even if it is a knuckle buster. Look at the fuel lines and the manual-lift pump. Is the paint scraped off? Is the union nut on top of the filter scarred? These are signs of bleeding which translates into fuel problems. Check the transmission cable. Is it corroded? That can be a disaster waiting to happen. One more tip: Never believe fuel gauges; sound the tanks and suss out the manifold systems.
7. Check the battery level and then with the voltmeter, throw all the breakers and see if they hold a charge. Delivery skippers are always nursing tired batteries—that is one reason why we never rely on electronics.
8. Make a quick galley check. Does the stove light? Is there propane? I never count on refrigeration and hesitate to use it unless the owner insists. Is there a back-up system for the pressure water? They often fail or are the victim of bad batteries.
9. Rummage through the nav station. The owner or former skipper invariably leaves clues about the boat. There may be bills from boatyards, scribbled notes, etc. For example, I noticed that the autopilot was fixed last year. It was the drive unit. My immediate suspicion is that the steering is tight and I know to treat the autopilot gingerly.
10. Take a look at your own delivery kit, just to make sure you have the right charts, guides, and tools for the passage.