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Tearful Tales of Passagemaking




Stress—whether in the form of bad weather, tough landfalls, or frequent gear failure—is built-in to a sailor's lifestyle, and this author advocates handling it in whatever way necessary.

Here's a question for other boat owners and captains: Do you ever cry?

Over the past few months, I have shed many tears over, about, and aboard Hio Avae, my Santana 37. My recent tantrums have been set off by one travellift disaster, several headwind passages, a burned-out gearbox, the invariable tardiness of boatbuilders, and simple fatigue.

Hio and I recently made a passage from Wellington, at the gnarly southern end of New Zealand’s North Island, to Waiheke Island, in the cruisey Hauraki Gulf. Over the course of this voyage along the country's treacherous eastern coastline, Hio, my two-person crew, and I endured many misadventures. Most hairy was the situation we faced one night when I went forward to investigate a clunking sound at the bow.

Hio’s 60-pound Bruce anchor has always swung a bit precariously from its perch on the bow. It’s a big anchor relative to the boat’s size, which suits me fine when it's doing its job on the bottom. But up on deck, it’s a bit of a worry.

Rough conditions can take even the most secure items and cast them loose about the deck. An anchor bouncing around forward can inflict considerable damage underway.

That evening in question, we were pounding our way northward from East Cape, into 25 to 30 knots of wind, under a reefed mainsail and storm staysail. One of my crew, Anton, and I had simultaneously noticed the change in sound up forward. A good, conservative captain becomes attuned to his/her boat’s "music," the normal creaks and groans and clanks of equipment and rigging. And a good, conservative captain recognizes when the tune changes, and investigates immediately.

As Hio punched into the choppy seas in the dark, the water crashing over the bow presented a strong deterrent for going forward. My sleepy, landlubber nature told me to leave the name-that-tune investigation until the weather settled. Fortunately, the captain side of me prevailed.

I steeled myself with a deep breath as I clipped my harness leash onto the jackline that runs the length of the deck. As I clambered forward, I grasped at handholds and turned my shoulder into the spray. When I reached the bow, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I did a double-take, then a triple-take: The anchor had broken the line I had wrapped around its stem, tossed aside the wooden blocks meant to keep it from swinging, and leapt out of its bow roller. That banging sound? My 60-pound Bruce was bashing itself against the hull over the starboard side of the boat. Its chain was hooked around the now-bent bow pulpit, and the anchor clanked back and forth below it.

"Its chain was hooked around the now-bent pulpit, and the anchor was clanking back and forth below."
I couldn’t simply stare flabbergasted—we had to get the anchor back on board. But how?

I stumbled back to the cockpit where Anton was standing, keeping an eye on me. His expression wore a mix of concern and curiosity—and admiration for the chick captain who had gone forward into the dark splashing chaos. We called our third crewmember, Richard, into the cockpit, and huddled.

We agreed that Anton and I should go forward to retrieve the anchor. (Richard was in some pain as he had possibly separated his shoulder during a jib-overboard rescue earlier that day.) Richard would stay in the cockpit, watching us and minding our course.

"Wouldn’t we be better off if we turned downwind, so that the boat would be more stable, and so we’d get less wet?" I asked, hopefully. I still wasn't accustomed to upwind bashing, and found the stress and strain of it made doing everything more difficult.

Anytime someone goes forward the helmsman needs to exercise extra diligence when it comes to negotiating waves.
Richard, who had circumnavigated aboard his own yacht and spent years racing, recommended that we maintain our upwind course; the boat’s bounce would work to our advantage, and help us lift the anchor back on deck. This kind of thing had actually happened to him before, so I deferred to his experience.

We made our plan of attack: rather than try to lift and pull the anchor forward back into its roller, we would lift it through the bow pulpit, pull it across the deck, and lash it to every available stanchion and cleat. Anton and I grabbed extra lashing-lines and stuffed them into our pockets, then clipped ourselves to the safety line and went forward. This time, I didn’t bother to hunch against the spray. We’d be soaked before our job was finished.

The boat was lurching and leaping so powerfully that it lifted us off the deck as we kneeled on the bow. As Anton lassoed the neck of the swinging Bruce, I prepared to ease a bit of chain off the electric windlass; Anton needed some slack on the chain to haul the anchor aboard.

The author, her crew, and her vessel during less weepy times in the South Pacific.
Imagine my tension: what if the chain got away from me, and the anchor dropped into the sea? We had prepared for this possibility, turning the windlass on so it would be ready to pull chain in with the punch of a button. But between the accidental drop and frantic raise, how much damage could this loose, swinging anchor do once it hit the water?

Time slowed as Anton rigged his lifting lines, moments measured by the pounding of the hull and of our hearts.

"I’m ready!" Anton hollered over his shoulder, spitting seawater. "Give me some chain!"

I held my breath and opened the windlass. I let a few chain links slide forward, and shut it down.


More? I had to trust him—and myself. I fed him more slack, then jammed the winch shut again.


Instinctively, I wrapped one arm around the cutter stay and clenched my other hand around the back of Anton’s harness. After a moment of trust, respect, action, and adrenaline-fed strength, the anchor was aboard.

I fed Anton lashing lines and continued to hold him on the galloping bow. We laughed when we noticed that both of us had synchronized our breathing to Hio’s rise and fall. I released Anton long enough to give Richard a thumbs-up, then grabbed hold again.

"Instinctively, I wrapped one arm around the cutter stay and clenched my other hand around the back of Anton’s harness."

At that stage, I didn’t know if I was holding onto Anton for his sake, or for mine. The crisis—at least, that specific crisis—was over, and I was ready to dissolve into a weeping heap. Adrenaline, however, kept the tears at bay until Anton and I had returned aft, drenched and drained. Too wired to do anything but sit wide-eyed in the cockpit, we told Richard to return below and get some rest. After Richard disappeared inside, Anton and I huddled up under the dodger. We leaned into each other, seeking a bit of friendly warmth through clammy foulweather gear.

The gravity of the situation fell heavily upon me then, and my shoulders sagged. My boat and my crew had been at risk, and I could have—should have—prevented it. I dropped my face into my hands. I didn’t want Anton to see me cry. He was officially my "crew," but was certainly my equal, if not my superior. I wanted to maintain an image of staunch, capable, unshakeable captainhood, despite feeling that I had failed to fulfil that image. I couldn’t contain the emotion, fear, regret, and sense of inadequacy, and the tears fell.

After a few minutes, I felt Anton’s arm wrap around my shoulder, drawing me towards his. A shoulder to cry on. It was exactly what I needed.

When I apologized, sniffling, for the tears, Anton told me that he respected me even more for having the courage and strength to take responsibility—to do what had to be done—despite being afraid. His acceptance helped me to recognize and value the tears as part of the process. Crying was an admission of fear, but that fear didn’t keep me from being a good, conservative captain.

So, my fellow captains, as that '70s song "Free To Be You and Me" reminds us: it’s all right to cry!

Securing the Hook at Sea

Never underestimate the power of the sea—Neptune usually gets what he wants. To keep your anchor out of his clutches, create a secure lashing system for passages. Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep the anchor chain tightly pulled back into the windlass. The tension on the chain will keep the stem of the anchor from lifting.
  • Use a short piece of stout line to tie the connecting link of chain at the top of the anchor back to the nearest cleat.
  • Secure the anchor in its bow roller by tying its front end. The Bruce anchor has a little eye on its front end; I (now) run a line back and forth through this eye to small shackles on either side of the bow roller.
  • Block the stem of the anchor inside the roller to keep it from swinging from side to side, to reduce strain on your lashings.
  • Don’t count on the jammer of the chain-stopper to keep the chain from slipping forward. As I sat on the bouncing bow, I watched waves rush through the chain-stopper and lift the key, leaving the chain free to run.
  • And while you're underway, check your lashings for chafe.

Suggested Reading:

The Lessons of Fear by Kristin Sandvik

Anchoring Adventures by Beth Leonard

Making Landfall at Night by Jim Kretschmer


Buying Guide: Anchor Rollers and Mounts

Kristin Sandvik is offline  
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