hi folks. i'm going to add my buck fifty to the conversation. I have been on the water all of my life. as a kid, I grew up on the rivers in Maryland. my grandfather built flat bottom, carvel planked boats. by the time I was 6, I was good at poling a boat in shallow water or deep water, with or against the current. my grandfather never knew how to swim. I never learned either.
my parents tried getting me in swimming classes but I had this thing about water getting in my eyes, and no one thought to give me a pair of goggles, so I never learned.
we had floating seat cushions but we never had life jackets. you are reading this so I obviously didn't drown.
my dad rode motorcycles, which I always loved as much as being on the water. as I entered my teens, I left the river behind. I drag raced my 78 firebird and rode motorcycles. no, I never wore a helmet. I only do, now, because they made it a law, here, but I break that law every chance I get. I know the risks but I believe that when it's your time, it's your time and nothing will change that. you just can't live forever. to quote the Havamal:
the unwise man thinks that always he will live
if from fighting he flees
but the aches and ails of old age
plague him where the spear has spared him
now, i'm not saying you can't be really dumb and die prematurely. but, what I am saying is that you can't let the fear of death, which is a certainty, keep you from truly living.
when I was in my mid twenties, I got a job doing lawn care. I was like a lawn doctor. I grew it and fixed it when it had issues. I also had to do sales to expand my area. one day, while on a sales estimate, I found an old 8' wooden pram at a house, next to the one I was estimating. I bought that pram for $50. it seems love of the water had never left my soul.
it's funny, now that I think of it, that I had, at one time, thought I had left that behind. the salt air, cries of the gulls, and the slap of halyards down in Annapolis always gave me a longing I could never explain and, as a little kid, when gulls first started coming to the local Mc Donalds ( we were an hour from the bay and two hours from the ocean ), my parents were shocked and worried about the state of the environment that would lead gulls so far from their territory to eat fast food...but I was enthralled by them. their cries were like music to me. so, I guess the path my life took, after that fateful day, when I first saw that pram, isn't really all that surprising.
my first thought was to pole that boat on the river. but it wasn't really the best boat for that and, although I tried it, the river was still too high, from the spring thaws, to be poling a boat on it. I had a few hairy moments trying to fight that current. I ended up tossing my girlfriend my bow line and having her tie me to a stump so I could pull myself back to land. I knew better. you never put a boat on the river that time of year but I was so damn eager. it could have been really bad. I had no life jacket and that pram wasn't anywhere as stable or stoutly built as my grandfather's carvel boats.
so, I started rowing the boat on a lake in Montgomery county, called Lake Seneca. I rowed all summer. I carried a life jacket but never wore it. i'd always loved the looks of sailboats and found they drew me like magnets. I began thinking I wanted to sail, like my ancestors had. I began talking to a lady sailor, on the lake. she had taken a course to learn but, listening to her stories, she was a really bad sailor and had all kinds on incidents, on the water, that she managed to survive. some of them i'd have been too embarrassed to relate, had they happened to me.
she said she always knew when it was me, rowing on the lake, no matter how far away I was because I rowed so hard that the little boat sort of leapt with each stroke. Kind of makes me think of Thor's fishing trip. I once pulled a sleek 18' bass boat, with a huge outboard on it, back to the dock. their batteries, on their trolling motors, had died and they had no gas for the outboard because gas powered motors were not allowed. they swore I couldn't row them back in, with my little boat. I did. in thanks for the rescue, they put my boat in the back of my truck, for me, the next few times I saw them on the water.
anyhow, I decided I wanted to sail. the lady had told me all the tricky areas on the lake, and there were a good many, and I read everything I could on sailing and sailboat design; not just modern stuff but old sailing stuff, too.
I ended up finding a 9' sailing dinghy in Northern Virginia for $75. it was pretty old ( 1974 ) and was well used. it had a boomed lateen, which I am positive was not it's original rig, that was well worn and needing repair. the dagger board had been replaced by some past owner. the new one wasn't shaped to fit the trunk so it wiggled a lot. the rudder blade had been replaced, I think by the same owner that did the dagger board, and it was a bit thin and shallow. it also leaked. every few hours of sailing, you had to go to the shore and drain the water out of it...and it would be quite a bit.
the night I bought it, I went straight to the lake and sailed it. I read everything I could and I have always been good at learning from books. I sailed just fine. it was after dark and the park was really closed. I never should have been on the water. I had no lights but I knew that lake like the back of my hand. there were trees, from before they made the lake, that were just level with the surface. the tops had been cut even with the water and the left-behind trunks were a hazard but I knew the location of every one. I had, after all, spent every available moment rowing around that lake.
after sailing a few yards, I realized my boat was sinking...slowly, but still sinking. I was used to wooden boats and hadn't even though about a drain plug! well, I turned her about and sailed back to the ramp. after draining the water, I founds an old wine cork in my truck, plugged the hole, and went back out. I wore my life jacket for the first time, that night. I knew boats but sailing was something new and I still didn't swim.
in time, I did repairs to the hull to stop the leaks. I also designed and made a sprit sail for the boat, to replace the worn out lateen. Thomas Jones Firth's book, Low Resistance Boats, had inspired me and I have always been glad of it. sprit sails are awesome.
I began sailing at a large lake in Pennsylvania; Lake Marburg. it was a much better place to sail. looking back, now, with that lateen and my tender dinghy on a lake as tricky as Seneca, it's amazing I didn't die that first year.
that first year I had some crazy times. I have a real tendency to sail when a sane man would stay on shore. I have been told, by sailors in bigger boats as well as friends, that I am crazy. but, that first year, I survived storms and outrageously gusty winds. once, I almost capsized. it would have been the death of me, even with the life jacket, because Seneca had been frozen over for weeks. only the size of Marburg kept it liquid.
it was a stupid incident. I went all the way there ( an hour away ) only to find the wind blowing at 17 kts and gusting above 20. there was a larger boat, maybe 20ft, sailing without the jib and a reef in, heeled over hard. he was the only other boat on the water. I never should have taken that little dinghy out there; but I did. I was doing fine. reaching back and forth; tacking around and never jibing. the hull was planing and I was really rocking along...and then it happened. a crazy gust, from a different direction, ripped over the hill, back on shore, and stopped me dead in the water. I was in irons when the next gust hit. I remember it so clearly.
it was in slow motion, like such times often seem to be, and the boat just turned over on her side. somehow, I remembered to pull the sheet in and that long boom didn't hit the water. that dinghy is much like a moth. it doesn't have very tall sides and it's not a board boat. you sit in it and not on it. it could easily fill with water and sink. here I was, the mast hanging out, over the water, me standing on the starboard side and the boat poised, impossibly, on only 8" of fiberglass. I remember thoughts skittering over the outside of my consciousness, like leaves scraping against a window. they were," well, this is it. i'm going to die of hyperthermia, today." but, those words weren't a part of me. they were like thoughts from outside. I raised my body from the port rail and then slammed it back against the rail, again, with all my weight behind it.
as the boat slammed back down on the water, I let slip the sheet. level again, the boat took off like it had a rocket tied to it. the wind was coming directly from my port side, my sail was all the way out like I was running, and that crazy wind just launched me back towards the shore.
once I got to shore, I contemplated going back out again. it took me 30 minutes of watching that other boat, twice the size of mine, sailing jib-less with a reefed main and his lee rail in the water before I finally, reluctantly, decided it wouldn't be too smart to go back out.
besides the hairy moments, that first year, there were so many glorious moments. you haven't lived till you have sailed past ice flows on a totally silent lake ( no constant noise and stink from the power boats because it was too bitter cold for them ), with only the ducks, huddled together on the ice, as company.
it's been 17 years, now. I converted that boat to a full keel boat. removing the trunk ( allowing my butt to go where the trunk was ) and adding a shallow, long keel like on the old Grand Banks schooners. it sails better, now; tracks better, heels less, still points like a champ. it's also more seaworthy. the transom was always perilously low. only 2 to 3 inches of it above the water. the trunk kept me from sitting at the point of greatest buoyancy. the new design evened the waterline out and brought the transom up. I don't have to worry as much about being swamped by tall wakes or high following seas. I am a big full keel fan, now.
I still sail that boat. the bigger guys, on the lake, have a good respect for me as a sailor. I sail in wind you don't see such small boats in. and I sail far, more like a cruiser, unlike most of the other small dinghies. you'll see me out there from sun up to sun down, when I have the chance. if you watch me sail, you'll see i'm a really good sailor and I know my boat and how to handle her. I also have a nice Holiday 20 but I spend most of my time on my 9' dinghy, although I love them both. I refuse to use a motor, on the Holiday. I sail to and from the dock. I'm a sailor and it's amazing how many other 'sailors' I see who don't know how to leave from, or return to, a dock.
I never have learned to swim. I always wear my life jacket. but, I have never been in the water...not yet, anyway. I have never stopped learning. not only do I read and watch anything that might teach me more sailing skills but I also keep my eyes open. I have learned to read the wind and the water and, while I am on the water, I am always watchful
I got caught out in a bad squall, that lasted for 30 minutes, earlier this year. 30 kt winds and 2foot waves. 2foot may not sound like much, but on a lake, like Marburg, 2 foot waves, caused by sudden wind, are pretty big. I made it back to the dock because I am always watchful and I know what to do in an emergency. I wasn't in my 20' sloop. i was in that 9' dinghy.
since then, I have started sailing in the Chesapeake bay, down around Back River. it's a whole new ballgame for that 9' dinghy.
anyhow, what is the purpose of this book? i'd say, if anything is to be taken from this narrative, it's that you shouldn't DEPEND on safety gear ( like life jackets )to save you; something my dad taught me about motorcycles. Know your boat. Know yourself. Know all you can about the waters on which you sail. Know everything you can about sailing and never stop learning. Then, be prepared for disaster every moment. don't be fearful but be watchful and prepared.
the first line of defense is to see danger before it's upon you so you have time to prepare for it. the second is to know what to do once it has arrived. and, perhaps the most important part, NEVER PANIC. always remain calm and focused. do what needs doing and don't worry about the outcome. you will live or you will die but worrying about it, dwelling on it, will just keep you from doing what you need to do to keep her upright and sailing.
I think that's the most important part of surviving. yes. wear your life jacket, in case all else fails. but don't depend on it. depend on your knowledge and your actions. it's better if those things save your bacon and you don't need to rely on your PFD.
of course, I always carry a coin, in case I do drown, so I can pay my way out of Ran's kingdom, where drowned sailors go, and go to be with my ancestors. better safe than sorry.