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Old 07-21-2003
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Tania Aebi is on a distinguished road
Surviving a Fouled Prop


One moment you're sailing along in total control, and the next you're faced with a vexing calamity.
Often, in sailing, situations we would rather not have to handle present themselves very suddenly, leaving no room for any choice but to react. There is no predicting the arrival of these little pop quizzes that seem uniquely designed to test our individual capabilities, but we all have our own ways coping. The biggest and best surprise of all comes when we end up handling them. In my experience, one of the most common of these travails is the fouled prop.

Just about everyone who has spent any time on a boat has a fouled-prop story. My squeaky-clean record was shattered during a week-long charter I once did with five dependents on board and the charter company's investment to protect. It was the same year I got my first speeding ticket.  
 
Five years ago, along with my neighbor, Kathy and her boy, another friend Maggie, and my two boys, we all chartered a 36-foot boat and circumnavigated Tortola. As usual, I was the captain (incidentally, at this point in my life, I have a recurring fantasy about being crew). My two friends were complete novice sailors, and the ages of the boys—four and two—speak for themselves as far as their contribution to the vacation is concerned.


The kids and their toys were everywhere, providing substantial distractions for a concerned skipper.
The little bodies, with diapers and stuffed animals falling overboard, only added to the list of concerns and my eyes and ears had to be in many places at once. It was on the second day out that the eyes blinked when they shouldn't have. After a routine day of beating and tacking into the blasting January trades that funnel between Virgin Gorda and Tortola, we closed in on the next anchorage.  We were rolling up the furling mainsail and jib when suddenly, the engine stopped dead with no warning hiccups or alarms. Oh, no! The sound of a stalling engine has haunted many a night, turning perfectly good dreams into nightmares, but this time I was wide awake. It didn't take long to spot the previously undetected line leading from a forward cleat to what could be only one place under the boat. I had done the unthinkable. In all my years of sailing, I have made many mistakes, but this was the first time I had ever fouled a prop. It was a very small comfort to know the situation might have been worse—much worse— had we been on a lee shore for instance, but even if some times are better than others, there just is no best time for  fouling a prop.

The key to my performance, to what gets me through every potential crisis or cruising dilemma, is the people who depend on or believe in me. They are the motivations I need to keep pulling my own weight through one mess at a time, and every time I looked, all eyes were on me. My friends were clearly anxious and awaiting some sign of confident leadership, so I rewarded them with a feeble smile, reassuring them that this was just a minor setback. Yanking ineffectively on the taut
dockline, we drifted downwind, a boat full of women and whining children, as I ran through my options.

"Hanging off the stern, terrified, I would have gladly submitted to unaneshetized root canal instead."

I didn't want to attempt tacking through a somewhat crowded anchorage up to a mooring with a furling main and an inexperienced crew, and the dinghy and outboard didn't have the power to muscle us upwind, through the waves. No matter how I cut it, there was only one thing to do and that was to unfoul the prop—immediately—and doing so was up to me. 

I put on the mask and snorkel and eased myself into the water off the stern where the swim platform bucked up and down in the waves.  It's amazing how much more a boat seems to lurch about when viewed from sea level, especially when the necessity of going under several tons of bouncing fiberglass is imminent. Hanging off the stern, terrified, I would have gladly submitted to unanesthetized root canal if it meant I wouldn't have to dive under the aptly named Sacajawea. Where were her two friends Lewis and Clark when they were needed? They would have done the diving for her, right? In the olden days, in tales of derring-do, men saved damsels in distress all the time. Hey, in the olden days, three women and three kids alone on a sailboat with a fouled prop would have been the result of a fatal tragedy involving all the men, the stuff history is made of and just more fantasy on my part. I looked around one last time for an approaching knight astride a dinghy; there was nothing but heaving swells, five people and a charter company depending on me, and the receding promise of a comforting anchorage as we continued to drift, all due to my foolish oversight.


Taking the plunge is supposed to be pleasant, but not if you're doing it to fight a fouled prop in a seaway.
I had no choice but to sink beneath the waves that lifted, dropped, and smacked against the hull, and to follow the line, hand over hand, to the prop.  Holding the mouthful of air I had gulped before diving, I pulled on the line as hard as I could, to no avail. Never before had I so appreciated the appropriateness of the word "foul" to describe a clump of line tightly wound around a shaft and permanently wedged into itself.

In the end, it was countless dives and breathless hacking with a serrated steak knife from the galley that chopped the mess away, most charter boats being woefully ill-equipped in the tool department. As the last bit of fiber floated off, I clambered back aboard, shivering and promising myself this would never happen again.

Minutes later, the day, no, the whole vacation was saved, as the engine rumbled back to life and brought us to the safety of another anchorage where, over cups of tea and hot chocolate, Maggie, Kathy, the kids, and I relived and retold the first incarnation of a story that would always have a happy ending. I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't proud of myself, which leads to the second moral of this tale. For the next five days of the charter, I invented and practiced stories for the charter company to cover any possibility that the propeller or shaft had been damaged, only to stick with honesty in the end. As the embarrassing confession stumbled reluctantly from my lips, the woman at the charter base nodded, unimpressed, and casually informed me fouled props happen all the time, especially with all the moorings in the Virgin Islands.


The author survived her test at sea, and most sailors will too with a little determination and quick thinking.
Her best story involved a couple of honeymooners out on their first day, in the very same anchorage we had been drifting away from during our episode. Upon leaving, their mooring line got in the way and made itself known only after the engine had stopped. The panicked couple cut themselves free before realizing that the engine couldn't work until the propeller had been relieved of the line and they wound up on the rocks—the boat, not the marriage. What their future held is anybody's
guess, but ever since I've wondered about the anchor and why they hadn't been able to drop it in time and this information has been stored away as a possible option should I get put to that test again.

The whole experience drove home how fouled props are all too routine, and in the worst case scenarios, how they can turn into the potential beachings and shipwrecks that give me sleepless nights. As a result, I've become a stickler for making sure there are never any loose lines on deck; reefing lines, halyards, sheets and docklines are always tightly coiled and frequently accounted for. I have become so controlled by this compulsion that nowadays, the challenge is to not obsess over these lines so much because the danger with tunnel vision or worries is that the next unwelcome pop quiz will have no trouble barging in on me. And,
frankly, given the choice—regardless of the missed opportunity for another story— I'd rather just pay for another speeding ticket.

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