I apologize that this was written for another venue and is a bit long. It’s hard to describe my most embarassing sailing experience but it might also be one of my most memorable as well. Frankly, I have been blessed with a lifetime of ‘most memorable’ sailing experiences and cursed with a fair number of embarassing ones as well. Perhaps the one that comes most strongly to mind is my first sail on Diana, my Folkboat. After graduating from college, I had purchased ‘Diana’ as a derelict, and a near wreck. I had spent seven months restoring her to sailing condition. I had replaced the rig, rudder, and keel bolts. I had sistered the frames, replaced some floor timbers and planking, constructed a new cockpit and interior, replaced a piece of the stem and the forward face of the cabin, had wooded the bottom and repainted her inside and out.
As 1973 raced to an end, my yard bill was paid up through December 31st, and I had decided that I would get the old girl launched in time for the New Year. As it worked out the yard closed down on Christmas Eve and would not open again until January 2. So, it was that ‘Diana’ was splashed on Christmas Eve.
‘Diana’ was a lapstrake wooden Folkboat. Having been out of the water for so long, her planking had dried out and her seams had opened up so wide that you could pass a thick piece of cardboard through them. There is a process to launching a boat that has been out of the water for that long that amounts to nearly sinking the boat for a day or so, but that is story for another time. Even after the seams have seemingly swelled close again, the theory with a wooden boat that has been out of the water for a long period of time, is that you must let them swell in the water for another week or so before you sail them. Since much of the strength and stiffness of a wooden boat comes from the friction between the planks, this swelling period allows the planks to swell hard against each other.
I spent the week bailing, finishing the rigging, and working on fabricating the new cockpit and interior for the boat. To keep ‘Diana’ from sinking, I was sleeping aboard. I slept on a slatted grate that I had made as a temporary cabin sole with my foot hanging into the bilge so that the rising water would wake me and I would know to bail.
In a week that passed before I noticed that it had even started, it was suddenly New Years Eve and I had to get the boat out of the boatyard. With a week in the water, the leaking had pretty well stopped. I had been given permission to tie up for free between an old piling and a bulkhead on the edge of the boatyard out of the everyone’s way. I figured as long as I had to sail over to the new slipway, I might as well go out for a sail first.
This was my first sail on the Folkboat, and my first sail as the skipper of my own keel boat, and only the second time that I had single-handed a boat this big, and the first time I had single-handed at night. I slipped out just as the sun was setting in a classic sky-on-fire Florida sunset, beating east in a light ghosting breeze beneath a Jack-o-lantern of a sky. I sailed quietly toward a blood red rising moon in an ever darkening evening toward the pass at the southern end of Key Biscayne.
Now a Folkboat is a marvelous little boat, which as I discovered that night, can sail herself seemingly for days at a time; just trim, aim and off she goes. I sat up on the cabin top, jib sheet in hand; steering off the wind by tightening the sheet and heading up with an ease of the sheet. These were simpler times and quieter times. I had Biscayne Bay to myself; no running lights to be seen anywhere. ‘Diana’ was free of anything that one might call modern. She did not have an engine and so did not have an electrical system or running lights. Being a few inches less than 25 feet on deck, I simply carried the legally required flashlight, which I was prepared to shine on my sails if another boat appeared in the night. The head was a simple ‘bucket and chuck it’ system. She lack lifelines and stanchions, and the deck hard was crude and underpowered but reliable.
To those of you who have spent much time single-handing after dark, you will probably know what I mean, when I say there is nothing quite like the emotional sensation of being alone at night at sea. There is this profound sense of being more alone than you have ever been in your life. There is a sense of tranquility and a sense of speed that is far beyond that felt in the light of day. There’s a sense of self-reliance and sense of a fear that comes from realizing that it is up to only you to make the right or wrong decisions out there and if your decisions are wrong it is only you who pays the consequences. The carpet of stars overhead lit the sea and their distance made me seem infinitesimally small, and humbly insignificant.
I sailed for hours into the chill moderate breezes, but around ten or so, I reached the mouth of the cut into the ocean and turned back for home on a nice broad reach and a building breeze. The trip back into the lights of Dinner Key is lost to my memory but when I arrived at the harbor I began to sort through my possibilities. It suddenly had occurred to me that I had never brought a boat this big into a dock alone under sail. I sailed back out into the mooring area, and practiced a couple approaches to the piling. I decided my best bet was to approach a couple boat lengths to leeward on a beam reach and then head up into the wind. I had decided that there was no way that I could be on the helm and still make it forward in time to place a line over the piling. Somehow, seen through the rose colored optimism of youth, it made great sense to me to steer in controlling the direction of the boat with the jibsheet while sitting on the foredeck. If I missed the piling I would fetch up on sand bar just ahead of the piling. Now youth is an amazing thing, you have not learned enough to know what you don’t and may never know. Youth brings a confidence that can only come when you don’t know the consequences of making a really big mistake.
So in my youthful confidence I came roaring in on a beam reach, sitting on the foredeck, jib sheet in hand. At the moment of truth, I freed the jib sheet and Diana pirouetted gracefully up into the wind. I grabbed the clew of the jib and moving it from side to side, steering and slowing the boat. Coming to a dead stop right next to the piling. Polite as you may, I threw a bight of a dockline over the piling. And there I stood, dockline in hand, congratulating myself on a job well done. I stood there cold and numb; a toothy grin across my face, scanning the docks for some sign of life; some witness to my brilliant feat of seamanship. No good deed goes unpunished and in my moment of self-congratulatory elation, nature took its turn to take me down a peg or two, hitting Diana with a big puff from the opposite side of the jib from where I stood on the narrow foredeck, pushing me hard towards the rail. As I went over the side, I dove for the shrouds, grabbing the upper shroud with my forearm, slicing it deeply on the Nicropress fitting that should have been taped for just such a reason, dropping feet first into the cold waters of Biscayne Bay in December but keeping my grip on boat.
As I hung over the side, legs in the water, I tried to decide whether to let go and fall backwards into the water, or pull myself aboard. Remembering a check in my wallet in my pocket, I pulled myself aboard. My scream as I went over the side had roused a crowd from the boats tied up nearby; a crowd that arrived just as I pulled myself from the water. As I lay there on the foredeck, winded and bleeding, soaked and shivering; the sound of fireworks and firecrackers bursting in the distant darkness and a chorus of Auld Lang Sine from the drunks in local juke joint wafted out to tell me that I just had entered into the brand New Year.
Last edited by Jeff_H; 11-14-2007 at 02:47 PM.