This article was originally published in December, 2000 on SailNet.
Wherever one sails, sharing the water with other vessels—both power and sail—is inevitable. The notion that fellow sailors are friends and power boaters mere "stink pots," truly oversimplifies the issue, and it's patently untrue. Indeed, what might be perceived as friendly behavior by a sailor can actually be more damaging than what some would call reckless disregard by a power boater. This is a lesson that needn't be learned the hard way, because I have already done that for you. Let me explain.
My lesson began with a horsefly. The insect insisted on making my acquaintance while I was trying to cross a heavily-trafficked channel in choppy and breezy conditions. Escaping the pest led me to beach my sailing dinghy Poky on a run toward the sandy shore of Simmons Point, where the horsefly finally buzzed off to harass other boaters anchored in the area. That left me to ponder how to get away from the lee shore as the wind gathered strength and waves began pounding the beach.
The simple solution, it seemed to me, was to walk the dinghy around the point to the shelter of the cove on the other side. There, with the wind at my back, I could resume sailing. However, in doing this I had to drag the dinghy across the gravel bar that stretched out from the point. Of course, after I got the little boat to the cove, the wind appeared to shift accordingly to stay in my face, and clawing away from the shore on a close reach became all the more difficult because of the gravel that was jammed in the daggerboard trunk, preventing the board from dropping all the way down. Nevertheless, I made my way offshore and shaped a course for Red Cedar Point, farther up the bay on the opposite side.
As my hard-chined dinghy labored through the waves, I enviously eyed a Sunfish that was skimming along at a fast clip on the same course. We exchanged waves, and in response to his question about how I was doing, I yelled back that the daggerboard was stuck. To my surprise, he jibed, came along side, and offered to tow me. For some reason, despite thinking I didn't need a tow and doubting the ability of a Sunfish to tow anything at all, I acquiesced and passed the bitter end of the anchor rode over. In the manuevering that followed, we luffed our sails and drifted broadside to the waves. Within moments, a wave came aboard and filled up Poky. I found myself dog-paddling among the flotsam that had once been inside the dinghy, and Poky's gunwhales were hovering inches below the surface.
When I looked around, I saw that three power boats had materialized from nowhere, and their crews were busying themselves with boathooks and nets to collect my oars, mast, waterproof bags, and shoes. One of the boaters urged me to climb aboard his swimming platform, and he then gathered my belongings rescued by the other boaters. Before long, we had Poky in tow and were motoring toward the shore where I'd parked my car.
The dinghy emptied itself of seawater as it bounced over the waves under tow. So, as we came along the shore, I clambered back aboard Poky, stepped the mast, and began sailing again, wetter, but with a new-found appreciation for powerboaters.
Until that incident, I have to admit, I'd viewed power boaters as the enemy. I had gnashed my teeth as they thundered past, throwing a wake that shook the wind from my sails. Why wouldn't they alter course or slow down, I wondered?
Since my moment of enlightenment, that power boaters are people too, I have developed a new appreciation for their position. There were times when they couldn't alter course because that would take them out of the channel. Likewise, some power boats operate best at high speeds on a plane. Slowing down in many instances creates a bigger wake. If they suddenly depower, they come off the plane, lowering their transom and exposing it to the wave that is chasing the boat. That wake becomes a standing wave when the boat suddenly slows down, and can threaten the power boat and anything else nearby.
Far from being oblivious to the situation, most power boaters are usually acting correctly and safely for all concerned. As for that Sunfish sailor and myself, I'm still not sure what we were thinking out there.
Taming the Traffic
To be a better citizen on the water, here are a few things to keep in mind when under sail:
- Remember that power boats in channels are not necessarily free to alter course.
- If you must cross a channel, do so at a right angle in order to cross as quickly as possible.
- If you cannot sail quickly through a busy area, power out of it before becoming a hazard to navigation.
- Avoid sailing in channels if possible. If your draft means you must use the channel, use your engine.
- Large wakes can be dangerous to small sailboats, and it is necessary to watch and act accordingly.
- The ultimate rule of the road is to do whatever is necessary to avoid a collision. If you're in doubt that your right of way will be honored, clearly signal your intention and get out of harm's way.
When Docking, Easy Does It by Bruce Caldwell
Rules of the Road by John Rousmaniere
Maneuvering Under Power by Mark Matthews
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