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Old 06-05-2003
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Bruce Caldwell is on a distinguished road
First Sail of the Season

 
Kirsten's first berth was exposed to the relentless wind.
 
A fair weather sailor such as myself had little hope for an early start to the season this year. A thick gray cloud cover with steady drizzle and occasional thunderstorms lay over Long Island nearly the entire month of April. To me, the water is not at all inviting—indeed it can be downright hostile-looking—unless it sparkles with some sunlight.

The weather in the past few months did not just seem hostile—it was hostile. Strong northeasters were dropping more rain, snow, and cold temperatures on the region than normal for this time of year.

My catboat Kirsten showed wear and tear from the winds. Her slip was fully exposed to the northeast, and the strong winds punished her with wave after wave slapping her hull. The stern line came loose one night, and only the spring line kept her from banging into the opposite finger pier. Before the stern line came undone, the chafing gear had been displaced and the bare line had burned a deep groove into the newly varnished toe rail. The stern line was nearly worn through where it had rubbed against the underside of the dock cleat, and the line had to be replaced. Last fall, Kirsten had safely ridden out the busy hurricane season in the same slip using these same lines.

The bad weather was frustrating. In late March, during breaks from varnishing Kirsten's land-bound spars, I had watched enviously from shore as the clammers hit the water with their long rakes. Now the varnishing and other commissioning chores were complete, the mast was stepped, and the sail was laced to the spars. All that was lacking was some cooperation from the weather, a day with winds somewhere between dead calm and a half-gale.

 
Sometimes, checking the docklines for chafe is more prudent than getting underway.
 
Finally, one afternoon, the sun and blue sky appeared during a short break between low-pressure systems. I raced out to the marina. With a light northeast wind in my face I motored away from the marina, raised the sail, then killed the engine, and felt the sheet moving through my fingers for the first time this year.

The peaceful feeling was short-lived. Looking upward to where the halyards for Kirsten's gaff rig ran through the blocks, I saw that the lines were twisted. I hadn't reeved the lines correctly through the blocks at the top of the mast.

A lull in the wind gave way to a fresh breeze from another quarter, and I could see the new blanket of dark clouds moving in. I headed back, wondering if there was a way to fix the halyards without unstepping the mast.

A week later, the marina solved the problem by lashing two planks across the forks of the forklift. I was going to ride it up to re-reeve the halyard until I sat down on the planks and my eyes tracked the mast skyward—sudden change of plans. One of the marina workers took my place on the planks and handled the blocks on the mast for the peak and throat halyards while I followed the rigging diagram from the deck reeving the lines through the blocks on the gaff.

 
A Spring shakedown reveals errors in re-rigging the boat.
 
Before backing away from the forklift, I hoisted the sail, eyed the halyards, checked the diagram, and double-checked it.

Then, with the sun breaking through the cloud cover, and a nice breeze coming in from the south, I headed out into the bay for a short sail. The halyards looked right and worked right, and Kirsten glided downwind with all the grace and serenity I remembered from last season.

The centerboard, however, which I'd lowered just enough to warn of shoals, was skipping and hopping over solid ground where there should have been plenty of water. The shoals had shifted and built up over the winter. The private channel markers had not been set out yet, but seagulls helpfully stood on the shoals that were covered by just inches of water.

It was a good, although brief, sail. But neither that sail, nor the quick sail stolen between storm systems, could be counted as the first sail of the season. Instead, I categorized those two sails as "shake-down" and "trouble-shooting" sails. Adding to the disqualifiers were the battens I'd forgotten to put into the sail. And my wife Julie had not yet been along.

 
Catboats are notorious for weather helm but seldom stay pointed into the wind.
 
Still the weather persisted in flinging clouds, rain, and high winds at the region, and the forecast for the first weekend after the rigging had been put to rights was no different. Saturday morning looked possible, however, if the forecast was correct about the half-gale and thunderstorms holding off until later that afternoon.

But Saturday morning showed whitecaps and breaking waves, with a wind far stiffer than had been forecast. Still the sky was clear, and the sun was strong, raising the temperature well into the sixties.

Reefing the sail was in order. Julie and I moved Kirsten behind the dock to a slip sheltered from the waves of the bay, and positioned Kirsten's bow into the wind. This made it easier to raise the sail enough to slide the battens into their pockets and rig the reefing lines. I would have liked to have the more sheltered slip as a new home for Kirsten. That slip, however, was taken and I would have to pick another if I was going to move Kirsten permanently to a calmer area of the marina. We found one at the last dock, deep into the neck of the bay.

"Getting to it, however, was not a simple task. I had to back out, avoid being blown onto the nearby shore, and power into the wind to come around to the dock."
Getting to it, however, was not a simple task. I had to back out, avoid being blown onto the nearby shore, and power into the wind to come around to the dock. After pirouetting several times, nearly beaching herself, and scraping by the topsides of a power boat and a piling, Kirsten straightened up and made her way down to her new slip.

We set up the new dock lines, tied down the second set of reef points, and headed out for our first sail. The NOAA broadcasts seemed OK, but the sudden change to clear skies instead of the forecast storms left me in doubt as to what to expect.

Julie took the helm and we motored out until we were safely into deep water among the waves and wind. I hoisted the sail, and we slowly fell off the wind to a beam reach, headed southeast, and barely plugged along under the shortened sail. A single reef would have been plenty.

The wind was clocking around to head us, so we tacked north. We plodded along, jouncing over the waves. The cool breeze overcame the bright sun's warmth, and we pulled on jackets. We tried out different points of sail so Julie could get a feel for the relationships between the wind, course, and sail position.

Soon it was time to tack away from the shore. We had so little way on that we had to fall off to a run before working up enough steam to tack. If we had tied in the first set of reefing points before putting in the second, we could have shaken out the second and continued under the first set, giving us more power. As it was, we began a slow reach back to the marina.

After we lunched at a diner and returned home, we settled in to watch the Weather Channel and see what had happened to the forecast for a stormy afternoon. The barometer was still falling, but the worst of the low-pressure system had moved offshore. Now the forecast showed clear skies until Tuesday.

The warm sun enticed me back to the marina, where I busied myself sewing on new chafing gear and other chores until late afternoon, all the while keeping an eye on the wind and listening to the NOAA broadcasts.

It looked good for a sunset cruise. I shook out the reef points and headed out again, enjoying a light breeze from the south. I followed the red buoys marking the eastward channel through Flanders Bay into Great Peconic Bay, and noted that the wind and chop picked up as I neared the entrance of the larger bay. Power cruisers coming in from the bay were making sharp turns around the buoy to head north to a sheltered marina. It was hard to tell if a line of waves up ahead was their wakes, or surf over the shoal off Red Cedar Point.

Deciding to leave any discoveries of new shoals until another day, I came about and sauntered homeward under a sky that was beginning to gather the colors of twilight on the horizon. Rounding the last point before the bay where my marina is located, the wind came onto Kirsten's nose. I turned on the engine and began to drop sail.

 
With the halyards set right, Kirsten glided with grace and serenity again.
 
Catboats are notorious for weather helm, but they seldom stay pointed into the wind for long because the gaff flops about. The weight of the gaff makes it easy to lower the throat halyard, but getting the peak of the gaff down usually involves some hauling on the sail itself. As I released the halyards to grab some sail, Kirsten fell off. I ducked. The boom came over, neatly removing my hat from my head and depositing it (the hat, that is) on the cockpit seat.

After tying down the sail and spars, I began motoring to the marina. A roaring sound made me look back, and I found a large power cruiser, stern down and bow up, speeding through the water on a course that would soon bring it alongside as we neared the narrow marina entrance. I reduced my speed and was just turning away from the expected wake when the first wave lofted Kirsten's stern into the air and set us to hobby horsing.

After the wake had passed and the cruiser had turned into the marina, I resumed speed and course, and putt-putted up to the new slip. The power cruiser, a new neighbor, was still tying up. By the time I'd fastened on the sail cover and hosed down the deck, the power boaters were gone. It was nearly dark, and I was alone except for an egret stalking the shore.

The snafus and odd set of short sails hardly added up to a smooth start of the sailing season. But as I was walking along the dock back to my car, there was a satisfying feeling that, finally, the season was underway. 

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