I’m trying to find the right way to tell the story of our launching. I feel it calls for solemn toasts and inspiring words, something on the order of Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” After all, this was the culmination of two years of hard work and about twenty-five years of dreaming. It’s not enough to say, “Well, it was fun.”
Yet, with a few days’ reflection, what I most remember was the simple thrill of seeing the boat float and actually move forward under sail. Sitting at the tiller, feeling the tug of the water on the rudder, hearing the rustle of sails above, watching the bow point to a distant shore, and knowing that every bit was built by my hands, was deeply, almost indescribably satisfying. The four hours passed so quickly, we all (my crew and I) swore it felt like an hour at most. It was, we all agreed, very, very fun.
It’s amazing how quickly old worries and preoccupations disappeared. Once in the water, I no longer worried about leaking or sinking. And I completely forgot to worry about my choice of glues or the durability of my hardware store paint. When the boat slid off the trailer and bobbed in the water, these fears evaporated. Instead, I found myself simply reveling in the experience of being on my boat, working the lines and bringing the craft to life.
“Bringing the craft to life:” Yes, that statement helps capture the experience of sailing my boat. While it’s possible to admire the boat’s lines and color scheme when it is sitting in a garage, it feels essentially lifeless and graceless when sitting under florescent lights and covered in a thin film of dust. But on the water and under sail, the boat gleamed and the sails breathed. The joy was seeing it come alive.
We chose a day with a careful eye on the weather. A pleasant day was promised—sunny and in the 70s. Wind was my only concern; it was blowing around 15 miles and hour and gusting to over 20, according to radio. That’s not tornado weather by any means and, for most sailors, it represents nearly ideal conditions. But for my launch, I wished for something more benign. I didn’t want to tax my boat or my crew on our inaugural sail. But I wasn’t going to wait for a less windy day; even worse would be a day without any wind. Launching on a still lake would be anticlimactic, to say the least.
We chose to launch at Lake Nockamixon, a rather large body of water in eastern Pennsylvania. It allows motorboats, but seems most popular with sailors. Nearly all of the boats in its 600-berth state park marina are either sailboats or innocuous pontoon boats. In preparation, I had carefully plotted the route to the marina (I was almost as worried about trailering the boat as I was about launching it) and even zoomed in on the boat launch with Google Earth so I could mentally rehearse strategies for backing the trailer into the water. I didn’t want to look like a hapless first timer, jackknifing my trailer and dumping the boat sideways.
My old Subaru cooperated by not breaking down or balking at the weight and we arrived early afternoon. I proudly drove past the sign “trailers only beyond this point” and slid into the parking area, where several other sailboats were being prepared for launching. Their owners seemed skilled and purposeful.
Affecting what I hoped was an equally confident manner, I directed my wife and two teenage boys and began to raise the mast and attach the stays. Decorum was lost, however, when we realized that our halyard lines were hopelessly tangled. The sail came back down and we spent several minutes trying to remember if the line went through the double pulley and then through the single pulley—or the reverse. I actually brought along my boat building instructions and (to my quiet shame) surreptitiously consulted the rigging chart to set it right. My wife threatened to say loudly, “Do you need the instructions, honey?” Trying to be nonchalant, we untangled the mess.
Now it was show time. There were four areas to launch boats; three were occupied. The only available spot was downwind and near a jetty. I sensed trouble, but plowed ahead. I drove the car down to the launch and backed up to the water. The night before I read about backing a trailer in a great little book called The Complete Sailor. The trick, my book said, is to place my hand on the bottom of the wheel and move it in the direction that I wanted the trailer to go. This helps novices avoid the tendency to point the car in the wrong direction. With this helpful guide, I avoided excessive embarrassment. Pretty soon, the trailer was going underwater and the stern was getting wet.
With much help and advice from my family, the boat was unhitched and pushed into the water. I was just about to shout for joy when, suddenly, I saw the starboard stay go slack. A moment of confusion was immediately followed by intimations of disaster until my oldest son realized that the culprit was a “quick link” holding one of the bowsprit chains to a turnbuckle. The strain of moving the boat had pulled the relatively weak coupling apart. The bowsprit loosened, releasing tension in the stays.
The problem was small, but the implications were serious. If I couldn’t reattach the chain to the hull, I couldn’t sail. Fortunately, I had the foresight (or lack of confidence in my building skills) to bring my toolbox. In fact, before leaving home I told my wife that I had packed enough tools to build a house. So with the help of a Vice-Grip, hammer, and countersink (don’t make me explain this combination of tools) I was eventually able to squeeze my chain directly into a turnbuckle. I was relieved, but humbled. The boat was floating, but I had to overcome a mechanical problem even before I had set foot on deck.
Next came the hard part—getting aboard, raising the sail and getting away from the dock. Here’s what happened: I decided to raise the jib but not the mainsail before getting underway. We all got aboard and started drifting away from the dock. I went forward to raise the main sail, but before I made much progress, we were close to the rocky jetty. I shifted strategies and grabbed a paddle, but it was too little, too late. At the last minute I jumped overboard and, standing in water up to my waist, pushed the boat away from the shore. Did I mention that it was a pleasant day and the jetty was crowded with sightseers? “Well, he needs to get his boat away from the rocks,” I heard one older lady explain to a wide-eyed grandchild.
Safely away from land, I was finally able to raise the mast. Immediately, the wind grabbed hold and we shot out to the middle of the lake. My oldest son was at the tiller, grinning like the Cheshire Cat; this, he felt, was what sailing was all about. My wife was not so sure. She had fantasies of dangling her arm in the water while reading a book, not holding on for dear life.
In truth, I was a bit nervous, too. There was so much that I didn’t know about this boat. How far can it heal? How fast can it go? It’s not a large boat, but it’s much larger than a Sunfish. And I simply didn’t know what to expect from a flat bottomed craft. We waffled upwind as I fought competing urges to race ahead and ease off for safety.
Still, this was, perhaps, the best part of the afternoon. We were making good progress and I always felt more comfortable going upwind. We tacked a couple of times and nobody received a concussion. How much time passed? My son guessed fifteen minutes; my watch said an hour. I looked back and realized that the marina was a surprisingly far away. We decided to turn down wind and head back.
As I have written in before, I grew up sailing a small boat on a small lake. As a child, I didn’t have any formal training as a sailor. I felt competent, but I had no awareness of sailing terms or concepts. Sometimes I needed to let out the sail; sometimes I found it better to keep it close to my side. I understood that the boom would swing from one side to the other when I turned. But I had no concept of “close hauled” or “broad reach” sailing. I know that it was sometimes hard to make reliable turns, but I didn’t know why.
In hindsight, I realize that, as a boy, I tended to take the easy route and muddle through the hard parts of sailing. This meant that I looked for opportunities to sail across the wind (reaching) or slightly upwind (close hauled, I think it’s called), which gave me the most sense of control and the easiest tacks. But I struggled with downwind sailing. Only later did I learn from my books that downwind sailing really is harder. It’s harder to judge winds, make turns, and avoid jibing—a sudden and unintended swing of the boom from one side of the boat to the other.
So as we turned and headed downwind toward the marina, my Achilles heal was once again revealed. Gusts, shifting winds, and a disoriented captain meant that we bobbed and weaved about, catching wind one moment, stalling the next, and making quick turns to avoid jibes when they threatened. “Where’s the wind?” I kept asking my family. Three hands would point in three slightly different directions.
Inelegantly, we made our way back down the lake, but just as I felt that we were finding our sea legs, we faced our next major challenge. Sitting at the tiller, I saw the starboard stay fly away from the hull and hang limp in the air. I looked at the mast saw it bending about 10 degrees to the left, straining against the two hinges holding it to the tabernacle. Without the support provided by the vital length of wire, the mast would almost certainly break.
I handed the tiller to my son and clamored forward to lower the sail. My first thought was to reduce tension on the mast and, if necessary, sail home with the jib alone. But once I had the sail down and could inspect the stay I realized that nothing was broken; the turnbuckle simply unscrewed itself (how could that happen? I kept thinking). But this gave me hope. If we could straighten the sail, I might be able to screw the turnbucke back in place.
Our plan was simple. I told my son to turn the boat to further reduce tension on the starboard side and to have my other son push the mast with all his might. I grabbed the stay and turnbuckle, willing them to come together. “Almost there!” I yelled. “Try again!” After a minute of frantic and frustrated effort, I gained just enough slack to bring the two parts back together. We were saved.
Exhausted and almost giddy, I decided that we should take a break. We kept the mainsail down while I crawled into the cabin (for the first time while under sail) to lie down and eat one of my wife’s homemade empanadas. I felt a great rush of happiness and affection for our boat, despite the glitches. “I love my boat!” I enthused, my mouth full of food. By the time I finished my dinner and came out of the cabin, the winds had died and we were drifting toward shore. More frantic work ensued as we raised the sail and pointed the boat back out toward open water.
Emboldened by our ability to overcome nearly every possible catastrophe, we sailed past the marina before deciding to head back upwind and toward home. For me, this was my opportunity redeem myself. After a disastrous departure, I was determined to return with skill and grace.
Over the course of the afternoon, I watched sailboats depart and return. Nearly all did so under power. But we didn’t have an outboard. We had to sail in–and I had one chance to get it right. We sailed perpendicular to the marina and I started to turn in, but I realized that we weren’t lined up correctly. We would almost certainly get pushed too far downwind. I turned away and headed back upwind. My family groaned. They wanted the boat to work like a car. But, I explained, boats don’t work that way. You need to work with the wind. Sometimes you have to go away from the place you want to go. My wife had another idea. “I want you to get a motor.”
So feeling the pressure on all fronts, I bided my time before turning back toward the launch. “We’ll head for the one the middle,” I said, pointing my boat at the center dock. We were moving fast, but I could tell that we were slipping downwind—leeway, I believe it’s called. I adjusted the tiller and pointed the boat about 15 degrees upwind. “Look!” I said to my family. “Can you see how we need to go sideways in order to sail straight toward the dock?” Yes, they could all see it. Pretty cool.
Closer…closer. Please, god, don’t blow it. And at the last possible second, I straightened the tiller and we slid with perfect precision alongside the dock. I jumped out and looked around. Nobody was watching.