Life After Building

Sailing is all about waiting for the right weather.

In theory, the transition from builder to sailor is straightforward: I start building; I finish building; I go sailing. But I am realizing that the building never really ends: A day of sailing leads to a few days of tinkering and improving. For every hour under sail, I spend a couple of hours back in the garage.

That’s what happened after my first sail, anyway.  Immediately after returning from our inaugural sail, I made a long list of necessary fixes and needed improvements. Over the next two weeks, I focused on the most urgent upgrades.

Sturdier chains and no "quick links" strengthened my bowsprit.

First, I removed all of the “quick links” I used to connect the bowsprit chains to eyebolts on the hull. They were recommended by my boat’s designer, but during our first sail, one broke outright and two others started to pull apart. Clearly, they were not up to the strain. I bought larger chain and connected it directly to the eyebolts on the keel and chainplate straps on the hull (simply by prying open the turnbuckle eyebolts, inserting a chain link, and then squeezing the eyebolt shut).

Next, I tackled the most serious problem we faced the first time out. In mid-lake, while sailing under a stiff wind, the turnbuckle holding my starboard stay unwound itself and the stay flew away from the hull. This was a potential catastrophe; it’s common for masts to break when stays fail. Fortunately, were able to drop the sail in time and reattach the turnbuckle.

Back home, I considered buying larger turnbuckles, but those intended for boats were remarkably expensive ($40 each from one boat supply company). So I decided to simply lengthen the stays slightly so that I could turn the screw more fully into the turnbuckle. I hoped that this would prevent unwinding or, at least, give me time to see it happening.

Finally, I made several changes and improvements to my lines. Most significantly, I removed the plastic hoops used to hold the mainsail to the mast. They were bulky, cut into my mast, and didn’t fit over the hinges at my tabernacle. After extensive research I chose to instead lace the sail to the mast using a “forth and back” pattern that, I read, minimized binding. This link shows how it works.

Once finished, I was ready for my second sail, but the weather was not cooperating. Day after day, the national weather service predicted thunderstorms. Meanwhile, these overcast days were weirdly still. I never used to think about wind, but now I anxiously stared at treetops, looking for the taletale shimmer of leaves. But even the flimsiest branches were as lifeless as a painting. Was this normal? It struck me as unnatural.

Finally, the threat of storms diminished and light winds were predicted. More importantly, it was also my son’s eighteenth birthday and, coincidentally, the first day of his two day sailing course at the Lake Nockamixon Sailing School. Do you remember my oldest son? He’s the one who started building a small sailboat about a year ago. Since then, his interest in sailing has turned into an obsession that now exceeds my own. Young people have the wonderful opportunity to live life more intensely than older people.

His plan is to take a “gap year” between high school and college, buy a used cruising sailboat, sail down the Intracoastal and, possibly, to the Bahamas. He will do this with a friend and finance the whole adventure with their combined savings. Does this sound risky and financially irresponsible? Maybe so, but if not now, then when? When I’m not worrying for his safety, I’m jealous—and filled with self recrimination that I didn’t do this sort of thing when I was younger.

To win our blessing (and a small financial contribution), we asked him to complete a variety of skill-building experiences. One was to complete a formal sailing class. That’s what brought him to the Nockamixon Sailing School and their ASA certified “basic keelboat sailing course.” So on the appointed day, we drove to the lake with our Pocket Cruiser in tow. Avery would board the school’s 24-foot Catalina with four other students, while I would continue my program of self study and sail our boat with the assistance of  my two other children.

The view from the cockpit.

It was a perfect day. By the time we arrived, the sky was a scenic mix of blue and billowing clouds, while the lake surface was pleasantly rippled by light winds. I left Avery with Captain Tom and the other students, a friendly group of young men, most in their 20’s and early 30’s. Back at our boat, we quickly raised the mast (avoiding the tangles and confusion of our initial launch) and, with growing confidence, backed the boat into the water.

While our first launching was marked by an embarrassing drift into a stone jetty, we now managed to raise the sail and get underway with a measure of grace. We sailed upwind, tacking repeatedly from shore to shore as we slowly made progress down the long, narrow lake. Winds were light, but the sails rarely went slack. Both Sophie and Matthew took turns at the tiller and proved to be natural sailors.

Matthew relaxing.

Sophie sailing

Not worrying about imminant disaster, we were able to enjoy each other’s company and exchange pleasantries with passing boats. I started to realize that several sailors were going out of their way to sail next to us so they could offer complements and ask questions. “What kind of boat is that?” they would inevitably shout across the water. My answers became practiced. “Nice boat,” they would conclude as they waved and sailed away. Without question, we were the slowest sailboat on the water, but we were also the prettiest.

After a couple of hours, the sailing school’s boat came into view and I caught of glimpse of Avery at the helm. He looked confident. We waved enthusiastically, and he gave a curt wave back before leaving us in his wake. I didn’t mind. He was 18 and living his own life.

So far, all of my fixes and improvements were working. My chains were holding and my stays were staying. I was especially proud of my “forth and back” lacing. The main sail rose easily up the mast, held tightly and had a salty, uncluttered look. But we had one new challenge ahead of us: anchoring. During our first sail, I realized that sailing is constant work and that it’s not possible to, say, enjoy a picnic lunch while holding the tiller in one hand and the mainsheet in the other, so I decided that I needed an anchor so we could find a quit cove and pass an idle hour with good food and a book.

My "Chinese" anchor. It worked--but not for the right reasons.

Small anchors are cheap, but I’m cheaper still, so I decided to build one. I found plans for two online. One was a simple “fill a milk jug with cement” affair. I happened to have both a milk jug and a bag of cement, so I made one of those. But the other anchor really captured my imagination. It was based on a traditional Chinese design and looked like a giant fishhook. Most of it is made from wood, but the actual “hook” is simply a length of metal pipe. In theory, the anchor drops, metal part first, into the lake bottom, where it catches and holds. I was intrigued by this simple technology and happened to have an old pipe and most of the needed hardware. An hour of work got the job done and I took both aboard the boat. If one didn’t work, I planned to use the other.

We located a promising anchorage about 50 feet from shore. With Matthew at the tiller, I went forward, lowered the sail and dropped my “Chinese anchor” into the water. It went down about ten feet before the line went slack. I played out the rope (which is called “rode” when it’s attached to an anchor for some reason). I could tell that it was dragging and not really catching. But then, after letting out most of my line, it went taut. I yanked, and it didn’t move. Success! We brought out our sandwiches, opened sodas (for the kids) and coconut water (for me).

After lunch it was time to get underway. Matthew went back to the tiller and I started yanking at the anchor. The boat moved forward as I raised the line until we were right over the anchor and the line went straight down. I pulled; nothing happened. I pulled harder; nothing happened. I wrapped the line around my hand and heaved with all my might. Slowly, the line came out the water. Finally, I saw something at the surface: it wasn’t my anchor; it was a giant…something–a large latticed structure covered in grasses and slime. I couldn’t even tell if it was metal or wood. In the middle of it all was my anchor, its hook caught in the three-inch thick latticework. My children were appalled. “Is it a dead guy?” Matthew asked. I gingerly slipped off the anchor and the structure slowly sank out of view.

So I know my anchor works—when it gets hooked on lake bottom debris. Under normal conditions, I am less confident.

We had been on the water for nearly three hours; we still had three hours before Avery’s class ended. We put on more sunscreen and continued our tacks upwind, accepting more complements, gaining occasional sightings of the sailing school boat. To get away from the sun, the kids rested in the cabin. Eventually, we decided to turn back toward the marina, explore the upper reaches of the lake before returning home.

Me relaxing. Sailing is easy when you have a good crew.

It was during the final hour of sailing that we encountered our only difficulties. The main problem was that I blundered into a boat race. In the distance I had noticed a knot of sailboats, but not until I was amid the group did I realize that they were following the same circular course and being observed by judges on a pontoon boat. This was all new to me and my understanding dawned slowly. Nobody seemed to care that we crashing their race and we were not the only non-racers in this part of the lake, but I felt like a dope and tried to stay out of their way by heading over to the far western shore. However, returning to the marina required tacking back upwind, which was hard to do when I had to stay out of the middle of the lake.

To add to our confusion, the wind picked up and started shifting directions unpredictably. One of the racing boats capsized and had trouble righting itself, which was sobering to watch.  After nearly five hours of perfect sailing, we were caught in a maelstrom of gusting, unpredictable winds and racing, capsizing sailboats.

Six hours later we return safely to harbor.

Before long, the winds eased and the race ended. Relieved, we plotted our course back to the boat launch. By the time we had the boat on the trailer and all our equipment back in the car, Avery came sauntering up. He looked sunburned but happy. A wonderful time was had by all.

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