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A Small Boat Adventure

by David david@crumblingempire.com

Bolger Boat Builders --

I've been launching my teal, "lil' winnie" off the beach at Ditch Plains in Montauk, NY and rowing or sailing out about 300 yards to chase after bonito, also called "false albacore." I actually caught one of these inshore mini-tunas, and the ensuing 15 minute struggle to boat the thing made me feel a little like the old man and the sea.

It also made me want to catch more of them.

Unfortunately, shortly after my first catch, the fish stopped biting, and no matter what I trolled up and down the beach, they ignored my offering. All around me there were dozens of these beautiful fish jumping and rolling, but for two days straight my rod remained unbent.

So October 1, after a morning of lots of fishing and no catching, I rowed back to shore, and drove home to get my sailing rig. A foolhardy plan was taking shape in my brain.

When I got home I told my wife she had to drive me back down to Ditch Plains, and that she should expect a call from the Montauk Point concession stand (6 miles from of Ditch Plains,) beach in about 4-5 hours.

lilwinnie2.jpg (18796 bytes)
I also quizzed her on a proper description of lil' winnie and told her if she didn't her from my after 5 hours, it might be a good idea to grow concerned.

Once back at the beach, a small crowd gathered as I rigged the sail on the hull. I didn't dare tell them of my plan, lest my day end in chorus of "I told you so's." The whole thing almost ended right there as the boat drifted perilously close to the surf-washed jetty while I struggle to get the rudder in place.

But, a couple of quick tacks and I was clear of the rocks. Another couple of minutes and I was well outside, falling off the wind (out of the SSW) for an easy reach to the point.

I was a BEAUTIFUL day. October was announcing its perfection in every way. Sky blue, water warm, wind fair, crowds thin, fish swimming all around me. I settled in, put our my line and hoped (but not too much,) that a fish might change its mind about honoring my offering.

Now most people think the beach at Ditch Plains faces South -- it doesn't, it's more South-southeast. And the further East you go, the more the land bends to the North. While my initial course (East) was a comfortable relationship of swell and wind, it was also taking me further away from the land with every passing minute. My plan was to hold this course until I had cleared the point, then jibe and come back West-northwest on another reach. What I didn't want to do was spend a lot of time running before the wind and swell, where my little boat felt vulnerable to an unplanned, (and uncontrolled) jibe, broach, and
ultimately, sinking. (She's a fine little craft, but alas, negative buoyancy when swamped.)

tealprof3.gif (9154 bytes)I held to this plan until I was about due South of the Candle, at which point a quick recalculation told me that a was going to have to round Block Island to get far enough East of the point for a comfortable reach back to the West. Not entirely comfortable with the thought of being 10 miles out at sea in a 12 foot, flat-bottomed craft, sporting a whopping 16 inches of freeboard, I pulled the tiller to weather, let out the sheet, and began my run past the point, a fine swell at my stern.

You'd be amazed how little it takes to get a boat on plane when you're running before a good swell. You'd also be amazed how unpleasant the normal pleasant sensation of surfing can be when you've got the "wrong board for the conditions."

Lil' winnie  charged down the face of the swells, and threatened to go straight for the bottom, except I was crouched all the way in the stern, trying to keep her bow up. Of course, since she's a double-ender, there was no room for me and the tiller, so I had almost no steerage. We plowed forward and I hoped that what little bit of helm I had could keep her from veering off into some sort of deadly broach and/or jibe.

Finally we were north of the point and I coaxed her through a somewhat controlled jibe, pulled to weather and began an easy reach toward false point. Since the whole run had only taken about an hour, I decided to try and beat the tide and press on to Montauk Harbor, and ultimately South Lake Beach.

By now the wind was stronger, and since it was coming off the land, gustier too. But other than a little more jumping on the rail now and then, the reach to Shagwong was uneventful. I knew that past Shagwong I was going to be close to the wind, and against the tide as well. But, since it was only a mile and a half from Shagwong to the harbor, I wasn't too worried.

I should have been.

As I rounded Shagwong, I hit the full force of the outgoing tide. In addition to that, I had the chop from the wind coming out of the SSW and a swell coming up the sound from astern. All this made for a confused sea that did not favor my flat-bottomed, plumb-sided hull. In addition, the wind was now even gustier -- I was alternating between nearly being knocked down by the wind, or rolling her over to weather from not getting off the rail fast enough. And worst of all, I wasn't making any headway against the tide. As time slipped by and the jetty drew no close, I had visions of a coasty helicopter circling overhead because I had failed to show up at the concession stand (now 3 miles behind me.)

Now there's nothing I value more than the chance to make a REALLY bad choice, see just how bad that choice is, and somehow walk away scared, unscathed, and a little wiser, and my frustration at my lack of headway was offering me just such a chance.

I reasoned that the wind was so gusty because I was just a few dozen yards offshore, and that if I went further offshore, I would find clear air, and in that clear air I could set and hold a stead course. I fell of the wind and headed out into the sound.

I did find clear air and plenty of it. I also found wind over tide over swell. I was high on the rail, with the sail half-luffed, trying to keep winnie from burying her lee gunwale as she pounded through the confused seas. Then all hell broke loose, or more specifically, my mainsheet.

lilwinnie.jpg (12329 bytes)I had never really worked out a satisfactory way to attached the block to the boom, and now, in the midst of all the pounding, my "system" showed just how deficient it really was. The boat rolled violently to weather as the boom swung to lee. Without the stability of wind on the sail, she rocked from rail to rail, threatening to swamp. I tried to deploy the oars to get her pointed into the wind, and nearly threw both of them overboard. Panic set in as my brain issued and then countermanded a series of wildly errant and potentially disastrous orders. I was sinking and the wind was blowing me toward Rhode Island. Finally a voice cut through the chaos.

"The boat is still afloat, she's not taking water. Don't do anything to make things worse."

I obeyed. Crouching low, on my hands and knees in the middle of the boat, I held perfectly still and I obeyed.

"Good. Now, without dropping them overboard, use the oars to get the bow into the wind."

Ever so gingerly I slid the blades into the water and began to turn her windward. With the confused sea this was less than easy and I knew I couldn't get back to shore without regaining control of the sail. I held her steady with the oars and examined the damage. Reattaching the block wasn't an option, so I looped the sheet over the boom, shipped the oars, hardened the sheet, and made for land.

As I beat back toward the beach, I saw just how futile my efforts had been. Aside from heading toward the beach at a nice clip, the tide was taking me down the sound at amazing speed. However, the pace slacked noticeably as I neared shore. When I got about 40 yards out, I put the tiller over and began beating back up the beach. The wind was still quite gusty, but I was making steady progress to the West. After about an hour I was in front of Gin Beach. I had to swing away from the beach to make the harbor, but as soon as the the West jetty came abeam, I tacked, and made for sheltered water. Now all that remained between me completion of the journey was an easy reach across the lake in a brisk wind.

Normally this would be the part of the story where everything comes apart, I lose my boat, and finish the day a little older, a little poorer and a lot wiser. Well, the rudder did jump out of the gudgeons (all that pounding must have worked it up and out,) and if that had happened in the sound, I would have been done for. But as it happened, I was right next to a marina, in flat water, and I popped right back in.

The reach across the lake was triumphant! In a fresh breeze and flat water, lil winnie sailed across the water at a fine clip. I sat on the rail the whole way, scared and smug and happy.

With a quarter borrowed from a drunken fisherman I phoned my wife, "I'm at South Lake, can you come pick me up?" I was an hour late and five miles from our designated rendezvous.

Nonplused she answered "Glad you called, I was just about to start worrying."

Hoping your sailing is less "thrilling" but just as satisfying,



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