Springing into the Boating Season

Mounds of snow retreated to the sewers, the once frozen ground was now soft beneath my boots and the sound of a circular saw pierced the still morning air. All of this could mean only one thing: Spring had finally arrived at Jamestown’s Clark Boat Yard. And with that, it was time to get back to work on the Karen Marie.

Among this year’s many projects, one of the most pressing is to refinish the interior, starting with the ceiling. Over the years the roof coring (the plywood center in-between two outer layers of fiberglass) has rotted due to a number of small leaks. Layer upon layer of fiberglass strips, wood, paint, plastic headliner, nails, screws and bolts had been affixed, like a Frankenstein gone wrong, to fix (read: hide) the leaks.

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In the battle of water vs. roof, water was clearly winning.

Armed with a scraper, my faithful orbital sander, and plenty of 60-grit paper, Karen and I began grinding down the many layers of debris. We worked in shifts so that sander was running constantly while the other person cleaned up the debris and attempted to pick up some of the dust that settled on, well, everything. After about 10 total hours, the ceiling was finally smoothed out and numerous holes were sealed with silicone. The next step is to adhere a Sailright fabric headliner to the top.

It was a weekend filled with hard and dirty work, but I type this entry with sore shoulders and a smirk on my face. Boating season is here at last.

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If you couldn’t tell, there is still a lot of sanding left to do.
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Even with the respirator and goggles, the interior work has been a dirty job so far.

4 Reasons to Love Woodworking

Tightly tucked into the corner of a snow-covered boat yard, the Karen Marie rests idly on a set of rusted blue stands, her canvas cover shielding her from the elements.  Unlike last winter, the past few cold-New England months were not filled with a frantic boat project. There were no masts to build but alas, I am learning that there is always work to be done on a boat.

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The better of the two doors, it could still use some TLC to return it to its former glory.

My focus is now shifting to the interior of my 1961 Rhodes Chesapeake, which is beginning to show her age.  She needs her old wooden roofline torn down and replaced, a fresh coat of paint, new upholstery and just some plain old TLC. The brightwork that years ago must have glistened is now gray and worn, setting the mood for our small living space. Looking to get a jump on its restoration, I brought my wooden companionway staircase and one of two wooden doors home for sanding and refinishing. On a few of the warmer days I set out with my orbital sander to remove layers  (and a lot of them!) of old varnish from their cedar skin.

Though sanding and wood working in general is considered a laborious chore (and in some ways it is) and often left for boat yards to handle, I rather enjoy it and here’s why:

  1. You get out of it what you put in: Few things in life are fairer than woodworking. If you take your time sanding and ensure that all the layers of old varnish are removed while continuously going over your work with a finer and finer grit paper, ensuring no sanding marks are left behind, when you’re finished, you will have something that really shines. Cut corners, leave scuffmarks or neglect the hard to reach places (read: underside of companionway steps) and it will show.
  2. It gives you an excuse to buy new toys: My toolbox sometimes looks the lost and found at the airport. I have three screwdrivers, of all different brands, two wire strippers of different colors, an assortment of zip ties, hose clamps and an bevy of paintbrushes that would make da Vinci jealous. But where my tool collection thrives is with my sanding equipment. I am the proud owner of a new belt sander, orbital sander and multiple sanding blocks for hand sanding. I have sandpaper of every grit and color. (In fact, I’ve been told I should head down to the beach with paper and glue to save money.) I have battled many hard to reach edges in my young restoration career. I’ve sanded the underside of handrails and a detailed steering wheel until I was certain I’d permanently rubbed off my fingerprints (thankfully, I still have all 10).  That all changed when I acquired a Dremel Multi-Max MM40, with a sanding attachment. This bad boy saved me approximately 4 hours of work on just the door and staircase project alone by reaching the tight corners.

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    A new power tool is a beautiful thing.
  3. Time to unplug: Sanding a flat door is not what you would call intellectually stimulating. In fact, some would say it’s mindless work, and I would have to agree, but in the instant gratification world we live in, where email alerts, Facebook and ESPN Gameday updates too often consume our personal time, I find it almost therapeutic to sit in my back yard or garage, unplug and work on something with my hands.
  4. Something to be proud of: My parents instilled in me, at a young age, the value of doing things yourself. Whether it was remodeling a bathroom, building a deck or simply fixing your own flat tire, the pride in doing something yourself was not lost on me, or so I thought. It wasn’t until I had built the wooden mast for my boat and sailed her that I truly appreciated the value in building something on your own that you could be proud of.  The same sense of pride was there when I painted the boat, varnished her topsides and I know one day when I’m hiding from a rainstorm in the cabin, I’ll be proud of this project too.

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    Karen uses a piece of 80-grit to sand the corners of the door, while occasionally giving me a death stare while I happily sand away with my new Dremel tool.

Happy Sanding!

Reflection

With the Karen Marie now resting on the hard and the first season of sailing in my wake, I can’t help but shake my head and wonder, “where the heck has the time gone?” It feels like only the other day I was stumbling around the deck trying to raise the mainsail. OK, maybe that did happen the other day, but you know what I mean.

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We splashed the Karen Marie just before the 4th of July and 13 weeks later she was back on stands at Clark Boat Yard. During the time in-between there were some days with no wind for sailing and others where strong gusts sent Karen and I crawling back to the mooring with our tails between our legs. Then there were times it took half a dozen tries until we were even able to tie up to the mooring. There were failed attempts at docking, fuel leaks, banged heads, stubbed toes, cut arms, a pair of hospital trips and enough curse words to make even the saltiest sailor blush. Downpours, thunderstorms and fog often filled our forecast. We faced a number of fights and a few well-deserved near mutinies. Prone to stalling, our dinghy outboard almost ended up in Davie Jones’ locker more times than I care to admit. There were leaks, sleepless nights, and a war of attrition with a mooring ball.

I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

When I share those stories with friends, I have been asked a reasonable question: Why do you put yourself through that?

It’s difficult to explain to non-boaters the thrill that comes when your sails are trimmed just right and the starboard rail of your little Rhodes kisses the water, slicing through waves at six knots; the peacefulness of watching the sunrise illuminate the sleepy town of Wickford from your cockpit or the pride that fills you as glide into Block Island’s Great Salt Pond. Moments like that make all the previous trials and tribulations worth it.

This past season may have been short but it sure was sweet

Only 168 days until next boating season. 

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8 essential items for beginning cruisers

All I had with me for the first night aboard the Karen Marie was a bottle of wine sans opener, a flannel blanket and a jar of peanut butter pretzels. Thankfully, during the course of my inaugural sailing season, I have acquired several simple items that have made a world of difference.  

Double-Sided Velcro ($5.27, Home Depot): Besides coming to the rescue when my mooring ball was bouncing up against my boat (check out: Things that go bump (bump-bump) in the night) this self adhesive has eliminated numerous rattles and vibrations throughout the Karen Marie. When the boat’s rocking caused the lid of our cooktop to continuously fall or when our sail cover clips broke off, Velcro saved the day.  Image

Super-sized zip ties ($12.07, Lowes): In the world of plastic ties, bigger is better. From a broken shroud to a missing oarlock to engine repairs, the uses for these have been many. They also double great as spare kill switches for the dinghy in case you happen to leave yours at home, which is something I know a lot about.  Image

Solar Shower ($15, West Marine): The Karen Marie’s fresh water tank is in need of repair to prevent bilge water from contaminating our water supply. Even if that were functional we don’t have an onboard shower. Paper-thin and easy to stow when not in use, a Solstice solar shower is capable of holding 5 gallons of clean drinking water. When hung from a halyard, the water was heated in just a couple hours on clear sunny days. You really can’t put a price on a hot shower after a salty swim, well, I guess West Marine can because they charge $15 for it. Without a slip and a proper wash-down-system the Solstice shower often provided emergency cleaning services to our salt-crusted decks.  Image

Go-Anywhere Seats ($89.99, West Marine): During the first few months with the boat, I don’t know which was harder, learning to sail or the wooden benches we were sitting on. Long days of resting on unforgiving teak was becoming a real pain in the a$$. That all changed when a pair of Go-Anywhere reclining seats came into my life. They lie flat to seat two guests at a time and recline to provide maximum comfort whether out sailing or taking a nap, thankfully never both at the same time.    

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Pillow Case Bags (priceless): This past year I made one of the most important investments someone can make: I bought new pillows. To quote comedian, Daniel Tosh, “We spend a third of our lives sleeping. That is one third of your life. Spend the money.”  The portable clouds, which I slept on, were outstanding, but what were even better than those were the plastic-zipper sealed cases that they came in. These plastic cases were the perfect receptacles for clothing was left aboard during the week. The kept everything organized but more importantly, they kept everything dry. Image

Instant Coffee ($11.99, Trader Joes): I should start by confessing that I’m not a huge coffee drinker. In fact, I have been known to turn my nose up at Starbucks and their vendi double frappe lattechinos with or without whipped cream. That said, after two nights of snoozing in an ever shrinking V-berth, I needed something to kick-start my day. Instantcoffee from Trader Joe’s provided that. Karen would fire up the stove and heat up some water then stir in a coffee packet with creamer and sugar already mixed in and all of a sudden all was right in the world.

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Forever flashlights ($2.90, amazon.com): The only thing I was losing faster than my hair while learning to sail was batteries. My AA powered lanterns and flashlights died on aweekly basis, leaving me alone in the dark with just my frustration. A coworker of mine gave me half a dozen cheap forever flashlights to try out. A natural skeptic, I though “there is no way these will work,” as I tossed them into my bag and set out to the boat. Upon arrival to the Karen Marie that night, my flashlights died and the forever flashlights were called into action. I was shocked when the flimsy lights ended up working great. It is said that fiveminutes of cranking it up will provide light for up to an hour. Because five minutes is a painfully long time for an impatient person like myself, I can attest that two minutes of cranking provides 20 minutes of uninterrupted light. I now keep them scattered throughout the boat.  Image   G-Project Waterproof Speaker ($59.99, Target): What is the point of sitting out in the cockpit with a frosty beverage if you don’t have a soundtrack? The gift from a family member of a G-Project Speaker, which connects wirelessly to a smart phone added countless hours of Bob Marley bliss to our day.

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Things that go bump (bump-bump) in the night

After a full day of sunshine and salt-spray, I crawled into the Karen Marie’s forward V-berth. The gentle rocking of the boat coupled with cool-summer air trickling into the cabin knocked me out almost immediately. I was enjoying peaceful boating bliss.

Bum, bum, bum. Three knocks, not terribly loud but in quick succession and it would all be over.  It sounded as if someone was knocking on the cabin door.  Before I had time to hope it was just my imagination, I heard it again. Groggy and slightly annoyed, I stumbled on deck to investigate. At first, nothing seemed awry. There was no hooligan knocking on my door, no knucklehead trying to raft up and none of my mast rigging was rattling.

It took an embarrassing amount of time to realize my mooring ball bumping up against the hull caused the sound. I tried loosening the lines, then tightening them. I even tried turning the wheel hoping a new rudder direction would grab the current and end this nightmare, but to no avail.

I’ll figure it out in the morning, I reasoned with myself, alone on a damp deck. Sleep would not come easy, as the mooring ball continued to bounce up against the hull. In my mind the mooring ball transformed into a wrecking ball, slamming into my brand new paint job. (In reality, it never left a scratch.)

Some research on the Internet revealed the cause of my problem was that in my location, the current was stronger than the wind, which caused me to grind up on the mooring. What my search didn’t reveal was a solution.

I returned to the office that Monday eager to ask my veteran sailing colleagues about my predicament. I sought out Cruising World’s associate editor, a live aboard sailor with thousands of miles of blue water experience for help.

“There is no answer,” she said from behind unsympathetic eyes and a “good one rookie” kind of grin. She explained that very thing has caused many sleepless nights in her life and that I should just get used to it.

With my tail between my legs, I returned to the mooring determined to just suck it up. After another sleepless night, I realized that wouldn’t work for me.

I channeled my inner inventor and devised a plan. I bought a few pool noodles from the dollar store (hey, I’m on a budget) and some super sticky Velcro from a hardware store. I used a razor blade to cut the noodle in half long ways and then into chunks. I adhered one side on the Velcro to the noodle and the other side to a mooring ball in the spots that usually hit the boat. I called my mooring noodle the Moodle (patent and more creative name pending).

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That night I tucked myself into my berth, quite proud of my invention. My smirk would dissipate quickly as an unprotected spot on the mooring tapped against the hull, as if to say, good one Billy Mayes but I’m still here!

The next day at the expense of another dollar, I doubled my efforts in what I’m proud to say significantly reduced the issue. Every once in a while I hear some squeaking from the noodle against the hull but to tired ears, that sounds like victory.

The next day one of the marina employees mentioned that in all his years there he never saw someone attach foam to the mooring. “Most people just get used to it.”

I couldn’t help but laugh as my reputation as the guy who really-really likes his sleep spread through the marina.

Not just around the block to Block Island

I drive in the right lane over the Pell Bridge when traveling from Jamestown to Newport, not because I like following behind a parade of mini vans but because from the top of the bridge on a clear day you can spot the coast of Block Island (http://bit.ly/OQsnvY) peaking over the horizon. Having been to Block multiple times growing up, the small island holds a special place in my heart. Peering out across the ocean, it beckoned me, daring me to point the bow of the Karen Marie southwest and make a visit.

26-plus nautical miles away from our mooring, it was more than twice the distance of any of our previous weekend destinations. And the Atlantic Ocean is a completely different animal than Narragansett Bay. The logical thing to do would be to wait another year, get more sailing experience and then make the trip. It should come as no surprise that at the crack of dawn one Thursday morning in September, Karen and I dropped our mooring line and off we went, sailing south by southwest.

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Headed south by southwest.

With only 10 knots of wind, the ocean was flat calm. My only gripe would be with the brisk 50-degree temperature. With an average speed of four and a half knots, we weren’t setting any course records but we were moving along. Watching the sunrise from out at sea on my first real trip was an experience I won’t soon forget. A smile stayed fixed on my face as we sailed passed the Point Judith lighthouse and across the ocean to Block. The sun was shining, Billy Joel was playing through the stereo, my first mate even managed to take a nap in the cockpit; life was good. I had intended to sail the entire way, door-to-door on this trip but when the wind died down and our speed decreased to one measly knot, we had to fire up the engine and motor into the harbor.

Like I said earlier, I had been to Block many times before but as a kid, my face usually buried in either a Hardy Boys book or my Gameboy for most of the trip. Arriving in my own boat was a very rewarding experience.

Our time on the island was everything Karen and I could have hoped for. We stopped by the famous restaurant called The Oar and enjoyed celebratory cocktails. We rented mopeds (I had turned my nose up at that activity in the past, regarding it as too touristy. I was wrong.) and drove around the entire island, taking in its naturally beauty, which with rolling green hills and stone fences reminds me of Ireland. We enjoyed multiple alfresco meals on the back of the boat and enjoyed ample amounts of R&R.

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With live music and a fully stocked beach-side bar, Crescent Beach is a fun place to spend an afternoon.

Another element that made this trip unique was that at four days long, it would be the longest amount of consecutive time we spent aboard the boat. Thanks to a solar powered phone charger and the small miracle that is instant coffee, we fared pretty well.

One aspect that kind of stunk was the shower situation. We had assumed that we would be able to use the showers at the nearby Boat Basin marina despite the fact that we were on a town-owned mooring. “We’ll walk up there with our towels and they’ll never know we’re not staying there,” I remember saying.

It turns out the Boat Basin in an attempt to foil our ingenious plot uses a token system to operate the showers. Thinking that she would have better luck than myself, I sent Karen off to ask the dock master if we could purchase a few tokens. That plan succeeded as Karen returned with two tokens and a warning from the dock master not to ask for any more. We had to make that one count! (We did have a solar shower onboard but with temperatures in the low 50’s we opted against using it.)

We would face a technical difficulty at the strangest time. On the afternoon of the last day of our trip the harbor master pulled up alongside our boat to collect the $20 mooring fee and tied a line from his 25-foot center console to our shroud (the piece that connects the mast supports to the boat itself). The force of the boat on a windy day was enough to snap the shroud. It definitely should not have broken from that amount of force, exposing a weakness in my rigging, but never the less, I flashed him a death stare before relinquishing my $20.

Sailing home with a broken shroud would be out of the question because doing so could cause the mast to fall over. Not something I was willing to risk. Using the halyards and a half dozen super-sized zip ties I supported the mast the best I could for our trip home, which is where the story gets interesting.

Leaving Block Island at 5 am we would be introduced to 20-plus knots of wind and three to four foot seas on the nose. It became quickly apparent that there would be no naps or Billy Joel on this trip. Waves were three or four feet in height but there were also a few five to six foot suckers hiding in the mix. I’ve been in seas like this before but from the flybridge of an Egg Harbor some 15 feet above the water line. Now, at a foot off the water, the seas were much more intimidating. With white knuckles on the wheel, I did my best to hit the waves diagonally instead of head on to make the ride smoother. Still, debris from waves often broke over our bow and landed in the cockpit. Only able to do four knots in the rough stuff made for a long battle with the angry seas, but it was a battle I’m happy to report we won.  As we neared Newport the seas laid down and we were able to have something for breakfast. We would tie up to our mooring around 10:30, only five and a half hours after departing but I felt like I aged a year.

Bruised, beaten and covered in more salt than a large order of fries, Karen and I limped to our car and headed for home and a shower! Crossing over the bridge, I again took the right lane and through bleary eyes glanced out towards Block. No longer antagonizing me, it made me proud to look off and see the shadow of the island. I could finally drive in the left lane I thought to myself, until…wait…is that Cuttyhunk out there to the southeast!?

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The Karen Marie rests after a long trip over to Block Island.
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Block Island’s Southeast lighthouse is a must see when visiting here. Besides possessing a rich history it also offers a stunning view of the Atlantic.
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Learning how to cook meals aboard has sometimes been a struggle for us but when faced with no other option, we started to get the hang of it.
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The Coast Guard station is the first thing to great you upon arrival.

Wandering in Wickford

It is said that it’s the journey, not the destination that matters.  With all due respect to the journey, after two months of sailing Narragansett Bay only to return to my mooring in Jamestown, I was jonsing for a destination.

At the advice of my colleagues from Cruising World magazine, I decided that my first overnight trip would be a short-hop north to Wickford. My parents who were on vacation in the area were able to take their boat to Wickford too.

The morning of our departure was spent packing the cooler, cleaning the cabin and waiting for any semblance of a breeze to arrive. Eventually eight-knots of breeze from the north  descended on our mooring ball. With Wickford punched into the GPS we set sail. Needing to head north into the wind direction was not really ideal. It took dozens of tacks with a cruising speed of three-knots  and we could still see the Jamestown bridge in our wake, err, ripple. Any rational sailor would have fired up the engine and motorsailed to their destination. Rationality not being one of my specialties stubbornly sailed the entire way.

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Seeing my parents wave from the flybridge of their Egg Harbor as they blew past us as 20-plus knots was salt in an open wound. Music from my weather-proof speaker would help pass the time, but only a bit.Image

30 songs later, Karen and I would bring the sails down and motor past the bustling breakwater in Wickford towards our reserved mooring at Brewers. After hailing the marina on the VHF for our mooring assignment, I was directed not to a mooring but a bizarre space in between two pilings, and boats, with a line tied between them. I would need to parallel dock myself perfectly into this tight space. It was at that very moment that I wished I had practiced docking, even once. Approaching the “mooring/pilings” very slowly the first time I realized I was coming in at the wrong angle. I would need to reverse the boat hard in order to reset my approach.

I was then subject to a phenomenon in the boating world that I call the law of docking. If you dock your vessel perfectly in tough conditions there won’t be a soul around to see it, struggle however; and every boater and their guests will materialize to watch the free entertainment. Watching me like stone-cold gymnastics judges I would finally tie up the Karen Marie on the third try. My final score… embarrassed.7 I was again humbled, realizing that in the words of Yoda, much to learn, I still had.

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After some time (and a few cold beverages) I would finally relax and venture into town to explore. It would take about all of 15 minutes to see the entire “down town” portion of Wickford. Filled with quaint shops and numerous artistic venues it gave a charming first impression. From photography galleries to pottery stores each shop featured beautiful work. I would then venture into the suburban neighborhood where it seems as if I travelled back in time to colonial America. Homes circa 1700s lined the streets, nearly all of them flying Old Glory from their painted porches. If you’re a walking wanderer like me, you should really think about visiting here sometime.

The next day would bring more exploration of the area as Karen, my folks and I searched for a store to buy parts for their new inverter. Three miles into our trek we would learn that Wickford Hardware, a long-time family owned business had just closed, thanks in part to the Home Depot in the next town over, something Wickford residents are not happy about; don’t bring it up!

One bustling business that I was lucky enough to support (and you should too) was the Tavern By the Sea, a popular waterfront eatery with a specialty in seafood. There I had the best calamari in my life, and I like to think of myself as something of a connoisseur when it comes to crispy squid.  Reasonably priced with ambiance to spare, I would give that restaurant a Dan Harding 5 out of 5 in spite of the fact that it was crowded.

My time in Wickford would be all too short, before I knew it we were on our way back to Jamestown, this time motorsailing since there was barely a breathe of wind. Visiting our first new destination whetted both Karen’s and mines appetite for using the boat as a way of seeing new places and meeting new people. If our next escape is anything like our visit to Wickford, we will be truly lucky.

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Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned

Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten out sailing half a dozen times. Most days, I’m happy to report, progress was made and I’ve SLOWLYYYYY but surely been staring to figure out this whole wind-powered thing. Then there are days, like I had a few weeks ago that humble me in a hurry.

On this particular day in question there was a steady breeze between 15 and 20 knots, which had Karen and I zipping around Narragansett Bay at a solid 6-knot clip. Falling into a lull of complacency, I turned the boat too slowly while tacking and ended up in irons (facing directly into the wind, unable to maneuver), which after multiple weeks of avoiding was extremely frustrating. I fired up the engine (that’s cheating, I know) to maneuver us out of out proverbial stalemate. While doing so a strong gust pulled a loose jib sheet from Karen’s hands. Murphy’s Law was our third crewmember that day, and he placed that sheet into the water and into my spinning prop.

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The line spooled around the prop and seized the engine. What amazed me first was how quickly things had gone wrong, one second I’m sailing with sunshine and a smile on my face, the next I’ve lost the power of my engine and jib sail, oh, and that stiff breeze I mentioned before? Well it was pushing us towards cliff-side homes that were growing in size by the second.

The first course of action would be to take down the jib and free it from the line that was pulling it overboard. I told Karen to go down below and grab a knife as I lowered the jib. She came back up holding a dulled steak knife.

“This is the only one we have,” she yelled out.

Good grief, I thought to myself, recalling its inability to cut my chicken dinner the night before. With no other choice, I began hacking at the sheet with a furious pace until I finally freed my sail. Returning to the wheel and using just the mainsail, I could maneuver the boat, but barely. I could keep us off the coast but I realized quickly that I would not make it back to Jamestown with the main alone, I needed to free my prop from the tangled line and revive my engine. Thankfully a mooring ball appeared just a few dozen yards from the shore. I aimed my bow for it, and had Karen snatch it with the boat hook. The mooring line looked as if it came from the Jurassic era. There were pounds of green growth, crustaceans and what I was convinced was a Pterodactyl egg growing on it. Pausing for a moment to mourn the loss of my clean boat, I secured the mess to the cleat.

Now for the dreaded part; diving in to cut my prop free. Seconds after entering the water, I realized I had a tough task ahead of me. Choppy conditions were tossing the boat around and her high stern was slapping the water with gusto.

“I save you from the scrap pile and this is how you treat me,” I thought to myself while imagining the stern knocking me out. Thanks to the conditions, it would take almost half an hour before I could get the line off the prop. I was eventually able to fire up the engine and limp back home.

During that return trip I cursed the boat, I cursed the wind, I cursed my knife but mostly I cursed myself. I made multiple mistakes, but thankfully I also learned numerous lessons that day the most important was that being complacent is much more dangerous than being caught in the irons.

Over the Top

My tiptoes screaming uncle, my arm stretched as high as it would possibly go but still I was forced to watch helplessly as my halyard (the line that lifts and lowers the sails) passed beyond my reach climbing up and over the pulley at the top of my mast. In a rush to clean up my boat and head off to an appointment, I neglected to tie down the most paramount line aboard and now the only way to reattach the line would be to climb to the top of the mast. I don’t have a fear of heights but I do have a fear of masts, having had to dodge falling pieces of crumbling mast earlier in my career.

I typically like to do the work on my boat myself but I thought this was a task best handled by professionals. I told my yard owner what had happened, hoping he would send someone out to reattach it for me.

“No problem, we’ll send someone right out to help you.”

Half an hour later, and late for my appointment a man by the name of Benjamin (not Ben, Benjamin) strolled onto the boat. After a brief introduction he handed me a mess of plastic pieces and lines.

“Why don’t you just go ahead and get yourself strapped in there,” said Benjamin as he handed me a harness of sorts. My stomach sank to my feet.

Any question as to who was going to be climbing the mast was eliminated. I fumbled with the harness as Benjamin looked out at the harbor. His nonchalant attitude could be misconstrued as bored and uninterested with the task at hand. With virtually no assistance in strapping myself into harness, I finally had something tied around me that looked respectable.

“How’s this look?” I asked, trying to get my new friend to focus.

“Yeah, that seems about right.”

Not really the reassuring inspection I was hoping for.

I would later learn (which seems to be how I do most of my learning) that most seasoned sailors climb their mast once or twice every season.  I, of course, was not seasoned. And, if I’m being honest, the thought of being hauled up a 35-foot mast by my other halyard that spent the last few months in the trunk of my car, by a man I met minutes before scared the hell out of me. My mind raced with questions, “is the line strong enough to hold me, is the mast strong enough to hold me, is this guy strong enough to hold me and why the hell did I order a three-egg breakfast sandwich this morning?!”

I tried to sound calm as I asked, “What do you want me to do, just let you pull me up the mast?”

“Well is would be a lot easier for me if you just climbed it as fast as you can,” he replied.

A former collegiate wrestler, I have done my fair share of rope climbing in practice. I never thought I’d be saying this, but I was now thankful for that experience.

With a few deep breaths I jumped onto the mast and climbed it as fast as I could. I winced as my Sperrys scuffed the varnish of my mast but I didn’t slow down. I did a pull-up on my spreaders and continued my ascent to the top all with the halyard around my shoulder. The challenging part came when I finally reached the top. At 35-feet high the boat wakes that were a minor inconvenience on deck were now a big problem. I swayed back and forth like a giant pendulum. Looking down I saw a miniature version of Karen, snapping pictures of my turmoil from her phone. If I get killed, at least it will be well documented I thought.

ImageUmm, are you sure this harness is on right?!

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Half a second later…Image

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Ugh, crap, I looked down. 

I sat atop the mast for what seemed like an hour trying to untangle the line on my shoulder and feed it through the pulley at the masthead. I’m sure the fact that I kept one hand around the mast with a death-grip didn’t help my efficiency.

I would eventually reattach the halyard and be returned to my deck. Sweating and tense, I could have taken a page from the pope’s playbook and kissed the ground.

Later that day a neighboring sailor would approach me and say, “I saw you climb the mast before. I’ve never in my life seen anyone climb a mast like that and so quickly,” she said. “I took a video of it and was showing it to my friends.” I then discovered a nautical law of nature: when a boater is in over his head, there will be a crowd of people there to watch. Know what you’re doing however and there won’t be any onlookers. Go ahead, test it out, the next time you dock perfectly despite strong winds and current there won’t be a soul around to see it.

After some time, and a couple rum drinks, the tension in my back and neck would dissipate and my hands would stop shaking. I had survived a sailing rite of passage and I was proud of that…even if there is a YouTube video out there called “monkey-man climbs mast.”

Vindication

After months of toiling in the wood shop, weekends of sanding and painting and days spent pouring over sailing forums, it was finally time to put the Karen Marie to the test. My sails were aboard and prepped, the halyards were (re)attached and all systems were a go. It was time to go for a sail.

The crew of the Karen Marie (Karen and I) ditched the mooring ball and pointed our bow north, up Naraggansett Bay. Motoring, we prepped the mainsail and jib for use. There was not another boat around for miles and the wind was just right, strong enough to sail yet not strong enough to pose any real threat. As my first mate and I built up the courage to raise the mainsail, a pair of dolphins appeared off our starboard bow. Though they disappeared faster than you could say “get your camera”, I took it as a good omen.

Facing up wind, with the engine purring in neutral, we raised the mainsail. After taking a second to admire the sheer size of the sail I would make a short, yet deliberate turn of the wheel to again send us underway. Sailing at a relatively slow two to three knots, I killed the engine; the hum and vibration of the diesel was replaced by complete silence, a silence only broken by the sound of the bay lapping against the hull.

ImageMy plan was originally to sail with just the mainsail for an hour or so to get a feel for the boat. The feel I was getting from her was…slow. Standing guard at the wheel, I volunteered the rest of my crew to attach the jib. It took some time and few death stares from my mate on the bow but the jib got attached and was hoisted with relative ease, a matter that seemed to surprise me. Fumbling with lines a bit at first, we eventually had the Karen Marie sailing once more.

Gliding through the water at five knots was for a lack of better word, invigorating. Karen boasted a smile that stretched ear to ear, a gesture I’m sure mirrored my own. For months during the restoration of the boat there was a voice in the back of my mind that whispered “Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Was the boat worth sinking all that money into? Do you really want to spend every weekend in a dusty woodshop?” And perhaps the most frequent question, “Is this even going to be worth it?

Glancing from Karen to the sails above me, that voice was finally silenced. The resounding answer was, yes.Image

Hours would pass as we practiced tacking back and forth across the bay. The sailing itself wasn’t always pretty; in fact there were points when it was downright ugly. On more than one occasion we pulled textbook maneuvers, and by textbook I mean the section that illustrates what not to do. We found ourselves in the irons more than once, which I’ve learned means completely stuck with the boat facing into the wind with the sails flapping violently. Thankfully, like a protective older brother, the engine would fire up and take us out of those situations.

Only after most the day had passed and full sunburn settled into our skin did we return to Clark Boat Yard and our mooring. A lifelong power boater who took his responsibility of washing down to heart, it felt weird to not to wash down. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.

My crew and I had one last maneuver to practice before the day ended, a practice that dates back to the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, mixing rum and ginger beer to create a Dark n’ Stormy. Sipping a cold cocktail after a full day on the water, yup I could get used to this whole sailing thing.

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