Friday, October 28, 2022

Escaping Death, Not Once, but Thrice

This is a fresh tale to interupt the "Running Up to Beaufort" saga and it is pretty long -- I’m sorry -- but I’m still buzzing a bit from all that just happened. I wanted to write it down while it was fresh. It’s a good story nonetheless. 

Last Friday, I faced death and destruction no less than three times. I’m a sailor, so what follows might be a slight exaggeration, but it felt pretty real to me. It just happened in the last twenty four hours.  

The day had arrived. After a restless night (more on that later), I had made breakfast and started working on my Task List. Earlier I had wandered up toward the office, but no one was in yet. A typical lazy-ish Friday around the yard. The guys were working in the various buildings on various boats, but the office was not yet occupied. I had started pulling tools together to go back over to Anago, the boat from which I was taking the engine. 

Just then I heard the mahogany baritone of Sam, the boatyard owner. I peaked out my companionway and could see his truck, so I dropped my tools and went after him. I had been chasing  him a few days to get the mast down and pull the engine from Anago. It was going to be the day before, but Sam had to make an appearance at the funeral of an old friend’s sister. I was determined to coax him into doing it that day. 

“You want to do something today, don’t you,” Sam said when he saw me coming after him.  

He was stringing an extension cord to a fishing boat that had been sitting here a while. He plugged the cord into another and craned his neck to look up at the fishing boat’s wheelhouse. He cussed and started walking back toward the pylon where the power was. 

“See if that light comes on.” 

Um, which light exactly. Oh, nevermind.

We worked at the lights for a time. Presumably, Sam was switching outlets on the pylon and I was watching the dome light in the boat. It’s tough to keep power working all around the yard. Each pedestal has 30 amp and 50 amp connections like most marina docks and also standard 110 volt outlets. 

“Well, I’ll call him and tell him we tried,” Sam said in his sing-songy Carolina accent. “I’ll go up to the office and tell them what I’m working on, then I’ll meet you at Anago with the forklift.”  

That was music to my ears.  

I hustled to get my extension cords, my angle grinder, and my ladder then trudged over to Anago which was 30 yards or so from Ruth Ann and my “camp.”  Once I got there, I strung the extension cords from a pylon that I knew worked and leaned my ladder against the boat. 

Right behind Anago, literally only four feet or so, was the good ship Rare Breed. Rare Breed is a fishing boat, about 40 feet in length. She was built by her captain, Brent, about 25 years ago and he is working on her now. Rare Breed is a beauty; purpose built with the loving hand and attention to detail of the man who knew he was going to captain her. Brent had spent the last several years as the captain of a large luxury yacht. It had been an excellent gig but he had been kept away from Rare Breed. Then the couple he had been working for were getting old enough that they decided to sell the big yacht and he was out of a job. This was really a stroke of luck as Rare Breed had been just sitting on the hard. An ignored boat starts to succumb to nature and little things start to become bigger problems.  

Brent was working on some small areas of rot in the floor timbers of Rare Breed; getting her ready to do fishing charters again. Anago got placed right on his bow in the rush of pulling boats ahead of a storm a few years ago. Brent has never liked how close the boat was to his. His worry was only amplified as the boat just sat there and no work got done on her. He was glad when I showed up with a plan to extract the engine and get Anago to the landfill. However, he wasn’t so sure of my plan to drop the mast. 

I explained how we were going to take the mast down. I should have consulted with Brent anyway as Rare Breed is literally a million dollar boat. I know from our conversations that his deductible is $10,000. Anago was set with her bow higher than her stern. This meant that the mast was leaning back; toward Rare Breed. If anything let go, the mast would fall on Brent’s boat and likely cause significant damage. The first two times I explained my plan, he just said “I don’t know. I need to talk to Sam.”   

Then the third time through, Brent seemed to understand that I had some experience rigging heavy stuff and that my plan was solid. With all that in mind, on the day it was actually going to happen, I had to bang on his hull and shout for him to hear me over his grinder. I told him that we were about to drop the mast and pull the engine, but that his truck probably ought to move. He finished what he was working on, crawled out of Rare Breed’s bilges to move his truck, and stuck around to supervise.  

Sam came around with the big forklift and we briefly talked about the plan again. I climbed up on to Anago with my grinder and a nylon strap from the forklift. Standing next to the mast, I was ten or twelve feet off the ground. Sam pulled forward putting a fork on each side of the forestay. I waved and he stopped. I wrapped the strap around the mast twice and then over the fork and attached it to itself with the shackle. As the strap lifted slowly, I made sure that it didn’t get caught on the winches or anything else. The strap gradually tightened up as it went higher toward the spreaders. When it stopped, both Sam and Brent shouted “OK.”  

A couple things that landlubbers need to know to understand the next couple paragraphs: a mast is held up in all four directions, usually by stainless steel cable. The forestay holds it from the bow; shrouds hold it from the sides; and the backstay holds it from the back.  Also, when a boat is out of the water it is “on the hard.” A sailboat on the hard rests with all its weight on its keel. Jackstands are placed around the sides to balance the boat. Jackstands are not designed to hold weight. In fact, trouble begins when the jackstands start to take too much weight.   

I stepped back to the cockpit and grabbed the grinder. The important part of my plan was that Sam was pulling the mast forward as I cut the backstay. The mast was on a tabernacle (a hinge), so that as Sam pulled the mast, it was still attached to the boat at the base. Also, the shrouds along the sides and the forestay at the bow were still attached and would prevent the mast from going backward (toward Rare Breed).  

When  I cut the backstay, the boat jerked as the mast jumped forward, pulled by the forklift. Little did I know, but Brent had told Sam that if things started to go bad – just floor it in reverse. I think Sam thought that the tabernacle was loose enough that he might be able to yank it off. Either way, while I was still about ten feet in the air, Sam gave the mast a good yank with the forklift. The boat and I jerked back and forth a couple times as the jackstands were deciding whether to fold underneath me or not. I held up a hand like “OK, fella, settle down” and I jumped to the ladder and climbed down. 

Later I noticed that the wood block under Anago’s keel had moved almost two inches when the mast was yanked. A couple more inches and the metal tubing of the jackstands would have likely buckled and Anago and I would have tumbled to the ground. That would have been exciting, but it wasn’t the most exciting thing that day.  

On the ground again, I untied the strap from the forklift and from the mast. Brent picked it up and put it on the back of the forklift. Sam wiggled the big machine around and lined up to lift the engine out of the cockpit. I grabbed the straps and shackle and climbed the ladder again. 

“Oh, sorry,” Brent said, “I just put those up.” 

“No worries,” I said, “If you put it away, you can find it when you need it.” 

“That’s how I was taught,” Brent drawled with a slight hint of appreciation.  

Next Sam and I pulled the engine up out of the hole I had cut in the cockpit floor. It was fairly anti-climactic, but the engine was what all this work had been about. As Sam left with my engine, wiggling between a couple boats, Brent approached and thanked me. 

“That was a well planned and executed safe method. I appreciate you,” he said.  I took that as high praise from a salty old fishing captain.  

“Thank you, sir.”  And I ran after Sam who was delivering the engine to Ruth Ann. We set the engine down on a couple of large wood blocks. I removed the straps from my chains, folded them, and placed them on the back of the big forklift. 

“Thank you, sir,” I said with a slight bow of my head. 

Sam winked and drove off.  

My next job was to get the mast the rest of the way to the ground. The tabernacle had been twisted in the lowering process, so I was going to need to cut the mast. More than three quarters of the mast was hanging off the bow, so I needed to be careful. Most sailboats have a row of teak grabrails on top of the cabin; Anago was no different. I carefully laced a line back and forth across the mast and under the rails. I figured with three points on each side holding the mast down it would be secure until I slowly lowered it. I cut through the mast about a foot from the hinge, but when the mast let go, so did everything else. I had purposely positioned myself on the high side of the prone mast, but when it jumped up all hell broke loose. The mast lurched, which made the boat lurch again and the grabrails gave way immediately. When the tip of the mast hit the ground, it stopped going that direction but then lurched the other way as it slid down the starboard side of the boat, stopped only by the wires that were strung through the inside. All the while I was showered by teak debris from the exploding rails. But just as soon as it had started, it stopped. The mast was still askew, but everything had settled. That was pretty exciting too, but it was not actually the closest I came to death and destruction last Friday.  

Sam, the boatyard owner, is a charmer. I like him a lot and I know he has a lot on his plate as the yard is not his only business. Further, nearly everyone else active at the boatyard is worth more monetarily to Sam than I am. He has a way, though, of making you feel like you are next and his highest priority at the moment. Sam had to leave during the afternoon on Thursday to go to a funeral, but he had kind of made it sound like he would be back late and we would do the mast then. Now there is Eastern Standard Time, Island Time, and there’s Sam Time. He did come back. In fact, I saw him, still in a suit, behind a boat instructing his guys on what to do with that boat’s outdrive. But soon it was after five o’clock and everyone was gone. I knew then we weren’t going to do the mast that day and I began to putz around and do some other little jobs around Anago. I got wild, grabbed my grinder, and decided to take out the compression post which was stainless steel. I am scrapping a bunch of stainless, aluminum, and the lead keel taken off of Anago. Another few pounds of stainless was money for the good. With that done, I was tired and packed up.  

Now, for you landlubbers again: a compression post is a post inside the cabin of a boat that supports the mast. My boat has what is called a keel-stepped mast; the mast goes through the cabin roof and is seated right on the keel in the bottom of the boat. Many modern production boats, however, have a deck-stepped mast; which is a bit of a misnomer because the mast is usually stepped on the cabin roof, not what I call the deck. 

I made supper, diddled around, and went to bed. It was just after midnight, when I awoke in a cold sweat. My heart was literally beating like it was going to ram its way out of my chest. I had a single thought; a thought so powerful it had woken me. In a B movie, the camera would have cut to the whole solar system, pause for effect with all the planets and the stars behind them, then zoom past Pluto (yes, I know), Uranus, Neptune, Saturn, buzz Jupiter and Mars, focus on the Earth, then oceans and clouds, continents and countries, fields and cities, to a house in a neighborhood, right through the roof, to the guy on the couch, through his forehead, the brain, the synapses, a couple spasmodic cells and then a gigantic explosion. I was wide awake! 

I had taken the compression post out from under the mast on a boat that had been sitting in the yard rotting for four or five years. The post that was meant to support the mast was gone. Now, the mast was supported only by the fiberglass shell of the cabin. If the roof failed, the mast would begin to fall down which would slacken all of the stays holding it vertical. It would inevitably fall – onto Rare Breed. Or if the Universe was in a particularly finicky mood, it could hit that boat and the boat next to it which was worth nearly as much. If such a calamity occurred, those two skippers would roam the earth to find me and shred me into pieces small enough to burn and stomp on the ashes. They would kill me. And worse yet it was something that I had decided to do for no good reason other than I was near the boat with a bunch of tools. There would be nothing I could say or do to compensate for the losses – financial and emotional – that I would have caused.  

I lay there trying to decide what I could do. There was no one in the yard but my pal Mike asleep on his boat and me totally not asleep on mine. I couldn’t see the boat in the dark, but if something was going wrong the only choice would be to try and wake Sam up at home and get him to the yard. Mike might be able to drive the forklift but neither he nor I would be willing to weave our way through a bunch of other expensive boats with a hulking machine to try and save another. If something was going wrong, there was nearly nothing I could do about it that night.  

And what if it had already fallen, but I hadn’t heard it. 

If I go look, will it be worse or better for my sweaty brain. 

I wasn’t about to get any more sleep that night. 

Finally, I decided to get dressed and go look; figuring that if it wasn’t bad I might actually sleep. I climbed down out of Ruth Ann with a flashlight and made my way over to Rare Breed and Anago in the dark. Brent has scaffolding on three sides of his boat with ladders in each corner. I climbed one of his ladders and poked my flashlight at Anago’s mast step. It was hard to see. I couldn’t really tell without climbing up into Anago anyway, but the curve of her roof looked like a continuous arc. I thought I could see the very bottom of the tabernacle. I decided that the worst wasn’t happening yet. So, I went back to Ruth Ann and back to bed. I actually slept some after that. 

First thing in the morning, I looked out the port in my galley. I could see the hulk of Rare Breed in the emerging dawn – and I could just make out the thin line of the mast beyond her, still standing. All was well in the universe. [do I have to say again: I’d rather be lucky than good.] I was determined to tell Sam my mistake if I had to, just to get him to take the mast down that day. 

And that was as close to death and destruction as I got last Friday. It wasn’t the exploding teak or the dancing boat, it was doing something stupid that could have affected two boat captains that I know and respect. If it’s all the same to Davy Jones, I’d like to never get that close again.  

Chronologically, this last bit happened before everything else, of course. After I made some coffee, I went looking for Sam. When I first didn’t find him, I set an alarm for one hour to look for him again. Before that timer went off, I heard Sam talking to someone nearby and that is where this post started. I dropped my tools and chased Sam down. 

A bit more than a day later and the mast is stripped of anything other than aluminum and is chopped up into manageable chunks. My pal, Anthony, chopped up a boat last year and got it to the landfill on a flatbed wrecker, so I enlisted him for my project. We have only to call for the wrecker and haul the metal to the recycler. We're splitting the scrap money after the cost of the wrecker and the landfill. 

I’d rather be lucky than good. 

Monday, October 17, 2022

Running Up To Beaufort, Part 2

We had an easy start Saturday morning. Victor’s mom, Cheryl, fed us like kings. I think it was sausage and egg biscuits that morning as we were soon to be underway. Cheryl was nursing a broken finger but helped a lot with docklines and other boat stuff; while also handling all the galley responsibilities. The Navassa Railroad Bridge is only about a mile downstream. That bridge had to open, so we waited for slack tide to head down the river. As soon as we started moving, we radioed to request an opening. When we got close, the bridge started creaking open. An easier time than I had had with that bridge on the way up to the boatyard with Ruth Ann. Victor’s Willard 36 is a unique traditional looking, strongly built trawler. She was repowered with a big John Deere diesel a few years ago which rumbled confidently at the push of a button. The trip down the river was uneventful and the boat performed without a hiccup. From the boatyard to downtown Wilmington, the river winds its way through salt marshes and acres of seagrass. We could have been traveling the river in any century except for the hum of the John Deere. Bare trunks of trees, some surely cedars, poked up through the seagrass while all kinds of herons, ducks, and other waterfowl went about their day; mildly bemused by the noisy humans floating by.. The only view of civilization to ruin the ancient river atmosphere was the Thermo Fisher Scientific building that towers across the marsh from the city. It wasn’t until we rounded the last long curve toward the junction with the Northeast Cape Fear River that downtown Wilmington loomed into view. We were thrust back into the 21st Century, but without much other traffic on the water. Soon after we past downtown there was a scattering of industry on each side, then oil storage tanks to the east. After a short stretch of wilderness, we came to the Port of Wilmington. The huge cranes had been in sight, but now we were right next to the huge docks and stacks of shipping containers. I don’t remember there being a ship docked in port that morning. Beyond the port we were back on a wild river. This stretch, however, was dominated by pine forests and random spoil islands. It was peaceful without too much traffic until we got to our turn. There seemed to be a collection of boats around the intersection of river and the ICW. Most were fishing but a few were on the move like us. We followed a sparse trail of daymarkers to cross a broad section of flat water from the Cape Fear River over to Snow’s Cut; the man made channel that connects the river to the ICW headed north. The Cut was the original reason that Victor and I started talking. Back when we thought that both our boats would launch about the same time, the first plan was for Victor to follow me since I had been through the Cut a few times. The boat and crew settled in and we made pretty good time through the cut, into the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), and on toward Wrightsville Beach. There were nine bridges on our route, but only three which we had to request to open. Now that we were on the ICW proper, the Wrightsville Beach Bridge was the next bridge we had to call. The bridge opens on the hour and the half hour, so after checking in with the bridgetender, we cruised out Masonboro Inlet and into the Wrightsville Beach Anchorage just for fun. Back out into the ICW, and back on a northward track, we made the bridge just in time and cruised under it's gaping jaws. The evidence of Wilmington thinned out pretty fast and soon we were rolling along with salt marshes and spoil islands to starboard and boathouses and docks to port. We enjoyed the quiet scenery of the ICW offseason. Nearing Surf City, we were looking for a place to put in for the night. Sears Landing, a restaurant with docks, caught our eye on the chart. However when we got there, it was a long skinny channel up to the docks with a pretty stiff cross breeze just then. Since all three of us were new to the boat, we decided to keep looking. Daylight was soon to fade and Victor was calling around, but all the nearby marinas were full. We motored a little further up the ICW and found an anchorage just past the Topsail Island Bridge. The sun briefly splashed some color but faded quickly behind the blue grey of the overcast horizon. With the anchor down, we caught up with our weather apps and suddenly found that a strong wind was on the way. Indeed, a small craft advisory for morning. And then a marina called Victor back. So just as the sunlight began to disappear, we hauled the anchor. I went to the bow with a borrowed pair of gloves. The windlass was not working, so I began hauling on the rope. Victor had opened a hatch and I shouted to give a little forward. The anchor rode came aboard without too much effort, anchor rope turned to chain, but we began to overrun the anchor. I wrapped some chain on a cleat and paused but the big boat had some momentum and we drifted further forward. Lacking some old salt patience, I asked Victor for a little reverse to bring us off the anchor. Soon, that John Deere kicked in and I was struggling. It was a scramble to keep the anchor chain from running back out, and just as hard to keep from getting pulled over the bow myself. But we won and the anchor finally came aboard. We motored toward Swans Point Marina, anticipating a safe harbor for the night; and the morning’s blow. It was dark when we arrived. The dockmaster was a bit coarse and direct to a fault, but exceedingly helpful in his own curmudgeonly way. He directed Victor into the dock while
Cheryl and I stood by to heave dock lines, and then he helped us tie up. . Victor did great despite the shouting and grunting from the dock. Then the dockmaster informed us about a nearby seafood restaurant that would come pick us up for supper if we called. Victor had to call twice to convince them to come get us, but they did. Amazingly, it seemed like more than a 10 minute ride each way. We had a great supper and a couple beers, and then got a ride back to the marina.

Overnight the winds piped up and we were happy to be tucked into a little marina rather than at anchor in a fairly open spot. Cheryl made us a hearty breakfast and we strategized. It was decided that we’d stay until Monday morning to avoid traveling in some pretty stiff winds and possibly having to find another marina anyway. I began to quietly fret just a bit for my plans. I had to catch a bus in the wee hours Tuesday to make it to Florida for orientation and a new job on Wednesday. 

Homeward Epilogue

sv Ruth Ann in Beaufort, SC, 12/23 Ruth Ann is the last in a series of boats on which I was attempting to escape. I found her when I found a...