Friday, December 23, 2022

Perhaps The Worst Day, Part Two

This is Part Two of Part Two of A Tale of Two Screw Ups. If you didn't read Part One of 'Perhaps the Worst Day,' go back one post to read it first. If you haven't read about Sleeping in a Sinking Boat, go back two posts, that is Part One of 'A Tale of Two Screw Ups.' Confused yet?  


When we last left our hero, he had wrapped a line on Ruth Ann's propeller and was waiting to get hauled out a second time in one week on an emergency basis. Standing in his way was a yacht that needed to be extensively tested in the water of the slipway and a second boat coming up the river to be hauleld out.  The story picks up again, Friday afternoon, patience wearing thin, shame still simmering over the boneheaded move that got him here in the first place.  


And then the other boat showed up. It was captained by Captain Jack who had actually helped Sam and I get a boat out of the way and get Ruth Ann into the slings of the travelift back on Monday. He had also been at the dock with my neighbors to catch my dock lines just before I had discovered the leak late Monday afternoon. He had brought a retired North Atlantic fishing captain as casual crew. Soon a workboat showed up behind them and rafted up at the dock. It seems that they had needed some extra fuel on the way up from Charleston. They had called Scott, another waterman, to meet them on the ICW with some fuel. He had decided to tag along just for fun, so they ordered takeout from a dockside seafood joint which Scott ran to get in his boat and then rejoined the caravan up the river. 

Captain Jack asked me why I was still there and I told him of my plight. Scott, the workboat captain exclaimed that he had his dive gear with him and could help out. Have I mentioned that I’d rather be lucky than good? There I was with an anchor 40 feet deep and halfway across the river delayed by some fancy yacht languishing in the slipway. And there was no reason for this diver to have shown up; he had just followed his friends for kicks. I was basking in a broad smile from the universe.

I asked him how much and he deferred to checking first with the office. “That’s the proper way, of course” I said, “but I’m not letting you get in the water before you give me a number.” 

“Well, my kids are real hungry.” 

When he came back, Scott said, “they seem to like you in there.”  

“There are days, I’m not sure why,” was my rueful reply.

Amy, the office manager and another sweetheart (they are running a surplus at Cape Fear Boat Works), told Scott that he could do anything he needed to do ‘to help Todd out.’ So he started to get ready. For a couple hundred dollars, he was going to unwrap my prop, check it, and retrieve my anchor if that was possible. 

Captain Jack and the other waterman told me that I was lucky that Scott was there. “He’s just crazy enough to take care of your problem.” Scott struggled into his wetsuit, complaining all the while about how complicated it was to dive in the Winter. Turns out he didn’t have all his gear, he just had a hooka hose about 40 feet long and a full size dive tank to feed it. The hose was only about as long as the river was deep, so rather than moving his boat out over the anchor, he tied the tank to himself and once he was in the water it was dangling between his legs. Captain Jack, also experienced in salvage operations, tied a small bouy on a line which we deployed off the bow of the other boat. Eventually, Scott came around to the dock near the bow, grabbed my anchor line and pulled himself into the black water; waddle swimming with the tank between his legs. He must have been in the water for forty minutes. It was nerve-wracking just standing on the bow watching bubbles come to the surface and drift down the river. Every once in a while a great eruption of bubbles would come up. I had to wonder how we could tell if he was stuck or just working. He had not taken the line with the buoy down with him! 

After an excruciatingly long time, Scott surfaced!

“Who the hell has 60 feet of chain on a little sailboat like that!” he shouted in mock derision. “The chain was wrapped several times around a valve on that pipeline. It was tangled over and under itself, but I cleared it and then set the anchor in a spot of sand. I think we can haul it up. We might just get it back.”  

My heart became light again for the first time in over twenty four hours. To wrap my own line around my own prop was such a boneheaded rookie move, I had been stewing in my own private shame ever since it had happened. Even the night before that fateful morning, I had sat in my cockpit with a friend talking about all the work I had done and my plans to head south. After fifteen years of work, and four boats, I had thought that I was done – thought that I was leaving. And it had all come crashing down because I had panicked and taken my eyes off the prize. That couple seconds of inattention carried such a huge cost it was unimaginable and nearly unbearable. And then I had spent all morning just waiting for when Ruth Ann could get hauled out for a second time. I was questioning whether I was actually cut out for the life I had worked so long to manifest.

Then when Scott had said so matter-of-factly that we might be able to retrieve the anchor – I could barely stand on my feet as all the positivity I had lost the day before came flooding back into my life. 

Scott wrapped my anchor line on the delivered boat’s windlass and slowly pulled on the line. 

“I think it’s working. Here it comes. Oh, wait we’re hooked on something … no, there it goes.”   

The line came aboard slowly with Scott feeling the tension and signaling the other captain when to pause the windlass a second and when to start again. I watched as the 120 foot tag came aboard, then the 90 foot tag, then the 60 foot tag followed by the chain coming aboard. I couldn’t have wished that it were true. Then the chain went taught again. Scott waved for a pause, waited for the chain to settle, and then by some waterman instinct chose the exact moment to wave the windlass on again. There was a jerk and the then chain went loose. 

“There we are.” Scott said flatly, “The anchor is off the bottom!”

I saw the shackle, then the shank of the anchor, and then the whole blessed thing. It was back! I was dumbfounded. The effort that this waterman had made just to get some stranger’s anchor back was astounding. But that is really how boat people are. We look out for each other and sometimes go to the end of logic and practicality to get another skipper out of a jam. I look forward to the opportunity to pay forward for what Scott did for me that day.

“Oh, by the way, I already did the prop,” he said. “That sturdy old school, two-blade propeller was beefy enough to take it and there is so little prop shaft outside the cutless bearing, there was no leverage to do any damage.”  

Relief. Such sweet relief I have never known. Now I was back on. Now I could actually leave.  

During the afternoon, besides hearing that his kids were hungry, I had heard the guys talking about chicken wings. So, when I sat down with Scott to Venmo him the money, I gave him a 25% tip, and said ‘maybe you can buy the kids some chicken wings.’

Scott looked at his feet and said, “I gotta be honest with you. I don’t have any kids, that’s just  something I say.”   

What a guy. Hilarious. He is one of us. 

I hauled the anchor, line, and chain down the dock to Ruth Ann and threaded the line through the bow roller and down the hawse into the anchor locker. Down inside the cabin, I crawled to the bow, opened the storage cupboard and the hatch in the back to reach in and re-tie the bitter end of the anchor line to the boat. Then I hauled the line and chain aboard and carefully pulled the anchor into place. After that I walked the Bruce anchor I had absconded from one of Sam’s derelicts and put it back in place on its original bowsprit. 

After trudging back through the yard, I caught Sam, Amy, and Samantha in the office and told them the news. 

“Good lord,” Sam sighed with a twinkle in his eye, “Are you finally leaving? Am I finally rid of you?” 

I told him that since there was not much daylight left, if he would indulge me, I’d be leaving with the mid morning tide the next day. 

“That’s just fine,” he said, “this is not a good time to leave anyhow.” 

And so I spent one more night at the dock. Poor Ruth Ann had been at the Cape Fear Boat Works yard since July 2019. She was as anxious to leave as I was. I cleaned up the decks a little and went below to make supper and get some sleep. I slept like a stone. As long as I didn’t screw something else up, I was finally on my way. I was finally living the life that I had been striving for most of my life and actively pursuing for more than fifteen years.

“If anything is going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.” 

 – Captain Ron

“Incentives are important. I learned that in rehab.” 

 – also Captain Ron

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Perhaps The Worst Day, Part One

I know this is Part Two of A Tale of Two Scew Ups, but it's a good story and it's me, so it is long. I had to split it up so that you, dear reader, didn't have to cancel all your appointments in order to read it. Part Two of Part Two will come out tomorrow. 

Thursday was going to be a Red Letter Day. Literally, the culmination of fifteen years of striving. Not that I had put any pressure on myself, but I was so ready and had begun to think that I was due. And then it became one of the most humiliating, most depressing days of my life. 

There is a railroad bridge about a mile downstream from the boatyard. I was going to have to call them on the radio to get it opened for me. As it was my first trip on Ruth Ann for three years, I was cautious and, between the river and the tides, I was concerned about the currents. The plan was to leave as soon as the current had died down from the height of the mid-morning tide. On Tuesday, when I had to get Ruth Ann back into the slipway to be hauled again, I learned that the current is deceptively strong. There were also two or three trees (yes, trees) that had floated down the river and gotten caught on the upriver end of the boatyard’s dock. Tuesday morning, I had gotten pushed quite strongly into those trees. There were a couple clunks along the way that I believe may have been a small branch from one of those trees getting buzzed by my propeller. It was one of the first things that I checked when the boat was out of the water, but all was well.  

Back on Thursday morning, I had the luxury of my own time and I waited until it appeared that the current had waned. Ruth Ann was pointed upstream and, of course, we needed to go downstream. I set up a spring line on the outside aft cleat that ran to the dock and back to the cockpit. After untying the rest of the dock lines, I began to slowly move forward while holding the spring line. In theory, Ruth Ann would have strained against the line and while I kept her in forward at idle speed, the line would cause her to swing around and point her bow downstream. As the boat moved forward, the line would trail behind and I could pull it in at my leisure. It was going to be perfectly graceful.  

There was, of course, more current than I had hoped, and we started getting pushed toward the half submerged trees again. I started to panic! After more than three years out of the water, I was a nervous rookie all over again. I let go the line, revved the engine, and tried to steer us clear. We were not quite going to make it past the very outside trunk, so I threw her into reverse. That moment completely contradicted the rest of the plan. If it hadn’t been for that lapse of judgment (panic), I might have left that day and continued down the river. Nevertheless, in that moment, the line in the water wrapped around my propeller and stalled the engine. 

That was weird, I thought, but still in rookie mode, I tried to restart the engine but it immediately stalled when I put it in gear. That’s when I started to know the trouble I had just gotten into. Looking aft, I could see the springline yanked over the transom and pulled as taut as a guitar string. For a moment, all I knew was that sticky, acrid lump of shame in the back of my throat. But the current and the wind were pushing me upriver toward the I-140 Bypass Bridge. Time for action. 

I went to the bow and dropped the anchor, not really thinking about the pipeline that runs under the river there. If I had thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have imagined that I had already drifted that far. With the boat secure, I began to consider my options and had the bright idea to get in the water (Hey, I’m a cruiser now, we are self sufficient). I dug out my snorkel mask and stripped down to my underwear. I knew the water was going to be cold, but I had no idea how difficult it would be. 

I dropped the swim ladder and carefully crawled down to the water. It was a jolt when my feet were first submerged. I’m guessing that the water was in the 50s. It was damn cold. When I got down to my shoulders, my whole body in the chilly river, my breathing and my heart rate had accelerated dramatically. Even so, as I stood there on my ladder I felt that I could get used to it. I wasn’t shivering yet, but DAMN it was cold. And dark. The river is exactly what is meant by Carolina Black Water. You can’t see eight inches in front of your face. 

What I learned that day was that cold water is mostly mental. My body had gotten used to the cold water but when I tried to dunk my head and swim down to the prop, I felt the strongest notion that I didn’t have enough air! I tried a couple times, even hyperventilating a bit to jack up my oxygen, but the response was the same. Every time my head got under the water, every cell in my body was screaming: get out! Get Out! GET OUT!! So, I gave up, got out, and dried myself off. At least I had tried.  

I have two extra long lines on the boat; one an old anchor line and the other a spinnaker sheet. I unrolled my dinghy and pumped it partially full of air. After installing the thwarts (seats) and the oars, I flopped it into the water. With the foot pump in hand (I know, I know), I climbed down and finished filling the inflatable. Luckily, the tide had slackened and there was very little current by then. I rowed to the dock with a line tethered to a cleat at the stern, tied it to the dock, and rowed back. Then with the other line tied to a bow cleat, I repeated the trip. 

As I devised and revised my next plan, the boatyard launched an Army Corps of Engineers boat that had just been painted. I expected them to head down the river but they headed to the dock and tied up. Just beyond their transom was my aft tether. I whistled to them, pointed to the line at the dock, and held up the line in the boat, and pointed to my chest like “that is me.”  

The captain shouted back, “Do you want me to let you go?”  

“No!” I shouted back while gesticulating wildly in every negative body language I could muster.  

I had called the boatyard office, but even though I was only 50 yards from them physically, the connection from one end or the other was so bad that the receptionist could not hear me. The anchor was down, and I really needed to get back to the dock but I had no motive power. Thankfully still securely tethered to the dock, I started the next phase of my plan. By letting out some anchor line, and then pulling in each tether, one at a time, I could crab walk my way back to the dock. The other captain inquired and I told him I had wrapped a line on my prop. I was getting used to the shame of it. It was already late afternoon, when I walked up to the office, hat in hand, and explained my trouble. Amy, the office manager, was confounded. “Only you, Todd,” she said, smiling and shaking her head. 

Sam, the boatyard owner, is a sweetheart. A bit later I was back in the office discussing the schedule for the next morning. “Sit over here,” he said and started telling me a bunch of stories of when he had screwed up, just to make me feel better. Also, nearly every other skipper I told my story to said “Oh, yeah, I did that once … “ and proceeded to tell me a story about wrapping their prop. It was still pretty embarrassing to wrap my own line on my own prop, and many of the other stories were about crab traps or someone else’s line. 

The boatyard schedule for Friday was going to be complicated. There was a huge luxury yacht in the yard, owned by some bitchy rich people, that had received a large amount of complicated mechanical work. The owners wanted to arrive, get in their boat, and leave, so the mechanics were going to set the boat in the slipway and test all the systems to make sure all was well before the arrival of the cranky owners. Also, another boat was coming up the river to get hauled out. The huge yacht was going to go in the slipway first and Sam told me that either in between  or just after the second boat was hauled, they would pull Ruth Ann out of the water to unwrap the line. We would check the propeller, shaft, and other equipment for damage and if all was well, Ruth Ann would go right back in the water. All I had to do was wait my turn.  

Friday morning while the yacht was being tested, I re-tethered Ruth Ann and pulled my way back out into the river using the anchor line. I was going to try and retrieve the anchor. At the dock I had more than 120 feet of chain and line out to the anchor. I could haul in to the 90 foot tag, but straining with all my might (I don’t have a windlass at this time), I could not get the line to move beyond the 90 foot tag. It was absolutely caught on something more just than the anchor. I’m sure those trees on the surface were not alone in that section of river. So I pulled Ruth Ann back to the dock and tied her up. 

Sam was keen to try pulling the anchor with his truck. I was skeptical. My anchor is designed to roll over and reset itself. It needed to be pulled up rather than over in my opinion, but what did I have to lose? Sam drove his pickup truck right down onto the dock and we tied my anchor line to his trailer hitch. He had the truck in four wheel drive and was smoking the tires on the boards of the dock – the anchor would not move. We were very close to causing an environmental incident but hadn’t realized it. Sam was impressed that my line hadn’t parted. I was impressed that the rope-to-chain splice, which I had spiced, held under the strain. Imagine if that line had parted as his tires were smoking. There was only so much dock and I wonder if he could have stopped before flying straight into the river - truck and all. 

I asked Sam, “So, is there anywhere in town I can buy an anchor and some line besides Worst Marine (my pet name for West Marine)?

“Get in,” he said. And he drove me out to the back corner of the boatyard. “How about that one? Or that one?”  

Even though I was with the owner of the place, it seemed bizarre to be shopping for an anchor among the abandoned and derelict boats out by the fence. I told him I would get a ladder and check a couple of them out. One was an old hinged plow anchor, which I think was an original CQR from England, but it was a couple sizes too large for Ruth Ann. The other was a real Bruce Anchor, just a bit oversized. The anchor I had lost was a bit oversized for my boat, so I chose the latter anchor. After unscrewing the shackle, I threw the anchor over my shoulder and walked it back to the dock. Along the way, I told Sam which one I had grabbed and that I would be back later to make a deal on it.  

A bit later, Samantha, the receptionist (also a sweetheart), came down to ask me to move my boat to the downriver end of the dock. She had just told the boat headed upriver that they wouldn’t be hauled until Monday, but could tie up at the dock. I’m sure Sam was behind the plan. All the folks at Cape Fear Boat Works have been so good to me in the three and a half years that Ruth Ann has been there. I moved Ruth Ann down the dock and looked skeptically at the yacht in the slipway. Joe, the head mechanic, is a thorough guy and I knew that the yacht might be there a good while yet. All I could do was wait.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Trying To Sleep On A Sinking Boat

Part One of A Tale of Two Screw Ups

Ruth Ann was finally ready. 

I had arranged with the boatyard to launch on Monday, December 5, and spent the weekend finishing the final details and packing up. Also, Sam, the boatyard owner, is going to let me leave my little trailer here until May. I had listed a few things for sale and figured out that all my stuff wasn’t going to fit aboard. After getting not one nibble on any of the things I had listed and after running out of room on Ruth Ann, I had to do something. Sam is an old softy at heart and directed me to put my trailer in a corner where he couldn’t store a boat anyway. 

Come Monday morning, I was ready. Sam was offsite for most of the day and tricked me into breaking one of my rules because it was a Monday, not a Friday. I had always said that I wouldn’t launch on a Friday, especially late in the day. If I had started down the river and figured out I had a problem, it would be a much bigger problem if everyone at the boatyard had already gone home for the weekend. I wasn’t thinking of this on Monday and anyway I was enthused to finally launch Ruth Ann. She has been in this boatyard since July 2019.  

Sam came crashing back into the boatyard about 3:30 pm and said “Let’s get you in the water.”  

There was a boat in front of Ruth Ann that had to be moved. Sam grabbed it with the big forklift and we dragged the blocks and jackstands over so he could set it back down in a new spot. Then he got the travelift, a U-shaped crane for lifting large boats, and came for Ruth Ann.  She was strapped and lifted off her jackstands, then the crane gamboled across the yard with Ruth Ann swinging gently under her. 

At the slipway, Sam lowered Ruth Ann toward the water, pausing so that I could climb aboard the bowsprit. After she was all the way in, with the straps loose but not removed, I went about checking for leaks. Ruth Ann has six thruhulls for various inlets and drains; plus a brand new packing gland that I installed where the propeller shaft leaves the boat. With a flashlight in hand, I checked all the those spots and all was well. I kind of glanced in the bilges but I wasn’t worried so much about that space. There are no thruhulls or other connections in the bilge and earlier I was letting a portable air conditioner drain into the bilge and it had been holding water. I just had to pump it out every few days. 

I started the motor and checked it over. I goosed Ruth Ann in forward and then reverse. Satisfied, I signaled Sam and he lowered the straps the rest of the way, so I could back out. Sailboats don’t go backward very well in normal conditions and I hadn’t been at the wheel in over three years. It was not graceful, but I made it out into the river and parked at the dock. My former boatyard neighbors and a couple other people grabbed my lines, I wandered back up and put away my ladder and threw away a paint tray and a used roller. On the way back to the dock, I had a nice chat with Sam and presented him with an Army P-38 can opener that I had found (an inside joke). 

Everyone went home and back at the boat I started thinking about supper. When I casally checked under the engine hatch, I was surprised by the amount of water under the prop shaft. I looked under my galley floorboards and was shocked by a huge amount of water in the bilge. After rechecking in the engine compartment, I realized that I had finger-tightened the packing gland in the morning, but hadn’t gone back to tighten it up. While running the engine, I spun the nut right off and water was coming in around the prop shaft with no seal! 

I fixed the leak, turned on my electric bilge pump, and started pumping with the manual pump as well. Soon the water level had gone down significantly and I let the electric pump finish the job. As I watched, there was a strange little gush of water near the bilge pump. I thought that it was leaking air; that didn’t seem right. Something was amiss, so I watched it as the last of the water started to drain. But when I turned the pump off, the water started to rise again. Looking more closely, I realized that the little gurgle of water was a leak. Water was coming in! I was sinking!!  

I texted my boatyard pal, Mike, who works for Sam and asked if he had some emergency epoxy or an extra pump. And I called the former neighbors, Grace and Jeff. No one had epoxy. I’m ashamed that I didn’t have any, but I don’t know that it would have worked under pressure. Mike scrounged up a large bilge pump and crimped some alligator clips on it for me. I had portable manual pump that I dug out as well.  

In the end, once I got the situation under control, my bilge pump could keep up. The good news was that I wasn’t going to sink; the bad news was that the bilge pump was going to kick on every twelve or fifteen minutes, whine for five as it pumped, and then go through a dramatic Shakespearean death each time it ran out of water and the sensors gradually decided to turn the pump off. 

I had worked pretty hard all weekend prepping, spent a day on edge waiting to launch, and then spent the night trying to sleep on a sinking boat to the coughs, sputters, and whining of the bilge pump.  

In the morning, I talked to the office and one of Sam’s guys hauled Ruth Ann back out of

the water by 9:30 or 10:00 Tuesday. When I left the dock to go back to the slipway and the travelift, there was a lot more curent that it appeared and Ruth Ann got pushed into some trees that had floated down the river and caught on the upriver end of the dock.  For a moment the current was pressing us into the tree and I wasn’t sure that I could get free (This foreshadows Part Two of The Tale of Two Screw Ups). Eventually I got her moving and I was kind of proud of how I entered the slipway; well centered and drifting to a stop right in place. No rest for the weary - now I had to find the leak and repair it.  

I learned something interesting about my boat that day. The hole was a perfectly round drilled hole, probably drilled by me, but I don’t really know how it occured. The hole itself had been right on top of one of the wood blocks that Ruth Ann sat on. That block prevented any daylight from shining through to catch my attention and it was tight enough to hold water in the bilge; faking me out from another perspective. 

I got some tools, my epoxy, and some glass cloth out of my recently moved tool trailer. After grinding around the hole and beveling it slightly, I applied four layers of glass cloth to the botton of the keel with the epoxy. Then I made some putty by mixing cabosil (chopped glass fiber) into some epoxy. After the first patch had cured, I pressed the putty into the hole from inside the bilge. Ruth Ann was already scheduled to go back in the water the next morning. I let the epoxy cure all night, then I scrounged up a quarter cup of bottom paint, sanded the patch, and painted it. 

The next morning (Wednesday), I was back in the water and back at the dock. My friend, Anthony, ran me into town to get some final provisions and took me to lunch - my last meal on land for a while. Back at the boatyard, I put away my groceries and decided that I would leave with the falling tide in the morning. 

Au Contraire, mon ami. 

Stay tuned for Part Two, perhaps the most embarassing and depressing day of my sailing life. 

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...