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.

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