I have learned that it is important to listen carefully to the way I speak to myself. Whenever I “hear” myself start to say “I’ll just …” or “It’ll be alright …”, I try to stop whatever I’m doing or thinking, and take a closer look. “Just” is a sneaky word in that context; it is a warning that a corner is about to be cut. Whenever I recognize those phrases I know that I am about to do something that I don't think is exactly proper.
I was chatting with one of my sailing pals about the fact that I don’t have a windlass on Ruth Ann. A windlass is a type of winch that will raise an anchor off the bottom; some are manual but most are electric. Ruth Ann doesn’t have room near her bow for a windlass. Right now I am enjoying the workout. Wade’s conjecture, however, was that without a windlass a sailor might be tempted to stay anchored in a less than perfect spot just to avoid hauling the anchor by hand. At the time we were speaking, I had actually just hauled my anchor to move to a better spot shortly after having dropped it. I made it my mission to act like I had a windlass and not ever be that sailor who lets it slide.
However, both of these concepts are getting ahead of my story. Hang tight, last Friday was a day to remember.
I had promised myself that I was going to sail on Friday. It is somewhat hilarious that after three years of work to get a sailboat in the water and finally launching her the first week of December, it was February and I hadn’t sailed her yet. It’s a complicated story, but doing all the work myself to replace Ruth Ann’s engine had taken a bit longer than I had planned. Once we were actually in the water, it was a race to get down the coast before Winter closed in. The mad rush south and some goofy weather had caused me to motor all the way from Navassa, outside Wilmington, NC down to Florida.
True confession: it wasn’t just the weather; I was getting in my own way as well.
I had a boat in the water and was headed toward warmer weather for the winter; the life that I had literally been working for fifteen years to accomplish. And yet I was wallowing in feelings of inadequacy. I was panicked.
I had to show up; had to demonstrate that I was the guy that I had been trying to be all this time. Imposter syndrome was hitting me hard. Even with a lifetime of sailing experience because the last few years had been more about boatwork than sailing, I felt like a rookie again. The trouble I had had that first week on the water had increased my doubts. I am proud to be a thoughtful, conservative sailor and the weather had really been against me for weeks. Yet I still felt like I wasn’t living up to my sailor facade. There I was motoring down the coast on my own boat powered by a diesel engine that I had installed myself and yet my pea brain had invented a facade and was accusing me of hiding behind it. Objectively, I was a damn sailor but I could hardly convince myself to think so. Hence, my promise to go sailing.
I knew I just had to start moving and everything would fall into place. My preparations had begun on Thursday; checking the rigging and the sails. Friday morning, it seemed a little windier than I had expected, but I pulled the outboard up onto the stern pulpit, hanked on the yankee (my high cut jib), and uncovered the mainsail. I looked around the gusty anchorage and went below to procrastinate. I made some lunch and sat. Finally, after a good mental shake, I got to work again. I started the engine, hauled the anchor, and left the anchorage. I was moving. Finally.
Just north of where Ruth Ann and I had been anchored was the junction of the North and South Forks of the St. Lucie River. The anchorage was in the South Fork and we headed north to turn into … wait for it … the North Fork. I engaged the autopilot and wandered around the deck running my jib sheets and making my final preparations. Approaching the elbow where the river opens up into a long stretch wide enough for sailing, I raised the yankee and cut the engine.
It was so good, just soul enriching to feel Ruth Ann surge through the water without hearing the engine. I started to feel like I was back. The real me had begun to peek from behind the crust I had been accumulating. The wind was indeed a little stronger than I had anticipated and we were already doing more than half her hull speed with just the yankee. I was feeling good and we were stepping out. I could have raised the main and really put us through our paces, but it was not necessary to test us on that first day back.
I had a glorious afternoon tacking back and forth on the North Fork practicing the timing of my jib tack. Ruth Ann is a cutter, so she has two stays at the bow. My jib was going to have to squeeze between the forestay and the staysail stay each time I tacked. I have sailed a cutter before but practice is never a bad thing. I pretty much got the hang of it. By holding the active sheet on the winch until the jib started to bulge between the stays and then hauling hard on the lazy sheet, I could get a consistent tack. Late in the afternoon, the wind got a little fluky so I started the engine and pulled down the yankee (jib). Back through the junction, I was in the South Fork again approaching the anchorage.
The spot where I had originally anchored was fairly close to the channel. I was keen to get deeper into the anchorage to be less affected by the wakes as large boats went by. After slowing the boat, we gurgled into the anchorage and I watched the depths as we passed around the other boats. There was a large powerboat that might have been sitting on the bottom and I didn’t want to anchor too close to it, but there was a nice spot nearby. I circled around and aimed for the spot. The wind had strengthened again and it was blowing me off my chosen spot as I walked forward to drop the anchor. After a couple tries, the anchor was finally down and Ruth Ann drifted backward as I gradually let out some chain. Then when I walked back to the cockpit to set the anchor, I noticed that I was a little close to another boat. I wasn’t obnoxiously close but I felt a pinch about it.
It’ll be alright, I thought. That guy will probably not know any better and I’m going to go out again on Monday. I’ll just fix it when I come back again. And I went below.
Do you recognize those phrases? It took me a few minutes, but I had begun to feel my own discomfort. I knew that I should move, but moving meant hauling the anchor again – with the wind pushing against it. Recognize that? That’s exactly what I promised myself that I would take care of. Reluctantly, I pulled a shirt on and climbed back into the cockpit.
I started the engine again and hauled the anchor. The anchor line and the chain were covered in a slimy mud from the river bottom which splashed all over the deck and all over me. I pulled the anchor into the bow roller and headed back to the helm. After another couple circles, I dropped the anchor again, this time much closer to where I had originally intended. Ruth Ann fell back on the chain as the wind pushed her and I let out the anchor line. We were in a much better place.
Back at the helm, I glanced at the dinghy and dropped the engine into reverse to pull on the chain. I heard a whimper, then a squeak, and I knew exactly what I had just done. For two months, I had backed down on the chain with the dinghy floating behind Ruth Ann without incident. Regardless, the whimper was the line getting pulled taut by the propeller which yanked the dinghy against the hull where it squeaked on the fiberglass. Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.
[ insert your favorite string of appropriate pirate cuss words ]
I didn’t understand how it had happened. The line may have gotten saturated or weighted down by algae growing on it … or I might have let out a couple more feet than normal. I don’t know (it’s called confirmation bias, people). What felt like a rookie mistake was actually a mistake made by a sailor who was letting it slide. You can almost hear me say “It’ll be fine …” or “I’ll just leave that back there like I usually do …”
Now, after a pretty full afternoon of sun and fresh air, right when I would have liked to have had a drink, made supper, and relaxed for the evening – I was going to have to get in the water.
I dug out my mask and flippers, stripped down to my skivvies, and lowered the swim ladder. This was going to suck a lot less than when I climbed down into the Cape Fear River last December – but it was still going to suck. The bridle on the dinghy’s bow was too long. I had spliced that bridle before I had ever had the dinghy in the water. There was also a long painter, but when I got down under the water it had been the bridle that had caught the propeller. The bridle was nearly always in the water lately and the white three strand line had become a dirty greenish brown. I managed to untangle a good amount of it in three or four dives, but there was a stubborn bit that had been squeezed tightly against the prop shaft between the propeller and the cutlass bearing. Luckily, I had learned from the Cape Fear story that my old fashioned two blade prop was very stout. Further, I was barely out of idle speed when I had heard the sounds and popped the gear selector back into neutral. There wouldn’t be any damage, so I climbed out of the water.
Aboard Ruth Ann, dripping wet, I dug out a serrated knife; not my good one, but one that I wouldn’t regret losing if I lost my grip. On the way back to the cockpit, I tried to find a scrap of line or twine in my ropework bucket for a lanyard, but wasn’t patient enough to spy anything that would work.
Back in the water, I reached over Ruth Ann’s transom to retrieve the knife and plunged back toward the propeller. Under the surface, I was weightless, of course, which meant that pushing against the knife sent me backward as much as it applied any force to cutting the rope. It took a couple tries to figure out how to get some leverage. I ended up in a funny chair-less seated position so that my thighs were under the rudder and my head and shoulders were level with the propeller. With my left hand around the other side of the propeller and holding onto a loose end, I cut through the line with the knife in my right. I could feel it coming loose and kept cutting. Bubbles rushed above me as I began to exhale. Just … one … more … slice … and the line popped loose. I had learned to surface while aiming behind the boat at an exaggerated angle. The swim ladder and the windvane were more than happy to tap me on top my head if I came up for air too close to Ruth Ann.
One more dive to check that I had gotten all the line and I finally climbed out of the water. Earlier in the day, I had banged my head hard enough to draw some blood. On top of that, I only wear shoes in town and the day before I had cut one of my toes climbing around the boat. The river water was dark and I had to wonder what I had been swimming around in. Landlubbers and politicians cling to conspiracies about vagabond sailors polluting the water, but municipal run-off is a huge, mostly ignored problem. Five or six years ago, this very area was engulfed in a nasty algae bloom because of the fertilizer polluted water that had been released from Lake Okeechobee. It’s not us vagabonds. I won’t bore you with a rant about sailors and clean water, but the people blaming boaters never seem to consider that we live in this water. Even a dog won’t shit where it sleeps.
I took a shower … and I cleaned my toe with some peroxide. Whether it’s run-off, big agriculture, or even my neighbors, it felt good to rinse off anyway.
I was finally able to make that supper and later I slept like a baby. It might have felt like a rookie mistake in the moment, but it's just life on the water. I can make that life a little easier by paying attention to my seamanship, but stuff happens. Further, I fixed my own problem in less than an hour while getting some exercise and having a nice swim. I can deal with that.
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I tried to grab the sunrise this morning and ended up with this blurry but cool, moody image.