Pride and Fall of a Mariner

Spectacular cock-up, but a marvelous recovery!

“Pride cometh before a fall…” how true, how true, and it applies to sailors as well as to princes.

A setting moon illuminated the ghostly stone as we glided by the barren and lofty rock that shelters Puerto La Cruz to the NW. We’d made good time from Bonaire, short tacking and motorsailing close to the Venezuelan coast where a half-knot counter current lifted us eastward. The vast bay beyond beckoned and we followed, lured by lights, while clumps of stars reeled in our wake until we finally made a halt and dropped the hook just outside the fleet of yachts that clustered off the city.

We had spent the threat of hurricane season at Morrocoy, a maze of mangrove creeks and channels that would afford total protection even in the unlikely event of a
tropical cyclone passing so far south. As usual, Venezuela had provided wonderful cruising. Our 9-year-old son, Diego, was becoming an abler seaman and a better free-diver each year.

We turned in for the night, slept well and got up the next morning when the sun was already beginning to bite. We lay the farthest out from the beach, at the edge of some fifty cruising boats of all kinds and flags. Nearest to us, about 50 yards away, a 45-ft wooden schooner bobbed at her anchor to the wakes left by commercial traffic. You could tell it was wood because the whole thing, from the boot top up, was bright with varnish. It gleamed off the hull, glanced from the spars, danced on the spokes of the wheel. Someone had paid a small ransom to get such a job done, or had devoted himself, heart and soul, to a labor of love.

As I watched, a man approaching 60 came out of the companionway, reached in a cubbyhole, and brought out a clean rag and a bottle of what must have been brass
polish. He started polishing a bronze dorade ventilator. He rubbed it so assiduously, so lovingly that I decided he’d probably done the varnish himself. Obviously, he loved this kind of work. And the boat deserved it. She was a choice example of the shipwright’s art, bowsprit at just the right angle, with a sweet clipper bow, a pleasing sheer line, a curvaceous transom (desirable in the feminine) and a comfortable deep cockpit with raised cap rail. She was, hands down, the most immaculate boat in the anchorage.

It was a lovely morning. It had been calm earlier but now the wind was getting up, ruffling the water, fluttering flags and setting wind generators whirring. I felt mellow, in fact, I bordered on smug. The boat was performing well and I felt proud of her seaworthy lines and romantic, historic, hard-core gaff rig. From the waterline up Breath closely resembled a Colin Archer rescue ketch, a vessel renowned for its strength and seaworthiness. I imagined the rest of the fleet looking out, seeing this salty stranger who had arrived in the dark and was pressing on while they ripened in the sun.

Up this precarious path of thought sauntered a similarly self-inflated idea. It would be a fine thing to get underway using only sail. That would be a treat for the other boats to watch; gaff-rigged ketches not being so common nowadays.

So once breakfast was cleared away, Dorothy came up on deck and helped me to raise the heavy gaff mains’l. Leaving it luffing freely, with the mizzen sheeted in tight, the boat stayed bow into the wind. I cranked at my old manual windlass and the chain came up steadily and when the anchor seemed ready to break out we raised the staysail, backed it, sheeted in the main and sailed over the hook heading away from the anchorage.

The anchor, in a perfect world, would have neatly popped out of the sand and been cranked home. But, this globe being the veil of tears that it is, the anchor stayed put just long enough to pull the boat’s head around to face the beach… and the fleet. Then it let go from the bottom and we commenced to sail.

‘Damn!’ I thought as I cranked up the last of the chain. We had just enough room to raise the jib so that the boat would make enough way to come about. But in the hurry the jib snagged on a deck cleat and wouldn’t sheet home.

“Dorothy, free the jib sheet!” I shouted as the backed sail caught a new gust and her bow fell off even more.

By now, she had the wind abeam, the mains’l was full and drawing and my boat was starting to pick up speed, headed for the fleet. People on the nearby boats were certainly watching me now, especially the guy on the varnished boat who had stopped what he was doing and stood frozen by the mizzen shrouds watching intently.

I decided it was time to turn on the engine.

It roared to life, I thrust it into reverse and promptly caught the dinghy painter in the prop! Normally, the painter was polypropylene, which floats, but it had chafed and I’d replaced it with what I had, a length of half inch nylon. Too late I remembered. In an instant, the powerful engine wrapped up the dinghy painter, capsized the dinghy, jammed it against the rudder and stopped the engine cold.

I felt trapped in a nightmare.

The sails were full, the boat was moving at speed, the steering wheel was stuck fast no matter how I wiggled and wrenched it… bottom line, my 25-ton vessel was about to T-bone the prettiest vessel in the fleet. Its owner was paralyzed, aghast, eyes fixed on the looming approach of my bowsprit, which now resembled the ram of a trireme about to disembowel an enemy vessel.

“Sheet in the jib! Back the stays’l! Hard! Let out the mizzen, all the way out!” Diego and Dorothy sprang into action and the pressure of tight headsails foreward and
slackened mizzen aft started turning Breath down, but it wasn’t going to be enough. In desperation I gave the wheel a mighty wrench, figuring if something broke it didn’t matter. I wrenched it hard, adrenalin gave me strength and God is Great! The rudder broke free and turned! I spun it hard over and Breath responded, sluggishly but just in the nick of time. We came within an ace of taking his rig down as Breath‘s formidable bowsprit glided past his running backstay. The poor guy was speechless and gaping.

Meantime, Breath was headed for the next boat.

I flung the wheel back the other direction and sheeted my mizzen in hard while shouting “Diego, let go the jib sheet! Dorothy, sheet in the main, tight!” I backed the mizzen boom with all my might standing on the rudder head and pulling and Breath just missed the boat next in line. Then it was in again with the headsails and out with the mizzen past a couple more yachts until I saw a space to anchor.

We rounded up into the wind and dropped the anchor. Even before we fetched up on the chain, my wife had grabbed a butcher knife, sharpest blade on board, clenched it between her teeth and jumped into the water to cut the painter loose from the prop. We attached a new line to the dinghy, and turned on the engine once more. We raised the anchor and powered out of the anchorage.

As we left, I heard the skipper of a nearby pilot cutter with a union jack flying, call out in a booming voice, “Spectacular cock-up, but a marvelous recovery!”

I was happy to let that statement sum up my attempt to impress my fellow yachtsmen.