At sea, there’s no substitute for skill

MY FIRST SAILBOAT cost $300. It was a wooden 20-foot sloop with an iron centerboard that was raised and lowered with a steel cable and winch.

I was raised on the arid plains of West Texas and had never even seen a sailboat when I went to Galveston to practice law after graduation. Before taking possession of the boat at Seabrook, I checked a book out of the library entitled, simply enough, “How to Sail.” After two hours of reading, 1 was certain I had acquired as much knowledge as anyone needed to go sailing.

With two companions, I sallied forth on a Sunday morning in Galveston Bay, intending to sail to the Yacht Basin on Galveston Island, 25 miles to the south. From my research, I concluded that the trip would take four hours. I told my wife I should be docking by noon, having gotten an early start. After we got the sails up, I discovered that the boat refused to behave at all as the book said it would. It sailed sideways rather than forward, repeatedly running aground on the shallow reefs in the bay. Finally, I remembered to lower the centerboard. Once 1 accomplished this task, the boat responded better -but not much. That night my wife called the Coast Guard just as I came into their view around the quarantine station after a long day on the water.

I ultimately learned to sail the boat in my own fashion and derived great enjoyment from it until it was destroyed (along with most of the boats in the area) in a storm.

One of the trickiest aspects of sailing a boat is not how to get the thing going, but how to stop it once you get moving. Stopping the boat is accomplished by turning the bow up into the wind so that the wind blows straight over the bow, splitting itself over the sails so the wind acts as a brake. Sounds simple. Au contraire. Fortunately my little boat was sturdy; I rammed every dock and pier on Galveston Island with great force and violence until 1 mastered the technique.

Soon after the demise of that first boat, fate took me to East Texas, far from sailing water. But I had been infected – irresistibly drawn to the sea. I finally acquired title to my second boat. Along with some partners, I found myself in possession of a magnificent 42-foot yawl that could sleep six and was capable of going around the world. Needless to say, it cost more than the first boat – which brings forth the matter of boat cost.

If a 20-foot Fiberglas boat with a small cabin costs $5,000, you might assume that a 40-foot boat would cost $10,000. Not true! The price of sailboats increases exponentially with the length, so that a 40-foot boat will cost you $100,000 today. This $100,000 is the minimum cost of a sailboat equipped for ocean cruising. Not that there aren’t a lot of boats out there cruising that cost substantially less, but the figure I listed is what I consider to be a minimum for a modest amount of comfort and safety.

My beautiful 42-foot yawl was named Encantadora, which translates as Enchanting Lady. She was well-named. She sailed like a dream, and I loved her. At first I was intimidated by her awesome size, but after the first time I took her out of the Galveston Yacht Basin and back without mishap, my confidence in my skills as a sailor soared beyond reality. This led me into near disaster.

In the company of seven others (my wife and three couples) I set sail out of Corpus Christi bound for Galveston, a trip of less than heroic distance, but a far more ambitious undertaking than my experience justified. The quantum of the sailing experience of the seven others was zero. One of them, Curtis, was one of my partners in the boat and had been on the Encantadora once before, but he had no idea what propelled it or what the sails were for. The others had never been close to a sailboat. When I invited them to sail “on my yacht” at a cocktail party in Dallas, I am sure they envisioned a yacht of the proportions of Aristotle Onassis’ floating palace.

Nonetheless, they were favorably impressed by the beauty of the Encantadora and came on board in anticipation of great good fun. We set sail out of Corpus Christi Bay well-provisioned with food and drink for an anticipated 36-hour sail to Galveston.

Most of the first day was spent traversing the bay. The weather was beautiful. The sea inside the bay was not at all rough. The wind was perfect. For the first several hours there was naught but joy on board.

Around 5 p.m. we sailed through Aran-sas Pass into the open Gulf, and things began to change suddenly. The sea was becoming choppy and the wind was accelerating. As we cleared the jetties and set a course for Galveston, we were sailing into the wind with the sails closehauled. On this course, a sailboat will lean over to one side. This is called heeling -a natural state that nevertheless tends to frighten inexperienced passengers who think the boat is going to turn over. What had been hilarity a few moments before became silence and, for some, stark fear.

Curtis, who is a physician, is highly susceptible to seasickness and had brought a bag full of medicine, including a supply of disposable hypodermic syringes.

Just before entering the Gulf, Curtis shot himself up in the buttocks. A few minutes later, Barbara, ordinarily a lady of considerable modesty, bared her posterior and fell across Curtis’ lap to be similarly treated. The shot Curtis had given himself was not palpably helpful, though – he had great difficulty in zeroing in on Barbara’s target area while turning his head to throw up over the side. Most of the other passengers were similarly treated, although the medicine did not seem to be even minimally effective in controlling their seasickness.

The situation grew worse with each passing minute. By nightfall I was alone in the cockpit. The others were below in the cabin: seasick, hysterical or both. The wind had picked up to 30 knots-not a storm, but a very lively wind. The waves were perhaps 10 feet high. The boat rode upon the waves and then as each wave passed, came crashing down into the trough. The lee rail was well down in the water, and nothing but the sea was visible through the lee side glass. Each time the boat came crashing down, screams came up from below. Once darkness fell, it became apparent that the binnacle light was burned out. This meant I couldn’t read the compass.

I was now sailing by feel. In other words, I was sailing as close on the wind as the boat could sail -which, with the prevailing wind, was the proper course for Galveston. Occasionally 1 verified the compass reading by flashlight. I had subscribed to a correspondence course in navigation and had completed two of 12 lessons, which I thought was sufficient to help me find Galveston.

By midnight, I estimated we were 50 miles off shore. The situation with the passengers was as bad as it could be. The boat was seaworthy and not in danger of coming apart, but I had too much sail up and couldn’t shorten it without help. I had the big Genoa forward, which was perfect for the moderate breeze in the bay, but not for a gale. From time to time the men below made brave efforts to come on deck to help, but they usually fell back in their bunks from extreme nausea.

After midnight, two of the women, Paula and LaMerle, were able to come up into the cockpit and offer help. They persuaded me that all reason and prudence compelled us to return to Corpus. Reluctantly I came about, putting the wind behind me. This created a hazard I had not anticipated.

With the wind behind me, I could no longer feel the wind and with no compass light, I couldn’t hold a course. In pitch darkness and in total disorientation, I jibed. An accidental jibe is the most dangerous thing that can occur on a sailboat. It means that the wind gets behind the extended mainsail, which brings the boom swinging across the boat with extreme force. Many sailors have been killed or knocked overboard when struck by the boom under such circumstances. Luckily, I was not struck by the boom, but I was caught by the rigging attached to the boom and was flung into the side of the cockpit. I nearly went overboard. I felt like I had been blind-sided by Bob Lilly.

I struggled slowly to my feet, grabbed the wheel and got the boat running before the wind for a moment, when Lilly hit me again. Paula and LaMerle were petrified with fear: If I had gone over the side, the others would have had scant chance for survival. When I was clobbered yet a third time, the rigging tore loose, leaving the boom flopping wildly. I had now lost all use of the mainsail and for the first time that day, I decided we might be in trouble.

I dropped the wheel and crawled forward on the cabin top to the mast. By feeling my way in the total darkness I released the main halyard, which caused the mainsail to fall all over me. I grabbed pieces of the sail and tied them off with whatever line I could get my hands on so the sail would not fall into the water. The boat leveled off and sailed at a steady four knots with the foresail alone.

John, Barbara’s husband, overcame his nausea and came on deck. He relieved me at the wheel and I was able to get a short rest. By daylight we were back at Aransas Pass, where we tied up and found some coffee.

We never made it back to Corpus; we had to be towed to port by the Coast Guard. Most of the group has never gone near a sailboat since.

I confess to monumental naiveté in undertaking such a trip with limited experience and no other sailor on board. I may have become a sailor that night.

IN LATER YEARS, my sailing experiences were better. The ownership of Encantadora was outrageously expensive (once the hours of use of the boat were divided into the dollars of cost and maintenance), and our group eventually sold it. In retrospect, I’ve learned that unless you are rich and retired, chartering a sailboat is cheaper than owning one. I have chartered in the Bahamas and in the Bay Islands of Honduras and will do so again. (You can charter a well-maintained sailboat without, crew for $700 to $1,200 per week.) Such a boat will accommodate six people. Complete provisioning costs about $12 per day, per person. Thus the cost per person for a week on a comfortable sailboat in a beautiful part of the world will average $250. Even after you add air fare, it is an inexpensive vacation. The only catch is that you must first convince the owner that you are competent enough to handle his boat.

Sailing breaks down into three categories:

Day sailing is knocking about on a lake or a bay for a few hours at a time. It’s a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Racing is self-explanatory and has no appeal to me; it is too much work. But if you like it, there is plenty of activity on the Dallas area lakes every weekend.

Cruising is getting out of sight of land for one night or for a trip around the world. This narrative is mostly about cruising, because it is what turns me on.

The greatest danger in sailing in the ocean is running aground. The best estimates are that no fewer than 1,500 boats have been sunk in the Caribbean since Columbus arrived – nearly all of them from running onto reefs. Columbus, in fact, ran aground on his second trip to the New World and spent the better part of a year struggling for survival on an island.

Accordingly, if you cruise, it’s critical that you know navigation. You must know where the reefs are and where you are at all times. A lot of sophisticated electronic equipment is available to help you, but it is all worthless if you have an electrical failure.

Don’t leave port unless you know your crew. I recently met a retired medical doctor in his 60s who owns a 41-foot sailboat. He set sail from Galveston with a crew of young men with whom he had never sailed. They were bound for Cozumel, a trip of about seven days. After two days out, he returned to Galveston. His crew became frightened when they got out of sight of land, and none of them would come on deck to adjust the sails.

Recently an acquaintance, Ed, sailed his boat from Port Royal in the Caribbean for Grand Cayman, a distance of 275 nautical miles. Under average conditions he would have reached Grand Cayman in two to two and a half days. His two shipmates were persons whose credentials suggested they were experienced and competent sailors. But the trip became a nightmare.

Within hours a gale struck, with 40-knot winds and 20-foot waves. These conditions prevailed for 48 hours, during which time neither of his shipmates would get out of his bunk. The waves broke over the bow with such force as to tear away the Bimini (the canvas sun and rain screen over the cockpit) and knock Ed flat in the cockpit. Only his safety harness kept him from being washed overboard.

After the gale, his boat was becalmed for days.

His wife, eight months pregnant, was waiting at Grand Cayman. Ed attempted to reach Grand Cayman by utilizing the auxiliary motor, but the crewman who had been responsible for provisioning the boat for the trip had failed to top off the diesel tanks. After five days, Ed was 50 miles from Grand Cayman-becalmed and out of fuel. The current was carrying him away from Grand Cayman toward Cuba.

His wife made repeated efforts to send help, employing a motor launch, an airplane and another motor launch. The first boat failed to find him. The airplane found him and dropped 60 gallons of diesel in two truck inner tubes. The tubes exploded when they hit the water. The second boat found him after much searching. When the diesel was in his tanks, he started the motor only to have the bow line from the motor launch dingy wrap around the propeller. This necessitated a dive under the boat in shark-infested waters. After seven days he finally arrived in Grand Cayman.

All the details of his disaffection with one member were not made known to me, but Ed told me later that he probably would have killed the man if there had not been another person on board to witness the act.

COMPATABILITY IS a sailing necessity that cannot be overemphasized. Sometimes the closest of friends become enemies after confinement for several days in a space of 12 feet by 40 feet.

The cruising involved in chartering in the Caribbean is island-hopping, where you anchor each night in a different cove so that everyone can get off the boat. This relieves the pressure of close confinement and usually insures that the friendship between shipmates will survive the trip.

If your fantasy, like mine, is to own a sailboat and sail around the world, try it by degrees before you sell the homestead. Stories abound about plucky souls who finally got their dream boat and struck out on an ocean crossing, only to discover that they hated sailing.

I am acting out my fantasy by degrees. Last year I sailed with three friends from Galveston to Honduras. We were at sea for 10 days. I loved it and am ready to go again, although I was delighted to set foot on shore. I think now I will not sail around the world, but merely visit every island in the Caribbean. That way it won’t be so long between bars.


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