Sweet Sound

The early signs were not encouraging. As we were riding out to the marina, the outside temperature registered 99 degrees on my car dashboard. The sweltering humidity made it feel like 115. Worse yet, Washington was under a severe thunderstorm alert with the Doplar radar showing only reds and yellows for a vast area just west of Gaithersburg and heading our way. My guess was that at 7:00 pm–the time of the start of the race– we would get hit by a terrific squall line, thunder, lightening, blinding rain, and the whole bit. This is the way it usually works, right?

Even more perplexing were the wind forecasts. All three of my wind apps showed the same thing: decent southerlies at 10-15 knots, dying around seven pm to two to three knots and moving to the southwest and then west. The only consolation was that at least we were not the committee boat.

And on top of all that, we were shorthanded. Maurice and Andy were out; and Marsha had cancelled at the last minute, leaving five of us to try to handle these conditions as best we could. This would be Ian’s third sail (not just third race) in his distinguished life, and it would be the first race ever for our newest crew member, Tyler, another Urban Institute person recruited by Embry. Tyler is the right demographic, however—around 30, young by our standards–has lots of cruising experience, and is gung-ho to race, the ideal candidate for a new crew member. Greg was on vacation, so this meant that Gerry would take over the lead foredeck position, a first for him, with assistance from Tyler, who had never handled a spinnaker in his life. Does this sound like the ideal  situation you would choose to try to beat the likes of Glissade and Gitana, boats which have been whipping us all year? But there was at least one bright spot: our boat bottom was finally clean. Emily proudly notified me the day before that she had done her job and that we were ready to go. After the last racing fiasco when every boat in the fleet passed us on the last two legs of a drifter, I now understand why Alan refuses to race with us if I can’t provide evidence of a clean bottom. I am  a total convert.

So we headed out early as is out custom—in part to provide some relief from the heat and also  to get in some practice. The logical place to start would be a practice spinnaker set. The wind was out of the south at around 12 knots, perfect for a practice set; and Gerry had worked hard to get everything set up perfectly, which he did except for one small item, not tying  a figure eight at the end of the spinnaker guy  and sheet, the result of which allowed the lines holding  the spinnaker to come lose from the boat resulting in the chute wildly flying above the mast as the wind suddenly increased to close to 20 knots just as the foredeck crew  pulled on the halyard. I commented that at least there was no one on the race course to witness this calamity, to which Larry replied that every boat in the marina could see the chute flying wildly overhead. As we worked to bring the spinnaker in (lowering the halyard would not work since we would  lose even more control and the sail would end up in the drink), I pointed the boat downwind, taking some of the pressure off; and the foredeck crew finally managed to grab one of the lines and pull in the spinnaker. Exhausted and probably terrified, Gerry and Tyler  headed below to repack the chute, determined to try again. But by now the wind was howling at close to 25 knots, and the chop was nearing three feet. On a broad reach with no genoa up, we were surfing at over eight knots and were half way across the Chesapeake Bay before we got everything under control and tacked around to head back to the committee boat. I  announced that no more spinnaker practice was necessary.

Now the attention shifted from figuring how to fly the spinnaker to how to survive. To their credit  Gerry and Tyler insisted on getting all the spinnaker lines untangled and ready for another set if conditions permitted. Fat chance, I thought to myself.

This would have been an ideal time to use our number 3 genoa, but we did not have time to make a headsail change; and besides I could not help thinking about the weather forecasts predicting  dying wind. So we decided to reduce our number one genoa by furling it in about 30%, a no-no for dedicated racers–not good for keeping  sails in decent condition  and not  efficient —but, hey, we are talking about survival here. Most of  the other boats were using number 3 genoas or had partially furled head sails. Mains were reefed as well—though  not ours.

The race was the new course, about six miles, all port roundings.

As we headed toward the starting line, the wind was holding at close to 25 knots with all boats healed over and fighting for position. With excellent timing and count down reporting  from Gerry, we managed to hit the line at full speed  about two seconds off the gun. Gitana  was just above us and Glissade just below. A perfect start. But since we were getting some bad air from Gitana, we tacked over to port just after Glissade did. This gave us good, clear air and put us slightly higher than Glissade. The surprising thing to me was that we seemed to be pointing higher and going a little faster than Glissade. That had not happened much this season.

The other thing that happened as we tacked around was that the wind began to diminish. First we unfurled the genoa a bit, and then after five minutes let it  all out. The boats that required a change in headsails were now  disadvantaged.

Since all the other boats were staying on a starboard tack, I was reluctant to stay on port with Glissade because a big header (adverse wind shift) would have killed us, so I tacked back on starboard to stay in the middle of the pack and to my astonishment discovered we were well ahead of the other starboard boats. Nice feeling, but there was still Glissade to worry about; and if they got the lift (favorable wind shift), that meant we got the header. But we seemed to be pointing well, and boat speed never got below 5.5 knots, often getting close to six knots. After a while we tacked back to  port in order to be able to take advantage of the famous Holland Point lift, only to find Glissade roaring up on starboard about 20 boat lengths ahead. “How do they do it?” I thought. We were sailing faster and higher just moments ago, and now they were clear ahead. Must have gotten a lift. Oh well, we were still in second place, well ahead of everyone else.

As we got closer to the weather mark, I got a better look at the transom of Glissade and to my astonishment realized that they were not Glissade at all but rather Julip, a very fast Spin A boat, which had started five minutes ahead of us. Where could Glissade be? I very quickly glanced over my shoulder and saw what appeared to be Glissade at least 20 or 30 boat lengths behind us. “Wow,” I muttered, “this is not a bad situation.” No one else was even close.

When we got up to the point  where  Julip had passed us, we could see they were going to clear the mark, so we tacked back to starboard, which put us  clearly on the lay line. My mistake was not directing the foredeck crew to set up then. That would have saved us a lot of time later. But within   a few hundred yards of the mark, the foredeck crew scrambled to get the spinnaker on deck and started attaching all the lines. The 64-dollar question was—was  it going to work this time?

There was another challenge. Heading toward the down wind mark, the Spin A Fleet , which had started five minutes before us, split up and sailed  in completely opposite directions. Two or three boats headed left and the others right, but this was not a matter of  sailing broad reaches and  gybing on a dead downwind course. Our charts showed that mark C should have been a broad reach, starboard tack—in other words all the Spin A boats  should have been heading right. We could hear conversations on the radio regarding the actual race course, and “J Long” was confirmed. So we figured we would take our chances and follow the boats headed right, which turned out to be the correct  choice. The boats going left were using last year’s course descriptions.

Getting the spinnaker up and flying was not  all that pretty—five guys stumbling over each other doing what it normally takes seven to do—but we did it. The chute filled, and we were headed directly to mark C on a broad reach, going about six knots in what now was a 10-12 knot breeze. The other spin B boats were way back. We jibed once and then doused well in advance of the rounding since we had to point up to make the mark. Glissade and Junkanoo were gaining on us a bit, but Gitana was so far back you could hardly see where she was. After the rounding we headed up wind again to mark A and the finish line and managed to regain any  ground lost on the previous leg. The wind was continuing to diminish and was becoming  fickle, but  miraculously we were able to maintain almost six knots on a close reach to the finish line—and got the gun. And this time there was no “correcting up” by Gitana. We had just completed one of the best performances in Carolina Blue’s sailing history.

This was a  night of many lucky breaks—wind settling  down to near perfect conditions, storms never making it, and a second chance to get the foredeck work right– and extraordinary crew work, two crew members  being pretty green. The racing this year may not be as  competitive as it has been in the past since Leap Frog and Avenger are no longer racing, but it is competitive enough. And for the crew of Carolina  Blue, who have suffered losses, disappointments and  indignities over the years, the sound of a cannon when crossing the finish line is one sweet sound.






The Lucky One

For the past twenty-five plus years, racing sailboats on Wednesday nights has been a priority for me, such a priority in fact that I have gone to great lengths to arrange my schedule so that I am always available on Wednesday evenings during the summer racing season. Sometimes this is quite difficult as it was last week, on June 11, when I had to be at an important meeting in the Boston area the next morning. But since I did not have to be there until 10, I figured I could take the 6:30 am flight out of BWI and still get there on time. But driving from the race on the Chesapeake Bay   all the way to my home in Washington, arriving late, and then getting up around 4:30 am would surely have been a killer, so I wisely reserved a hotel room at the BWI airport in order to save time and nerves.

It turned out to be a brilliant  plan. We did very well in a challenging race, finishing second, less than a minute behind the leader. The wind rarely got below 20 knots and the three foot chop sent waves over the bow into the cockpit, but we were able to handle it all. Dark clouds were everywhere and a tornado warning was in effect. Three boats decided it was not worth the effort and the risk and returned to the marina before the start, and a fourth withdrew during the first leg. But not “Carolina Blue.” I was feeling pretty good about how well the crew did and how smart I was to head directly to a hotel at the airport after the race rather than head home. Because of the extreme sailing conditions, however, I was totally exhausted.

As I stumbled into the lobby I was already soaked  from a sudden downpour that hit me as I was walking without an umbrella from my car parked about a hundred yards from the hotel. But that was ok. I had made it, and it wasn’t too late, only a little after 10. I must have looked like a wet rat abandoning a sinking ship, but what did that matter?

I announced my name and waited for the room assignment. The clerk looked at me with a puzzled expression, frowned and then fumbled through some papers and started typing away on his computer.

He abruptly   turned to me and sternly  announced that I did not have a room assignment.

“What do you mean?” I exclaimed. “I have a record of the reservation and it is back in my car.” By this time the rain was coming down in buckets, and the clerk smugly challenged me to produce the evidence. So off I ran–actually “limped” is probably more accurate–  to the car in the torrential downpour, returning in about 10 minutes, this time even more drenched.   The papers were soaked, but you could still see the reservation date: June 11.

“See,” I gloated, “The reservation is for tonight. You have my money. Give me my key.”

“Well, “you don’t have a room. We gave it to someone else. You weren’t here by six. No room.”

Flabbergasted, I  replied, raising my voice, “But you got my money. Give me my room!”

I noticed others in the lobby were now looking at me with expressions of concern. I was wearing my typical racing outfit—swimming trunks, a blue tee shirt, dirty sneakers and old, white baseball hat.  Thinking back on it later, I concluded they probably thought I was some kind of homeless person seeking shelter in the storm.

He then admonished me to get control of myself and without apologizing explained that presumably because of bad credit, my card was rejected.

“I do not have bad credit!” Now I was shouting.

“Does your card end in 9226?”

“Oh, that card.”  That was my old card, the one  that had been compromised by a thief (who among his/her transactions on my card made a $10 donation to the Red Cross), and  had just been cancelled. My new card ended in 3027.

“Okay, then what about other hotels? Can you help me get a room at one of the other hotels near here?”

“Nope, all full. Every one.”

At this point I lost it again. “I have to be at the airport at 5:00 am tomorrow and I am not driving back to Washington! I am fucked.”

Every eye in the lobby area was now focused on me.

I just stood there speechless, hands  shaking, water dripping on the floor.

In a few minutes after dealing with another customer, he produced a map and proudly announced he had found a room for me at the Holiday Inn at Harbor Place in downtown Baltimore. He said it was only 15 miles away, and it was the only available option. Take it or leave it.

I glumly  departed. I was just about to wag my finger at him and tell him I would never, never stay at a Holiday Inn as long as I lived but held my tongue since I was headed to, yes, another Holiday Inn.  But at least by this time—about 10:45—the rain had tapered off. I trudged back to the car.

It took about an hour to get to Harbor Place, not because it was all that far away but because the Orioles baseball game was just concluding, and the roads were jammed. I could not figure out how they could have played through all the rain.

But at least I had a place to stay. It was now 11:45 as I staggered into the Harbor Place Holiday Inn.

After waiting in line for about 15 minutes, I explained my situation to the clerk, to which she responded that they were completely full. The guy in front of me muttered  that he had tried every hotel in Baltimore, and that  they were all full, and that he was lucky he had gotten the last room “in this dump.” He told me twice I need not waste any time trying to find another hotel in Baltimore.  I could not believe it. I thought the guy at BWI had a room reserved for me.

The clerk cheerfully suggested I try something in the Washington area, maybe along the Beltway.

Spontaneously I burst out laughing.

“What is so funny about that?” she asked.

I will not describe what happened next except to say that I thought that I was remarkably self controlled and that whatever I said resulted in the night manager coming out; and within 30 minutes somehow he and the clerk had managed to find a room for me.  The only glitch was that as I headed to the elevator the clerk came running after me, shouting for me to stop because there was someone in the room they had assigned to me. In another 15 minutes, however, they had identified yet another room which they did not think anyone was in, but I should be careful when opening the door.

Which I was. By now it was almost one in the morning. I opened the door ever so slowly and peaked in. The bed was empty. I slammed the door, put on every safety lock I could find and tumbled into bed. It was a fitful sleep but I managed to get at least some rest.

To allow  time to get to the airport, I was up a little after four but ran into more trouble when I discovered the garage where I had parked my car the night before was locked tight as a drum. After  15 minutes of franticly searching, I was able to find a janitor who pointed me in the direction of the one unlocked exit.

I made my flight and when complaining to the guy seated next to me about my ordeal, he said that he had spent the entire night in the terminal because all BWI flights were cancelled  due to the thunderstorms and that he was only  one among maybe as many as a thousand, suggesting that  I was the lucky one.

I suppose I was.





Twilight Zone

Since the early 1990s I have chartered sailboats once or twice a year  in the British Virgin Islands.  It has been a magical experience for me; and after more than 25 cruises there, I have never tired of the fresh breezes, warm sunny days and the companionship of so many of my dearest friends and family. Here is a story of one of the more unusual experiences.

The annual  BVI cruise in 2005 was a guy’s thing. This year  there were four boats and four guys to a boat.  We left St Martin’s around 8 PM so as to arrive in the BVIs in daylight. The distance  was about 85 miles; and fortunately for us, this was the only day with light winds, which meant we motored. I say “fortunately” because the wind was dead astern, and the thought of an unintentional jibe in the pitch black was not appealing. I was happy to motor.

The first part of the trip was uneventful. There was a half moon, which made the water glisten and sparkle, and not much boat  traffic. The only thing that stood out was a remark by the guy who joined me on watch that he just saw the most amazing shooting star. At midnight I crashed when my watch was over. The four boats stayed pretty close motoring around 7 knots and seeing only an occasional light or two on the horizon.

Until around 3 AM.

Since I was asleep I missed it, but this is what happened. Out of nowhere with no warning whatsoever—no sound, no faint light getting bigger as it approached, no warning of any type– suddenly appeared three very large lights only yards away from one of the boats. Here is the description from an eye witness:

I saw three lights…three white lights, each about 4-5 feet wide and perfectly round…two just above the water’s surface and the third centered above and between them…a triangular formation. I was at the helm—or as much as at the helm you can get with GPS and autopilot engaged. There had been nothing off the starboard bow at all for a long time, then suddenly these lights appeared off my starboard bow at an angle of about 45 degrees from the bow and about a quarter of a mile ahead—just off the beam of PIcaro [another boat in the fleet]. After maintaining that position for about 15 seconds, the lights drifted back and were immediately off the starboard beam of Calypso Rose [third boat] and stayed in that position for another 15-20 seconds keeping pace with our seven knot speed. I tried shining flashlights to illuminate it but that was useless. The lights were totally silent, there was no engine noise, no sound of them even moving through the water…just an eerie silence.  I talked to Dan Hassan and Chris Keysor  on the marine radio and they were seeing the same thing exact thing. It was very unsettling.

After 20-30 seconds of staying on the starboard beam of Calypso Rose, the lights vanished as mysteriously as they appeared. The lights did not descend into the water so I ruled out a submarine…they did not zoom away into the sky so I ruled out a UFO as most reports indicate they keep their lights on.

All four helmsmen on watch confirmed the details.

My watch started at 4 AM and lasted until around 8. There were several reports over the VHS of a lost fishing boat. These reports went on the rest of the morning every 15-20 minutes.

When I started my watch the moon had set and the night was pitch black. You could easily see the Milky Way  dusting the countless stars. As with many night crossings, you begin to wonder around 5 AM if the sun will ever rise; and then when all of a sudden in the east there is a faint hint of light and then gradually the world becomes visible again, you breathe a sigh of relief. Just as the sun peeped over the horizon and colored the sky and sea orange, a voice came in on the VHF from one of the other boats, “Guys, we’ve got dolphins.” Within seconds we were surrounded by dolphins on both sides of the boat jumping some 5-6 feet out of the water, as high as  the life lines, and so close you could touch them. I did not count them all, but there had to have been at least a dozen, maybe as many as 20. This went on for a couple of minutes, and then they were gone just like the lights, quickly and without warning.
Then we saw Round Rock in the British Virgin Islands rising from the mist and before long were headed up the Sir Francis Drake passage to  Spanish Town where we would go through customs.

There was much debate and discussion regarding the mysterious lights. Someone suggested St Elmo’s fire, a strange kind of natural phenomenon sometimes seen at sea, someone else suggested we were being scouted by a police boat for a drug raid, others suggested aliens, but  no one had a clue. Could there have been any connection between shooting star and the strange lights, the orange sky and orange sea and the dolphins?  Or was it just the magic of the BVIs?


A Regatta From Hell

By all accounts  the HHSA Summer Invitational Regatta of 2010 in Herring Bay on the Chesapeake Bay was a huge success—perfect racing conditions, great race  organization and race committee work, good participation from both club members and non members, and a terrific Saturday party following the first day of races. You couldn’t have asked for much better.

Except  for Carolina Blue.  We could have asked for a lot better. For us this was a regatta from hell.

We actually had a number of things we could  complain about. While we managed to edge out one of our four J 30 competitors  by six seconds in the first race, we were last in the second two races due basically to being outclassed. The two Annapolis boats are always at or near the top in Annapolis J 30 racing; and the best skipper in the Annapolis fleet  raced with the other J 30 boat, the fastest J 30 in the our fleet even without a ringer. So what would you have expected? This is exactly why I have never had the temerity to race in any of the J30 races in Annapolis. These guys are seasoned pros, and by comparison we on Carolina Blue are rank amateurs—even though I have been racing sailboats since 1972. Who needs to kill yourself doing four windward-leeward laps three or four times a day and have your ass  kicked? But that is not the reason the regatta for us was a regatta from hell.

Our unraveling began at the weather mark  beginning at the last lap of the last race on Saturday. As we rounded the mark, we were  actually the closest we had been to the leaders at that point in the race all day though we were still last to round. The wind, which was supposed to be light from the south, was blowing close to 15 knots  from the southeast; and as we rounded and the spinnaker popped full, Carolina Blue surged forward at what seemed like break neck speed. We were off to the races.

That’s when someone said, ”We lost him.”

“Lost who?”

“Dave, he’s in the drink.”

Dave and his wife, Teresa, were our foredeck crew—both twenty-somethings and our hope for the future.

Alarm bell.

It is not that I have had no experience with men and women overboard. The first man—or rather, woman—overboard incident was in the 1980s when  I was racing my Alberg 30, Amazing Grace, in one of the Annapolis regattas when my tactician, who had never raced on Amazing Grace before, leaned back on the stern rail just as we hit the line going full steam at the gun in totally clean air, probably our best start ever. The only problem  was that there  was no stern rail on Amazing Grace so over she went. By the time we got her in, the other Albergs were mere specs on the horizon.

Then there was the time when a happy-go-lucky crowd of four or five who had paid big time at a silent auction for a “day on the Bay on Amazing Grace” showed up with one champagne bottle per person plus one for good measure. By the time they had finished off all the bottles, three of the revelers had migrated to the foredeck, and one of them–a woman in her thirties– proceeded to topple over the life lines. We were on a broad reach and chugging along at six or seven knots. Two jibes and we were right back beside her as one of her strong friends, also  a woman and the only sober one in the group, leaned over the life lines, grabbed both her arms and yanked her back in. She was quite giddy, and I am not even sure knew what had happened.

Probably the scariest incident was at twilight as we were racing on Carolina Blue, when just as we were getting ready to pop the chute in a roaring breeze, someone calmly asked “Does anyone know where Melissa is?” After concluding that she was not on the boat, we turned around to spot a head bobbing about a hundred yards down wind in water turned gold by the sunset. Same routine: jibe, go below her, then turn up, stall the boat, throw a line and drag her in. We finished the race and actually managed to correct up over one boat, avoiding a last place finish.

So while you wouldn’t say we were pros, we had experience, and that is why I was relatively calm. The problem was the spinnaker, which was now flapping with reckless abandon above the mast, parallel to the water. After considerable effort, we finally managed to pull the spinnaker in, tack the boat over and get the pole down, allowing us to do the usual routine. We threw Dave a line and he caught it, then grabbed the ladder and pulled himself over the life line. We were last anyway, so as far as the race went, this was no big deal.

The mistake  I made was turning on the motor so that I would have a back up if we needed it. When I put the gear in forward, the motor chugged for about ten seconds, then came to an abrupt halt.  I knew what that meant—line around the prop! As in the man overboard drill, I had  experience in this area as well, snagging my share of crab pots over the years. The worst incident was in the mid 1980s when we were committee boat, tossed out the orange tetrahedron from the bow rather than the stern and ended up spending the better part of thirty minutes trying to cut the tetrahedron anchor line off the prop as we drifted aimlessly in heavy chop and fresh breezes, resulting in a significant race delay and the loss of one tetrahedron. And cutting the line off is anything but easy. You have to hold your breath for an infinitely long time, find the prop and shaft and feel your way through the exercise since you usually can’t see much of anything. Then you come up for air with your lungs bursting only to have your head bashed by the bottom of the boat as it heaves up and down in the chop. And you better  have a razor sharp knife. I muttered under my breath, “I am definitely too old for this sort of thing.”

But for now we were moving. Finish the race. Worry about the motor later.

And we did finish. Instead of  being four or five minutes  behind the leaders, we were about twenty minutes behind, a victory of sorts.

Now back to the motor issue. I quickly devised a plan which consisted of sailing boat into the shallower water near the entrance to the marina, dropping the sails quickly and then anchoring. Some brave soul would then jump in, take a  knife, hold his or her breath, dive down and cut the fouled spinnaker sheet off the prop. I was praying it would not be me.

There were no volunteers.

The reason we had to go through this routine—instead of just getting a tow into the marina—had to do with the ridiculous rule that   no diving was permitted  in the marina. Therefore  we would have to cut the line loose from the prop while we were   in the Herring Bay. When I first inquired about the rationale for this rule, the marina authorities said it was because of the current. Well, this was completely unfounded.  Sure, we have tidal variation of a foot and a half or so, but how could that create enough current to suck some unsuspecting diver out the channel into the bay? Then someone explained that the current they were talking about was electrical current, to which I responded that was even more ridiculous. I immediately sent the marina  an email which stated the facts: divers clean boats in Annapolis marinas all the time. When you get down to it, how many divers get electrocuted every year? Actually, not all that many. And besides, isn’t this why you carry insurance in the first place? There was no response.

So we had no choice, and we sailed close to the entrance to the channel to the marina, dropped and furled the main and were ready to begin the anchoring routine when I heard a bam, then a scream from the foredeck. This time it was Teresa, our ringer and Dave’s wife. Melissa scrambled to the foredeck and hollered back something to the effect that blood was everywhere, we needed  tourniquet and we needed to get Teresa to a hospital—now! She had cut her the lower part of her leg all the way to the bone!

911 situation, baby.

Okay, stay calm. What to do now?

We were able to get through to the marina over the VHF , asked them to send help and to call 911 so that medical help would be available when we got in. In the meantime we were able to flag two nearby vessels, a large cabin cruiser and a  Pearson 30, which was coming in from the regatta. Somehow we got Teresa into the large cruiser. Someone on board said, “You are in luck, we have a doctor on board.”  Someone else immediately responded, “I’m not the kind of doctor who can do you much good.” He apologetically said he was a cardiologist. When I thought about it, it occurred to me that while he might not be a lot of help to Teresa, there were others on board, including me, who might be ideal candidates for his services. The cruiser roared off. Someone from the Pearson 30  then tossed us a line and pulled us in, but not before we managed  to crash into her hull . I hollered to the owner to send  me the invoice for the repairs.

On the way in, we heard several sirens. I began to feel some relief.

When we finally made it to the fuel dock, Teresa was lying  on the dock, Dave sitting patiently beside her. She had a large white bandage on her leg, which was no longer bleeding. Apparently the cardiologist was helpful after all.  Suddenly two medics appeared with a stretcher, and off they went. Teresa managed a faint smile and said, “I’m gonna be fine. Don’t worry about me.” The sirens blared again.

I went to the foredeck to inspect the situation. The deck was red with blood stains. I could not believe it. No one had any idea what she cut herself on. (I later learned from Teresa that she had no idea either since it happened so fast.)

Now back the prop problem.  Matt, the marina harbormaster, immediately came to our aid and spent the better part of an hour cheerfully trying to pull the line off the prop.  I suggested that it would really be easier if he just jumped  in the water and cut it loose. He gave me a look of disbelief.

“No way,” he said, “Strict marina rules. No sailors ever use divers in this marina. “

“Well”, I said, “I know some who do”. I did not mention the name of my “bottom cleaner,” who cleaned Carolina Blue’s bottom in the marina all the time.

He gave me another funny look and shook his head briefly in disgust.

“Hey,” he said, “Just this week I read about a lady whose dog fell in the water off her boat in a marina some place, and she jumped in to get him, and she never came out.”

I presumed he was implying she had been electrocuted.

“Just an idea,” I said, “Never hurts to try.”

We finally got the line off the prop. I actually came up with the idea.  We had already cut one end of the line. Hold that free end, then turn on the motor, put the motor in gear in reverse under very slow throttle and watch what happens. If it gets looser, pull hard. If it gets tighter, then put the gear in forward and pull hard. By some miracle it worked perfectly, and the line eased out.

As my wife, Embry, and I put Carolina Blue to bed and got back in the car to head out to the regatta party, we had a voice mail message from Teresa, and her voice was as peppy and upbeat as ever. “Just released from Calvert County Hospital. Six stitches. Cut was to the bone. Doing fine.”

The Regatta From Hell was over.






Bullet Report

I have been racing sailboats since the early 1970s on the Chesapeake Bay. This is a write-up of what at the time were called “Bullet Reports.” It was expected that whoever won a race would post a description of his or her victory on the racing club website. This was my only “bullet report.”

The pressing question for most of the boats in the Spinnaker B fleet is can anyone beat Leap Frog when they have not experienced an equipment melt down such as a bent boom? Some have done it—Glissade and Cantata, but as of August 5, not my boat, Carolina Blue. We  can do it, however, and on August 5, I knew our luck was going to change. This was our day to beat our sister J 30. I just felt it in my bones.

It all started with a great practice of spinnaker sets and jibes. I now have Teresa on the fore deck. Teresa is a recent Duke graduate who raced (and won lots of times) all four years there. She is smart, agile, enthusiastic and my ticket to silver. If she and her husband, Dave, stick with Carolina Blue, the other Spinnaker B boats  are in trouble. And she is young. Ah, youth. I have been praying for youth ever since I calculated the average age of our crew and discovered it was  62.1—and that was five years ago, though we have since retired our 75 year-old grinder. When Teresa and Dave joined, our average age dropped twenty years. Ah, youth.

Duke, you note, Duke? And she sails on Carolina Blue? Put it this way, when I offered her the famous Carolina Blue sailing t shirt, I detected a look of shock and despair. She still wears her Duke PFD.

Well, they don’t race spinnaker in college, so this summer it has taken a little time for Teresa and Dave to get everything down pat. But now they are up to speed, and the practice showed it, one clean jibe after another. We were ready to go. This was going to be our night.

The start was not our best—mainly because I have been rolled so many times at the start by the bigger boats, my strategy is now to avoid the Big Boys in the Spinnaker A Fleet at all costs, which on Wednesday meant dodging the entire fleet on a port tack. Madness, yes, but we got clean air for a change and upon tacking back on starboard delightfully discovered we were only  a few boat lengths behind Leap Frog and a boat length behind Spook.

Spook, how did they get up here? We have to give them time. To his credit Rich, her skipper, is a  good sailor, about my age; and the two of us and Kent, Glissade’s skipper, have been battling it out in HHSA races for what seems like a lifetime. No one else currently in the racing fleet was on the starting line in the mid 80s when we were.

The next leg was a long  downwind leg , and Carolina Blue was beautiful. Teresa and Dave got the chute up fast, and it was not long before we were gaining on Spook and holding the distance with Leap Frog. Glissade tried to pass us but couldn’t, a reassuring twist since the last two outings they had creamed us. Everyone else was way behind. And this was our new hi tech chute, the one that Alan, our beloved sail maker and coach, said we needed when he sailed with us, which was  after the time he sailed with us  and we got the new number 3  genoa, and before the time he sailed with us and we  got the used main that Larry , the ace J30 sailor in Annapolis, had. I love Alan. He is best coach we have ever had. The only wrinkle is that every time he sets foot on the boat it costs me $1,500. I realized I may have been overdoing the new sail thing when after the Summer Invitational Regatta, Alan introduced me to his girl friend as “my rich friend, Joe Howell.”

Anyway we jibed early and had a perfect rounding. We were close to even with Spook, but they jibed late and got tangled up, giving us a ten boat lead as we rounded the downwind mark and roared toward the finish line on a close reach. As we sailed up wind, we were gaining on Leap Frog, and increasing our lead over Spook. This was our race. Eight to twelve knot wind, not much chop, maxing out on boat speed, crew and boat in unison, ready to pounce on Leap Frog, man, it does not get much better….

Then clunk.

“What was that?” someone asked.

“What ?”

“The clunk.”

I quickly glanced at the knot meter. One minute we were ripping away at close to six knots; the next minute, two knots.

Spook whizzed by.

Obsessed with watching the genoa telltales and trying to keep them parallel, it took me a little while to figure out what had happened. We were just off Holland Point, and the crab traps were abundant. Could it be a crab trap? I have been racing for over 23 years in these waters, upwards of 20-25 races a year–that’s well over 500 races– and I have never snared a crab pot racing on Herring Bay. I guess there always has to be a first. But what are the odds?

The problem was we could not see any sign of a crab pot. We wiggled the rudder and turned the boat this way and that, but were still moving at only two knots. The time  it took to do all this seemed like an eternity.

Glissade whizzed by.

Then  a second clunk. Our boat speed went from two knots to one knot. At one point we were not even moving. Crab trap number two? Inconceivable. What are the odds?

After a few more anguished  moments of seeing several other boats zoom by, the only solution was to send a crew member overboard. Greg, who was not even on  the Carolina Blue first team and not a whole lot younger than me, quickly volunteered and  boldly jumped off the stern into the nettle infested waters holding onto the small ladder. At first he could not detect anything with his feet ; but after a few minutes of struggling, he victoriously exclaimed  “Got it!” Two small buoys, one white and one black, gently floated to the surface.

Cheers from everyone. We pulled him back on board, and off we went again, charging to the finish line. Greg was immediately promoted to first team.

“Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, free at last,” went through my mind.

“Look,” I consoled the crew, “we aren’t all that far behind, we can still catch up”. We probably were not within striking distance of Spook and Glissade , but crew morale is important. And there were still a few stragglers behind us.

Back up to 5.5 knots over the ground on the GPS. Life is good.

It was actually the third clunk that got to me. Regrettably I am not able to talk about this until I complete a series of visits with my psychiatrist and my theological adviser. Suffice it to say that after coming to a third abrupt halt and going from over five knots to zero in the time it takes to split an atom, we had the recovery act down pretty well. Greg jumped overboard again and finally got us free but not before we watched the remaining  spinnaker fleet boats boats charge by.

I was mostly silent for the rest of the race. Melissa immediately went to the fore deck and started calling out the location of the 5,000 or so crab trap buoys that were still bobbing between us and the finish line. Frankly, I consider it a miracle we missed them all.

When we finally staggered over the finish line, it was mercifully almost dark; and the committee boat could barely see us. We were 20 minutes behind Leap Frog and over 12 minutes behind Spook. I do not know  how we did against the others, but it was not pretty.

As we started to take the sails down and headed up into the wind, we were virtually alone on the bay. All the other racers were long gone, probably already settled in at the Fabulous Brew Restaurant where everyone gathers for food and drink and tall tales after the race. And then we saw it: a huge orange ball rising from the haze on the Eastern Shore. Everyone paused in silence. I know that  full moons rise everywhere, but there is something special about full moons on the Chesapeake Bay in August haze. Except for the committee boat, we were the only racing sailors to witness this miracle. This is what all the other racers all missed.

So maybe this was our race after all, I thought.

But I still had big questions for my theological adviser.


Five-O-Five: Part 5

Within 24 hours of the “incident,” I was on my death bed. I woke up with a temperature of 104, chills, diarrhea  and vomiting. I had experienced nothing like it and was convinced I had  the Bubonic Plague or some variation of it.  When the symptoms worsened in the next 24 hours, I made a call to our doctor. We had not been in Washington very long and did not know the guy very well. He was not much older than me and seemed smart but also arrogant and detached.

As was the customary practice at his office, his secretary said he was busy and could not be bothered. I told her it was an emergency and that if I did not hear from him within an hour I was filing a malpractice lawsuit. My  phone rang five minutes later.

I told him about my symptoms and the sailing incident including swimming around in the effluent of the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant.

“Hold it right there! Right there. What kind of boat do you have?”

“A 505. Why?”

“No kidding, that is one hell of a boat, huh? Some say the fastest racing dinghy ever designed. You capsized  a 505?”

Then he proceeded to ask me a number of technical questions: how long  had I been sailing, how long I had owned the 505, how competitive the boat was, how often I had raced it, exactly where, under what circumstances the boat capsized,  why it was so hard to get her back on her feet, and lastly what it “felt like” swimming in front of the Blue Plains Sewerage Treatment Plant.

“But what does this have to do with what is wrong with me? I feel like I’m dying.”

“What it has to do with it is that I am a Flying Scott owner myself. I keep my boat at the Washington Sailing Marina. I think now  I am going to move it to the Chesapeake Bay. Hell, this could have happened to me!”

That was pretty much it. When I protested that maybe I should go to the emergency room, he said two things. First, my illness could be “just one of those vicious bugs going around” and  two, it could be  “hepatitis or maybe something more exotic.”  In the case of the first diagnosis, the virus would run its course in a day or two. In the case of the second diagnosis, there really wasn’t much of a cure anyway. Best advice: stay home and rest in bed. He thanked me for the heads up about swimming in the Potomac  River and was going to call for a new slip on the Chesapeake Bay as soon as he hung up.

In two days I was back on my feet.

My first duty was to let McDonald and Fletch know about the incident. My co owner had been on the boat a total of two and one half hours. I also told Fletcher of the incident, which prompted a very embarrassed look and an offer to refund us up to 25% the purchase price of $1,200. My solution was to sell the boat.

McDonald protested. His heart’s desire was to learn how to sail and he was certain the boat could be put back in shape though he had not seen it since the capsize. In a couple of days he poked his head in my office, saying that he had been doing a lot of research and that there was a sailing store in Alexandria called In Harm’s Way, which specialized in small sailboats and had a reputation for being able to fix anything. I agreed to take it to them first before making a decision to sell the 505.

I called In Harm’s Way and talked to the owner, who was very upbeat. Yes, they specialized in small sailboats, there was nothing they could not fix, and that they would be “honored” to fix a 505. My spirits lifted again.

I drove to the Old Dominion Yacht Basin, put the trailer on the car and then drove to the Washington Sailing Marina where I found what was left of the 505, piled up in a heap, over which was placed a hand written sign, “Fire Hazard. Remove immediately.” I managed to pull the hull up on the trailer and headed for In Harm’s Way. It was the first time I had smiled in several days.

The owner had been expecting me. He was especially excited by chance to work on a 505, which he had  never  done before. Beaming with excitement, we both walked out to the parking lot where the boat was. However, as soon as he took one look at the 505, his expression suddenly changed to a puzzled frown. He walked around the boat several times, running his fingers across the hull, examining the shredded mainsail and giving everything a careful once over, not saying a word to me.  This went on for about ten minutes when he motioned me with his head to follow him inside. Like getting a diagnosis from a doctor when important tests are in, I held my breath.

The owner went behind the counter and still without saying a word , pulled out a roll of  Scotch Tape and an ice pick. He then opened his wallet and pulled out a one dollar bill. “I’m giving all this to you,” he said glumly. I want you to use the Scotch Tape to attach the one dollar bill to the hull. Use the ice pick to punch as many holes in the hull as you can, and sink this mother in the Potomac River.”

“You mean it can’t be fixed?”

“Not by me, it is hopeless.”

This reduced the alternative to one: sell the boat. But I still had mixed emotions. I thought of what it was like skimming across the water at what seemed like breakneck speeds.  This could only be described as one of life’s few moments of transcendence. On the other hand, the image of bobbing in the Potomac for hours was not appealing, and who knew what would have been in store for us next? Maybe what was so appealing about sailing was that it was a microcosm of life itself—moments of pure delight followed by being dunked in the water.

I reluctantly moved the boat back to its resting place at the Old Dominion Yacht Basin. I returned to work the next day and gave McDonald the bad news. Sadly, he authorized me to sell the boat.

I wrote the following  ad to be placed in the Washington Post the next weekend:

“Sailboat for Sale. Your ticket to freedom. 505. Perhaps the world’s fastest racing dinghy. Needs some work. $1,000 or best offer.”

Included in the ad was my telephone number.

By  eight o’clock my phone was ringing constantly. Most people asked  the same kind of questions the doctor had asked–how old the boat was, its racing history, how “competitive” it was. Almost everyone  seemed to know a lot about 505s. There were at least a dozen calls, and I informed each caller that there was a lot of interest in the boat and it was strictly first come, first served. If you wanted the boat, had better act fast.  Around 10 o’clock there was a pause in the phone calls; then  a little after lunch they started up again. The calls I  received at that time were from the same people that I had talked to  earlier. The first one set the tone for the others which followed, “You are a liar and a fraud. You wasted my morning by encouraging me to take a look at this piece of shit. It is not even a boat. It is a pile of trash.” Two people threatened to “turn me in.” I was fearful that one of the next calls would come from the police.  I concluded that perhaps I had gone a little too far in my ad. In any event beginning around three, I answered all calls with “Hello, I am sorry and I apologize.” That did not go very far with most people, but at last by five o’clock it was over. There were no more calls and only one offer– $50.

I then proceeded to put the whole thing out of my mind. Fletcher wrote us a check for $300, and there was not much more I could do. Besides, I had better get back to work if I wanted to keep my job. One week passed, then another. Then in the third week after the incident, I got a call from a guy who said he was a graduate student in DC,  was looking through old newspapers and wondered if the Five-0  had been sold. The true racing enthusiasts did not say Five-0-Five, just Five-0. He obviously knew what a 505 was. I told him not to bother, he would just waste a day looking at it and call me back and give me a piece of his mind. Better just to forget the whole thing.

“Look,” I confessed, “The boat is terrific when it is sailing and nothing breaks down. We go faster than anyone, and it is euphoria. But when racing against other 505s it could  not possibly be competitive. It is a piece of junk, actually. Everyone who has looked at it refers to it as a piece of shit. It has been raced to death. It has holes in the hull. The tiller broke off once.  The mainsail is shredded into a thousand pieces when the marine police backed over it trying to pull me out of the cesspool in front of the Blue Plains Sewerage Treatment Plant. The guy at In Harm’s Way told me to sink it. Everybody who has gone out thereto look at the boat is mad at me….”   As I went through the litany, I was almost to the point of tears, having bottled up the frustration for so long.

Then there was a pause, and for a moment I felt terribly embarrassed that I had unloaded  all this on a  poor, unsuspecting graduate student.

Then he responded, “Sounds like exactly what I am looking for!”

Certainly I must have misunderstood him. “What you are looking for? You’ve got to be putting me on!”

He replied that he built surf boards as a hobby and was looking for a challenge.

“Merciful God in Heaven, “ I muttered.  We agreed that  he and his girl friend would come over to my house and we would go together to see the boat. In less than an hour a tall, thin, healthy looking, outdoors type with a big shock of brown hair  appeared at my front door with his beautiful blond girl friend. I guessed they were in their mid twenties. Their car followed mine out to the marina. Having been disappointed so many times, I remained skeptical and tried not to get my hopes up.

When we got to the marina, he inspected the pile of junk, excused himself with his girl friend so they could talk candidly about the situation, and a moment later returned smiling.

“Worse shape than I thought. But how does $300 sound?”

“Sold!” I shouted, ready to embrace him and his girl friend. He pulled out a check book, gave me a sheepish grin, hooked up the beaten-up trailer to his car, and they were off. I stood there speechless for several moments. I never saw the 505 again.


There was not much discussion about the 505 from that point on. I had immediately started looking for another sailboat and purchased a used Wayfarer, a 16 foot sailboat in excellent shape, which was both a family daysailer and a racing boat. We kept the boat—which we named “Mother Courage” – for over 15 years on the Chesapeake Bay where we  were part of an active sailing and racing fleet. Life was good.

One year passed, then another and another. When Andrew,  who was four at the time of the incident,  was seven and interested in learning how to ice skate, I took him to an ice skating store near the University of Maryland. A tall young man, probably around thirty, fitted my son’s skates and looked at me in a funny way. He looked vaguely familiar. Suddenly he looked up at me and stared me straight in the eye.

“505,” he said, “505!”

“What do you mean, 505?”

“505. You were the guy who sold me the 505 way back in 1974!”

My  immediate reaction was to apologize, “Hey, I am sorry, I gave you a forewarning. I told you the boat was a piece of junk. I am sorry, I apologize. Please don’t hold it against me.”

“Hold it against you? I worked on the boat for the next nine or ten months , completely rebuilt her and sold her the next spring for $1,200. One of the best investments–and the most fun–I have ever had. I hear now she is real competitive.”





Five-O-Five: Part 4

Having destroyed  all the remaining evidence of alcoholic beverages, we were nearing the takeout area of the Washington Sailing Marina. Instead of a ramp where you backed down a trailer to take the boat out, this marina had a crane which hoisted the boat out of the water onto a waiting trailer. I had been there before and knew how it worked but was not sure it would work without a trailer to put the boat on, since my trailer was presumably still at the Old Dominion Yacht Basin.

The Fourth of July is one of the biggest days in the year in Washington for parties and picnics. The highlight of the day’s festivities are the fireworks, which start at dark, usually around 9:15. There are two preferred places for the masses to watch the fireworks. One is on the mall. The other is the Washington Sailing Marina because it is directly across the Potomac River from the fireworks, and there is no prohibition against drinking. People gather there by the thousands. Most people are with families, and there are lots of kids squirming around and running wild.

By the time we slogged into the takeout area it was nearing nine pm. Kids were restless. Mothers and fathers were milling around chatting and drinking, passing the time before the fireworks started. Everyone was looking for some distraction to kill time before the main event. Then along comes a police pulling the hull of a submerged sailboat. Bingo! Show time.

I could not believe my eyes. Gathered around the ramp area were hundreds—possibly thousands—of people, many of whom were boaters who had observed my ordeal at some point during the afternoon. People were pointing and gawking. I wanted to crawl into a hole. I had already been humiliated enough, but this was too much. So I quickly conceived a face-saving plan whereby I would crouch down so no one could see me and then as we tied up to the dock at the lift area, quietly slip off the boat and move to the back of the enormous crowd. Since it was twilight nobody could see very well anyway,  I could pretend I was just another curious onlooker.

The plan worked perfectly. The police were focused on getting the boat to the crane and did not notice as I quietly stepped ashore and disappeared into the crowd.

When I heard what people were saying, I knew I had made the right decision. “Stupid idiot,” “crazy fool,” “crappy boat,” “nut case,” “where is the owner?” were phrases being repeated by the crowd, which now seemed to me to resemble a mob. I joined the conversation as an anonymous participant, nodding my head in agreement and concurring that I had no idea how anybody could be so stupid as to spend four hours swimming in the polluted Potomac or have a boat that was so pathetic looking in its current state. “Poor guy,” I remarked, “probably had no idea what he was getting into.”

Then all of a sudden, the police sounded an air horn and the crowd suddenly became hushed. The cop with the mustache used a megaphone and shouted, “Owner, owner, where is the owner?”

Everyone started looking around. Where could the owner be? What was he doing? I shrugged my shoulders and looked around with everyone else. Then came the next blast of the horn and the announcement from the police, “There you are in the back! I see you! You can’t hide!”

I looked behind me for the owner, but, alas, there was no one. All eyes turned on me.

“Oh,” I said meekly, “ I guess that must be me.” and started walking through the crowd to the takeout area. Everyone instinctively moved away like what Moses must have experienced when parting the Red Sea. I saw stares of disbelief, some bordering on horror. Several people hissed, ”Oh my God, there he is!” or “Don’t touch me” or “Don’t get near me,” or “For God’s sake don’t get any water on me.” Others had more compassionate looks, but everyone was curious and cautious.

I remembered a popular horror film when I was growing up in Nashville called “The Creature From The Black Lagoon.” This  terrible slimy, human-like creature emerged from a swamp and terrorized people. At that moment I felt very much like the Creature From the Black Lagoon and for a brief moment considered hissing and swiping my hand like a cornered cat but quickly decided against it. I had no choice but  to take my medicine.

“OK owner,” barked the skinny cop, “In the water and attach the sling around the hull and do it now.!” People started chattering again. “He’s not going to go in there again, is he?” someone commented.

“Oh yes he is, “ said the cop.

All eyes were on me again. I thought that at this moment this might be the most famous—perhaps infamous is a better word– I would ever be. Hundreds of people were staring at me in awe and disbelief; for the first time in my life I was the center of attention of a vast and attentive audience. And I was an instant celebrity though, of course, without a name other than “Owner”. I decided to give them what they wanted, smiled briefly, took a bow and did a swan dive. When my head popped up again, people applauded. The fireworks would be nothing compared to this.

With some difficulty I managed to get the two slings around the boat. One of the cops worked the crane and up came the hull of the 505. As the boat freed itself from the slime of the Potomac River, it resembled a shower head. Water was pouring out of the boat from tiny pin head leaks, mainly around the fittings between the hull and the deck. People were pointing and gasping. When the boat got about 15 feet out of the water, I noticed that one of the wires which attached the mast to the boat was still secure and attached to something below the surface. Suddenly up came the mast, the boom and the sails, all pretty much in tack except for the shredded mainsail. This time there was thunderous applause and wild cheers. It looked like all the parts had been saved after all. I wasn’t sure whether I should be happy or sad, but both cops patted me on the back and congratulated me. The crane deposited the boat in a pile on the ground.

The ordeal was over.

I located Embry and Naomi, our four-year-old son and our friends. They had saved me some fried chicken and beer. I did not have time to tell them most of the details since the fireworks were starting; and decided that unless I wanted to be ostracized I would not say much about the Blue Plains Treatment Plant. Most of the time during the fireworks I just sulked. I  could not put out of my mind the question of what to do next.

And in some respects the what-to-do-next challenge would turn out to be the toughest.



Sailing Stories: Five-O-Five, Part Three

While I have to admit that I was depressed for a few days following the Pohick Bay fiasco, I soon got over it and told myself that this could have happened to anyone. I fixed the broken tiller with several applications of epoxy, and the boat was in sailable condition once more. By the Fourth of July I was eager to  give sailing another chance on the 505. And this Fourth of July, 1974, was something special. Usually in Washington this time of year the weather is hot, humid and miserable, but not this day. The temperature was in the upper seventies, the humidity was low, and the skies cloudless. The weather report called for breezes in the 10-15 knot range. It could not have been better.

At breakfast I broached to Embry the idea of a sail. She agreed somewhat reluctantly, persuaded by the beautiful weather and my solemn pledge never, never to scream at her again. We would make another big day out of it. We invited Naomi, our friend from planning school, to join us since she was a sailing enthusiast, and made arrangements with two other couples to meet us around five o’clock at the Washington Sailing Marina after picking up our four-year-old son and his baby sitter. There we  would picnic and watch the fireworks after we finished sailing. By noon all the details had been worked out.  Embry, Naomi and I headed to the Old Dominion Yacht Basin.

By 2:00 pm the 505 was in the water. The Potomac was alive with white sails scooting along in fresh breezes with tiny white caps everywhere. The normal grey color of the Potomac actually appeared almost blue. Several regattas were in progress with boats jockeying for position at the starting line and bright colorful spinnakers bellowing down wind. Big cabin cruisers were motoring around with lots of people laughing and drinking beer. It was one of the prettiest sights I had ever seen. And it did not take long for us to realize that we were in fact the fastest sailboat on the water, hands down. I had rigged up the trapeze, and Naomi  strapped it to her body allowing her to hang out over the side to keep the boat flat as we planned and reached speeds of 12-15 knots, just like it said in all the books. Since Embry was now almost seven months pregnant, she could not jump from side to side very easily as we came about, but she managed ok. I could tell that other sailors were green with envy  as we skimmed past them.

After three hours of pure  sailing delight,  it was time to come in. Everything had been perfect. No equipment failures, no mishaps, no close calls. All we had to do was get the boat back to the marina and onto the trailer. How hard could that be? I managed to steer the 505 perfectly into the takeout ramp area and gave the order to Naomi to drop the main. Nothing happened. When the wind is blowing at close to 15 knots, if you do not drop the mainsail  at the right time, the wind takes over; and  the boat starts to sail again. Naomi was furiously tugging and trying to get the mainsail to budge, managing  to get it down about a third of the way before it stuck again. The wind caught the loose sail  and pushed us well beyond the takeout ramp and into a large piling about a hundred yards downwind  from where we wanted to be. We grabbed the piling and held on tight. Naomi tugged some more, and the main finally came down; but  without a mainsail we could not sail the boat back, and the wind was too strong to make any headway paddling against the fresh breeze. We were stuck.

What to do?

Well, the situation was actually not all that challenging. We were only about a hundred yards from where we wanted to end up. There were all kinds of boats in the water. All we needed to do was to flag down one of the boats and get a short tow. So we started frantically waiving. A bunch of motor boats passed by, but oddly not a one of them stopped. After about a half hour of this futile effort, I came up with another idea. Naomi, who was quite agile, would shimmy up the piling and walk over to the marina where several motor boats were docked with plenty of people on board partying. Her goal was to persuade one of them to come and throw us a line for a short tow to the ramp. Once they learned that a pregnant woman was on board, surely they would take pity. Naomi jumped right on it, scaled the piling and was off.

We waited fifteen minutes, then another fifteen and were wondering why it was taking so long for Naomi to find someone to tow us when suddenly we observed an extraordinarily large party boat leaving the marina and heading straight toward us. To describe this craft as the size of an aircraft carrier is an exaggeration. But compared to our tiny, agile racing dinghy, this image  came to mind. I was sure this could not have been our rescue boat. It was a behemoth. The three story craft— it had the look of a small house on a barge—was packed with 15 or 20 jubilant partiers, mostly middle aged people with fat bellies and skinny legs. The name painted  on the side of the boat was “Big Tub.” Loud rock and roll music was blaring from the deck, and empty beer cans were being tossed with abandon  into the water. As the enormous boat approached us, the middle age partiers  moved  to the bow area and started pointing at us. I saw Naomi at the front of the group. A guy who was apparently the skipper nudged his way through the crowd. He was bald and quite fat and was  wearing Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and a garish, flowery sport shirt with the top three buttons unbuttoned to expose a hairy chest and gold chain. He was smoking a cigar, had a drink in his hand and toasted us when  he got close.

“Got a problem, captain?” he bellowed over the loud engine and rock and roll music. “No problem. We’ll pull you in. And don’t worry, we have plenty of power!”

I could not believe that this monstrosity was all that Naomi could come up with. But at least she had found someone. How could a boat this  gigantic pull a tiny boat like ours without dumping us?  But what were our options? I couldn’t tell him to buzz off.

A burly guy with a crew cut, who looked like a drill sergeant and who was wearing a yellow  tee shirt saying “Go for it!” tossed us a line. The line was something like the docking line used for ocean liners. At least two inches in diameter, it could not attach to anything on the 505. I would have to hold it with one hand while holding the mast with the other.

“Real slow,” I hollered over the sound of the motor and the music. “Go real slow. Going slow is the key.” I must have shouted the word “slow” a half dozen times.

“Slow, yeah, slow,” answered the guy in the yellow tee shirt. The captain had disappeared, presumably to take the wheel.

I  wrapped my feet around the mast allowing me to hold the line with both hands.

The drill sergeant shouted back to the captain. “He’s got it Ralph, letter go!”

I have never been to Cape Kennedy to watch the blast off of a space rocket,  but I have seen these images on TV like probably everyone else in the US  and know what it sounds like when the announcer goes “5-4-3-2-1, lift off”. There is a huge roar, and then seconds later the rocket gracefully and slowly starts to lift. The roar that came from Big Tub struck me as equivalent to that of a space rocket. But I did not have time to reflect upon that because within one second, I felt  my arms  being pulled out of their sockets, and the 505 was belly up with  cushions, Styrofoam cooler, beer cans and food floating on the surface. I had dropped the line, and Embry and I found ourselves bobbing in the filthy waters of the Potomac. Fortunately we had on life preservers.

The roar stopped and Big Tub turned around. The captain reappeared and sheepishly hollered, “Captain, was that too fast?”

“Yes but It’s ok,” I replied, “The boat is self righting. We can try again, but this time, slow, real slow.

The partiers were now reassembled on the bow. Naomi was pointing at Embry. No one was laughing any more; and one woman whom  I assumed to be the captain’s wife, yelled, “Your wife, your wife! Is she pregnant? “

Embry nodded. Someone threw her a life line and pulled her to Big Tub’s stern where there was a ladder. Embry scampered up the ladder and immediately was surrounded by anxious women. I could tell she was saying  something like, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

Remembering Fletcher’s words, I was confident that I could right the boat by grabbing and then standing on the centerboard. The problem was that every time I grabbed the centerboard the boat did right itself but then rolled over and capsized again. After three unsuccessful attempts, I noticed that the hull by this time was completely submerged. On the third try the mast lodged in the mud. This effort must have taken at least twenty minutes, and the captain and his partying friends had had enough.

“Gotta save the pregnant woman!” he yelled as the boat’s motor started to roar. “Just stay put. I’m calling the Coast Guard.” And he was off.

So it was just me and the 505 with the mast wedged in the mud on the bottom of one of the country’s most polluted rivers. I was able to pull myself up to sit on the overturned hull and watched solemnly as boats started to head up the river for their picnics.

It actually was not more than fifteen minutes before help arrived. All at once from three different directions. The first boat to get to me was a 20 foot Boston Whaler with “Virginia Marine Police” painted on its side.  Seconds behind it  was a larger boat with a cabin with “US Coast Guard” on its transom. And a minute or two behind that was another Boston Whaler labeled “DC Marine Police.” I was in good hands.

The Virginia Police were the first to give it a try. Each boat had a couple of officers on board. The Coast Guard and the DC Police stood their ground, observing the action with great interest. The Virginia Police tossed me a line, which I was able to secure to the hull; and on the third attempt  there was a  thump and a cracking sound and the 505 suddenly came free. The officers in the other two boats applauded. For some odd reason just as they had freed the mast, the Virginia Police pulled in their line and roared off. All I heard was “Emergency. We’ll be back.”

The US Coast Guard moved in next. “Those Virginia police don’t know jackshit, “ one of the officers remarked.  Since the mast was now free, the 505 was drifting, being pushed by  the wind and current at what seemed to me to be a remarkable speed for a submerged boat. Within a few minutes and several failed efforts to get the boat to keep from capsizing, we found ourselves in the middle of the channel. Boats were passing by us in all directions. People were pointing.

Observing  that keeping the boat from capsizing was not working, the Coast Guard  pulled the 505 along side and inserted a huge suction tube into the submerged cockpit. If the hull had been above water, this approach might have worked; but the fact that the entire hull was now about six inches under water and sinking, the Coast Guard was merely sucking water from the Potomac River and pumping it back into the Potomac River.  After it became apparent that this effort was going nowhere, they revved up their engine and took off. “Emergency. Back later,” sounded remarkably similar to the Virginia explanation.

That left me and the DC Police except that the DC Police had by now disappeared.

It is important to say a word about the timing involved in all this. Our mainsail got stuck when we came in around 5:00 PM. Big Tub arrived at 5:30 and departed around 6:00. The three rescue boats converged around 6:15. I looked at my watch. It was now almost 7:00.  I had been abandoned by my rescuers and was drifting directly toward the Blue Plains Sewerage Treatment Plant.

It is also important that you understand what being in the effluent of the Blue Plains Treatment Plant meant in 1974. The Potomac River was not the most polluted river in the United States in 1974. After all, the Cuyahoga  River in Cleveland had caught on fire only a few years before. But the Potomac was certainly near the top of the list. And one of the reasons for its filth and pollution was the decrepit condition of the infamous Blue Plains Treatment  Plant. Plans were in the works to upgrade the facility, but funding was not in place yet; and every week or so a horror story would appear in the Metro Section of the Washington Post describing in detail various attributes of what might be described as an open cesspool. I was terrified.

By this time naturally the 505 had turtled again; and I was now in the water, holding on tight. When the 505 and I were drifting in the middle of the channel, it seemed boats went out of their way to zoom over and take a look at the pitiful sight of a guy holding on to the hull of a submerged sailboat drifting directly into harm’s way. At least a dozen or so volunteered to call the Coast Guard. As the 505 and I got closer to  the death trap, no one came near. I looked at my watch. It was now just almost 8:00 o’clock. In an hour it would be twilight and at 9:15 the fireworks would start. I had already been in the water, off and on, for over two hours . Had this happened in the spring or fall, I surely would have perished from hypothermia. This time it would probably be from the Bubonic Plague. I wondered exactly what kind of “emergencies” had caused the Virginia Police and Coast Guard to zoom off.

Then suddenly appearing from nowhere was the Boston Whaler with the DC Marine Police sign on it. My spirits lifted. I was a bit skeptical that the DC Police could do what no one else had been able to do, but by this time I was desperate and only wanted to get out of the slime and muck.

“Dumb ass Virginia Police and Coast Guard ,” one of the officers,  a tall thin guy, mumbled as they yanked me on board. “Watch out for crissake! Don’t get any water on me!”

“Ok, owner,” said the other officer, a youngish looking guy with a lot of black hair and a mustache, “Let’s see your boat registration and driver’s license.”

“In the drink,” I muttered, lying.

“OK, I can understand that, now we are gonna tow this pathetic excuse for a boat .”

I protested that it would be futile, but they proceeded anyway. We  went through the same routine that the others had tried. I would right the boat. It would capsize, and then I would right it again. I lost count of the number of times that this routine occurred, and after awhile the officers had had enough. The officers got particularly upset when  the Whaler backed over the sail, which immediately became caught in its propeller. I had to go underwater and cut it lose with a knife. Then as could have been predicted, the boat’s mast lodged in the mud again. I recalled Albert Camus and the “Myth of Sisyphus”.

When the mast got stuck, they yanked me on board, again admonishing not to get them wet. The two guys were speechless for a couple of minutes trying to figure out what to do next. By this time it was near 8:30 and starting to get dark.

The guy with the mustache barked, “Owner, this is bullshit. I want you back in the water right now, and I want you to unhook everything that is holding the mast on. Get rid of it and the sails and everything else. It is getting dark and we are heading back now. But for God’s sake don’t make a splash! Don’t get any water on us!”

I jumped in, trying not to make a splash and unhooked all the shackles that held the wires that secured the mast to the boat. It took awhile, but finally I was convinced they were all free. This meant that the police would be pulling only the hull—no mast, boom or sails, which would remain on the floor of the Potomac River forever.  The amazing thing is that by this time we had drifted past the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant so far up the river on a strong incoming tide and southerly breeze that we were very close to the Washington Sailing  Marina and picnic area where we were supposed to meet our friends for a picnic. I had assumed that after Embry had been rescued by Big Tub she and Naomi  had driven the car and met our friends there pretty much on time.

After getting rid of the mast, boom and sails and was back in the boat, I slumped into a  deck chair, totally exhausted.

“Hey, owner,” asked the skinny officer, “You drink?”

“Yeah,” I sadly responded, wondering what this question had to do with the 505.

“Thank God,” he said, “Terry, bring out what we got left.”

The officer with the big mustache opened a small door next to the steering wheel and pulled out a Styrofoam cooler  with a six pack of beer and numerous white, round, plastic holders which were remnants of  other six packs, which I presumed had already been consumed.

“Fourth of July, owner.” said the guy with the mustache, winking sheepishly.

The officers proceeded to guzzle two beers each, then took an ice pick and riddled the empty cans with holes and tossed them overboard.

“Fourth of July, owner.”

I managed to finish my beer and began to realize how lucky I had been. If the DC Police had not returned,  it would have soon been dark and I would still be drifting. There is no telling where I would have ended up. While I was sorry to lose the mast, boom and the sails, I had been saved; and by this time, frankly  I was glad to have an excuse for not risking my life again on the 505.

Since we were approaching the landing area at the Washington Sailing Marina—where presumably Naomi and Embry now were—we had to get rid of all the evidence, and the officers punched holes in my empty beer can and the one remaining, unopened can.

“Tragedy,” said the skinny one. “Throwing away a full can of beer.”

“Fourth of July, owner. Fourth of July,” said the guy with the mustache.

But if I had known what was going to happen next, I surely would have guzzled the last remaining beer.







Sailing Stories: Five-O Five, Part Two

On our first sail together it was just McDonald and me. Since there was a moderate breeze, the transom leak was not a problem, and besides I had spent a good bit of time gluing the flaps shut.  The only thing worth repeating about that sail was that by some miracle we returned safely with no serious difficulties.  The boat did run aground twice, the second time with its center board lodging in the mud. But McDonald hopped out  into the filthy  water and pushed us off. Though we could feel how tipsy the boat was, fortunately the wind was not too strong, and we did not come close to capsizing.   Of course, having recalled Fletcher’s decisive assertion that the boat could easily be righted, I no longer feared a capsize.

We were beginning to build our confidence.  I returned home to report the event to Embry with great enthusiasm.  She seemed delighted to see me in such a good mood and agreed with some temerity to crew for me next time.

“Well, you know, next Sunday is Father’s Day, and I was kind of hoping . . .”

She agreed that as my Father’s Day gift we would go sailing.  We even decided to make a big deal of it and invite another couple to go with us.  We each had  four-year-old children, so we would share babysitting with one couple  picnicking while the other sailed.  Because the Old Dominion Yacht Basin was so uninviting, we decided to trailer the boat to Pohick  Bay, down the Potomac River about 30 miles, where there was supposed to be a nice regional park and boat launching area.

When we woke up that morning and saw that the day was gray and drizzly, I suppose we should have cancelled; but when you go to a lot of trouble to make a picnic and invite people, it is hard not to keep going.  Besides the weather could always improve. We all packed in our beat up station wagon–four adults and two four-year-olds–and headed for the marina.

As we attached the trailer to the car, Embry asked me if I was  supposed to hook up the trailer lights.  This was an impossible task since the wires on the trailer lights were frayed and were not long enough to reach our car. Even if they had been long enough, I had no idea what to hook them up to.

The ride out  U.S. Route  One was gloomy.  It is probably  the most depressing highway in the United States anyway, with its crummy gas stations, Burger Chefs, and cheap motels lining the road from Maine to Florida. The traffic is always bumper to bumper in the Washington area; and because of all the military bases south of Washington, you get massage parlors, honkytonks, strip tease joints and used car lots.

I noticed that most of the other cars had their headlights turned on.  I dared not turn ours on since it would be obvious to any policeman that I had no trailer lights.  I also tried to use my hand brake instead of my regular brake, another ingenious scheme designed to disguise the trailer light problem.  We passed two police cars, unnoticed.

At last we were at Pohick Bay–an oasis in a dessert of Route One  crud.  The park was spacious and clean; and  like all national parks, it had that Smokey-the-Bear feel to  it.


There was  a small platoon of rangers at the shore assisting people putting their  boats in the water, and several state police as well, checking boat registrations.  A  burly, state highway patrolman angled  over to me chewing a cigar  out of the side of his mouth.  He was weighted down with so much gear that it seemed any smaller man would have been unable to walk.

“Thanks, I said, smiling, “But I think we are doing fine. We don’t need any help.”

“All right.” he sighed in an I-hate-to-do-this-to-you tone.

“Let’s see your boat trailer inspection sticker.”

“Boat trailer what?”

“Boat trailer inspection sticker.”

I instinctively pulled out my wallet.

“It’s not in your wallet;  if you’ve got one, it is supposed to be on your trailer .  In Virginia every year you’ve got to have your boat trailer  inspected.”

“Jesus,” I said and began feverishly examining the trailer for a sticker .

“Here it is,” proclaimed Embry, from the other side of the trailer where she had been searching for a sticker. “But I am not sure it is current.”

“Wonderful,” the cop muttered as he examined the sticker. “This trailer hasn’t been inspected for over 10 years.”

He reached in his pocket and pulled out a writing pad. “Let’s see your certificate of ownership and boat registration.”

“My what?”

“Good God, man, you don’t have these either? “ Looking at me in disbelief, he put his pad back in his pocket and scratched his head, then slowly walked around the trailer and boat, scrutinizing every detail. When he got to the rear of the trailer, he picked up the frayed, unattached wires to the tail light, then looked me straight in the eye  and  shook his head again. I was thinking, 10 years, maybe 20 years in the slammer, thousands of dollars in fines. He did not say a word for what seemed like an eternity. The mist had now turned into a steady drizzle and our small children were huddled under a small tree, shivering. Beat up car, beat up trailer, boat that had been described by everyone familiar with it as a piece of shit, children who could have come out of a Dickens’ novel. Not a pretty sight.

I held my breath.

“Okay, I am clearing you,” he sighed. “This time. Damn, it is Father’s Day, for God’s sake, right? You’ve got a picnic, kids. Hell, it is raining. Just get the boat in the water as fast as you can and then move the trailer way out of the way so no one can see it; and when you get back from sailing, make a quick escape.” Then he paused for a moment and managed a smile, “Have a good Father’s Day.” Then he paused again and his tone became serious, “But do not ever, ever, come back here with that boat and that trailer in this condition!”

Thank God for Father’s Day.

Now off for the big sail. This would be the second time that I would sail the 505, possibly the world’s fastest sailing dinghy, and the first time with Embry. There was good wind, and the rain was not much more than a drizzle. We could handle this. It would be our first opportunity to see what it was like to skim the surface, planning at 12 knots. Embry and I would sail first. Then I would take our friends. We quickly got the boat rigged, moved the trailer to a remote location, and we were off. Euphoria. Just like the pictures. The 505 was incredibly responsive, quickly reaching hull speed and then exceeding it when we started to plane on the gusts. All the hoopla about the 505 was right. No other boat on the water could touch us. After 30 minutes or so, Embry asked if she could try her hand at steering. Good sign, I thought, she is catching the bug. We completed the difficult task of changing drivers; and under Embry’s steady hand the boat continued to perform at miraculous down wind speeds.

Within minutes, however, the wind started to freshen and to change directions so that instead of flying downwind we suddenly were  struggling to keep the boat on her feet as we slogged up wind. The chop was now over two feet and splashing into the cockpit. Whitecaps were everywhere. Every time we got a gust, I had to release the mainsail in order to avoid a capsize,  and the euphoria quickly turned into apprehension and then outright fear. To try to change drivers would risk capsizing.

Then all of a sudden we lost control of the boat as the boat began to lurch and weave. “Hold the tiller steady,” I shouted over the sound of the wind. I looked around and saw Embry lying on the floor of the cockpit with the end of a broken tiller in her hand. We then rounded up directly into the wind, had no control over the boat and were being pushed down wind at faster and faster speeds.

“What did you do to the tiller?” I screamed. “ It is broken off.”

Embry had a stunned, horrified look on her face.

I leapt over her and tried to grab the tiller, careful to try to keep the tipsy boat from capsizing. There was nothing left, only a stub. I released  the lines that controlled the sails and grabbed the canoe paddle that we had in case the wind died. As the boat turned slowly back downwind, using  the canoe paddle  as a rudder, I  was able to guide the boat in the direction (now downwind) where we had started. It was an incredible stroke of luck. Had the opposite happened—the wind changing directions so that we would be forced to go  up wind in order to return to the launching area–we would have been doomed and would have ended up on the opposite shore of the Potomac well over a mile away; or worse yet, we would have capsized.

We reached the launching area in about fifteen minutes, exhausted, relieved, and completely soaked, not so much from the constant drizzle but from the spray of the waves. When I examined the broken tiller, I realized it was completely rotten. Embry did not say a word as we got out of the boat. When we finally loaded the 505 onto the trailer, she turned to me and whispered, “Don’t you ever yell like that to me again, ever.” Our friends never got to sail. It was too wet to have a picnic, and our drenched children were miserable. That  was it for our first sail together. Not a good start but a harbinger of what was to follow.




Sailing Stories: Five-O-Five, Part One

The story of my first experience in owning a sailboat began in Washington, D.C.in the 1970s.  At the time, I was employed by a real estate consulting firm and was clearly ready for something–anything–that would spice up my life.  That a sailboat might be the very thing I needed for renewal is an idea that occurred almost instantly as I overheard a conversation between two of my colleagues.

It was McDonald who occupied the office next to mine.  He was generally enthusiastic about life, a fellow jogger, and we ran together during lunch time. I considered him my best friend at the office.  McDonald was talking to Fletcher, another consultant, about buying a sailboat.

Fletcher was talking casually and I could detect a slight note of hesitation in his voice. “Well, I am not sure this is the boat for you.  It’s a racing boat, you know–not exactly the boat for a beginner.  But if you want it, it’s yours.  All I’m asking is $1,200.”

That did it.  I knew McDonald didn’t know anything about sailing.  Trying to contain my feeling of excitement and urgency, I slowly got up from my desk.

“Say,” I said in an off-handed way, “Did I hear you guys talking about sailing …”

“Matter of fact you did,” said McDonald.  ”Fletch here wants to sell me his sailboat.  He says it’s a racing boat.”

“You know anything about sailing?” asked Fletcher.

“I sure do,” I responded emphatically.

“Well, then you know a five-o-five.  Tell McDonald what he’s getting into when he buys a five-o-five.”

I had no idea of what a five-o-five was or what practically any other sailboat was for that matter.  I had sailed a Sunfish  and fashioned myself as having real sailing potential, but hardly a sailor. However, for the last few years I had been secretly considering buying a sailboat.

This was my chance.

“Like he says,” I said, “It is a racing boat. You better take a look at it before you buy it.  Maybe we both ought to take a look at it.”

So began the partnership.  Now I knew that it was not good business to buy a used sailboat without seeing it. But I also knew that racing sailboats cost a lot of money; and Fletcher did say that if the sale was not made by that afternoon, he was going to advertise in the newspapers.  Our opportunity would be lost. So I asked Fletcher to excuse us so that we could have a chance to talk.

I told McDonald that I realized his sailing limitations and that I would teach him all that I knew, albeit at that time that was not a great deal. Eventually we might even race the boat together.  He confided that he felt nervous about going into something like this alone.  We instantly agreed to put down $50 each to hold the boat.  Pending an inspection, the boat would be ours.

Fletcher could not be present to inspect the boat with us. He gave us careful directions and a vivid description of the boat’s appearance.    It was on a brown trailer with a Virginia tag. He had said it was about 18 feet long, had a trapeze and a white hull. He had later qualified the description of the hull saying that it was actually now grayish brown.

“The hull is also a little soft.” he added.  ”The boat’s been raced a lot. But that shouldn’t bother you–unless you guys are planning to race in a national championship.”

That evening after work I raced over to the local library  and checked out as many books on sailing as I could find.  Several books had photos and descriptions of the five-o-five.   Each book described the boat as “high performance”; “Possibly,” said one book, “the fastest sailing boat of its type ever designed.”

The boat had been considered one year to be an Olympic racer and had barely lost out to the Flying Dutchman, another world famous sailboat. The photos showed the five-o-five skimming across the water with skipper and crew hiking over the boat’s gunwale, foam and spray flying in their faces.  Because the crew used a trapeze, the photos showed the person stretched out–literally his entire body, dangling in mid air, parallel to  the churning sea.  Euphoria.  I almost let out a scream of joy right there in the library.  The photos symbolized liberation from life’s bondage. Ultimate freedom.  Go for it! I  could almost taste the chilled can of beer that I would grab from the icy cooler upon returning to shore.

When I returned home I was ecstatic.    I showed the photos to Embry. She appeared mildly interested; but since she was about five months pregnant, I could see how it would be hard for her to  identify with the crew hiked out on the trapeze.

“You don’t expect me to do that do you?” she asked timidly.

“Not while you are pregnant.  But who knows, after the baby comes?”

McDonald and I went to see the boat the following weekend. It was parked on a trailer at the Old Dominion Yacht Basin in Alexandria, across the Potomac River from downtown Washington.  On the way out in McDonald’s old Chevy convertible, he remarked, “You know, I’ve always wanted to own a sailboat and to be a member of a yacht club….”

My heart was pounding with excitement as we drove through the quaint section of Old Town, Alexandria,  and followed Fletcher’s careful directions to the marina.

“Me too,” I confided to McDonald, thinking of sleek sailboats with tall sails and beautiful women sitting on their decks sipping cocktails.

Suddenly we made a right turn into the marina. Rather than an exclusive yacht club, it resembled a garbage dump . There were all kinds and varieties of boats  in varying  stages of disrepair.

“ Jesus.!” said McDonald. “ Do you think we are in the right place?  This place looks like a floating slum.”

As we entered, on our left a large wooden motor boat about thirty feet long was lying on its side on the ground.      Most of the paint had come off the hull, which also sported a large gaping hole.  Next to that depressing site were several smaller boats, all sailboats lying on the ground, neglected, with flaking paint, rusty winches and rotten wood.    On our right was a huge pile of debris which consisted of broken masts, pieces of hulls and cabins, Styrofoam, boat trailers and various other items, unidentifiable because of the layers of rust.  The pile had obviously been around for some time because clumps of grass and a tiny tree had grown up through the holes in the mess.

On the ground were layers of refuse– paper, more Styrofoam, cigarette butts, smashed beer cans, rusty old license tags, pop tops,  bottle caps and  the squashed carcasses of several dead rats.

“Is this a yacht club?” asked McDonald in a puzzled tone.  Are you sure  this is the right place? “

I desperately looked around for what would be Fletcher’s boat–a low sleek design, white (or brownish gray) hull, a trapeze.

“ Do you think that one is it?” asked McDonald pointing to a small boat nestled between two large decaying motor boats. The boat was on a brown rusty trailer and had  a gray hull.

I am sure that my first startled impression of the five-o-five was influenced by the unsightly surroundings.  Also, it was an overcast, drizzly day.  I paused for a minute to recapture in my mind the exhilarating image of the photographs in the book. As we cautiously approached the boat and as I concentrated more and more on remembering the photographs, I could tell that this was in fact the famous five-o-five.  The long sleek design had the look of speed and high performance. And the boat seemed to be basically okay.  The hull was a little stained with dirt and grime. The ropes were a little frayed and very tangled.  The rudder and tiller were peeling, but compared to the other boats next to it, the boat was in decent shape.  Nothing was wrong with it that a little love and sweat couldn’t cure.

“Yep,”   I said smiling and patting the boat side, “a racing machine, a real racing machine.”

McDonald stood silently , his mouth slightly open and a puzzled look on his face.

The deal was done.  Upon receiving our $1,200 in cash, Fletcher graciously agreed to give us an introductory sail the following weekend.   All week long at work, McDonald and I darted in and out of each other’s office to share our anticipation of the first big sail.

On our way to the Y for our daily run, I took the opportunity to give McDonald basic lessons in the art of sailing.  I carefully explained what most of the parts of the boat were, that “port” was left and “starboard” right and so on.   He confessed that he had checked a number of sailing books out of the library himself and that he already knew all of that.  He was really interested simply in learning how to sail.

Saturday was the big day.  It was a chilly Saturday but clear and not too breezy. Fletcher met us at the marina  with a large bright blue sail bag. We had arrived a little early and were watching an old man scrape paint off the hull of a huge wooden cruiser when Fletcher arrived in a jovial mood.

He described the various parts of the boat to us as if we did not already know them, and then pulled the sail out of the bag. As we hoisted the sail up the mast, we noticed the insignia “505″ had come loose and was fluttering from the head of the sail, attached to the sail by only a tiny thread.

“That looks tacky,” McDonald whispered to me.

As we hauled the boat on its trailer down to the ramp, we passed by an old shack which in many respects resembled the prototypical sea shanty.  Piles of junk were stacked beside the front door between an ice dispenser and a Coke machine.   The word “office” was over the door, but the weathered sign had come loose and was hanging down so that you had to duck to avoid getting a nail in the head.

“Before we take the boat out, I want you guys to meet the owner of the marina and let her know that you’ll continue keeping the boat here.”

As we ducked and entered the house we found ourselves in a tiny dark room with three other people huddled around a kerosene stove.  One was an old woman who was hard to make out in the dim light but who appeared rather scraggly.  Another was an old man with a beard, smoking a pipe and wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap.  The third appeared much younger than the other two–a fairly plain looking man in his thirties. The three of them were passing around a bottle.

“Miss Evans,” Fletcher said to the old woman. “I want you to meet the new owners of my boat. Mr. McDonald and Mr. Howell.”

There was a moment’s pause during which time Miss Evans gave us a careful once-over.

Then she burst into a smile. A twinkle in her eye appeared; and she exclaimed. “ Well, goddamn, you finally sold that piece of shit,  did you?”

The other two men offered us a swig of rum and invited us to share the warmth of the kerosene stove.

Fletcher explained that we couldn’t stay to chat, to which the old lady said to us. “Well, we don’t have no rules here.   Just pay up in cash by the fifth of the month and don’t complain.   This place ain’t no goddamn yacht club, but it’s the best deal in town!”

McDonald whispered in my ear, “Got that right.”

At last we were ready to put the boat in the water.  There was a narrow ramp into the Potomac River on each side of which was a steep wall of black, gooey wooden pilings.

“Okay.” said Fletcher. “Now one of you guys wade out into the water to help guide the boat when we let her off the trailer.”

“In that water?” exclaimed McDonald. “Yuk.”

I glanced down at the water.  Floating on the surface were beer cans, Styrofoam cups, cigarette butts. twigs and debris–all of which were seemingly glued together in a large pool of green muck and slime.

“No, sir, not me! I’m not going in that cesspool.” complained McDonald.  ”I’ll never come out alive.”

“Me either.” I chimed in.

“Jesus.” smiled Fletcher. “you guys want to sail or don’t you?”  Fletcher thrust the end of the trailer toward me and waded into the water.

“See,” he exclaimed, “no big deal.”

I gently released the rope holding the boat to the trailer and watched the graceful craft slip gently into the water.

“Okay,” hop in.” shouted Fletcher. “We’re ready to go!”

In retrospect  I must admit that the first sail could have been much worse.  There was no wind. Not a breath.  Normally this would not be something to be thankful for, but in our case it was clearly a blessing.  A capsize on that chilly spring day in the Potomac River would have meant the end.  Fletcher admitted that he had not actually sailed the boat himself much. He could not help us out as to which lines went where. There was an unbelievable tangle of ropes, all of which Fletcher explained had always been tangled and apparently had no effect on the sailing of the boat.  He presumed they were for the spinnaker, which he had never used.

As we sat in the calm Potomac River drifting gently with the tide, the only minor problem that we observed was that the boat was gradually filling up with water.

“ Good God!”  cried McDonald. “We’re sinking!”

“ We’re not sinking,” replied Fletcher calmly.

“The hell you say!” McDonald exclaimed.  “There is an inch of water in this boat and it’s getting deeper all the time!”

Desperately I looked around for the problem.  It did not take long to find it. At the back end of the boat–the boat’s “transom”   as Fletcher had corrected me earlier–there were two small doors or flaps, each about the size of a dollar bill. The flaps were supposed to be sealed shut and secured by an elastic cord connected to the boat’s center board. Obviously something wasn’t working because you could see water oozing in through the tiny cracks around the flaps.

“0h,”   commented Fletcher, “ Don’t worry about that. That’s the self bailer.   It’s there to let the water out fast when you capsize and want to get on the go again.  It lets the water flow right out the stern.  Neat idea. huh?”

“Neat idea, my ass.” said McDonald.  ”That water  is not going out; it ‘s coming in; and what’s more if it keeps up, we’re gonna sink.”   Before he finished the last sentence, I observed that the water was already up above the soles of my shoes.

“Don’t  worry.” said Fletcher.  ”The only reason the water is coming in is because there is no wind.  If we were moving, there wouldn’t be this problem.  Second, this boat will not sink.  It ‘s got permanent foam flotation, and you can capsize her and still come right up.  All you have to do is stand on the centerboard. She ‘ ll pop right up and because of the self bailers, no sweat. You ‘re off and flying again.  The water goes right out.”

The second part was reassuring.  Rather than argue anymore about the problem, we agreed to paddle into shore.  In all we had drifted about 50 yards.  So ended our first sail.

When we got back to shore Fletcher quickly departed, leaving us the sails.  His departing words were “Now she’s  all yours. Good luck!”

McDonald and I looked at each other with the what-do-we-do-next look when we noticed a young man in his early twenties observing us.   He had long hair and a ruddy, healthy look.

“So he finally sold the junk heap, did he?” he asked.

McDonald gave me one of his sick  looks.

“Well, if you ‘ re gonna be competitive,  you’ve got some work to do.  Come over here.”

We shrugged our shoulders and followed him, stepping around two beat-up boats and over a pile of broken trailer parts. “You  guys want to see something beautiful? I mean really beautiful, take a look at this.”

He stopped beside a boat which had a canvas cover on it, paused briefly to enhance the suspense and then with one dramatic sweep yanked the cover off, revealing a boat the approximate size and shape of ours.  At that point any similarity ended.  His boat had a mahogany deck that glistened with layers of varnish.  ”Now this is a five-o-five,” he said.  ”I love her.  She is gorgeous, beautiful and, man, one hell of a board racer.”

The boat’s name inscribed on the transom of the sleek, black hull, “Hot Dog.”

“What the hell is all that stuff?” asked McDonald pointing to blocks, shackles, lines, more lines, gadgets and so on.  The ropes were painted different colors. The stainless steel fittings sparkled, and everything was neat and orderly.

“It looks like the inside of a goddamn space rocket,” observed McDonald.

“This is what sailing is all about, man!  Sailing is racing. And winning in racing is gear. Hardware. Let me tell you. My boat is nothing compared to most of the other five-O s. If you think ‘Hot Dog’ is hot stuff, wait till you see some of the other five-0 s. Board boats. You can’t beat  ‘em. Glass. Glass board boats.Five-0 s. Fastest goddamn racing  machine on earth.”

“What is he talking about?  I didn’t understand a word he said,” McDonald commented as the young fellow disappeared behind his VW bus, then returned with two enormous tool boxes.

“Now,  If you’ll excuse me,”  he said,  I’ve got some work to do.”

He began tinkering around with fittings.  I peered into the tool box, which  must have contained several hundred parts–screws, shackles, bolts,and various other items.

“Is all that just for your boat?”

“Are you kidding?  This is only half the stuff I need.  The other box is for the boat, too, and I’ve got more stuff at home. These five Os are beautiful, but to keep ‘em tuned you’ve got to do a lot of work.  Besides, on these boats, you never know what will happen.”

I could see McDonald’s ears prick up.

“ 0h yeah?” he said with worried look.

“ All that just for a boat this size?  Oh yeah?”

I was beginning to wonder just what we had gotten ourselves into.  I was soon to find out.