Why I almost quit sailing before I really got started
Watching a peacock get blown over attempting to display his plumage tells me today will be a good day for sailing. I donned one of the terrible yellow foam life vests and signed out a hobie cat. The wind built as I sailed away from the beach and I was loving it; reaching back and forth in the chop while my sunglasses served as spray shields. I rocketed to and fro experimenting with the speed of different reaching angles having an absolute ball.
As I come over a wave the base of the mast detaches from the boat right before my eyes. It slips forward off the front of the trampoline crossbar. As we come down into the trough the sail hits the water and trips the boat, stopping us quickly enough to slide me forward. I cling to the tiller bar. The mast and sail topple awkwardly into the water, forestay and shrouds still attached.
I’m happy that I’m still on the boat and that I didn’t have to dive out of the way of the mast as it fell. I’m surprised that the mast went forward and to windward as it failed. I’m unnerved that the mast is banging into the port hull.
I’ve been doing some reading; that and the unnerving banging make it obvious the mast in the water is dangerous. I grab the mast and sail and get control of them. I haul the mess onto the boat and secure the mast, sail, shrouds and stay with the mainsheet. The mast is intact so it is balanced across the trampoline. With the mast secured the motion is better and there is a lot less banging so I stop to take stock of what is next.
The beach is far away. I’m drifting offshore much faster with the sail aboard; having the sail in the water must have been a makeshift sea anchor slowing our drift. Out here the waves are bigger and the wind is stronger.
The wind is coming from the beach to the east. The next land to the west is Mexico, hundreds if not thousands of miles away. To the north there is a small island that I sailed to yesterday but to the south there is a mainland outcropping that seems to be at a more workable angle.
I start trying to steer more south. One of the rudders is out of the water, I must have pulled it out when we stopped suddenly. I put it back down and keep trying to steer.
I’m definitely not making it.
I put the rudders hard over to act as a brake (a “technique” I had drilled into me when figuring out how to tack this cat). I can make out people standing on the beach but not those sitting/lying down. I can see the sails of the catamarans sitting on the beach. I can’t really see the hulls of those catamarans; sitting here I’m about as visible as those hulls on the beach except the chop is taller than the freeboard. If I stand up and wave my arms somebody might see me. It’s choppy, standing would be risky. (In the picture above on the beach behind me there are boats sitting on the beach. Can you see them?) It will be hours, maybe sunset, before my girlfriend thinks me overdue. I have no light sources aboard to aid with a search in the dark.
Can I paddle this thing? I might front crawl with an arm and steer with my feet. How can I jury rig? I’ve got no tools and only the broken rig for parts. There is no boom. No way I can hold the mast up and drive. Maybe I can tie the head of the sail to the port bow, hold the luff down and the leech up? Maybe I can use the bolt rope track and mast to help? Gotta rig fast cause I’m drifting further offshore.
No good options. It’s been at least 20 minutes, maybe twice that, nobody has seen me and I’m only getting harder to see.
*only getting harder to see*
That thought lingers with me as time seems to slow down. The way time slows down during the moment you realize a car crash is imminent; everything happens in slow motion. Except this is already happening over minutes at a crawling pace so it feels like an eternity. Desperate, I contemplate swimming for it.
Stop. Breathe. THINK.
I take a deep breath and collect myself. Stay with the boat! Worst case I wait to be searched for and they’ll find the boat much easier than my bobbing head. Since I’m committed to staying with the boat I may as well try self rescue.
Jury rig might get me ashore. And I’ll be easier to see with some sail up. And it won’t use the energy of paddling. And if it doesn’t work the sail, separated from the mast, is a much safer sea anchor to toss overboard.
First jam the tiller hard over. Let’s not get further away! Uncleat the halyard. Release the downhaul. Slide the mast back. Untie the mast so I can access the sail and move the mast around. Mainsheet is really in the way; tied around everything. “Who made this mess!” I quip to myself and a chuckle slips out; my improved spirits beget better spirits. I’m gonna have to sit on this mast once we get moving. Can the mainsail slide off the top of the mast? Yes! That means, hopefully, I shouldn’t have to untie that bound up stopper knot to have use of the main halyard…
Is that an engine I hear!?! A jet ski is out here? I start waving my arms frantically while kneeling, still afraid to stand. He slows down and heads my way.
“You lose your paddle?” he yells.
“Something like that. Can you go to that resort and tell them I am out here and I can’t get to shore because my boat is broken”
“Sure, be right back”
I might have ridden in with him if there wasn’t already a second person on the jet ski. I re-secure the sail and mast while watching them get to shore and risk standing and waving to make sure the resort staff sees me. The resort’s water ski boat is headed straight at me; first time sailing that a powerboat headed right at me has been a source of relief…
This is the most perilous situation I’ve been in while sailing and by far the most scared I’ve been at sea. Less than two miles from hundreds of people gazing in my direction yet completely isolated from them. The experience really shaped the way I think about safety at sea. Once you leave shore you enter a barren land: the only things that you have to aid you are the things you brought. There would have been no emergency if I had brought a radio, a cellphone or anything to signal shore. A paddle could have gotten me ashore. A multi-tool would have made a jury rig more feasible.
But I had none of that. All I had was a bare bones boat that was broken, a swimsuit, a life vest and my own ingenuity. I don’t know if that jury rig would have allowed me to point high enough to make shore. I am very lucky the jet ski happened by.
I vowed this would be the last time I was unprepared.