With Murphy aboard, batten down the hatches


It's a rare sailor who has not experienced the full brunt of Murphy's Law, which dictates that what can go wrong will. At its worst, it is sequential. One thing leads to another, making a bad situation worse.

It was the perfect sailing day when we set out from the Rhode River aboard a 31-foot Westerly Berwick last weekend. After the humidity of summer, there was a delightful autumn briskness in the air.

The breeze was blowing at around 12 mph from the northwest. The bay's surface was rippled, but certainly not rough. The sky was a clear blue, dappled with clouds. The Chesapeake could hardly have been more inviting.

A problem with the upper swivel of the furling genny had marred one or two previous outings. It had been sticking, requiring a ferociuus pull on the sheets to get it turning. So, before setting out, the sail was lowered and the top drum greased.

Now the sail wound out smoothly, almost silkily. Soon, we were streaming along, the boat bent to its work, the toe rail dipped, but not dunked. We joined the fleet of other weekend watermen experiencing what sailing is all about.

We set course from the mouth of the West River for Thomas Point. A couple of boats were heading home with sails shortened, but most, like us, were fully suited. As we reached the mouth of the South River, the water off to port took on a yellowish green hue, and you could see the whitecaps breaking and heading our way.

"Better reef in a bit," I thought, and took up the genny's furling line. It was stuck, jammed hard. The gust hit us full force. We heeled over and broached.

I clambered along to the foredeck to look at the furling system. It was obvious what had happened. It was not the troublesome upper swivel that was sticking this time. It was the lower drum. The wire line had broken through the rim of the furling drum and jammed in the gap between the drum and its lid.

The reason it took me only a split second to identify the problem was simply a case of deja vu. At the beginning of the season, I had noticed that the wire had worn a small gap in the drum's rim through which it could escape.

I had approached two marinas about having it soldered, but both said a repair would not hold. As a stopgap measure, I installed a new block on the foot of the bow pulpit stanchion to lead the wire at a steeper angle away from the gap.

I also filled the gap with Marine-Tex, a heavy-duty metal and fiberglass repair material that, according to its manufacturer "licks the toughest repair jobs from leaky hulls to cracked engine heads."

It seemed to do the trick. Rock hard and smooth, the repair appeared to have made the drum whole again, and, indeed, it worked without problems throughout the summer, during which I regularly checked it for any signs of weakness or wear.

But, now, at the worst possible moment, the inevitable had happened. It had given way, and the wire was jammed. It was hardly a surprise.

In this column in June, when I first discovered the problem with the furling system, I wrote: "It was the tiniest of gaps, but it could create the biggest of problems because we all know it would happen only at the worst of moments - just as the sail was being desperately furled ahead of an approaching squall."

How prescient can one be?

It was going to take some time to clear the wire from its trap. So we decided the first thing to do was lower the mainsail so we could work on a reasonably even keel.

We headed into the wind, and dropped the sail as quickly as possible. In the midst of this operation, we lost headway and were blown onto one of the crab pots that infest the shallows here. Normally, we try to sail just to leeward of a line of pots, presuming that by being so close to one lot we won't be near the next string.

We had not seen the rogue one lurking in the setting sun's dazzle. Now we were firmly in its grip, and had no control of the boat or its foresail, which we had released to flap furiously.

In such a wind it would be folly to go into the water to try to release the pot, for once free the boat would be blown away faster than anyone could swim. Then our troubles would be compounded by the ultimate challenge - man overboard. Nor could we start the motor for fear of entangling the pot's lead around the propeller.

Murphy was truly making his presence felt, but he wasn't finished with us yet.

Hoping we would eventually blow off the pot, I went below for a hammer and screwdriver to try to release the jammed furling wire. As I sat on the foredeck, tapping away with the foresail flapping furiously around me, the boat was slowly turning on the crab pot.

Then I looked up and saw something I have only seen with spinnakers. The genny had knotted itself around the forestay. I was looking at a perfect figure of eight, the upper and lower halves of the sail filled and outlined by the dark blue weather strip around a strangulated knot in the middle.

Even if I could get the wire freed, there was now no way to furl the sail in, or to lower it. Nevertheless, I hammered away, and eventually the wire sprang back into the drum's interior. Furling was now possible, but not practical.

I grabbed hold of the clew of the genny and tried to force it round the forestay to untangle the knot. But the wind was so strong that when my arm was fully extended, it simply blew the sail back. After several attempts, with the boat turning just enough to change the angle of wind, it went.

But it went the wrong way. Now, the sheets as well as the sail were wound round the forestay. The only solution was to rethread them, a small but unwanted chore that meant clambering back and forth along the deck. All the time, more composed yachts were slipping by, their crews bemused, I suspect, by the spectacle that Murphy - if I may lay the blame elsewhere - was providing.

Eventually, we got the sail straightened out and furled away. And our luck immediately changed. A white crab float popped up to our stern, twirling around like a playground top as the wire untwisted from all the rolling about the cage must have done beneath the hull.

We were free and clear. We switched on the motor and headed home, a perfect day's sailing ruined by a series of mishaps that could have been avoided.

With hindsight, of course, we would have been better immediately lowering the genny and dealing with the jammed drum back at the berth. But our priority was to get the furling system working so we could sail on.

The other lessons are simple enough: Never set sail with imperfect equipment; always reduce sail early rather than late. Had we taken such an approach, we, too, could have shared the full enjoyment of thousands of other bay sailors that day - a glorious, fall sail.

If you have a boating experience or event - sail or power - you would like to share, Gilbert Lewthwaite can be contacted by phone at 202-416-0262, or by e-mail at gilbertlewthwaite@hotmail.com.

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