The Knock Down, Part 1
“You can’t throw bull with the ocean, she won’t listen.” — Harold H. “Dynamite” Payson
A couple, my nearly my age. He’s brought his Georgia peach of a wife back to Long Island for his 20th high school reunion, and to show her where he grew up.
It’s mid-week, early Summer. They’re getting a private sunset charter for the walk-on price, but I don’t mind. It’s a beautiful evening, and I’m going to make about $100 to go sailing for a couple of hours.
We dinghy out, hoist the sails, cast off the mooring and just like that we’re making long, lazy tacks across the lake, into a light northwest breeze, towards the inner channel that runs around Star Island and past Montauk Yacht Club and into the harbor proper.
I tell my fares that there are some thunderheads over Connecticut, and that I’ll be keeping a weather eye, both with my eyes proper and with dopler radar on my phone. The cells are tracking to the North and East, clearing us by a dozen miles. Still, it never hurts to be cautious.
We short tack the channel; with her big spade rudder and deep fin keel INTEMPERANCE handles like a dinghy, and then we scoon through the harbor past Gosman’s Dock with our sails close hauled. There’s no boat traffic, and just the barest ripple on the water from the light breeze. Lovely.
As we near the end of the jetties I decide the northern sky is just a little too dark for my taste and tell my fares we’re going to turn tail and head back into the shelter of the lake. I put the rudder over, reverse course, and now the light NW wind is on our starboard quarter. With wind and tide now behind us this is sailing finest kind. INTEMPERANCE moves along at an effortless 5 knots. The only sound is the bow gently cutting through the millpond smooth water.
Rounding the the buoy near the yacht club beach I get a warning. A sharp puff heels the boat. This isn’t uncommon sailing in the lee of buildings or large boats, but the puff is uncharacteristically sharp of for the conditions.
“I think you folks ought to come back from the bow into the cockpit,” my fares start making their way back, low and slow, using the handgrips. Their attentiveness is just about to (maybe) save a life.
She’s back in the cockpit when it hits.
What is it?
“It” is like getting socked in the jaw by the Lord Almighty himself.
We are hit by a blast of wind, 40 or 50 knots I’d guess, and an instant INTEMPERANCE goes from sailing upright to horizontal, spreaders in the water, a 16,000lbs bluewater cruiser (with a 6,500lbs deep keel) laid on her side like a children’s toy caught by a summer zephyr. What happens next seems like it’s in slow-motion, and like I am a robot acting on pure programing, utterly without conscience.
The tiller was ripped from my hand as the boat rounded up violently. I am standing vertically, hands on the toe-rail, the vast blackness of the bottom of the starboard side of my boat facing skyward. As she rounds up, the 3 1/2 ton keel does what it’s supposed to do, and starts to bring INTEMPERANCE back to her feet. I cast of the sheets and the sails flog in the howling wind.
With the tiller hard a lee the boat goes right though rounding up and into a tack. The blast has hit us in the narrowest part of the inner channel, and by the time I get the tiller under control we’ve come around 270 degrees and are on a dead run cutting across the channel, boom to starboard, with about two boat lengths before we will be driven into shoal water.
She is in the cockpit, seems okay, and it out of harm’s way.
He only made it back as far as the coach roof before the blast hit. By God’s grace or good luck he’s still there on the port side and not overboard, but I need to jibe, and if the boom hits him on crash-jibe it could kill him. If I don’t jibe we’ll be aground in a about 5 seconds.
“Stay down!” I call out as I point at him. He crouches even lower, and then I throw the tiller over and start hauling mainsheet as fast as I possibly can. I have to take in as much line as possible to limit the travel of the boom. If I don’t take in enough, the momentum of the jibe could break the boom or even take down the entire mast.
Nimble as ever, when I ask her, INTEMPERANCE comes around fast. The boom snaps across hard, but I’ve managed to get enough of sheet in that we exit the jibe intact and under control. The genoa is flogging itself to death, but there’s no time to worry about that. I’ve got to get to open water, get an anchor down and get the sails in.
We exit the channel only a few moments later, but we’re upwind of a couple of other boats. In this wind I figure we’re going to drag at least a little, not to mention in my rattled state I’m liable to blow my first attempt at anchoring, so I run off to get below the other boats.
This also gives me a chance to put the wind on my stern and furl the genoa. I also turn on the motor. I’m proud of how little I use the motor, but this isn’t the time or place for pride. I need to get things stabilized and make sure no one is hurt.
We clear the other anchored boats, then I round up, move quickly but carefully forward, drop the anchor, and let out a good long bit of scope. We’re only in about 8 feet of water, but I put out 150 feet of chain and rope, enough for 20′ of depth. The wind is still howling, producing 3 foot windwaves in only a couple hundred yards of fetch.
The anchor catches and holds. I drop the mainsail, and lash it to the boom. I get the wind generator made off. Now the only sound is the wind whistling though the wires of the rigging and the chop on the hull.
My fares are still in the cockpit, but seem okay. I go below. Everything that used to be on the starboard side of the saloon is now scattered on the port side. I quickly make a place for them to sit inside and then help them down the companion way ladder. Below decks it’s surprisingly quite, pleasant even. I pop my head out the companionway to check, I can see the backside of the front, orange in the Western sky. The wind is still howling, but in another 15-20 minutes it will be past. I go back down below.
“Is everyone sure their okay? Sometimes you don’t notice at first that you’ve fallen or banged yourself, or been cut.”
She looks up at me. The left side of her face is distended by swelling.
“I think I’m having an allergic reaction,” she says.