I did not know how much the wind would affect the boat as I left the slip. Would the tide force me one way or another? I had heard of prop walk, but I was not overly familiar with how it worked of what effects it might have. Would my boat suffer from prop walk? If so, which way would it push me as I backed out? You see, I was a complete novice when it came to skippering a sailboat of any kind. The only things I knew were based on what I had read in Cruising World and SAIL magazines, and what I could glean from the various nightly conversations in the lounge of Willoughby Harbor Marina in Norfolk, VA.
At the ripe old age of 21, I was not willing to appear foolish in the presence of these old salts that wandered in and out regularly, so I never really asked any questions. I might have occasionally made calculated comments to which others in the room would willingly chime in with their opinions and knowledge, and I listened intently. If I didn't quite understand what they had said, I would simply challenge them with another comment contrary to what I thought I heard. Sailors are usually always quick to elaborate, to a fault. But for me, at that time, the more they elaborated, the more stories they told; the more drunk they became, the more knowledge I soaked up - it was all good stuff, even if it did come out a bit slurred.
But was it enough? Did I know enough to take my, new to me, 25-year old 30' sloop out for a sail. Instead of backing out of my slip using the engine, I decide to spring out - a technique I had learned about in magazines. It worked quite well, but at the time, it felt like I was a one-man Chinese fire drill. Once clear of the slip and pointed out of the marina, I throttled up the little Atomic 4 engine, with barely one hour on the meter since its rebuild half a decade earlier, and made my way out.
After clearing the marina and jetty, I went out a few hundred yards and pointed the bow into the wind (because I had read that somewhere.) I dropped the engine into neutral and rushed to the mast. Once I released the rope (main halyard) from the pointy thing (cleat) and the rolley thing (mast winch), I pulled on it as fast as I could. After about two feet, it came to a sudden stop with a TWANG! I jerked on it a couple of times and it was not about to budge. I ran back to the cockpit and adjusted the tiller, engaged the engine and powered forward a bit to keep the bow pointed into the wind (not that it had fallen off more than a degree or two since I had left it last, but I didn't know any better.) I sprang back up onto the coach roof to the mast to see if I could determine the problem. It seems that the little silvery things on the sail (sail slides) were caught up on a joint of the silvery track on the mast (mast track.)
I had to line them up one at a time, pulling the rope (main halyard) a couple of feet each time to get the next one up to the annoying joint. Every 9.2 seconds, I would rush back to the cockpit and realign the bow half a degree into the wind, then rush back to the mast, and continue with my very UnSeamanLike raising of the mainsail. I wondered how many people were watching me from the broad porch of the lounge that overlooked the marina and Willoughby Bay. Eventually, I had the main raised. But as I attempted to pull the sail taught, the boom lifted with the sail and jumped out of its own track. It started a wild attempt to kill me, whipsawing back and forth in the wind. Running back to the cockpit to realign the bow was now a treacherous exercise with an out of control boom attempting to decapitate me via blunt force. Was it personal, or was it just my imagination?
I kept my head low and made my way back to the mast to figure out the new problem. I could see how the boom fit on the track, but I now needed to lower the mainsail a bit to get it back on. There was a short line hanging from the fitting and a cleat (that pointy thing) near the base of the mast. Once the boom was back on its track, I cleat the line and hoisted the main fully again. I ran back to the cockpit and took the tiller. I let the bow bear off in the direction of the large air craft carrier nestled in it slip at the base across the bay, and felt the boat heel as the sail filled.
From what I had read and heard in the lounge of Willoughby Harbor Marina, I knew that I needed to properly sheet the main. As I raised the sail, it was pulled tight amidships. So as the bow headed off, I eased the sheet. The only problem: the actual sail was not moving from its amidships position. In fact, my mainsheet was completely slack, dangling in the wind, and the mainsail was fixed tightly to the center line.
WHAT THE F*&K!!
I engaged the engine and steered back into the wind. I pulled the sheet tight again, the pointed the bow off of the wind, slowly letting the main sheet out. Still nothing. I did the exercise a couple of times until I finally noticed the problem. My boat had a special feature, not found on normal boats: a custom topping lift. You see, most boats have a small line from the masthead down to the end of the boom that holds the boom up (in the era before hard vangs), and keeps the boom from knocking you in the head, or coming down into the cockpit as you let the sail down. A previous owner had eliminated this wonderful piece of sailing paraphernalia, and had instead installed a custom boom holderupper that completely prevented the boom from moving down, or side-to-side any more than a couple of inches. Someone had swaged a short piece of stranded wire onto the backstay and added a clip that hooked onto the boom end where the topping lift once resided. Once I determined the function of this contraption (which I continued to use as intended for the remaining years I owned the boat), and detached it from the boom, VIOLA! I was sailing!
Just to make sure nothing else funky was lurking in my future, I continued to "sail" with the motor idling in gear. I made a few turns and tacks. Once I felt like I had the hang of it, I disengaged the engine and tried everything again without a hitch.
Then I turned the engine off. A mere thirty seconds later, I was in love. The majesty of the breath of God propelling my boat forward captured my inner soul for all eternity. I was dumbstruck that I was floating on top of the water, while at the same time moving across it at my direction, all the while without any means of engine other than the wind in the sail. What, I asked, could be better?
I spent the next hour reveling the beauty of sail. The day was wonderful anyway, but this newfound means of locomotion made it so much better. Eventually I made my way out of the bay and into the area of Sewells Point Spit, which is an area between the Norfolk naval base and the I-64 bridge tunnel. Cheasapeake Bay was just beyond and I wanted to make my way into the vast body of water so I started to make my way towards the shipping channel that would take me over the tunnel of I-64 where it crossed the water.
As I started to tack in the ever lightening wind, I couple of Navy helicopters flew over quite low and began to circle Hampton Flats and the Entrance Reach. I watched with amusement as I continued to make my tacks under mainsail alone. My first day sailing! WOW! It was just incredible.
As I looked out into the bay, beyond the bridge tunnel, I could see a fairly bright white light between two of the entrance bouys. I searched my memory and could not recall a white aid to navigation in that area on the chart, and I continued to look at it for a while to see if I could jog my memory of the aid. Eventually I was distracted by the extra pair of helicopters that flew into the area to join the other pair. They were certainly fascinating, and I had never before seen such a spectacle (even though I was in the Navy at the time, and was trained to identify every naval aircraft and ship, as well as every aid to navigation) the presence of the aircraft flying so low overhead was still awe inspiring.
Eventually I turned back to my purpose and gazed upon the Chesapeake Bay once more. Not only did it seem as though I was getting further away from the Bridge Tunnel, but now there was a flashing yellow light out there. What was that? I was certain I had never seen a flashing yellow in the vicinity of the channel on any of the charts for the bay. What could that be? I continued to tack back and forth in the channel for another 15 minutes before I realized that the tide was coming in at a rate faster than I could move forward. So I took a tack that drove me out of the channel towards Hampton on the north side of the water. Eventually I lost sight of the flashing yellow light, but I could not get it out of my mind. What aid could that be? I was paid to know all of the aids, and now I was going to be in trouble if I didn't figure it out before a NCO challenged me on it.
I finally realized that I was not going to make it into the Chesapeake Bay today. It was getting too late, the tide was against me, and I was a novice sailor after all. Because I didn't want to hit the Hampton Bar, I tacked back towards Willoughby and into the ship channel. Then, it appeared suddenly: a submarine. I couldn't believe it. What I thought were aids to navigation were the white steaming light, and the flashing yellow of A SUBMARINE operating on the surface (which I should have known, but who ever thinks of submarine when they see lights in the daytime during their very first sailing adventure?)
At my current course, my bow was aimed at crossing in front of the sub, from their starboard side. But my quick distance-speed-eye calculation said that was not going to happen, so I pointed a bit lower to pass behind the submarine. The helicopters were lower now, and the crew of the submarine were waving at me while I blissfully waved back. As I closed the distance, a good pick up in the breeze propelling me faster directly at the submarine's starboard beam, and I realized that the crew were not waving at me, per se, but waving me off. I guess they knew something I did not: that the suction of their propeller had a detrimental effect on small craft a distances greater than one may realize. So at just about 150 yards away, I put the helm hard over and turned back towards Hampton Bar. As I did, the helicopters moved higher and further away. Hmmmm.
It wasn't until I returned to the marina that I was informed that the helos, a submarine, and the Coast Guard were all attempting to hail a "small white sloop" for nearly 30 minutes. Because some at the marina knew that I was out that day, they asked if I saw the offending vessel. I simply answered, "How would I know, all sailboats are white. It could have been any of them." As for me, the antique VHF radio that was on the boat was not hooked up, and even if it was, I had no clue how the archaic switching system worked, and neither did anyone else who ever saw it.
I guess ignorance is bliss...or at least it is up until a submarine propeller chops you up into fish bait. I lived through my first sailing adventure to have far more exciting and dangerous ones later. Wait until you hear what happened on my second time out sailing. It will take at least two parts for that one.