Madrone's wild ride
We gave our boat Madrone to my friend. For us it was wonderful to put her into friendly hands and also to have her out of ours. We had just been out of the country for a year, and planned to go away again for even longer. It’s no fun having a boat like the 30 foot Rawson stored up on land, worrying that any of a 1000 bad things might happen to her.
I arranged to drop Madrone back into the water on Lopez Island and it was there that my friend took on the burden of her care. Lopez is a nice place to have a boat, but he wanted to move her down to the south sound where he lived. I said don't be in a rush, it's lovely in the islands and it's not so easy moving a boat across the strait of Juan de Fuca. I mean, the main thing is not to do a number of dumb things. It doesn't seem so hard as long as you don't do any of the dumb things. But I learned there were a lot of dumb things you could do (by doing them) and I didn't want my friend to learn the way I did.
But stuff had mostly not gone to plan with my visit to the US and I had less time than I expected. I wasn't able to show my friend the ropes and I couldn’t share whatever wisdom I had about how to avoid doing all the dumb things that I had done.
Then we got on a plane to Berlin with one less thing to worry about back home. My friend moved the boat down to the south sound without doing anything dumb.
And then COVID hit. Right? Fucking COVID. I sort of figured my friend and I would get to sail that summer together. Summer came and went. My friend converted the boat to electric. That meant pulling out the 4 cylinder diesel that had been bolted to the hardwood engine mounts deep in her belly since way back in 1974. Back before I was born. He pulled all that out and then mounted the new system. Lithium iron phosphate battery packs from China replaced that greasy old hunk of steel from England.
After a while my friend decided to move her up to Bellingham. I was worried about his trip... Limited range from the battery pack plus the vagaries of wind and a working stiff's schedule could, at a minimum, make things stressful. It is a well known fact that tight schedules get sailors into trouble.
Anyway it killed me that I couldn't be on the boat too, to help with the trip. But being 9 hours in the future, I'd always find out the next day how the previous day's travel went. Also, when he decided to make the trip north, I was high on painkillers laying in a Berlin hospital bed trying to make sense of what the doctors were saying to me. "Das Schicksal?" Medicine is all about describing ever darker scenarios in terms of their silver lining. "Well you'll fit into smaller dresses now" or "Most people your age don't get to plan their own funeral". I can play that game too: what might have been an unpleasant experience of powerlessness to help a friend as he made an early fall trip north in challenging conditions in a boat that was once mine instead was subsumed into a much larger feeling of helplessness as nurses did things to me, for me.
My friend discovered that with a short weekend and a limited battery range it was going to be hard to reach Bellingham and settled for a trip to Seattle instead. The boat stayed there for a while as he set about working and I set about healing.
And then the day came for him to try again. It was late fall now, well past when pleasure boaters expect to find pleasure on the Salish Sea. My friend's timing was immaculate because I had my follow up surgery the same weekend he set out from Seattle for Bellingham. Again high on painkillers and laying in a hospital bed I would chat with him about his plans for the day. "The weather is so-so but I am going to head out", and then I'd wake up the next morning to: "it was too rough and we had to turn around and head back".
But a goldilocks day came along, not too calm (the boat has limited range and needs the wind) and not too windy. So he and his young son left Seattle for a long trip on a day which at Seattle's latitude would not be very long at all. I went to sleep as he passed by the last good harbor for a long time on the east side of Whidbey Island. I knew that the forecast wasn't good. And I knew that gales at the east entrance of the straits of Juan de Fuca can blow with a force not normally experienced inland. And I knew that Whidbey Island is an imperfect windblock to these gales resulting in inconvenient calms and wind shifts. And I knew that sometimes the full force of a gale can spill over to Whidbey's leeward side. But I was a world away in a hospital bed. I also might have imagined that my friend had a long summer's day ahead of him, way over there in that part of the world. I was high on drugs, man.
I went to bed, and the next morning I awoke to texts from a badly bruised and shaken friend. After we last spoke, with his son seasick and asleep in the forward berth and with the sun setting fast, he pressed on with full sails up trying to make the most of the calm conditions. And then he came around one of Whidbey's treacherous corners and was hit with 30 knots of wind. And suddenly all choices were taken away from him. With full sail up and no crew it would be incredibly difficult and dangerous to get those sails down. And anyway just steering the boat required all of his attention. The boat periodically would lurch to port, trying to head into the wind and away from the destination. The waves were already so large that they were able to come over the stern and wash into the cockpit. This on a type of boat that has circumnavigated the globe and sailed the southern oceans. My friend was running downwind but with the sails trimmed for a beam reach. Earlier in the day our texts discussed sail balance. But it was a new topic, and this was not the way to learn about it.
But hey, the progress was good. The thing about everything almost going to hell but then it not going to hell is that you feel pretty good about things not having gone to hell. It feels like luck, which is crazy if you think about it for too long. My friend was in a hurry before, poking along at 3-4 knots. Now a boat that shouldn't ever go over 7 knots was doing 9! Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows.
And then the shitty nylock nut that I used to attach the temporary tiller hardware to the tiller head (Does anyone have access to the original Rawson tiller hardware? I'd pay a premium!), that shitty nylock nut worked itself loose. The tiller that had required so much muscle and attention moments before suddenly hung loose in my friend's hands like the torn paper handles from a grocery bag. The boat was free to do as she pleased. With her sails already trimmed for a beam reach she turned 90 degrees in an instant and then like a train on its rails she maintained that beam reach going faster and faster. And because a beam reach is perpendicular to the wind, and storm driven waves run directly downwind, this meant the boat danced along the wavetops and then ran deep down in the troughs. And then up along the wavetops again as each wave passed under her. Balanced on top of a wave a boat can find itself in less water than usual and at the same time in the most wind. At these times she leaned even harder over, so that if my friend's son had sat up in bed and looked out the starboard window he would have seen only water.
By now it was dark. Dark in Washington and dark as well in Berlin. My friend had not been answering his text messages, and the angel that was sending the unrequited text messages decided "fuck it I'll call 911".
My friend for his part had not lost his head. He lost his tiller sure, but not his head. You can't go 9 knots for long on the east side of Whidbey Island without hitting land. Something had to be done. Before it had been vital to keep the boat on a good course and not let her go sideways to the waves, possibly to be swamped. Now she was sideways to the waves and he couldn't steer if he wanted to, so he used all this newfound free time to go forward and get the sails down.
There must have been more than one angel out there that night because after a long day, after a mentally and physically exhausting turn at the tiller, with his worries about his son down below, with 30 knots of wind blowing over the soaked deck, with the deck pitching up and down as the waves rose and fell, with the deck rolling as the wind from the tops of the waves pushed her sideways and as the relative calm in the troughs allowed her keel to roll her deck back up the other way, well with all that going on you fucking fall off. You fucking fall off and probably drown with your lifejacket still on. Or freeze to death before morning when they finally find you, bobbing up and down a really long way from where that speed demon of a boat finally encountered something heavy enough to stop her. I sort of imagine her sailing right up on land and cutting a Burgerville in half. But that's magical realism. She would go aground on the rocks in 3 to 5 feet of water and the waves would pound her but the boy would probably live. He'd be found by the locals in the morning, hypothermic in a boat half full of water and sand but otherwise high and dry because by then the tide would have gone out.
Instead! A rescue boat from Oak Harbor set out into the dark night with a billion watts of LEDs lighting up the whole damn ocean. They could easily see the boat out there, white sails dancing like a bird along the waves, and they came up alongside and asked in that "how cool are we" voice: "do you need assistance?".
My friend had the main sail down and the jib half way down at this point. This is not a stable point of sail like the beam reach was. With the mizzen loose and the jib all baggy and with the waves and wind having very strong opinions of their own, the boat was no longer a train on rails but instead a bumper car bouncing around as the jib backed or the mizzen gybed or a big wave pushed her bow over.
The rescue boat came alongside, but the sea was too rough for them to tow the boat. One of the crew jumped aboard and together he and my friend reassembled the tiller. Then under the hyperreal glare of the LED lights they sailed through the windblown foam and the crashing white waves and into the marina. There they dropped all sail and the rescue boat pushed them upwind into the slip. Everyone had nice things to say about the sea keeping abilities of a Rawson. I guess the small talk couldn’t really revolve around what a nice day for a sail it was.
That night my friend tried to make the jumble down below into a proper place to go to sleep. And then a few hours later I woke up in my hospital bed to read text messages about the experience. The boat stayed in Oak Harbor for a while, but eventually the third leg of my friend’s trip to Bellingham was a success. I was glad to follow his progress from home for a change, and not from a hospital bed.