Sunday, April 25, 2010

I learned about sailing from that: Always have a backup plan!

This is a guest column, written by Mike & Rebecca aboard s/v Katana. This is an expanded version of the original post, written specifically for Windborne in Puget Sound.

If ever there was a time when circumstances aligned to cause us problems, the first day moving our boat this season was it.

Although launch day was calm and uneventful, including the mast stepping which followed (I won't mention the lightning storm that began just as I was tightening the rigging), the wind had picked up considerably the next day. As more boat launches were scheduled, we told the marina owners that we would get there early and move our boat a few slips down the dock to make way.

Our boat's engines had sat without running for just shy of 6 months and thus I was a bit apprehensive about how well they would perform. Because of this, we let the engines run at idle for a good 15 minutes before casting off to move the boat. At this point the winds were blowing from our stern quarter at a good 20 knots. Nothing we hadn't experienced before, but we did make a note of it and considered how it would affect the boat's movement.

Strangely, the marina yard was, just then, empty. If one of the staff had have been around, or even one of the other boat owners, there is a good chance that I would have asked him to stand by on the dock to catch a line as we made our approach to the new slip. But again, docking with just the two of us was something we had done many times in the previous season, so we didn't bother going to look for help. With me at the helm, Rebecca cast off the lines as we had planned.

Almost from the beginning it didn't work out quite as we had hoped and Rebecca had to move quickly to even get on the boat. The wind took hold, causing us to accelerate and almost instantly we were being blown across the water towards the adjacent dock. No problem... I'll just shift the engines into reverse. Problem! They both stalled! Fortunately, with only a few feet to spare, I was able to restart them quickly and shift to reverse. This stopped our forward motion but again, the wind had moved us off course and we were now past the slip that we initially intended to dock in. As this was very early in the season, the entire dock was virtually empty, and thus we rapidly decided to make way into the next slip. Again the engines stalled and we were blown past it. This wind-blowing-engine-stalling process repeated itself until we had moved from the very first slip in the dock all the way out into the bay. At this point I had visions of our engine problems allowing us to be taken right across to the opposite shoreline! No problem... we have a sailboat. We'll just raise our sails to control our motion. Problem! The sails had not yet been rigged! OK, still no problem... if we really get into trouble we'll just drop our anchor. Another problem. Even the anchors had not yet been set! They were stored below, as they had been all winter, instead of being fixed on the bow, ready to deploy, as they normally are.

Was there a happy ending? Yes, what could have been a disaster for us resolved itself favorably. We ultimately got the engines running and were able to maneuver ourselves back to our desired slip. Although the docking process was ugly to say the least, the boat made it there without a scratch (thanks in part to the rubber bumpers on the corner of the dock and to Rebecca's aggressive fending-off).

Lessons learned:
  • The first lesson, and one that was drilled into us from our first sailing course, is to not let Mother Nature get one up on us. Although we had considered the wind's effect on our movement, we failed to pay it enough heed.

  • Although we had anticipated that we may have had engine issues, we failed to test them fully prior to casting off. We should have.

  • Why didn't we seek help when all it would have taken is a quick walk to find one of the marina staff, or even easier, a quick call on the radio to the office? I would have to say that we (I) let our ego take over. We shouldn't have to ask for help to move our own boat, should we? Yes, given the circumstances, asking to have someone stand by would have been prudent, and it sure would have been helpful.

  • What about the sails and the anchors? This could be one of the biggest lessons. We had no backup plan. No fail-safe. There always needs to be a backup, and if possible, a backup to that backup.

Good fortune was actually with us that day because we were able to have some important lessons driven home to us without it costing us any money. That isn't often the case!

Mike and Rebecca
s/v Katana

Years ago when I was a kid, I used to read Flying magazine. I particularly enjoyed a long-running series of articles entitled "I Learned About Flying From That." Each article was written by a pilot, who humbly admitted to having made a mistake, and then having lived, told about it in the hopes that others would not have to make the same mistake. I thought then that it was a good format, and I still think that now. This series of postings is my attempt to recreate that article series with a new subject and new technology.

(If you would like to help others to learn from your mistakes, please send your article to: WindborneInPugetSound at gmail dot com)



Drew Frye said...

Actually, when engines have been left for a while I have learned to warm them up AND run them forward and astern while still tied up. I will actually due this during the winter if I'm not going out, since just idling the engine is not a very good mid-winter warm-up.

As for not having sails and anchor ready... they had just launch and sometimes life stinks.

I have been sailing for 25 years and have made mistakes.

(note - I have the same boat as Katana. The engines have a reputation for been snotty when the water is cold.)

bob said...

Thanks for your insight Drew. Indeed, life sometime does stink... that's why I agree with Mike and Rebecca's admonishment that a backup plan is always a good idea.

Perhaps you'd be willing to share some of those mistakes from your 25 years of sailing, so that others might be able to avoid them. If so, please write something up and send it to me at windborneInPugetSound at gmail dot com.


Mike said...

Thanks for posting this Bob.


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