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Alaska 2003
  • Places: Washington State, British Columbia, Alaska
  • Time: May - August 2002
  • Vessel: "Teacup", Nordic Tug 37
  • Level of adventure: high to ridiculous
Copyright © 2003, P. Lutus. All rights reserved.

Towing a disabled boat near Port McNeill, B.C.
I have always been inclined to rescue other boats. I don't know all the reasons, and someday this habit will get me into trouble, but so far it's been a rewarding pastime. I even have a name for it, for those psychological types who can't stand anything that doesn't have a clinical-sounding name attached to it. I call it my "Holden Caulfield complex." The name comes from the novel "Catcher in the Rye" by J. D. Salinger, a rather compelling story about a young person who can't figure out whom to become in reality, so he becomes a rescuer in fantasy instead. It is a much better book than this brief synopsis might lead you to believe, and I remember being entranced by it at an ideal age for the story (about 14).

Anyway, if a disabled boat is near enough that I can get to where it is in a reasonable time, I go rescue it. Last year I got involved in two rescues and one recovery (meaning simply preventing a body from being lost — read about this episode here). My favorite rescue from 2002 was of a boat with ten people on board near Homer, Alaska. The boat became disabled a good distance from town and I was the only available boat that could offer assistance. I never interfere with Vessel Assist people, whose profession and livelihood it is to rescue pople, but there are plenty of cases where they are unavailable or cannot arrive soon enough when a timely rescue is essential. Anyway, I towed the boat back to Homer uneventfully, my favorite outcome. I often wonder whether running out of gas isn't the most common reason for a boat becoming "disabled," but I don't ask embarrassing questions of those whom I rescue.

This year I was involved in two rescues. One was near Port McNeill, B.C., in Johnstone Strait, a small rental fishing boat that, there it is again, "became disabled" with an unknown cause (see picture on this page), three people on board. What I found surprising about this rescue was that towing this disabled boat only reduced my boat's speed by 1/2 knot. It wasn't a very large boat, but still, I found that surprising.

At the time of the rescue there wasn't much wind, so there wasn't much immediate danger. Later that day a gale blew up (common in Johnstone Strait on a summer afternoon) so rescue conditions could have gotten much worse later on. Or, to say it another way, the rescue was fortuitously well-timed.

This year's other rescue took place at a dock in Seward, Alaska, while I was getting fuel. I happened to have the marine radio tuned to the harbormaster's channel, and as I was about to move my boat, the harbormaster called on the radio for the dock crew to stand by for a disabled sailboat which was being blown into the marina by quite a lot of wind, more or less out of control. Seward is located at the north end of Resurrection Bay, a long north-south bay that can become very windy in southerly wind conditions, and that afternoon the south wind was quite strong, with short, steep waves, not remotely acceptable conditions for a sailing lesson.

Generally when I hear about sailboats calling for help and describing themselves as disabled, I have to assume the skippers are not very experienced sailors, since it is a well-established historical fact that sailboats moved all over the planet before the first engine turned the first propeller. In fact, during my around-the-world sail, I sailed up the Red Sea for 27 uninterrupted days, without stopping (hostile countries on both sides), against a strong headwind, with a dead engine.

But I don't usually try to deliver history lessons during rescues — I jumped out on the dock and alerted the dock crew to expect anything. Pretty soon a sailboat appeared at the marina entrance, making quite a good clip toward the dock considering it had no sails up. It moved as though to come alongside the dock, somewhat erratically, wind from behind. Once it was close enough to hear me I asked them to pass me their aft dock line as they came by. Someone on board did, and I quickly wrapped the line once around a dock cleat — unfortunately, one turn was all I had time for before the line grew taut.

I saw right away I was in a pickle. The single turn on the cleat was only enough to reduce the load on the line, not enough to arrest the boat all by itself. I fell to the ground and managed to plant one foot against the cleat as the line tried to pull me through the cleat, but I moved quickly enough and applied enough force to hold the line. Fortunately for me, the cleat handled most of the load in arresting the boat's momentum. This entire mini-drama probably lasted eight seconds.

As is so often the case, the skipper had nearly no experience with boats, and he had invited his entire extended family out onto the water in his newly acquired sailboat. He gave each member of his extended biological unit some responsibility on the boat, which sort of made perfect sense, since none of them knew anything about boats, therefore it was not a question of someone being given responsibilities better assigned to another.

As soon as the situation stabilized, as soon as the possibility of articulate speech returned to the crew, I asked what was wrong with their engine (I didn't ask what was wrong with their sails — I knew better than to ask silly questions). It turned out the bow dock line had been allowed to fall overboard during their departure, and this particular line was extraordinarily long, longer than the boat, long enough to foul their prop. I made a quick phone call, and, sure enough, Murphy's Law had not been repealed that afternoon (it is a good idea to check on these things before going off half-cocked).

Boat tied to the dock after a fashion, rescue apparently over, I decided to return to my prior occupation. I moved my boat from the fuel dock to a berth in the marina, cleaned up the boat, made some plans and put together a bag of laundry. Then I looked back at the fuel dock. The sailboat was still tied as I had left it, no more secure but no less, and the entire crew was still mutely contemplating the bow line wrapped around the prop. So I invented an excuse to pass by the fuel dock on the way to the laundry. I said, "Why haven't you gotten that line off your prop?" "It's stuck," they said. "Okay," said I in a sudden and unfamiliar fit of diplomacy, "which way was the engine running when it picked up the line?" "Forward," they said. "Okay," I said, in an almost offensively tutorial voice, enunciating each syllable, "try putting the engine in reverse." The skipper shifted the engine into reverse and the line fell off the prop without assistance, as though delighted to be free of the foul indignity.

No, even though I now appear to be squeezing this story for every bit of humor, I didn't think it was particularly funny at the time. Then I only wanted to make the boat begin to obey its master, and also perhaps wished he had not chosen that particular crew on that particular day. What I really wanted was for the boat's owner to learn about boats before risking the lives of his family, not after.

In my humble opinion, here is the proper sequence of events for acquiring a sailboat:

  1. Find an experienced sailor (not a salesman nor anyone with a vested interest in any particular outcome), let him talk your ear off about boats.
  2. Read sailing books, learn the rules of the road, learn what kinds of sailboats exist and what they are for.
  3. Persuade an experienced sailor who owns a sailboat to take you out sailing, on a short day-sail, in benign conditions — not windless, but not truly windy.
  4. Up the ante. Sail repeatedly on windy days, with someone experienced, until you are comfortable handling the boat solo.
  5. Before taking a single inexperienced person out, learn how to handle rental boats or friends' boats until there are no conditions in your environment you cannot handle, and be willing to turn around if conditions exceed your personal envelope.
  6. The first time you take family out on a boat, make sure there is at least one other experience sailor on the boat, and lay down some rules — no one can touch anything whose purpose they do not understand, or without specific instructions.
  7. Consider buying a boat, carefully, with the advice of more experienced friends.

Notice about this list that the skipper in the above rescue story was trying to run the list backwards, from the bottom to the top. This is very common. In fact, given the conditions and the choice to take his entire family out, he was lucky no one was hurt or killed, on that boat, in that wind, no sails up, engine disabled, with no one on board who knew how to handle the boat.

In a situation like that, in any situation where there's any boat problem apart from immediate danger of sinking, and given that we're speaking about a sailboat, the skipper must know enough to get away from land first. In fact, it's not an oversimplification to say that sailors are partitioned by that acquired instinct: if a problem comes up, beginners will immediately try to return to the marina (as was true in this case), while experienced sailors will try to get well clear of land and then sort out the problem at sea.

Here's another fast-breaking news story: power boats are riskier than sailboats. In a power boat, if the engine should fail, you have far fewer options than in a sailboat. All you can do is drop your anchor (which slows the boat's drift down, and might catch on the bottom before the boat itself collides with a rock) and get on the radio. On a sailboat you can sail away from danger, and engine be damned. But this comparison is only valid for experienced crews. If the sailboat crew and the power boat crew are equally incompetent, then there is no difference between sailboats and power boats — they're equally dangerous.


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