Not Making It

Categories Sailing Log

When I was younger and had no sense of consequence, I came home in a rented car that I had picked up for an early work meeting the next day. There were a bunch of people at my house, and I asked them if they wanted to see how fast it would go. The Dodge Stratus was not developed with speed in mind, but if you take one out into the Pine Barrens and stand on the accelerator for long enough, it will get up toward 120. My brother, who was sitting in the passenger seat, said “Watch out for the curve.”

I said, “What curve?”

I knew these roads, and I knew that there would eventually be a fairly abrupt bend to the left, but it hadn’t occurred to me that at twice my normal driving speed that I’d get there twice as fast. If the Dodge Stratus was not developed for speed, it certainly wasn’t developed to handle at speed, and then we were spinning sideways through the woods at Mach 0.16.

In my mind, I remained very calm. I tried some things—turning the wheel, using the brakes, etc.—and discussed the various outcomes of those tests with my brother by saying “Making it. Making it. Not making it…” while he equally calmly confirmed or denied his interpretations of what was happening with his own “Not making it. Not making it. Making it?” I have a distinct memory of us sounding like the cockpit voice recordings of pilots serenely working through the checklist for total engine failure. The backseat passengers would later tell us that my brother and I were actually speaking so quickly that we sounded like chipmunks.

Somehow, I didn’t hit anything or flip the car. We came to a stop, paused for a moment, and then drove away. I still think about this all the time, or at least when everything seems to be spinning out of control (which is basically all the time in recent memory). It’s what I’m picturing when I quietly tell myself, “Not making it.”

I was not making it Sunday. The forecast was for 8-10kts from the west. It was going to be hot and sunny, and I figured that the sea breeze would kick in and knock it down to nothing. If there was anything happening at the marina to alert me to the actual wind speed, I didn’t pick up on it. We motored past the end of the creek and into the bay so that we could turn around and have room to put up the main while pointing into the wind. The cat-ketch Wild Cat was doing the same thing, and we did an intricate tango with them to avoid hitting each other while in various states of limited maneuverability. I guess I was paying more attention to them than the feeling of the wind on my face or the obvious white caps, because I hoisted the main with no reef and quickly worked to get the jib out so that I could sail away from them.

The actual wind was double the prediction, and we were overpowered. We were heeled too much and the weather helm was annoying. I tried to stick with it, still seeing that “8-10kts” in my head and thinking that it would calm down, but it didn’t. When we got out past the endless stream of powerboats following the ICW into more open water, I had the brilliant idea to heave-to to put a reef in. I have no idea what caused me to think that this might work. I think I mostly just wanted things to calm down for a minute, which I did accomplish, but I couldn’t come close to getting the aft end of the sail reefed while it was loaded, which it clearly still is when hove-to.

We got going again, now on the wrong tack, headed back toward the ICW traffic, but I unloaded the sail the normal way by releasing the sheet and was able to get the main properly reefed. I don’t know how much time actually elapsed, but it seemed like as soon as I got back to the tiller and trimmed the main sheet again, something else happened. Either the wind shifted or I let us get off course, but there was a powerful gust from the wrong side of the jib, which immediately backwinded it and violently threw us on to the opposite tack with the rail deep into the water. I dumped the main, tacked the jib, and tried to assess what was even happening.

Bathtub Toy that is Not Making It
I had this toy. It is such a weird representation of a sailboat.

The truth is, I have no idea. I’ve been doing this for over a decade, and I don’t know how I still sometimes wind up getting tossed around like a bathtub toy in a tantrum-induced bathtub tsunami. I mean, we were never in any danger. It’s not like I was screwing around under a gale warning or ignorantly allowing some major mechanical malfunction to go unresolved or anything egregious like that. It’s just that huge part of sailing for me is sailing well: staying several steps ahead of the potential problems, being in complete command of the boat, keeping it classy even when working through the checklist for what to do when the wings fall off the plane.

Perhaps the best decision that I made that day was to bag it. We tacked around (intentionally) and sailed back off the wind, which was calmer and without further incident. I wasn’t exactly feeling defeated, but I wasn’t having any fun, and I obviously wasn’t really focused on sailing. Maybe the progress is in admitting that you’re not making it before you’re in the flat spin.

"Prepare to fend off the bridge abutment."