Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Lessons learned – a sailor’s cautionary tale about a very routine passage

My sailing friend Brian Lumley, who lives aboard his sailboat “Valcor” year-round in Toronto, Canada, has shared a cautionary tale with me about his last sail of the season.  He was on what he thought was going to be a routine and easy passage from the delightful mooring close to downtown (where I was his neighbour for a season) to the marina where he lives aboard the boat through the winter with other hardy souls.

Only the day didn’t quite turned out like that.  And the experience taught him a few lessons.

Lesson’s learned
1) secure all lines and make sure nothing is loose
2)  lifejacket, harness, lanyard etc. safety gear handy and in working order
3)  anchor prepped
4)  have something to eat onboard, just in case
5)  don’t panic! don’t panic!

Valcor’s last sail of 2008 was supposed to be a smooth trip east over to Bluffer’s Park Marina.  I departed mooring ball #98 of APSC’s moorings Nov. 2nd, 2008 with my mooring lines on deck at 1045.  The winds were about 12 to 15 knots (K) out of the east.  Old Newfoundlander piece of wisdom, “Nothing good ever came out of the east”, Northern Ontario saying, “Whatever comes with the east wind is really mean”.  This is folk wisdom with a high point of reality as I was about to find out again.

By the time I got to Outer Harbour’s pump out dock around 1110 the winds were gusting up to 20K.  I had let a power boat ahead of me and he had simply motored in his stern to the wind.  I had read about and witnessed the problems related to this type of docking and decide to stay away from it.  It took me 2 tries to get Valcor on to the dock and the audience of willing hands was both pleased and frustrated with my insistence to come in bow to the wind.  The regular dock hands congratulated me on my mooring skills and the crew of the power boat scorned me for not just letting the wind spin me about and dock stern to the wind like they did.  I zippered my mouth and did not comment.

I pumped out, fuelled and filled my fresh water tanks.  I burned a total of 70 l. of diesel from May to Nov. covering a distance of 730 NM(nautical miles) plus heating the boat with the onboard Webasto hydronic heater in May and Oct.
The power boat was a wooden classic with a nice teak swim deck off the stern.  There was one aboard and as soon as the crew on shore released the last line the wind picked up and put the launch out of control.  The guy that tried to command me into coming in stern to the wind was left onshore cursing and swearing as the power boat was being hurled into the corner of the wharf.  The skipper managed to forced the bow onto the fuel dock with a crunch, started to reverse, swung around, gunned it bringing the bow around at the same time smashing the teak swim platform and getting the high pressure case on shore to yell and swear some more, he had to run down a couple of docks to get back on his vessel.  Genuine cartoons.  Thank heavens they didn’t hit anybody else, especially me.

I was ready to leave around 1215.  Valcor simply set her lines free, stern last and she drifted off the wall bow first into the channel ready to leave port in a controlled manner.  With the winds up so high I set the lines and fenders I would need when I got to Bluffers so I wouldn’t have to scramble at the dock.  Little did I know I was about to have an experience and learn some lessons the hard way but definitely not as bad as it could have been.  You see I have been doing homework on how to save yourself and the boat in hazardous conditions so I had the anchor gear ready to go and a plan if I got into trouble.  The wind was hard on my stern as I left Outer Harbour and the hardy dinghy sailors with the crazy windsurfers were all over the place.  So I set both the yankee and the stay sail and blew out wing on wing.  I wondered if any of those windsurfers were the ones I had saved when they washed up on needles beach.  I was reluctant to turn into the wind and leave the helm unattended in this much traffic so I planned to raise the main in the lea of the spit.

The wave action all along the spit was over 2’ so I forgot about the main and used the engine instead to assist with lea way, not the preferred method, and set both staysail and yankee for power.  I set a course SSE to clear the spit then head 5 miles off shore before tacking in and making for my position.  By this time the winds were holding a steady 17 to 22k and gusting up to 28.8K out of the ESE.  The wave and swell action was large for Lake Ontario.  The waves were heaping up close together to over 10’ and breaking at this height, every wave was a whitecap, about force 7 at times and a constant force 6.  Valcor spanned the troughs on many of them I had one huge wave break over the bow covering the deck and coach house roof.  All I could see was a ton of water coming at me in the cockpit.  It was really neat to see it smash against my acrylic dashboard then disperse to the decks and out the scuppers.  Valcor’s design drains the water on the high side through scuppers in the front of the cockpit over the bridgedeck and just under the companion way doors.  This is called the Tayana River, it flows about 4” wide and this day it was about 2” deep. These conditions are not difficult for Valcor but it is a real rodeo ride.

I locked the wheel and tried to move forward on the low side to set the running backstay.  As soon as I was on the low side Valcor slipped down wind and laid over plunging the deck under water and washing the portholes, I was in moving water up to my knees.  Valcor was hitting speeds of 8K managing it very well.  Everything was going well it was a rough ride but no problems until I tacked to make a direct sail to Bluffers.   The engine was keeping me on course and fighting the leeward action and was doing very well.  We were doing a steady 5K on a starboard tack when there was a loud thunk and the engine died.  To verify what I thought it was I put the transmission in neutral and started the engine.  It started immediately so I went in search of the loose line. It actually turned out to be a very tight line.  I had switched from a port to a starboard tack and at some point my amidships line I had set earlier came loose.  At about 1530 it trailed under the boat and tangled in the prop.  I was off the RC Harris water treatment plant and at the rate I was going I should be making Bluffer’s around 1630, which just changed.

Not much choice, there was no way I was going to make Bluffer’s without the engine and the seas let me know I was going to have a go of it trying to enter to harbour without the engine so I simply turned back at around 1545.  With the wind at my back I was sailing wing on wing with the yankee and staysail at around 6 to 7K, yahoo!  Rocking and rolling I got lifted by a couple of big waves and the trailing dinghy got lifted with me throwing it forward the full length of its painter.  It was a little disconcerting seeing the dinghy whiz past then come to a sharp stop at the end of the lead then snap round and fire itself at the boat.  I think it is time for a new painter because that one has earned retirement.  The advantage of a double ender in following heavy seas is that it fends off or rides with the waves and doesn’t dig into a following swell; it has to do with reserved buoyancy.

It was not difficult to keep on track for the spit and the GPS track shows a relatively straight line till I made the channel between the point and T2 around 1630.  My plan was to get behind the spit and out of the wave action.  I moved from 8’ to 10’ white capped smashers into calmer waters with only 2’ to 3’ short frequency lumpy rollers.  I was not prepared to anchor between the channel and the spit in 30’ of water so I tried to get past T4 into the outer harbour but the winds were still around 20K against me and my bow would be pointed in the right direction but the GPS would read that I was going 90* to my fluxgate and magnetic compasses.  The leeway was incredible so I headed for the beach off the south side of Wards Island where I though I had a better chance with the mud & sand bottom.

It is very interesting anchoring a moving boat.  I chose to furl everything in when the depth reached 18’, move to the bow, release the starboard anchor and let out 100’ of chain as quickly as possible.  To do this you need to know your ground tackle and where everything is because you are heading for shallow water and you don’t want to run aground.  I have switches to throw, remotes to hook up and lines to release to drop the anchor from a bouncing bowsprit.   Once the chain is out the snubber has to be tied on and fed out.  My thoughts were to get as much drag out as quickly as possible to aid in slowing the boat down before the anchor took all the stress.  It is a great feeling to see the chain tighten and the boat swing around bow to the wind with a jerk.  I set the snubber slightly off to starboard and the slight turn in the boat made the ride more comfortable.  I set the GPS and got readings as the wind swung me around.  Satisfied by the GPS readings that the anchor was set I started to relax a little.  My main fear was a change in wind direction that would swing the boat and could trip the anchor.  All was set around 1730 just in time for darkness.  The roller furling makes sailing so much easier.  Being able to change or adjust my sail pattern quickly from the helm makes things much more manageable.  The decks are clear and open to work the anchor.  This is my second year  and I am a believer.

Now I had to think about how to get the prop clear.  Nothing was going to happen tonight.  Went below cleaned up the mess then I phoned Armando for some advice, left a message and settled in.  After a while the constant erratic motion and howling winds becomes part of the way it is.  Valcor rides well; no slamming or yanking swings and I also think the snubber helped a lot.  I decided to keep a sharp eye on the GPS and went about making supper-beans & chili.  After which I sent some emails, great reception.  That done I set back and watched Treasure Island on my computer.
Kept watch all night on the GPS and nothing dragged.  Winds abated early in the morning and changed direction.  At 0800 the seas were flat and I took a look at getting things ready as Armando was coming out with Mark’s dry suit.  He arrived around 0845 and was in the water around 0915, the prop was free near 0930.  It took less time to free the prop than it did to get the dry suit on.  Dry suits are complicated with 3 layers of special clothing underneath the rubber exterior as well as special foot, hand and head gear that seals and keeps your clothing dry.  If you get in this kind of situation it is nice for the diver to have a ladder to work off or hang on to and could be handy for the man in the dinghy to hold the position.

Just to repeat – the Lesson’s learned:
1) secure all lines and make sure nothing is loose
2)  lifejacket, harness, lanyard etc. safety gear handy and in working order
3)  anchor prepped
4)  have something to eat onboard, just in case
5)  don’t panic! don’t panic!

(My thanks to Brian for this great story, that was published originally on my website in 2009.)

© Brian Lumley 2009


2 comments on “* Lessons learned – a sailor’s cautionary tale about a very routine passage

  1. Nancy Harris
    January 31, 2010

    I just signed up to your blog RSS. Will you post more about the topic?


  2. Dennison
    February 16, 2010

    Thanks for the comment. I’ll certainly be posting more sailing stories and lessons to be learned. I like to post about a mixture of topics, but you can always find the latest sailing posts by either clicking on SAILING tags or doing aSEARCH.


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This entry was posted on January 21, 2010 by in Sailing and tagged , , .
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