It was a beautiful afternoon with a gentle breeze from the southeast. My wife, Catherine, and I were out for a romantic sail. What could go wrong?
I was eager to set off in our recently acquired boat, Ruach, a 13.5-foot trailerable Expo Solar Sailer designed by Garry Hoyt, Ted Hood, and Everett Pearson. Cath, a first-timer, was nervous, but throwing in a picnic lunch and a good book sealed the deal. We donned PFDs, lowered the centerboard, unfurled the sail, and eased away from the dock.
Ahh, smooth lake sailing. A good place for me to get a sense of this boat. Years before I had crewed in Block Island Race Week, where anyone sober enough to tie a sneaker was welcome ballast. Now, 30 years later, I was relearning how to read the telltales, tack smoothly, and avoid other boats. It was good to be back on the water. Seriously, what could go wrong?
Then those little events that conspire to turn the ordinary into the unusual, the innocuous into the significant, began.
Far off across the lake, I saw the bottom of a hull. I came about and told Cath we needed to help the guy out. I could already feel my heart racing. We sailed close by, and I asked if he needed assistance, which he did. I turned head-to-wind, furled my sail, and dropped the anchor. Cath watched me with mild interest. I tugged on the anchor rode and found that the anchor hadn’t set in the muddy bottom. I figured it would eventually—maybe. I cleated off the rode and tightened my PFD. I must confess that recently viewing the Coast Guard rescue film The Guardian may have played a large part in my midlife bravado. I told Cath the guy really needed my help, and, without another word to her, leapt into the cold lake and swam rapidly to the overturned boat. Look at me, I thought, I am a sailor and a rescue swimmer!
Matt (the guy) and I made a number of unsuccessful attempts to right his boat by standing on the daggerboard. Then it turtled; the mast was stuck deep in the mud. A man in a beautifully built cedar-strip canoe paddled out to offer his help and suggestions; he thought we could free the mast by pulling up vertically from the canoe. Matt had unclipped the cable, but it slipped from his grip. One of us had to dive for it. Now it occurred to me that diving for a loose cable under an unfamiliar boat in cold water had “drown potential” written all over it. Luckily, a lifeguard in a rowboat appeared on the scene, asking if we needed any help. At that point I realized that Cath and Ruach were 100 yards away and approaching the swim area. Clearly, the anchor had not “settled,” and even on the lapping waters of Lake Nokomis Ruach had drifted away. I realized, embarrassed, that I hadn’t briefed Cath on what to do if I left her alone and neglected to set the anchor.
The 100-yard swim in the PFD was punishing; once I reached Ruach I had just enough strength left to pull myself aboard. I hauled in the anchor, which had finally set, and started the solar-powered electric motor. I steered back to Matt and his overturned boat, afraid to look at Cath. She was sitting there, calmly eating carrots, but I knew what she was thinking. I stood on Ruach’s bow and heaved the mast up from the mud. Once the boat was righted, I motored away, glad to have been able to help, but aware that Catherine and I had much to talk about. I admitted it right away: “I did everything wrong!” We talked for quite a while, laughing the grateful laughs of those who could have been in worse straits, but for whom a humbling learning opportunity had just been provided.
Now I know three important things: (1) Be sure to train crewmembers in safety issues and practice captain-overboard drills; (2) Never leave a perfectly good boat to rescue someone else when you are more helpful in your boat; and (3) When your gut tells you the anchor isn’t set, believe it.
Peter Bailey lives and sails in and around St. Paul, Minnesota, with his family. The Back to Basics Contest asked readers to write about an experience that taught them a key sailing lesson. For more on the contest turn to page 10. SAIL thanks Offshore Sailing School, Pink Shell Beach Resort & Spa, and Gill for their sponsorship.