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Experience: Under the Eyes of the Bar Bunch

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Sitting quietly at the bar of a local yacht club, I gaze out over a rambunctious Lake Michigan on a sunny but blustery spring afternoon. I am enjoying watching a small sloop approaching the marina and recognize it as belonging to one of our newest members. “Pretty little thing. Nice lines,” I think to myself. Moments later, though, my reverie is interrupted by a raucous hoot from one of the “Bar Bunch” to be immediately taken up by several other members of that auspicious group.

You know who I mean. Every yacht club has a Bar Bunch. They can be found on the same barstools commenting on the boathandling of anyone who comes within their purview. Of course, their collective memories harbor no recollection of any missteps of their own. They are all Master Mariners, a title collectively conferred under the impetus of copious amounts of alcohol.

Their obnoxious hooting is in reference to the skipper of the pretty little sloop having slightly misjudged his entry while sailing into his slip. The result was a small but noticeable bump. Certainly, no damage occurred to either boat or dock. However, the Bar Bunch will not let it pass. As they harangue the new member’s minor mistake, the bile rises in my craw. I want to shut them up with a pithy quip about how some sailors actually sail—out on the water for gosh sakes. Imagine that!

Instead, I stare into the inky blackness of my coffee cup, surprised to see the grizzled mug of Morton Sanders III now staring back at me. Not for real, of course. In my memory, though, I see him so clearly it startles me. Morton, at 6ft 5in, was a man who stuck out like a sore thumb regardless of where he was, and in my early days at our small working-class yacht club, he was a giant. As for carrying a last name with numbers attached to it, well, that was nigh onto inconceivable in our part of the world. He had been on the membership committee when I joined, and at first I only knew him as an opinionated man with a booming voice to match his size. I don’t get along well with loudmouths, and although Morton was never obnoxious, my initial reaction was to avoid him.

The current Bar Bunch’s antics also brought to mind our first real meeting, a memory that remains as vivid as ever even all these years later. Yes, that was it, I thought. Morton Sanders III and the 1st of April in a year so distant it is now nearly forgotten. In this part of the world, April 1st is the first day of insurance coverage for the sailing season, and I did not intend to miss a single day out on the water with my new love, a 31ft sloop I had purchased that winter. To that end, I’d had the yard put her in the water about 0800 that same morning and a short while later was close-reaching down the river and out onto the main harbor. A weak sun warmed me, even as the temperature would not break the 50-degree mark. Considering the waters I was gliding over had been solid ice only a few weeks earlier, I did not care what the air temperature was. A line of dark clouds hung low over the northeastern horizon of the Big Lake, but I figured I could easily sail the couple of miles south to my new slip behind the breakwall at the club long before the squall line actually arrived. The winds were reasonably steady around 12 knots out of the northwest. I was in heaven.

We Upper-Midwest sailors armchair it for the long winter months waiting for that first sail of the season, and when it finally arrives, it is no less than a semi-religious epiphany. While I had taken to chartering for a week or so in the Caribbean every February and also spent as many hours as I could on my little DN iceboat, this was different. This was what we endured the winter for. This was sailing our big waters.

Continuing across the bay, the winds became more erratic as they began gusting north of 20. I was now screaming along, one eye on my heel angle, the other glancing toward the ever-encroaching squall line. Trying to be conservative, I took in the 130 and went with a single reef in the main. Voila! My new boat now danced across the chop in the gusts. I have always enjoyed singlehanded sailing, and the combination of this first sail of the season and the first sail aboard my new love was intoxicating. I took note but remained unconcerned as the wind began coming out of the northeast. That meant the front and its attendant rain were not far behind. Still, I felt I could beat it home.

As I entered the protected water of the mooring basin and approached the slips belonging to the club, I pushed the start button on the engine only to be greeted by an ominous silence—silence from the engine, that is, for there were now plenty of other noises to be heard, thanks to the approaching squall. Thunder, a flash or two of lightning in the distance. I sobered up rapidly as the deteriorating conditions became all too apparent. Still, I was confident I could sail into my slip, due to the fact the final approach would be upwind. I’d rarely used a motor on my other boats, and told myself this would be no different—never mind she was considerably bigger than my old 24-footer, not to mention a few tons heavier.

After swiftly running down the channel in front of the club, I jibed and found I could beat up the smaller channel leading to my slip, now about 40 yards distant, under main alone. My plan was a simple one. I’d already run the main halyard back to the cockpit through a jam cleat and the main sheet was only inches from the wheel. I would continue sailing on starboard up the small channel until the bow just crossed the upwind edge of my slip, then tack around into the slip and drop the main. I’d already practiced the sequence in my head a dozen times as I was running down the channel and was confident everything would be OK. What could go wrong?

By now the wind was howling, and the first few hard drops of rain were just starting to pelt my face. Arriving in front of the slip, I spun the wheel and let go the main halyard and mainsheet. As I did so the boat slowed considerably as it passed through the eye of the wind, just as planned. At that same moment though, the boom also suddenly flew across the cockpit and slammed rock tight on the other side, filling and driving the boat toward the dock at the far end of the slip. Looking up I saw with a growing sense of panic that the main had failed to come down even though I had released the halyard.

Dropping everything I jumped up onto the cabintrunk to try and wrestle the sail down as it continued driving the boat forward. With only a few feet remaining between the dock and my bow I began contemplating the repair bills I would soon be paying for both. Still struggling mightily, but making little progress, I heard a loud bang as my boat came to a sudden stop nearly throwing me onto the foredeck.

My worst fears had been realized, and it was with a heavy heart that I finally managed to get the main down far enough to ease the forward pressure sufficiently to have a look forward. It was then that I saw Morton Sanders III, standing on the dock in the wind and rain securing a large fender to my bow rail—the same one he had placed moments earlier between my boat and the dock. When he was finished, he jumped aboard and between the two of us, we finally managed to wrestle the main the rest of the way down and secure it to the boom.

“Thank the gods you were passing by at exactly the right time to save me,” I yelled to him over the roar of the wind.

“I wasn’t passing by,” he yelled back.

After that, he helped me button things up, and we went into the bar where it was packed but shockingly quiet. A lot of stares came my way but with a 6ft 5in guy standing next to this newbie, no one said a word.

“Let’s grab a table,” he said after we got our beers. “I was upstairs when I caught a glimpse of you coming through the gap into the mooring basin. Put the glasses on you and saw you were alone. Not good, I thought to myself. You and the northern windshift were going to get here just about the same time. No idea you were coming in under sail, but I thought you might need a hand, so I moseyed on down to the first floor. When you jibed and then tacked without dropping the sail, I knew something was wrong. Grabbed the biggest fender I could find and ran out to your slip. Wasn’t exactly sure which was yours since they are all still empty, so watched your eyes. When you started to look to the target slip, I ran over the few feet to get to your bow. The rest you probably figured out for yourself. By the way, nice job bringing her home in those last 10 or 15 minutes. Except for banging into the dock part at the end, of course.”

“I don’t know how to thank you,” I mumbled.

“Well, another beer would be a good start,” he said in that distinctive booming voice of his.

Over the next 20 years, Morton Sanders III and I shared many a beer before he sailed over his personal horizon. Many of those beers came long after I’d moved away. But no visit to the Midwest would have ever been complete without the two of us laughing over my hubris, his steady competence and our mutual disdain for the Bar Bunch and their ilk. The Bar Bunch, wherever they might be, remained the butt of our private jokes to the very end.

Today, looking up and out over a glacier-blue Lake Michigan on a beautiful spring day, I drink the last of my coffee, put down the cup with a decent tip for the barkeep and walk past this current Bar Bunch still spouting off about how they would have handled that little sloop. Walking away without so much as a glance, a tiny smile forms within the creases of my mouth. Morton Sanders III, you old salty dog, I miss you something terrible. 

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May 2021

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