It was a beautiful afternoon in the middle of May, and I was making final preparations to move Second Epic, our Newport 30-III, from its winter storage yard to our seasonal slip at Erie Basin Marina in Buffalo, New York.
Rigging the boat that morning had taken longer than I expected, but that always seems to happen during commissioning. As I fussed over a few final details, I knew I should have gotten an earlier start, but took comfort in the fact that I had rigged the docklines in our Erie Basin slip the previous evening.
My brother Brian and his 20-year-old son, Dan, were below stowing equipment, while my six-year-old son, Matthew, fidgeted impatiently. First he was in the cockpit, then he was down below in the cabin, then he was back up in the cockpit again. As I attached the sheets to the genoa, I found myself having to relearn how to tie a bowline. I hadn’t touched a line all winter.
Finally, around 1400, our preparations complete, I hit the starter button on Second Epic’s 20-year-old diesel engine and we got underway. It is only a 20-minute trip from the boatyard down the Buffalo River to the marina, and I let Matthew take the helm. When we reached the mouth of the river, the shimmering blue water of Lake Erie looked irresistible in the distance. “Let’s get a quick sail in before we head over to the marina,” I said to Brian. I couldn’t wait to put Second Epic through her paces.
After we got the sails ready to hoist, I went below to stow the mainsail ties. It was then, when I was at the foot of the companionway, that I noticed a strange odor, not unlike syrup or raw sewage. Replacing the toilet was still on my spring punch list, so I assumed it was coming from the head, but when I went to look for signs of a leak I found nothing. There was nothing in the bilge either. By the time I climbed back up the companionway steps, the odor had become even stronger. I stopped and sniffed again, but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.
I had just taken the helm from Matthew and was getting ready to turn up into the wind to hoist the main when I saw what appeared to be either smoke or steam coming up out of the companionway. I asked Brian to check the engine, and he jumped below and removed the companionway so that he would have access to the engine compartment.
“We’ve lost a coolant hose,” he shouted over the engine noise. “The stuff is spraying everywhere.” Well, the mysterious odor was no longer a mystery.
I was reluctant to turn off the engine because of a light westerly that I was afraid might push us toward the rocky outer end of the harbor. But the tone in Brian’s voice convinced me to do so immediately. Before I did, though, I had Dan hoist the mainsail. I kept the genoa furled while we considered our next move.
With the mainsail filled and the engine silent, Brian went to work on the coolant hose. It had split where it attached to the engine, and although he tried to make a quick fix by cutting away the bad part, he could see right away that it wouldn’t hold.
I didn’t know how much coolant it had lost and I was afraid I would ruin the engine if I started it again, so I decided to call for help on the VHF. A few seconds later another skipper responded, saying he was about a half mile away and would come to our assistance. When he arrived, with his main up and his motor running, he told us he would get his fenders ready and then come alongside to starboard and pass us a couple of lines. Once the two boats were securely rafted together, he said he wanted me to drop my main and then he would take us in.
We put out our fenders and waited for him to come back alongside. When he did so, I put one of the lines on my starboard stern cleat and the other around the starboard cockpit winch. When everything was ready and we were secured snugly alongside, he slowly picked up speed, and we headed toward the marina entrance.
Unfortunately, as we got closer to shore, I could see that the beautiful afternoon had drawn out boats of all types, and the wind and the powerboat traffic were now combining to create a bit of a chop. Although we had plenty of fenders out, I was concerned we might damage each other’s hull–or worse that I would somehow damage the boat of someone who had gone out of his way to help me.
A sudden wave made Second Epic jerk away from the other boat, and as we came back together with a thump, the other skipper decided it would be better to tow me astern rather than alongside. Taking out two short dock lines, he made a bridle that he attached to his two stern cleats. Although I lacked a single line that would be long enough for a tow, I was also able to make what I needed from a couple of dock lines. After bending the two lines together and securing one end to the base of my mast, I passed him the other end, which he tied to his bridle. He then put his boat in gear and we started moving again.
As we got near the entrance I quietly mentioned to Brian, “our next adventure is going to be getting into our slip without an engine.”
“This is a day of firsts,” said Brian with a grin. As we got closer I was glad that this year my slip had been moved from the inner seawall to an outer location that had a fairly straightforward approach from where we now were.
“I’ll pick up a little more speed and then cast you off. You’ll be able to coast right in,” the other skipper called out cheerfully. “Good luck.” I thanked him very much and promised to see him later.
Sure enough, after we had picked up a little more speed he untied our line and turned away, leaving us to coast in toward the new slip. But then the boat’s speed began to drop and I asked Dan to hoist the mainsail. I was slowing down because the wind had picked up slightly and was now blowing from dead ahead. Right where I wanted to go. To help keep up my speed, I slowly turned the boat downwind picked up some speed and then gybed around and came back onto a close hauled course. But now my course was taking me directly to a large powerboat that was tied up in a slip directly across the channel from my own slip.
I held course as long as I dared, a move that made Brian ask, casually, whether I was planning to turn anytime soon. Finally, when I was just a few feet off the bow of the parked powerboat, I put the wheel down and slowly turned into the wind.
Dan went forward to the bow while Brian stood by at the main halyard. We coasted a bit more, and then I told Brian to release the clutch on the halyard. As the sail dropped smoothly down onto the boom, Brian moved over to the side of the boat and waited to pick up the dock lines I had put there the night before. No one said a word as I adjusted my course. Even Matthew, who is usually never at a loss for words, was wide-eyed and speechless.
As we coasted into the slip, Brian leaned over to grab one of the dock lines, while Dan carefully stepped onto the dock to hold the bow. We snubbed the lines to slow the boat and finally brought her to a stop in a perfect position. Although I tried not to show it, I was exhilarated. This was my first real emergency, and I had dealt with it successfully. I had docked my own boat under wind power alone—and done so without scratching the boat, the crew or the boat that had been nice enough to help get us home. The sailing season was off to a great start!