It all started with losing my job. Like many people in recent years, I found myself unemployed, and the lack of activity made for restless hands. I figured since I couldn’t find work, I might as well build a boat. I had fond memories of sailing a simple dugout trimaran off the north coast of Bali and decided a small tri would suit both my budget and Hawaii’s unforgiving windward shores.
I wanted something that could break apart into pieces, so I could store it in my carport and launch it from the beaches on the Big Island’s famously anchorage-free east coast. With such a boat, any spot I could reach with my 4x4 truck would become a new weekend sailing destination.
I settled on modifying a design by Gary Dierking and pored over his excellent book, Building Outrigger Sailing Canoes. Local boatbuilders and friends generously supported my project, and I press-ganged my wife, Joy, into the role of assistant. She patiently put up with all my demands for help, and our carport became a dust-filled boatyard. It was one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.
After 11 months and more sanding than I ever thought I would do in a lifetime, I launched my modified 16ft Wa’apa design, Ehu Girl, from the black sand beach of Hilo Bay. Propelled by light winds, Ehu Girl and I shuttled groups of friends on and off the beach without mishap. My reputation as a boatbuilder seemed assured.
A few months later I used the proceeds from my last story in SAIL (“A Bay Too Far,” Sept. 2011) to invest in a 30-year-old 6hp Evinrude outboard I’d found on Craigslist. I cleaned up the old beast, threw on a new starter cord, and mounted it next to the rudder on Ehu Girl’s iako, or crossbeam. My paddling days were over!
The following Saturday, Joy and I set out for a sail under a sparkling blue sky. We drove our old Chevy truck, loaded with 20 bits of boat, into Hilo, looking a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies with bizarre pipes and poles jutting high above the lumber rack. The wind rose steadily as we assembled the boat and chatted with inquisitive beach-goers and fellow sailors pushing off in their sleek Hobie Cats. It was blowing a steady 15 knots when we finally jumped into Ehu Girl and sailed off the beach.
I quickly organized the mess of line running back to the small cockpit. Then we enjoyed some lovely breeze that shot us past the shallow coral reefs off Coconut Island. A quick gybe and the full tropical splendor of Hilo Bay swung into view. Soon the wind was pushing 20 knots and our amas were flying as Joy sunbathed on the trampoline. Even as we reveled in the glory of smooth, fast sailing, I looked down fondly at my new outboard, almost eager for the wind to die so I could fire it up.
The problem was when I tried to head back upwind, we seemed incapable of pointing higher than a beam reach. The boat was also making quite a bit of leeway. I sheeted the sails in hard and raked the mast, but still we headed off at the wrong angle. Our slow, unintentional progress downwind was at first annoying, then disconcerting. I gybed again to see if we could do any better on the other tack. Nothing. I watched in frustration as Sunfish, Corsairs and Hobies streamed across the bay, seemingly in any direction they pleased.
Over the next few hours we tried to improve our heading as we watched our truck and the beach creep farther into the distance. Finally it dawned on us that we would soon be pushed out into the open ocean. The swells grew in size and water began splashing into the open bow compartment. The helm felt increasingly heavy as the wind continued to rise. To add to my frustration, I couldn’t swing the rudder hard to the left, because the outboard leg was in the way.
Aha! Now, of course, was the perfect time to try out the Evinrude. I pumped up the fuel bulb and gave the starter cord a few pulls. Not much happened. Joy gave it a try from the trampoline, where she could get a clean pull. The engine spluttered, but would not fire.
Damn, could it be flooded already? I kicked myself for not running the engine on the hard and making sure the sticky throttle lever was better lubed. We waited five minutes and tried again. By now the wind was 25 knots, gusting over 8-foot swells. In a moment of absentmindedness, while helping Joy as she leaned over to pull on the cord again, I swung to leeward as a wave caught us broadside. Joy barely managed to dive back to the windward ama in time to save us from capsizing. After 20 hard pulls, the motor still wouldn’t start, and we were both visibly shaken. We now hauled the motor into the main hull, hoping the decrease in drag would improve our sailing performance, but it made no difference.
It seemed we had no choice but to head onto the rocks or out into open water. Joy and I disagreed on what to do next, and she seemed on the verge of mutiny. Finally, we decided to call the Coast Guard to let them know our situation.
“Wait, I thought you had the cell phone?”
“No, you must have left it in the truck.”
“You were supposed to bring it.”
By now it was evening and we could see all the boats in the distance heading in. We were in real trouble, and Joy’s state of mind took a sudden nosedive. I shouted over the wind for her to calm down and told her to get a flare out of the dry bag. My plan was to heave-to in the wide channel that leads into the massive bay and hope that a boat would spot us before dark.
A tense half hour later, we saw the tip of a sail in the distance, so I shot off a flare and waved them down. The captain calmly dropped sail, made a few passes under power, negotiated the swells with precision, and soon had us in tow. We were cold and scared and very grateful. The crew on our rescue vessel seemed to be laughing and took endless photos of us huddled in our disheveled craft. The humiliation! But in the hour it took us to get back to the beach, we saw no other boats coming in or out of the bay. What luck! We made it ashore, took a few minutes to eat and warm up, and then began taking the boat apart in somber silence.
At first I’d been pleased that it was a fellow sailor who rescued us. But it turned out he was a local charter skipper on a sunset trip with paying guests. Oh, the horror of it all! Just as the sun finally set we watched from the beach as a massive cruise ship set out into the channel. I truly believe I would never have lived down the shame if I’d had to flag down that monolith for help.
Now that I am in my carport again, it is back to the drawing board. My hunch is that Ehu Girl’s undersized leeboard can’t create enough lift to take the boat to windward. Only trial and error will tell. I’m also thinking of redesigning the engine and rudder mounts. For now I’m letting the whole experience settle in, so when I do finally convince my wife to push off the beach with me again, I’ll be able to guarantee her a nice day of relaxed sailing.
What I Did Right
I stayed calm throughout. In the end I made a rational decision and was able to come up with a sensible plan.
I stepped up as captain. Sometimes it’s necessary to give detailed instructions in a loud, firm voice to keep order.
I was able to get the boat to heave-to (sort of) so we could stop and seek help.
What I Did Wrong
Taking an untested homemade boat out in strong winds was a bad idea. I should have stayed closer to the beach until I knew the boat’s limits.
I should have fully serviced the engine and run it for a good long time before relying on it.
I should have stopped the boat as soon as I realized we could not sail to weather. We weren’t in any real danger until we were exposed to more extreme open-water conditions.
As captain, I alone was responsible for seeing that we had communications equipment (a phone or, better, a radio) aboard the boat.
Illustration by Steve Sanford; photo by Graham Silbermann