A young sailor takes his new boat out for an embarrassing shakedown
Four decades, five boats and 150,000 nautical miles ago I bought Autant, a William Hand gaff-rigged ketch built in 1927. She was 40 feet overall with a sweet sheer, a club-footed jib, no electrical system, no winches and no engine. “Traditional,” you might say, but most importantly to me, Autant was affordable. She was also undeniably beautiful, and that first day aboard my new command was one of the happiest of my life.
I procured a friendly tow down the Miami River, where I’d bought the boat, to the outer anchorage at Coconut Grove, just south of downtown Miami, Florida. Included among Autant’s gear was a great 100-pound fisherman anchor. I selected a suitable spot amid the 50-odd anchored boats and shoved the massive hook overboard, where it settled snugly into the soft sand bottom. I decided it would remain there as my mooring until I was ready to go cruising.
The next morning I was up with the dawn, anxious to take my new charge out for a sail. The day was clear and favored us with a steady breeze. My girlfriend and I soon had all sails up and luffing at anchor. We then cast off the anchor rode, which I had buoyed with a fish-trap float on a 6-foot tether, after which Autant fell off, filling her sails, and away we went.
All that day we sailed on Biscayne Bay, beating, reaching and running as we pleased. The wind freshened a bit as I practiced maneuvers and learned something of my new boat’s character—her strengths and idiosyncrasies, how she handled and tacked under various sail combinations, how she carried when I rounded up, and so on. Autant performed wonderfully, and when it finally came time to head in, I smiled to think how impressive we would look sailing up to our mooring under the boat’s salty gaff rig.
Into the crowded anchorage we flew, carrying full sail in a 15-knot breeze under the watchful (and, I was certain, envious) eyes of a score of seasoned liveaboard sailors. My classic old ketch wove smartly through the fleet with a bone in her teeth, dodging anchor rodes and dinghies. We were on a beam reach as we neared the critical point to leeward of our mooring. My mate was stationed at the bow, boathook in hand.
When we were directly downwind of the mooring ball, I rounded up, with Autant still moving at a fast clip, as I was far more concerned about undershooting the mooring than overshooting it. Stopping short of the mark would require us to fall off in tight quarters or else risk drifting back in irons onto our nearest neighbor to leeward.
The slatting sails set up an awful din, drawing the attention of all within earshot. Autant slid ahead, the buoy came under her bow, and still she carried forward. My girlfriend stabbed frantically at the buoy pennant with the boathook as it slid past.
“Do you have it?”
“Do you have it NOW?”
“No! Wait, uh, yes! I’ve got it!
Immediately, I scurried to the foredeck to help, as the boat continued forward, dragging the buoy alongside. Hands clutched and tugged as the eye splice on the pennant came up, and the boathook flipped overboard. With a desperate heave we secured the line to the stem post. Together we leaned back and grinned. “We did it!”
Or so we thought. But the boat swung broadside to the wind as the rode went taut, and the luffing sails filled. Suddenly we were broad reaching under full sail around the anchor. A gybe was imminent. I rushed to the cockpit and hauled in on the mainsheet to ease the shock on the rig, just in time! WHAM! The sails slammed over and the boat sailed on, the taut rode now pulling the bow around to windward, until the sails luffed again and we could breathe another sigh of relief.
Autant once more coasted past the mooring, snubbed up on the pennant and rode, and proceeded to repeat the entire sequence. Back to the cockpit! Haul in the mainsheet! WHAM! What the hell should I do now? The boat was already heading into her third pivot.
It was then that an old salt on a nearby schooner decided he’d had enough entertainment for the afternoon. He cupped his hands and yelled, “DROP YOUR JIB!”
The jib! It was an enlightening moment. Autant was already nearly hard up on the pennant again when I clawed the headsail down. Instantly she stalled, settled to leeward, and came to rest with the mizzen and mainsail luffing easily at anchor.
Before we sailed again, we had a nice, long chat with the old schooner skipper who had saved us. The next time we picked up our mooring the jib was furled, the main was running free and the mizzen was sheeted in hard. The whole maneuver was as smooth as silk—as everyone in the anchorage can tell you.
Since owning Autant Tor Pinney has logged
150,000 miles under sail. He is the author of
Ready for Sea: How to Outfit the Modern Cruising Sailboat
Check out his website at tor.cc
What We Did Right
During our maiden sail on the boat, we focused on getting a feel for how she handled. This helped us to maneuver through the crowded anchorage without snagging or hitting anything.
I did spare the rigging a couple of big shock loads by sheeting in the mainsail ahead of each gybe.
We had the sense to listen to the experienced schooner captain when he loudly advised us to drop the jib.
What We Did Wrong
I did not decisively control which way the boat’s bow fell off by backing the jib and/or mizzen when we dropped the mooring that morning. Luckily it went the right way, heading us out of the harbor rather than farther into it.
Although I did practice rounding up out in the bay, I still underestimated our speed on the final approach to the mooring. Having overshot the mark, I should have let the boat carry past the mooring and then either made a second approach or dropped a second anchor and eased her back on the rode.
On our return we sailed through the anchorage too quickly. I should have dropped the main and come in under the jib and mizzen. This would have depowered the boat while maintaining good balance and control.
Last but far from least, we failed to douse the jib when we rounded up toward the mooring. The next time I knew better.
Photos by Tor Pinney; illustration by Tom Payne
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