Windshifts: Reefing the Deck Chairs

At sea, the boundary between dream and reality can prove rather elusive. Could my shipmate actually be waking me with these confusing words: “Ray, wake up! We’re way off course, and we need to reef the deck chairs!”
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At sea, the boundary between dream and reality can prove rather elusive. Could my shipmate actually be waking me with these confusing words: “Ray, wake up! We’re way off course, and we need to reef the deck chairs!” Because such a bizarre statement could only exist in the netherworld of slumber, I rolled over to tack deeper into this intriguing dream.

But then the dream became reality as Bob shook my arm and said, “It could be serious, skipper. We shouldn’t wait until morning.” Once up in the cockpit I saw how far off course we were and asked Bob how many chairs we had out. Looking astern, he said it was either four or five.

At this point you might be asking, “Why the hell were these guys dragging chairs behind their boat?” I won’t begrudge you such a sensible question. We were valiantly attempting to steer a 20-ton steel ketch by trailing a train of plastic chairs. We had previously tried the usual jury-rigging options, but were now reduced to this desperate tactic.

Allow me to gybe back to the beginning of this story. I was delivering this boat from the British Virgin Islands to Ft. Lauderdale. Crewing for me was Bob Rowland, a skilled and mellow circumnavigator. It only took a few hours out in the open Atlantic for us to rename the vessel. We now called her La Puerca Blanca Del Mar, Spanish for The White Pig of the Sea.

Her in-mast mainsail didn’t want to vacate its tubular cave. Her steering was as loose as the mainsail furling was tight. Her galleon-like stern made her waddle down the seas. A true marvel of her marina, she even had a full-sized picnic table welded to the aft deck, in case the Rotary Club dropped by.

At dusk on the third day a nasty squall approached and we switched from autopilot to hand steering. For an hour, I was able to run off effectively. But then, faster than you can say “piggily wiggily” in Spanish, the helm stopped responding. Bob tried it and quickly confirmed that, “the sea had just hit the fan!”

The quadrants and cables looked fine, which left only two possibilities. The rudder was either damaged or dearly departed. We made it through that night, steering with just the staysail. The next morning Bob prepared to examine the underwater crime scene. He had his snorkeling rig on as well as a combination safety harness and life vest that the owners had left us.

Getting him into the water was extremely challenging. The stern davits held a big, heavy dinghy. It was so close to the picnic table that he couldn’t squeeze through to get to the stern ladder. I had to wedge my back against the table and use my legs to push the inflatable out far enough for him to fit underneath. With this finally accomplished, I positioned myself to watch him drop off the last step into the sea. And what an entrance it was!

Unbeknownst to us, he was wearing a water-activated life vest that inflated with a loud “poof” and swept him behind the boat. He now looked like the Michelin Man auditioning for a job at Marine World. We laughed uncontrollably until reality dampened our hilarity. For now we realized that he could not dive under to examine the rudder, nor could he squeeze back onboard between the dinghy and the picnic table. Eventually, I lowered him a knife, and he stabbed the lifejacket into submission. It turned out that the upper hinge had sheared away from the shaft and the rudder was now dangling from the boot at the bottom, so that it was simultaneously present and missing in action.

For the next week, we tried to nurse La Puerca back to Florida. These were some of our challenges: a serious leak that was not from the rudder shaft but from one of the 21 through-hulls; a plumbing junction box that looked like a snake locker; and one bilge alarm that worked but four bilge pumps that didn’t. We kept her afloat by converting the garbage disposal into a bilge pump.

Fortunately, she had a satellite phone and the owners agreed to hire a tow boat. We slalomed all the way up to the North East Providence Channel in the Bahamas, steering with chairs and incantations. When the tow boat skipper came alongside to pass us the hawser, he noticed Bob hauling in the last of the chairs. He looked over at me and said, “Damn, every time you think you’ve seen it all…”

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