Barnacle Head

CW's editor, enjoying a solo summer sail on Narragansett Bay, witnesses an encounter between a daysailer and a barge under tow that's by turns kooky, terrifying, and finally comical

No one wanted to go sailing with me. But last August 14 was the quintessential summer Saturday, and there was no way I wasn't going to spend it on the water, even if I had to go alone. So I caught the launch out to my J/30, Marra, parked on her mooring in Newport, Rhode Island's Brenton Cove. Minutes later, the sails were set and drawing, and I was blissfully wafting into Narragansett Bay before the soft breeze of a warm, 10-knot southerly.

It was absolutely perfect. But that was about to change.

Of course, I didn't know this as I came up on the breeze and beam-reached through the lively spectator fleet anchored off Fort Adams for the Newport Jazz Festival. Nor was it evident as I began tacking out toward the mouth of the bay. I still couldn't foresee it when I watched a rented J/22 slowly cross, by a couple of hundred yards, an incoming tug towing a big barge off Castle Hill, at the bay's entrance.

That's when I caught my first glimpse of an extremely clueless soul inexplicably being dragged--fully clothed!--behind the 22-footer on a short line. Even for summertime Newport, it seemed like a pretty kooky stunt. But the daysailer, under full main and jib, appeared to be making enough headway to clear the tug safely. As I sailed past on the opposite board, I didn't give it another thought.

That is, not until I tacked.

At that instant, the action before me unfolded like a scene from an old Sam Peckinpah film: violently and in slow motion. The J/22's jib backwinded, and the boat went into irons, drifting directly toward the mass of the incoming barge. The rental's helmsman leaped dramatically into the sea, joining his mate already in the drink. The abandoned boat slammed into the barge and began skidding down its starboard flank. I was some two miles from my mooring on the nicest day of the year, and all hell was breaking loose.

It should've been worse. But the skipper of the tug was a consummate seaman who'd foreseen the impending calamity and had managed to slack the tow line to the barge moments before impact with the J/22, which then slid harmlessly over the submerged cable. I shuddered to think what might've happened had that wire been taut at the point of collision.

Remarkably, the helmsman caught up with and clambered aboard the J/22. But his water-logged pal--like his friend, in his early 20s--was being swept the length of the barge. I thought I might be watching a guy lose his life.

But astonishingly, he drifted free, and the ensuing cries for help came from someone very much alive. No one was closer than I was. I struck the jib, sailed to within a couple of boatlengths of him, luffed up alongside, dropped my swim ladder, grabbed his wrist, and helped yank him aboard. What a sight he was.

The torn life jacket, which had ultimately saved him, and his long, scraggly hair were completely encrusted with barnacles. He looked like a sea creature from a very low-budget movie. Moments later, the Coast Guard was alongside, and my passenger was on his way to an ambulance. But not before one of the young Coasties took a long look and, in an aside to me, bestowed a nickname: "Man, did you get a load of Barnacle Head?" It was apt on a couple of levels.

B.H. had a lot of explaining to do after his quick release from the hospital. It turned out it was his first time on a sailboat, and his buddy's second or third; not knowing the difference between a shipping lane and a bowling lane, he'd originally jumped into the water for some "fun." The J/22 came out of it more or less unscathed.

This month, we present our annual section on Safety at Sea, this year with a decidedly offshore focus. But my August incident underscored the point that vigilance and safe-sailing practices begin in our respective home waters. On that score, even a goof like Barnacle Head might agree.