Off Watch: A Mysterious Mess in the Cockpit Kicks Off a Whodunit Caper

Whatever had gotten into the stern compartment of my Pearson Ensign had done so through an extremely small cockpit-drain hole. And that's when I heard the chirping.
Saunter cockpit
After pulling off Saunter’s winter tarp, the first look was not what you’d want to see. Herb McCormick

It was a frantic, heinous, 27-hour ­excursion in my ancient Ford F-150 from mid-Florida to Rhode Island via the hideous Interstate 95 corridor. I was in a hurry. It was mid-May, and I’d just laid up my Pearson 365, August West, in Longboat Key, but there were other sailboat adventures on my immediate horizon. First, my Pearson Ensign, Saunter, was scheduled for an imminent relaunch from a marina in Portsmouth. And immediately following that, I was bound for Lake George, New York, with my longtime Newport J/24 sailboat-racing pals to compete in that one-design class’s national championship. I had a lot going on. 

Right from the get-go, my first glance at Saunter after pulling off the winter tarp was, well, disturbing. Strewn about the boat’s open cockpit was a chunky, nasty mess of old Styrofoam, and there was only one place it could’ve come from: the transom compartment abaft the tiller, which had been filled with the stuff to prevent sinking if the boat was swamped, ­presumably before the sloop’s launching in 1963. I checked the pair of inspection ports to see if I’d absentmindedly left them open and was slightly relieved to see that I hadn’t. Whatever had gotten in there had done so through an extremely small cockpit-drain hole. 

That’s when I heard the chorus of ­frantic chirping emanating from astern. Ugh. My visitors were still in residence. 

At a loss for a quick solution, I posted a photo of the foam-filled cockpit on Facebook and explained that it sounded like a nest of tweeting birdies. It did occur to me that a bird couldn’t possibly move the larger chunks of foam, but not before others pointed out the more likely culprits. “Varmints,” one commenter wrote. “Possums,” opined another. “Sorry, man, but those definitely aren’t birds,” added a third. Oh boy. 

I threw myself at the mercy of the yard, saying I was going to need more time to launch, and then I rang the exterminator that the boatyard’s team recommended. “Did they sound like this?” he asked before launching into a pitch-perfect imitation of my unwelcome choir. 

“Exactly,” I said. 

“You’ve got raccoons, my friend,” he replied. “I’ll go have a look.”

It was a couple of days later, as I was driving up the Massachusetts Turnpike to New York with my old friend Ian Scott, towing his J/24, before the exterminator got back to me. Upon inspecting my boat, he had found and heard nothing, and reckoned I’d sent the intruders scooting with my noisy on-deck commotion. “But I’d really like to talk to the fellow on the next boat over to get permission to inspect his boat,” he said. There were raccoon tracks, apparently, all over his canvas cover. 

“Dude,” I replied, “I’m sitting right next to him.” 

The strange saga was getting weirder still. Yes, in a teeming boatyard, completely randomly, Ian’s other boat—a Swan 36—had been stored the previous fall directly next to mine. Permission to board was quickly granted.

For the next several days, we were in full regatta mode, but in Lake George, I did meet a self-professed Ensign expert and sought his counsel. There was no way, save a Sawzall, to access that aft space for repairs. 

Specifically, I was wondering if the next time I went Saunter sailing, I was going to, like, sink. 

“Probably only if you take on a lot of water,” he said. “You might want to think about lashing flotation bags under the cockpit seats.” It wasn’t the assurance I was seeking. 

On the way home, I reconnected with the exterminator. “I found the pups!” he exclaimed (it took me a second to realize he was referring to raccoons). “Not on Ian’s boat. In the galley of the next one over.”

Which, in one final, ridiculous ­coincidence befitting the entire annoying escapade, turned out to be a Pearson 26 that I also had previously owned before giving it to a kid to refurbish for his senior-year-of-prep-school project. It had been covered for the winter, and I didn’t even realize it was there.

What to make of all this? Well, I’ve ­always believed that there’s only one or two degrees of separation in the sailing world, that we’re all connected by waterborne acquaintances just once or twice removed. Turns out, at least from my recent experience, you could say the same thing about boatyard raccoons. 

Herb McCormick is a CW editor-at-large.