Taking The Tiller: The Birthday Cruise That Wasn't

Deck: This cruise had everything going for it except the wind. From Kitty Martin's "Taking the Tiller" for October 17, 2007

It was my birthday recently, and Charlie and I thought we'd celebrate the big day by taking a late-September cruise. We hadn't done more than an overnight on the boat since we brought it up from Connecticut to Padanaram. So we put together an itinerary, packed our bags, provisioned, put the dinghy on the roof of the car, and told the cats and CW that we'd be gone for a few days.

Like all sailors, we'd been watching the forecast closely, and it really looked like the weather gods were going to come through. Balmy temperatures and hazy sunshine were on tap for most of the week. Wahoo!

I guess the meteorologists--weather comedians, as Charlie refers to them--were so agog over the summer-like conditions that they neglected to say anything about wind.

I stopped by my sister's house for lunch the day before we were due to leave, and my brother-in-law, Dan, went online and printed out the latest forecast. "Looks like it's going to be kind of breezy," he said.

He passed the printouts over to me, and what instantly caught my eye were the words, "winds 15 to 20 miles per hour, gusting to 25." Uh-oh.

Some time back, and I wish I knew to whom I should attribute this, I read the statement, "There's only two types of wind: Not enough or too damn much." I thought it rather cynical at the time; especially in light of all the incredible weather we've had this season. We've lucked out with such consistency that I distinctly remember exactly two days with not enough wind, and only one day with too damn much.

I showed Charlie the weather report that night, and though he raised an eyebrow, he wasn't deterred. When he checked the forecast the next morning, however, he went from undeterred to somewhat concerned. Now the predicted wind speed had increased to 20 to 25, gusting 30. Well, we'd already packed, provisioned, and bought some cool new stuff for the boat--a sun shower, propane burner, and his-and-her foul weather jackets--so we were going to give it a go.

With all the provisions, new toys, and birthday gifts, the dinghy was full to capacity, to say the least. But the outboard motor wouldn't start for Charlie. After a number of unsuccessful tries, I checked to see if the fuel switch was on--it wasn't--and we then learned the hard way that, even once the switch is on, the motor takes its time starting once you've spent a while trying to start it with that switch turned off. I'm pretty good at remembering this sort of thing--turning on the fuel to turn that switch, turning off the blower for The Atomic 4--so from now on, I'm going to take the initiative and just make those tasks one of my jobs.

So anyway, with absolutely no time to spare, we were forced to paddle out to our boat, which is fairly far out in the mooring field. We tried the motor twice, but each time it still wouldn't start, and besides, we just kept getting blown too far downwind, making it an even harder and longer row to the boat.

When we finally got to the boat, I hopped aboard first, threw open the hatch covers, turned on the battery, the blower, and called the bridge tender to request a noontime opening of the bridge--it was 11:56.
We'd already planned to go straight to the fuel dock to fill up The Atomic 4, the outboard, and to fill the sun shower with water. When all that was done, we decided to grab an empty mooring and put a reef in the main.

Unfortunately, the forecast was right. I started to get a bad feeling, because if it was this choppy and blowing so hard in here, what were we in for once we left the harbor?

We grabbed a free mooring, raised the main, and Charlie set to work reefing. I suggested that with this amount of wind, perhaps it would be better to just use the genoa, but he thought it would be an uncomfortable haul to our intended goal of Hadley Harbor, which is just west of Woods Hole.

I watched Charlie reef the sail, and I'd watched my sailing teacher, Kate, do it once earlier in the summer, but it's something I definitely need more practice with. It involves knots--and that's another area in which I need more practice. Much to Charlie's chagrin, our main only has one set of reef points; he'd rather have had two on this day, but having done what he could do, he cast us off.

Well, we might as well have had 10 sails up. Water was crashing onto the boat, things were crashing below (and I'm a good stower), and the wind was howling through the rigging, making sounds we were neither used to nor liked. Charlie was also concerned about the strength of some of the rigging on the boat, so we also worried a bit that the wooly conditions were ripe for something to snap. (Next winter, we're definitely going to upgrade some of our rigging before the start of the season.

As we looked around, the few boats we could see were actually turning around and heading back in. Most of the boats didn't even have their sails up, and the few sails that were up were flapping wildly. We grabbed the chart to rethink our course. Our eventual destination was to be Martha's Vineyard, but in those conditions, getting there, to Falmouth, or to any of the Elizabeth Islands wouldn't be any fun.

I wasn't exactly enjoying myself but I wasn't scared either--in the old days, I probably would have been. But I could tell by the look on Charlie's face that these conditions were over the top, so I wasn't surprised when he abruptly said, "We're turning back. This just isn't worth it."

I was a little disappointed, it being the demise of my birthday cruise and all, but I have faith in Charlie as a captain. And even though he "talks too loudly" sometimes (he says it's just to make sure I can hear him), I trust his instincts.

We turned around, sailed back in, and grabbed the same mooring we'd used when we reefed the main. By this time, it was already about 2:30, so we figured we'd hang out, do some long-overdue cleaning projects, have a nice dinner, stay there for the night, and try again in the morning. Besides, being on a strange mooring on the other side of the bridge was kind of like being on vacation anyway.

Well, it blew all night, and when we awoke it was blowing even harder. We turned on the radio, hoping for some good news, but there were small-craft warnings until midnight.

So it was the birthday cruise that wasn't, but I got a lot of nice presents and ate lobster that we cooked on our new burner. And when we were back inside the bridge that morning, I took the tiller and Charlie went to the bow to retrieve the mooring-a role reversal we hadn't tried yet. The first attempt failed by just a few inches, but my aim was perfect on the second try. Charlie even complimented me on my technique, especially in light of the wind. I figured the first time we'd try that trick, it would be under ideal conditions so that it would be easy for me. But this was one time I was ready for the captain's pop quiz, and I passed with flying colors.

Now that it's mid-October, I don't know how many more days we'll get out on the boat, so my blogs will have to take another tack. But we have houseguests coming on the weekend of October 19 to 21, and they want to go sailing. If the weather allows, we'll go, and I'll report on that late-season adventure. If not, I'll leave you with this thought: When the Tartan hits the water next summer, it won't be called The Atomic 4. Look for future "Taking The Tiller" blogs to find out why.

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