Taking The Tiller: A Little Too Much Excitement

A celebratory sail turns into a little too much, and a few lessons are learned. From Kitty Martin's "Taking the Tiller" for September 18, 2007

November 11, 2008

The Atomic 4 co-owner Julie just had a birthday, and what did she want for a present? A birthday sail. Well, that and a new stereo system for the boat, which has been installed by Charlie and sounds great.

We set out on a recent Sunday with six people, with the intention of making the 11:00 bridge. In addition to The Atomic 4 owners, we also had Julie and Brian’s daughter, Katie, and Charlie and Julie’s mother, Marion, aboard. We were about a hundred feet from the bridge when Charlie noticed that the engine was seriously overheating. The needle on the temperature gauge was as far to the right as it could go.

We hadn’t had a bit of trouble with that engine since Charlie fixed it during the Fourth of July over-the-telephone tutorial with Uncle Gerry, but it sure looked like we were in trouble now.


Charlie immediately shut down the engine and glided toward the nearest mooring. He told me to be ready to grab it, and I could tell from his tone of voice that flubbing this mooring grab was not an option. I grabbed the stick and pulled it out of the water and on to the bow as fast as I could. But when it came time to put the loop around the cleat, the line was all of a sudden very heavy and I couldn’t pull it the few extra inches I needed. It was also covered in, well, I’m not entirely sure, but the disgusting mess included seaweed, rocks, shells, mud, and apparently, something very sharp.

I called back to Charlie that I couldn’t get the loop around the cleat. His response was something like, “You just have to figure it out! We have no engine and no other choice,” or some such sweet nothing.

At this moment, I also became aware of a burning pain in my hands. I looked down and saw that both hands were cut and bleeding: Add barnacles to that list of gook. Luckily, Julie had followed me to the bow, and since she’s a nurse, blood doesn’t bother her. She grabbed the line and with her help, the two of us were able to muscle it in the extra few inches, knock some goop off, untwist the loop, and get it on the cleat.


As soon as we were secure, Charlie removed the engine cover, but it wasn’t showing any signs of overheating: He checked the seacock and the raw-water filter and he sprinkled water on the block but saw no steam. He turned the motor on again, and it started immediately, there was also plenty of water with the exhaust.

Then Brian, our resident engine expert, suggested there might be a loose wire in the sending unit. Turns out that’s exactly what it was. Charlie tightened it, and the temperature gauge went back down as quickly as it had shot up. This particular crisis averted, we just made it through the bridge in time before it closed.

We raised sails as we left the harbor and set out on a comfortable tack for Quicks Hole. As has been the pattern this summer, it was another beautiful day with a southwest breeze blowing 10 to 12 knots. Charlie’s idea was to go through Quicks Hole, around Pasque Island, then back in to Buzzards Bay through Robinsons Hole.


Our timing, we thought, was great. There was a slack tide that would make for an easy passage through both holes-much more important when going through Robinsons, as that channel is quite skinny. We needed to take a tack before entering Quicks, and wouldn’t ya know it, the wind had suddenly picked up and was blowing close to 20 knots. As Brian was hauling in the genoa, he got an override on the winch and it wouldn’t budge. Charlie just said to leave it and that he’d fix it on our next tack.

Well, on the next tack, the sheet didn’t come free and the genoa backwinded, and we couldn’t head back in to the wind. Charlie quickly turned the engine on and tried to motor back into the wind, but we didn’t have the power to round up.

I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on but I knew it wasn’t good. And it wasn’t just the tense look on Charlie’s face. The boat felt different to me: it wasn’t responding and it wasn’t happy. But then, Charlie jibed Tommy around and freed the sheet by himself, all in about five seconds, it seemed.


The captain decided that in those conditions, with six people on board, most of whom had little to no experience, his planned course was way more work than he needed. So he decided to take a long, lazy reach back to Padanaram. The rest of the sail was, thankfully, uneventful.

In the old days, the whys and what fors really wouldn’t have concerned me. But later, I quizzed Charlie so I understood what went wrong, how we could have handled the sheets on the winches differently, and so on. I’m not just a passenger any more. I own a boat and I’m part of a crew. I have responsibilities, and Charlie depends on me to be ready to respond quickly. And I’m hearing, “Hey, Kitty, you did that really well,” a bit more often now.

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