Taking The Tiller: A Visit from Murphy

A pleasant evening was in store if only the crew could keep everything together. From Kitty Martin's "Taking the Tiller" for May 8,

November 11, 2008

I usually try not to plan ahead, because things often don’t turn out as expected, as was the case with this particular sail. I was able to leave work in Newport shortly before 4 p.m., which should’ve given me just enough time to get to Padanaram to make the 5 o’clock bridge. But I got caught in a traffic jam due to a car accident, so that set me back enough to make catching the 5 o’clock bridge impossible. No worries. I decided to look on the bright side: Now I’d have the time to drive home first and pick up Charlie, so we’d only have one car. If Charlie’s sister, Julie, and her son, Dan, could make it to the dinghy dock on time, we could ask the bridge tender to open at 5:30. They’re very accommodating if you just ask nicely.

Julie and Dan were nowhere in sight when we had the dinghy loaded up, so we motored out to the boat, figuring they were running late and we’d pick them up on the south side of the bridge. No sooner had we sidled up to Magdalena, Charlie’s phone rang. It was Dan, wondering where we were, because he and Julie were waiting on the beach. We’d missed them by about five minutes. Charlie left me on the boat to get things ready while he turned around to get the rest of the crew. We were looking at a 6 o’clock opening now, (here comes that silver lining again), but at least we weren’t in a frantic rush; why, I even had time to do some housekeeping below!

With everyone on board and oodles of time to spare, we headed for the bridge. I was below, and no sooner had we let go the mooring, I heard a commotion on deck. Before I could poke my head up the companionway, Charlie came scrambling down saying the engine was overheating; meanwhile, Julie and Dan had secured a nearby mooring. My first thought: We’re not making that 6 o’clock bridge.


When Charlie removed the engine cover, smoke was coming off the old Atomic 4, and even though he’d turned off the engine, the temperature gauge was still reading 240 F-as high as it goes-and it stayed there for quite a while.

A few minutes later, our friend, Matt, noticing we were on someone else’s mooring, dinghied up to see what was going on. He works for Concordia, so he knows boats. I want to learn more about the Atomic 4 and engines in general, so I listened to Charlie and Matt discuss the situation, but I might have been listening to aliens: “Did you try bypassing the bypass?” Huh?

Matt dinghied off to help another friend with “an A 4,” Charlie went below to operate, and Julie, Dan, and I ate pretzels in the cockpit. The reason I’d been below when the engine overheated was because I was getting Dan a beer and Charlie and Julie a glass of wine. But when everything hit the fan, I abstained because I wanted the crisis averted before I indulged and relaxed. But who can eat pretzels without getting thirsty? I went below, poured myself a glass, and refilled Julie’s.


Charlie suspected that the engine problem was with the impeller; whether this notion sprang from his secret-coded conversation with Matt, or from the fact that he and Brian had replaced the impeller earlier this summer, I’m not sure. Charlie knew he had a spare impeller in the back of his car, but that would require another dinghy ride back to shore. He searched the drawer on the aft starboard side of the boat where the previous owner had left a fair amount of spare parts, and sure enough, there was an impeller. Was our luck changing?

The cockpit crew offered moral support and any help Charlie might require, but it was basically a one-man job. Turned out the impeller was intact, so the next place to check was the thermostat. New surprise: There wasn’t one in place, but the reservoir where the thermostat should’ve been was filled with black goop. Charlie cleaned that and then disassembled the cooling system, saying it appeared to be arteriosclerosis. Every fitting was reduced to about half of its usual circumference. The effect of the buildup was to reduce the flow of water, so the engine ran at 180 without a thermostat. But removing the buildup reduced the running-engine temperature to 120. A new thermostat will solve this problem.

This was a rather long and tedious process, and yes, we missed the 7 o’clock bridge. Julie would periodically ask Charlie if we should flake the sail and put the cover back on, but he said no every time, determined to get in even the briefest of sails.


At just before 8, more than two hours into the job, Charlie started the engine, and we all watched as the needle on the temperature gauge stayed at 120. Charlie asked me to hail the bridge tender and ask for an opening. I called and called and called, but no answer. By now, it was about 7:59, so our friend Matt, who’d recently reappeared, zipped over in his dinghy and shouted up to the guy in the booth that a sailboat was waiting to go through. Then the siren sounded, the bridge opened, and we were off.

We needed to make it back for the 9 o’clock opening, which is the last one of the day. So as we waved to the bridge tender and shouted thank-you, we told him we’d be back in time for the 9. He just sort of looked at us like we were crazy.

Julie and Dan tried to raise the main but it was stuck. Charlie immediately realized that the halyard was tangled, so Dan quickly righted it, and Julie easily raised the sail. We keep a winch handle right at the bottom of the mast, so I grabbed it, and with a few turns, the main was set. I also let out the jenny.


Despite the hour, it was still beautiful. We headed out of the harbor, though every boat we passed was headed in. I took the tiller while Charlie and Dan went up to the bow. I got a few reprimands from the captain that I was straying off course, and he was right. I have to remember to check the telltales often while I carry on a conversation.

When it was time to head back, I brought Magdalena around-quite skillfully it seemed-but Dan was having a bit of trouble hauling in the jenny. Charlie realized the line was caught around the forward hatch, because he’d forgotten to close it in his haste to make the bridge: an easy fix. Dan had the tiller for most of the ride back in. He had sailing lessons one summer up in Maine about seven years ago, and though he says he doesn’t remember a lot, he seemed pretty comfortable.

When it was almost 9, we hailed the bridge and started the engine. The clock was ticking, so Charlie gave the engine some throttle lest we annoy the tender and the people stopped in their cars on the bridge. As we passed through to our side, Charlie checked the temperature. It had risen at the higher rpms, but quickly dropped when he backed off.

It was dark now, so Julie grabbed the flashlight and helped light the way to our mooring. Charlie asked me if I was comfortable at the helm while he and Dan went forward to grab the mooring. And despite the darkness, I said yes without hesitation because I really was.

Charlie missed the mooring on the first attempt, and I’m sure it was partly my fault, as I could hardly see in the dark, there were two bodies on the bow, and three people were shouting directions at me. But I swung around again, and Charlie and Dan grabbed it no problem the second time.

On my wish list, I’d like a gearshift that’s easier to handle, because you really have to move it rather forcefully, and I’m always afraid I’m going to pop the thing off. I also have to look down while I do it, so I’m afraid I’ll miss the mooring, or worse, smash into something.

We closed up shop and dinghied back to shore. After we’d unloaded everything and locked the dinghy up, Charlie asked me where his car keys were. They were back on Magdalena, along with his wallet and cellphone that he keeps tidily in a plastic bag. He thought that I . . .but I thought that he . . . oh never mind.

Julie and Dan hit the road while Charlie and I had to unlock the dinghy, put the motor back on, and go back out to the boat. It was almost more amusing than annoying, and a fitting ending to an uneven night where Murphy’s Law ruled.

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