Sailboats, a fine obsession

Fri, 09/18/2015 - 7:30am

“If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most. A small boat is not only beautiful; it is seductive and full of strange promise and a hint of trouble.” — E.B. White

While sailing earlier this summer, the clew at the foot of the headsail of my 30-foot Ericson had blown out while bashing to windward off Castle Hill in Newport — not a good way to begin the sailing season. The fix required one of two options. The sail could be done the correct and professional way at a loft in Newport run by Aaron Jasper, or I could fix it myself, which would be a band aid for the summer. The latter was chosen out of necessity.

The problem was at the top of the mast. The jib halyard was jammed so the sail couldn’t be taken off the boat. A rigger could’ve gone up the mast and unjammed the halyard, but the decision was made to fix the clew by hand — the old-school way. It was a cheap fix. E. B. White’s words, “a hint of trouble,” are spot on regarding boats. A palm guard, needles and some marlin were procured, and the job was done as Reverie swung on her mooring lazily during an early July sunrise.

The drill was this: thread the needle, align the fabric, which was laminated, to the foot of the sail, and push the needle through with the palm guard — nautical stuff, manly stuff. The drill was tedious; however, the job got done. Of course, the fix had to be tested — it was performed by a left-handed geezer using a right-handed palm guard.

Sailing requires one to be able to jury-rig and improvise when necessary and duct tape is stashed all over Reverie. White duct tape was applied to cover the stitching. So, the testing phase was executed with an upbeat attitude and a sprightly blast out of Newport Harbor into a stiff 15-knot southwest breeze. Halfway to Jamestown the, ahem, stitching blew out again. There was no “hint of trouble,” just trouble with a side order of frustration — no seduction, either. A call was made to inform the bride. “Did you double the thread before sewing the strap to the sail,” she asked.

“No, I did not,” said I.

“Might’ve been a good idea,” said she. ‘Nuff said.

The second shot at the fix involved a double stitch. (I know, should have asked the bride first.) Subsequently, the problem temporarily was solved resulting in a great summer sailing season. The day after Labor Day, Reverie was lazily sailing north of the Newport Bridge. The wind was light out of the southwest. The bay was empty. After passing the north end of Jamestown, the wind picked up to a steady 15 knots. Reverie swung to windward and started tacking south toward mouth of the bay. The sailing conditions were perfect as the spurs were put to the fast and tender sloop. After several tacks, she was punching into some white-capped chop off Beavertail at the southern tip of Jamestown.

At that time I was marveling how well the stitches held at the foot of the headsail. Just as the sleek schooner Adirondack — with a full charter of folks — sailed below my stern, there was a snapping sound at the top of the mast. No “hint of trouble,” just a snapping sound — nothing good can come of a sound like that, and nothing did. The same thing that happened to the foot of the sail in July was now happening at the head of the sail. The stitching of the strap for the clew had let go. (UV rays can burn through stitching.) As the headsail began falling to Reverie’s bow and into the ocean, I left the helm and went to the bow of the boat, and hauled the remainder of the sail down the track on the head stay. Once contained and lashed to the starboard side of the deck, the diesel was started.

I was baffled by the timing of my hubris and the problem with the sail. Moreover, it was a sketchy scene on the bow because of the sloppy seas and the snap rolling of the boat. Yes, that was a “hint of trouble,” but no trouble came — just the hint. Heading back into Newport Harbor, I was already figuring out a plan to correct this problem as the fall is my favorite time to sail. Now, if John Wayne was facing this problem — which meant going up the mast to retrieve the halyard — he would simply climb up the mast with a knife in his teeth and fix the problem. Then, he would go rope a calf and kiss a pretty girl. If Errol Flynn had to go up the mast, he’d probably have a pretty girl go up and get the halyard for him. Then he would kiss her, and have her get him a drink.

Well, I’m just a geezer. I needed a rigger so I called a guy when Reverie was safely secured to her mooring. The call went like this. “Hey, Matt, I need someone to go up the mast to get a halyard,” I said.

“I can go up and get it. Call me tomorrow morning,” he said. Matt Gineo is better than John Wayne and Errol Flynn. He’s like “The Dude,” and he abides. A week before, I’d seen Matt shinny up the mast of his Beetle Cat Leo to retrieve a halyard. I was impressed. Reverie has a 42-foot mast. Matt, who is a young 62, didn’t flinch about me winching him up the mast and fixing the problem.

The sail will be fixed on Monday and the season will continue with the expected hints of trouble.