Heiress’ First Sail
What a beautiful day! Monday, October 11, 2010. Columbus Day – fitting for a first-time voyage into the unknown. Predicted temperatures in the high 60’s, sunny, NW winds 5-10. After enduring a month of high winds and/or rain (only on the days I could go out, of course), I was itching to get the boat out before the water turned hard.
‘Heiress’ is my new-to-me 1976 Venture 25. I bought this boat in the beginning of August, my first real sailboat, and I worked on it seemingly nonstop thru September to get it ready. It came with all the important stuff – hull, standing rigging (minus some pins, etc), and a full set of sails. It did not come with a motor, motor mount, running rigging, fenders, anchor, or any other general sailing paraphernalia. I had to replace the blocks, many of the backing plates for the deck hardware, etc, etc. I also made a new rudder (I couldn’t bring myself to cut the original, non-kick-up mahogany rudder, but I didn’t want the rudder to be the closest thing to the bottom in case I ran aground). But, after endless hard work and constant attention (much to the chagrin of my wife), it was finally time to get ‘er underway.
For the first sail, I decided to take a trip from Ocean Grove (Swansea, MA), down Mount Hope Bay, under the bridge, around Hog Island, and back. It’s a 20ish mile trip with a NW wind. When we arrived at the dock, it was high tide, the water calm, and the wind was light, but from the SW (which would add another 5 miles to the journey). The light winds were welcome, as this was essentially the shakedown cruise for both the boat and the skipper (I’ve never sailed a ‘real’ sailboat before – only 12’ dingys and iceboats). With me were my father-in-law, who is an experience sailor, and my sister-in-law, who is also no stranger to crafts a’floatin.
Once we got to the dock, it took just 40 minutes to get the boat ready for the water, and it took another 15 to get it in. Due to the light winds, we decided to set up the boat with the genoa, and a full main. We left the dock at 11:00 am, and the first thing on the agenda was to test how well the boat motored with just a 3.6 hp outboard. It was like the little motor that could. It pushed us along at about 5 mph (my gps doesn’t read in knots – or I don’t know how to change it) at ¾ throttle, just under 6 wide open. Fantastic! This should be adequate; I don’t plan on spending much time motoring around. The way I see it, if I’m motoring, it’s because there isn’t enough wind to sail.
Now it was time for that much anticipated moment of truth - we cleared the second buoy marking the end of the channel, shut the motor off, dropped the keel, raised the sails, and away we went! We sailed for about a quarter mile, when I noticed that my rudder was kicking up a little (I weighted it to offset the buoyancy of the wood, but the resistance thru the water was still kicking it up). So, I tugged the downhaul line to bring the rudder back in line, and that’s when I experienced my first ‘moment’ – someone (who will remain nameless) forgot to put the pin in the pintle. I tugged, and the whole rudder popped out of the gudgeons! We dropped the motor down into the water to give us a small measure of control while we re-positioned the rudder (not an easy task on a moving boat), and after a few minutes, we were back under control. Note to self: add ‘pin the rudder’ to the pre-launch checklist…
The next hour was uneventful; we sailed down the length of Mount Hope Bay slightly east of due south, making good speed between 6 and 7 mph. We would have to make several tacks to get under the bridge, and watch for traffic in the process. There were countless boats out that day, all enjoying the beautiful conditions. The wind was starting to build, and the tide was going out, causing a bit of chop. I was carrying a bit too much sail, and I was beginning to understand what people were talking about when they describe these boats as ‘tender’. I started making preparations to switch out the genoa to the working jib, as we were starting to experience ‘excessive heal’ (in my humble, inexperienced, frightened opinion). My father-in-law took over the helm. I reminded him that this was my first real experience on a sailboat, and that I didn’t want to push the boat.
I went below deck to get the jib ready. As I poked my head up thru one of the cabin hatches to release the jib halyard, we got hit with a strong gust. I would describe what happened next as a ‘knockdown’ event, although my father-in-law described it more as ‘washing the rails’. He laughed, I screamed, I guess it’s all about point of view. Before I could release the halyard, we got hit with a second gust. Everything in the cabin went flying to the other side of the boat (including me). Ok, enough is enough. I got the genoa down and stowed in a hurry, and decided not to put the jib up just yet, at least until my heart stopped pounding.
After a short coffee break, I put up the jib. A few tacks later, and we were going under the bridge. It was kind of a strange experience for me, because I’d always seen the bridge from afar, and it always looked so large and majestic. But as we were going under it, it seemed sort of frail – tall and lanky, like a teenager who sprouted overnight. Still, it was cool to see it from this new perspective.
Once we were thru the narrows, things got more energetic. The waves were larger, and quite confused, with small whitecaps on their peek. The wind was stronger, and had shifted WNW. It had taken an hour to beat our way under the bridge, and I had set a goal of being back at the boat ramp by 5:00 (I don’t have the nav lights working yet – gotta be in before dark). It was one o’clock, and I was debating whether or not to try to go around Hog Island. In order to do that, I would have to continue on a SSW tack another 2.5 miles, almost all the way to Prudence Island, before turning north for another 2 miles towards Bristol harbor. This was no problem, as long the wind held up and we could maintain 4+ mph. However, the forecast called for diminishing winds in the afternoon, so I was a little nervous. I decided to go for it anyway.
To the south of us, there was a large barge and tug apparently on it’s way to Providence, and our route cut across the main channel, where they would be traveling. On top of that, there were boats everywhere, the majority of them being under sail. Quite a few were sailing on one sail only, and the ones that weren’t were healing over pretty good. There was a trimaran (35’?) out there, and they were having a ball. Ours was definitely one of the smaller craft, and I was feeling a little small.
It turned out that we were going to have no trouble beating the barge across the channel, largely due to the fact that they were anchored. Still, there’s something a little disconcerting about passing in front of something that big, but I guess my first time jitters were playing with my mind. Better that than snoozing, I guess!
As we approached Prudence Island, there were a group of sailboats all racing… er, travelling north. Because I also wanted to go north, I decided to swing around and take the lead – made me feel special, it did! They, of course, all eventually passed me, or turned away. But for a brief moment, I was winning the race! (Hey, a guy can pretend, can’t he?).
I was enjoying the relative shelter of Prudence Island – it wasn’t exactly calm, but I could relax a bit. On the downside, we were only moving 2-3 mph. But, once we cleared the northern dogleg of the island, we were in the stronger wind, and were able to make 5 mph again. I headed for Bristol Harbor, dodging all the lobster trap buoys. The thought of getting tangled in one of them didn’t sit to well with me, but I had to stay on course. Once we were north of Hog Island, I turned east, and for the first time we were running.
The transition from sailing into the wind to running downwind is always a strange sensation to me. You go from what seems to be a gale to dead calm, all with a flick of the tiller. We had been sailing now for almost 4 hours, and for the first time, it was truly relaxing. The sun was warm, we were out of the chop, making about 3.5 mph. I turned the helm over to my sister-in-law - time to eat lunch, and call the wife and kids to let them know we hadn’t yet drowned. It also gave me time to inspect everything down below.
Before departure, I had checked for any obvious leaks. The keel pivot bolt was good, the thruhulls for the head were good, and the bilge was relatively dry (there’s always rainwater in the bilge, because the windows and hatches leak – it’s on my ‘to do’ list before winter). When I inspected the bilge, we were indeed taking on water – albeit slowly. I pumped out about 7 gallons. I think the plywood backings to the thruhull fittings were not exactly solid, so water was seeping thru the wood, on both fittings. Nothing serious, but I wouldn’t want to leave the boat in the water for a week! Add yet another thing to the list…
By this point, the wind indeed was dropping off. We came around the south side of Hog Island, where I expected to get more of a breeze, but it had diminished quite a bit. We were only able to go about 1.5 - 2 mph on the return trip under the bridge, but we were bucking the tide. There were several other boats heading north with us, and it was fun watching them. One fellow, who was sailing a 20’ish singlehandedly, was having a little trouble making any headway, even though he was under full sail (he was closer to shore than we were, and so didn’t have as much wind as we did, what little there was). He eventually started his motor to augment the sails.
I swapped the jib out for the genoa again, and this brought us up to 3 – 4 mph. The next 6 miles were ideal – enough wind to keep you moving, with no drama whatsoever. The sun was out, the air was warm but not hot. This, at last, was what it’s all about.
But, no sailing trip would be complete without running aground…
When we came in, it was low tide. The channel back to Ocean Grove is very narrow (125’ wide). As we approached the first buoy, I fired up the motor, and just had it ticking over. This moved us ahead about 2.5 mph. My sister-in-law was still at the helm, and my father-in-law and I went forward to douse the sails. He took the main, while I took the genoa, and I left the keel down in case we got nailed with a gust. I told my sister-in-law to make sure she stayed to the left of the buoys, which she understood, but…
As I was taking down the genoa, I happened to look overboard to starboard, and there was the bottom! She had strayed out of the channel, but before I could turn around to warn her, we came to a stop. The motor, being on the port side, pivoted the boat to starboard – right toward the sand bar. I scrambled down below thru the forward hatch, and, resembling a sailor on a racing crew, I cranked the keel winch up as fast as my little arms would let me! By this time, she realized her mistake, and kicked the rudder hard to port before we put the bow in the sand. No big deal, but it was simply icing on the cake.
Overall, we had a great time, and I am very happy with this boat. I don’t know if I will be able to get out again this year (the wife’s honey do list has been neglected over the last couple of months). But I can’t wait to get back out there in the spring. The nicest part of having a trailer sailor is the ability to have it ready to go, before the bigger boats are even in the water. Until then…
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