As seen in ThreeSheetsNW – see their site for the photos.
Consistent with my middle name of Gale (ok, Gail..but it’s still the same meaning!), the suggestion by a dock manager that I be called Small Craft instead of Tiny Skipper, and a friend’s theory that you didn’t need to watch the weather, you only needed to know when I was planning a cruise, I led a cruising event to Port Orchard, WA despite a gale warning. It was predicted to start late evening and end by the morning and with a 13 mile trip we’d all be safely in the marina during that time. It was January in the Pacific Northwest…weather reports, including NOAA aren’t always spot on…right?
If you haven’t heard that Seattle is one of the most difficult places to prognosticate…it is. Winter cruises are kept short for the eight hour days and the unpredictability. At the time I had owned my first sailboat for six months and was just starting to solo sail. Going from a crew of 4-5 people to zero is a big adjustment and I had been doing things little bits at at time. The trip from Seattle to Port Orchard was quite easy logisticaly, just 13 miles through a pass that wasn’t going to be a problem that day at that time. The weather wasn’t coming until later. I sailed 60% of the way and motor sailed the rest due to lack of wind through Rich Passage, and docking was uneventful (always an opportunity for gratitude).
The other five boats rolled in soon after and the festivities began shortly thereafter, including great food and drinks hosted on S/V Cambria. I was elated that so many other boats braved the prediction, and it was an amazing turn out from Sloop Tavern Yacht Club, Corinthian and Seattle Yacht Clubs, Windworks Sailing Club, and Pacific Northwest Sailing Group. Did I mention we were sailing in January? No fair weather sailors were among this group!
I was exhausted and did hit the hay quite early in the evening. I’ve learned so far that going solo often means a very early bedtime for me, even in good conditions, and I believe I crashed around 8 or 9pm. When the adrenaline goes up, it comes down, and sometimes it comes down very quickly. I am fortunate to have friends that understand and were kind enough to tidy my spring lines and sail ties before the storm hit because I was out cold.
Later in the evening things changed. The night was rough, and unrestful for all but the soundest of sleepers or the blissfully unaware. I was neither. The predicted gale pummeled us with gusts over 40 kts and jerked the boats side to side in our slips. This marina has a pier, but not a solid breakwater, so wave action was a problem. My First Mate Logan was supremely unhappy and yowled through part of the night. Everyone was a bit weary in the morning, including myself, and I had gotten to bed earliest.
The storm was due to subside before noon, so I bided my time to leave. Skippers asked if I needed help, and in my premature self confidence (this was my third time alone after all!) I said “no thank you”. All but one of the other boats left between 10 and 11am and the wind had calmed and the blue sky appeared. S/V Cambria and her skipper Mark had elected to stay another night and spend the afternoon watching the Seahawk’s Superbowl playoff game. He offered to help me off the dock, as had the other boats before they left, but it was calming down and looking great, so I thanked him, but declined. I would do this alone. So I donned my Frosty The Snowman hat and got ready.
This is about the time the music changes in the movie. Not quite the ‘knife approaching shower curtain’ change, but more of the ‘you said something that’s going to bite you in the keister’ type of music. This will be difficult to describe without a photo, but I will try.
If you aren’t familiar with our typical dock setup, imagine an upside down squared off U shape which is the dock and the finger piers. I am along the southwest (left hand) side of that dock, and all night the winds had been coming from the south/southwest and pushing me away from the dock. I needed to get all the lines off and still get on the boat so it was important that I pick the lines to take off in the correct order. I chose incorrectly.
The wind had died down to about 9 knots in the marina, and I was going to be pushed off the dock with no one beside me….easy. I had released the aft spring (which keeps me from going forwards) which was slack, and the bowline appeared slack as well, so it wasn’t under load. The plan was start at the front and work my way back starting with the bowline, then the forward spring (keeping me from being blown backwards), then the stern line once I was aboard.
As soon as I released the bowline to work my way back, a very meaningful gust of wind and a line of rain hit me from behind and the windage on an 11000 pound boat in a 25kt gust is no match for a 5’1” person with six inches of line left in her hand. I had neglected to look behind me at the weather.
My boat was sideways in the slip in about 5 seconds, maybe less; time seems so long when you are watching a disaster in slow motion. The remaining forward spring and stern line kept the aft end of the boat tethered to the dock and prevented it from completely doing a 180 as it pivoted through the slip. I ran around to the other finger pier and grabbed the line that had been stripped from my hands, but it wouldn’t reach a cleat. I hung desperately to the anchor for a minute, trying to think of a plan.
As if by magic, the boat stayed about 2-4 inches from the dock, forward and aft before I had gotten to the line. The Challenger wasn’t going to let me fail, but she wanted me to figure it out. When the gust passed I was able to get the bowline to the mid dock cleat so the boat wouldn’t keep turning; it was clear my pulpit would not clear the pylon at the end of the dock. I thought I had a plan, but I now needed to get ON the boat.
The engine was running, there was a cat on board, and there I was on the dock, not quite able to get on the boat, but not able to manhandle it back to where it belonged. There was no one around, so I was truly solo, which is what I had wanted, right? What’s the worst case? My mind ran through an array of possibilities. I run out of diesel in three days while I have a diabetic cat on board with no insulin. Yep, that is a worst case. Time to do something.
The bow was tied now, so the pulpit couldn’t swing and hit the pylon. I looked like an ass, but I was safe for now. I only had access to the corner of the transom, and I could not get aboard there without steps. My only option was to tiptoe onto a metal ring around the pylon at the end of the finger pier in the rain and try to reach and get the swim ladder down. (Note to self, get a better system to get the swim ladder down if I am overboard). After several minutes, I was able to get onto the boat, but it was precarious, a lot of effort in full rain gear and PFD, and I was exhausted.
I took a longer line to the bow cleat and threw the line onto the dock in preparation to slowly work the bow around one cleat at at time to the original position. Somewhere during that time my Frosty hat had blown off and was floating across the fairway looking very sad indeed. I mentally gifted it to Neptune because I had a job to do.
After getting back off the boat to get the newly rigged bowline and start working it around, I was delighted to see Mark walking down the deserted dock. He had just purchased China plates from the antique store and was quite pleased, so despite the clearly abnormal appearance of my situation, he did not seem alarmed, or even rushed. He calmly deposited his China next to Cambria after my call for help, and walked over to take the new line and nonchalantly walked it back to the proper side of the dock. The gust had dissipated and he did this with ease. Later, Mark was quite benevolent in his blog by calling my boat position ‘awkward’ as he approached.
In about 2 minutes the boat was back where she needed to be with what seemed to be much less effort than I had anticipated. The 25kt gust that disheveled me and my boat had dissipated, but I was a soggy, panting, hot mess. My arms and legs were noodles. The adrenaline sink was happening. How long had the whole thing taken? It might have been 15 minutes. It seemed like hours.
Post Apocalypse Port Orchard
photo credit Mark Aberle
Despite the offer to watch the game aboard Cambria, I prescribed a nap STAT. That seems to be my solution post-crisis. Three hours later I emerged to gaze at a miraculously unscathed boat, and to join my last minute helper for the end of a football game which had just gone into overtime. Mark had managed to walk to the other side of the marina and gather Frosty from the cold salt water while I was overanalyzing my spring lines and passing out. Frosty had been rinsed and was drying by the diesel heater, the boat was safe, and the Seahawks won. It felt amazing and surreal.
Is there a cohesive theme here? Not really. I have had problems with having my bow blown off before I got to the cockpit, and I am working on it, and have several new strategies I am trying. In stormy weather, always look around for squalls before you release lines. Did I do OK in managing the crisis? I think I did. Was I lucky? Yes! Was I happy to have help? Absolutely!!! Getting my hat back was a bonus.
Thanks again to ThreeSheetsNW for publishing my fiascos – who wants to hear a story of everything going perfectly anyway?