A small (boat) lesson in humility

Published on April 23rd, 2019

Experienced boaters have wisdom … which is often accumulated the hard way. Bob Muggleston, editor of Points East magazine, reflects on how he got his.

Several years ago I stumbled across the flyer for an intriguing small-boat race, and the kicker was that it was practically in my own back yard. Called the Connecticut River Dinghy Distance Race, the event, which always took place in early May, was sort of a Gumball Rally for local sailors who’d been cooped up all winter.

This was 2017 and it marked the 7th iteration of what had become a popular event.

Why Gumball Rally? This wasn’t a ’round-the-buoys harbor race, but an epic slog, likely to windward, from a starting line opposite the Gelston House, in East Haddam, all the way to the Baldwin Bridge, in Old Saybrook, and then back to a local yacht club for post-race festivities. I pegged it at about 14 miles. I couldn’t sign up fast enough.

And I knew just the sucker, ahem, fellow sailor, to join me in this folly, my brother-in-law, Art. Being a fellow boat hoarder, Art had a tweaked version of a class design that was sure to show in numbers at the race, a JY-15 Turbo. All this meant, essentially, was that it had the ability to fly a spinnaker. It seemed just the type of unfair advantage we’d need.

The dumbest things I’ve ever done on a boat have always been with Art, which might explain why he was so reluctant to join me. But after I described the scenario I envisioned, in which we two old guys popped the chute at the Baldwin Bridge and then roared across the finish line to unexpected glory, beers in hand while the rest of our class – most likely a collection of college kids – fought over table scraps, he was in.

The morning of the race, Art called to inform me that his college-aged daughter had run off with his foul weather gear. Did I have anything?

At this point in the story I should clarify something. During May on the Connecticut River, a lot of the water is essentially melted snow from Vermont. In other words, it’s still frostbiting even if the air is mild. Anyone frostbiting should be in a wet or dry suit – not foul-weather gear.

But, for reasons unknown, I never seriously considered wearing my wetsuit, and Art, well . . . he was following my lead. Bad idea. Never do that. I’m sure you see where this is headed.

I didn’t have anything for Art, but remembered seeing cheap rain gear in our local hardware store. Art was distracted, busy doing something, and said he thought it sounded fine. I bought the only size they had – XXL.

What a collection of 38 boats that morning! JY-15s, Lasers, Sunfish, Blue Jays, MC Scows, Force 5s, 420s, 470s, Vanguard 15s and several fancy new VX Evos. Two 17-foot daysailers were there for the fun, as well. A lovely 12 knots out of the southwest materialized before the start and the marine forecast looked great, promising more of the same, and eventually, sun.

Lacking a proper ramp, racers worked together to launch boats from the riverbank. Art donned his yellow XXL slickers, and I dropped my cell phone into a sealed peanut butter jar tethered to the boat. After a lengthy debate we added one last item to our meager stores – a six-pack of Busch. Baldwin Bridge, here we come!

We’ve all heard the old saw, “Bad choices lead to good stories,” and one of ours quickly manifested itself. While Art and I had sailed the JY-15 countless times, we’d never actually sailed aboard it together. And there was no time to figure things out, either, because a glance downriver revealed an unsettling sight in the form of a line of advancing whitecaps. In short order 12 knots became 25 to 30, with the occasional, short gust that flirted with 40.

Those gusts: In the sustained breeze we were okay, but, when the gusts ended, our weight remained dangerously outboard. It was a perfect scenario for a capsize to windward.

The image I’ll never forget? A man aboard a Sunfish, displaying incredible skill, skipped across the roiling water, a huge rooster tail shooting up behind him. Surely this man is setting some sort of Sunfish speed record, I thought. What a testament to the design of this iconic . . .

Suddenly, I was in the water. We’d capsized to windward. Man, was it cold! It was hard to breathe. Fighting the urge to panic, I made my way to the centerboard. Using it as a lever, the two of us flipped the boat back over. Phew!

We slewed wildly in the direction of shore, overpowered, the jib loose and trying to tear itself apart. Art feathered the main in the big puffs, but to no avail. Again we capsized, again to windward. This time the boat turned turtle, and the centerboard made a resounding thunk as it slid back into its case.

Art looked scared, and said he thought he was tangled in the rig. After several nervous moments of me peppering him with questions, he suddenly worked his way loose and joined me on the overturned hull, where I surveyed the chaos.

Chase boats were assisting other people in the water, and overturned boats floated by, or bumped against the shore. Later we’d learn that both daysailers had been dismasted.

We stood on the edge of the hull and pulled on a line from the cockpit that floated by. It wasn’t the mainsheet, fortunately, and in agonizing fashion the hull slowly came over. And not a moment too soon; I was losing feeling in my hands and feet. Aboard, we immediately dropped sail and, fully powered, sailing against the wind under spars alone, made our way back to shore.

I’m embarrassed to admit how relieved I was to discover that my phone survived what must have been quite an ordeal for it. But there were casualties, of course. Most notably, the elements of the “Turbo” rig – spinnaker and pole – were in Davy Jones’ Locker.

As we finally sat high and dry on the dock, beers in hand to calm frayed nerves, Art turned and said, “Have you noticed anything different about me?”

I took a good look. He wasn’t wearing pants! How had I not noticed! The “tangled in the rig” comment – he’d been “pantsed” by the river!

We still laugh about our short time in this race, which ended before it began, but there are obvious lessons. The biggest being that, regardless of how old or experienced you are, you should always display a proper level of humility. Failure to do so can have consequences.

And, regardless of where you are, never underestimate Mother Nature. Always dress appropriately, and never take a marine forecast as gospel.

My next frostbiting adventure? Art and I are eyeballing another early-season race on the Connecticut River right now. This time we’ll be prepared for anything.

Meaning, of course, there won’t be any wind.

Which is just fine by me.

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