When powerboats and sailboats meet

Published on August 16th, 2020

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt Sailing News
My worst incident with a powered boat occurred decades ago in Clearwater, FL. It was the day before the Snipe Midwinter Championship, we had just completed our final training, and were sailing downwind back to the club when we got hit.

It was a jet ski, doing donuts aside us when his turn got too close to our rudder, wedging the front of this PWC into our stern, violently spinning us into a capsize. My crew and I were thrown from the boat, raising our head above water in time to see him plane away.

We survived, without any damage, but for my second worst incident, the outcome could have been far different.

Coincidentally, this recent event occurred just after the legal system determined the power boater who caused the fatal boating collision last summer was found innocent of criminal charges but guilty of four violations of the Coast Guard’s Inland Navigational Rules, each carrying a nominal fine.

In my latest occurrence, the skipper would not have gotten off so lightly.

I love racing inside San Diego Bay. The tides and wind variances strain the brain, and rarely are two days the same. Government marks and imperfect course legs add to the challenge, but on a sunny day, so do the recreational boating traffic. And on this Saturday, with air temperature in the 80s, there was a lot traffic.

I call them ‘Rodney Dangerfields’, a tribute to the scene in the Caddyshack movie when his character Al Czervik was causing high speed havoc in a 60-foot sport fishing boat. This was also the scene on San Diego Bay, and as the wind lightened on our 5nm offwind leg, it was good times for the Rodneys.

We saw this powerboat well in advance as we looked for wind. Their course from astern was on our line, exactly. Their pace was over 20 knots, with our view locked onto both sides of this 35+/- footer. Assuming their intent was not to hit us, but also not granting any credit that they know what to do, the worst thing you can do is guess which way they will turn.

Also at this moment was a sizeable shift requiring a gybe to port, but I stayed locked on our course, waiting for that moment to decide what to do. To be honest, that what to do list included jumping off the boat. It was a doublehanded race, and both my wife and I were reacting, without words, but with the same thought. This looked bad.

As I write this, I’m happily alive. The powerboat carved hard right as it came within 50-feet of us, and as I saw the turn, I quickly gybed, riding their wake onto our new course. It all worked out, but there are times in our lives when the memory refuses to fade. Much like my Clearwater incident, I sense #2 will also stick around for a while.

Do you have a power/sail story to share? Send it to editor@sailingscuttlebutt.com.

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