Lessons from a Tuesday night race

Published on August 27th, 2020

Weekday racing offers casual competition during the summer, but when an unexpected storm hit the one design fleets during the Newport Yacht Club Tuesday night series, drama occurred. What else would we expect from this year? Team One Newport’s Martha Parker shares the story:

We were all amped up for an evening of racing right outside Newport harbor, as the top three boats for the series were tied so it was down to this final race. And though we didn’t start off well, the winds were up and down with the lulls at 4 knots of breeze and the puffs at 10 knots, offering us a chance to rally. So off to work we went, succeeding in passing a couple of boats to win the race and series. Excellent, right?

But before the celebration, it was time to take the horse (okay, it is an Ensign, so maybe that is more like an old pony) to the barn. However, we noticed the clouds building on the Jamestown shore, saw the rain coming, and agreed it would be smart to get jackets. We were prepared to get wet, but no one expected what came next.

While heading to the dock, our skipper Charlie Shoemaker (who is in his 80s and a champion Ensign sailor) announced, “We don’t need the genoa any longer” as we were on a downwind course into the mouth of the harbor. So I went forward and took the sail down, and while putting a sail tie around it, a microburst dropped from the sky. It came on so fast, and while we were somewhat prepared for worsening weather, we were not set for a 40-50 knot gusts and hail.

The boat rounded up, the boom caught the water and we had a slow knockdown. I had been facing downwind trying to get the sail tie around the headsail and was now holding onto the starboard railing, getting wetter by the second. While I felt I was going to be fine, I looked back to the cockpit and saw it sink down and down.

My concern turned to Charlie who has slowed down a bit and was holding on to the strap on the seat. With the stern sinking I yelled, “Get Charlie, get Charlie.” My daughter Fiona MacKechnie, who was grasping the rail, noticed he was stuck and needed to go under water to release his hand from the strap. Fiona and Rick Nebiolo then focused on keeping Charlie’s head above water…it was a bit harrowing.

Through the hail I saw a white RIB motoring towards us and it turned out to be Murray Lord who is a seasoned offshore racer and knows his stuff. He came quickly, but safely to us on the weather side and cut the engine, but when he went to grab Charlie, the wind was so strong that the RIB was now making the boat capsize as it was being blown over the shrouds.

Dave Wilson, who was starting to get caught in the shrouds, moved back to the stern of the RIB, and we all worked to get Charlie in the RIB and make sure he was safe and had not swallowed too much water.

By this time, the Ensign was upright, and with an air bubble forward, had about three feet of the bow above water. Our main was still up which turned the boat into the wind, and as the breeze was subsiding (only 24 knots), the situation was stabilizing.

We decided to rescue the boat, so I untied a line on the RIB and gave one end to Murray who tied it to his towing post and then I jumped in the water to swim to Challenger. I made sure the line was through the bow chock and tied a bowline around the mast. I swam (funny to think that you are swimming) to get the tiller, so when Murray towed it, I had some control.

Martha (left) and Fiona happy to be on land.

As the stern was about three feet under water, I reached down to grab the tiller extension and stood on the seat with the water almost to my waist, and off we went slowly to shallow water. Murray pulled us to King’s Park beach, and by then I was almost out of the water.

When the keel bumped and we found a sandy spot to stop, Fiona jumped in first and helped me take down the main while another smaller RIB came by and helped us by taking our sails, so we didn’t lose anything more over board.

Then, Rick and Dave jumped in the water (only chest high for them) and I rigged up a line on the main halyard and gave it to the small RIB so he could pull the rig over while Murray pulled us forward to get into shallower water. It worked and we dumped a LOT of water out. We then we able to right the boat and got some big and bigger buckets to bail, and bail we did!

We emptied 100s of gallons of water, and when we only had it at the floor boards, felt it was safe to tow back to Newport Yacht Club. It was a massive sense of relief when we tied the boat up and Murray dropped Charlie and Rick off at the dock. We cleaned up what we could but really wanted to just put our feet on dry land!

Everything happened quickly but sometimes felt like it was in slow motion. I am grateful that our entire crew stayed calm, cool, and collected, and even more grateful that Murray and the unknown young man in the smaller RIB were there and so ready and experienced that we all work like a seasoned crew.

I don’t know that you can practice a situation like this but we can all learn from the stories and actions that others have done when in this type of drama. The years we spend on the water make it so we can take action without having to ponder.

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