Thursday, August 6, 2009

Technophobia on the High Seas

Dave was a fine fellow and in some ways a legend in his time. He’d served a few years in the Marine Corps, some say during the Vietnam era, but he never talked much about that. He married, had a pretty wife and nice young daughter, and was living an idyllic existence in the Florida Keys, busying himself primarily, it seemed, by mucking about in boats.

His family owned a lot of real estate, although he never talked much about that either. Dave himself drew a comfortable paycheck by managing a shopping center up around Ft. Lauderdale--collecting rents and cleaning up behind the stores once a month, a situation that gave him plenty of time to engage in his hobbies. His family didn’t own these properties outright, the rumor went, but held them through a murky fundamentalist organization in one of the Appalachian states, some say for tax purposes. Whatever the reason, Dave and his immediate family were not fundamentalists. At some point they’d converted to the Bah’ai Faith, and faithfully followed the fast days, feast days, and other disciplines of the Bah’ais.

In some cases it may be said , “His religion takes care of all his peculiarities.” But not so in Dave’s case. While his contemporaries dealt with mundane problems like how to pay their rent and their kids’ dental bills, Dave fretted over decisions like “Catamaran or trimaran? Ketch rig or sloop rig? What to do, what to do?” This is not to say that he wasn’t a good boatman nor fun to be around. He’d spent a lot of time sailing in the Bahamas, and had a wealth of knowledge about out-island Bahamian lore, seamanship and navigation. (This was well before GPS.)

Dave was also a purist, and in today’s terms, you’d call him a technophobe. Discounting one’s need for dentistry and perhaps an occasional antibiotic, he would have been perfectly happy back in the 1800's. He held a romanticized notion of sailing ships and a decided distaste for things mechanical and motors in particular. “Iron jibs,” he called them, making a spitting sound. “One time, just one time,” he would say, “I would like to see what it is like to be totally, totally away from the sound of motors!”
Time passed, as Dave went through a series of boats, never completely satisfied. For a while he had a 27 ft. Wharram catamaran. Then he had one of Jim Brown’s designs, a Searunner 25. In the meantime unfortunately Dave and his wife had been having some problems. They were waiting out the Bah’ai-prescribed “year of patience” before finalizing their split. They’d decided a few months before that their daughter would live with Mom for the school year. She would spend the summer sailing with Dad. She had just turned fourteen.

So many things in life depend on one’s point of view. What red-blooded American boy wouldn’t jump at the chance for an ocean-going voyage with his dad aboard their own speedy multihull, however cramped for space it might be? But what American junior high-age girl wouldn’t be happier staying close to home, hanging with her peer group? It’s said the daughter took one look at the single narrow hull which was to be her home for the next two months, “But it’s even smaller than the Wharram!” and burst into tears. Carried into the cockpit of the small craft, she bade farewell to her equally tearful mother, as Dave determinedly cranked his brand new 25 hp. Johnson outboard (a begrudging concession to technology purchased just for this trip) into action, and the Searunner sped away from the dock toward their first stop in Miami.
(To her credit the girl’s tears dried before they made their first anchorage at Key Biscayne, and she acquitted herself well on the voyage.)

There’s a small harbor on the southwest side of Key Biscayne where cruising yachtsmen traditionally gathered before making the crossing to the Bimini in the Bahamas. There they exchanged information on tides, weather, and possible hazards to navigation. There being safety in numbers, our travelers planned to travel in a flotilla with the other cruising yachts, weighing anchor at 5 in the morning, to take advantage of the outgoing tide.

Imagine the excitement, amid the smell of diesel oil and the slapping of rigging, as seagoing craft of all descriptions started their engines, weighed anchor, turned on their running lights, and one by one headed out into the predawn stillness of Biscayne Bay.

Dave raised the mainsail on the trimaran and readied the halyard to raise the jib once they were under way. He adjusted the choke and throttle on his new Johnson 25, reached down and gave the starter cord a couple of rapid pulls and....nothing happened. He re-primed the bulb on the fuel line, reached down and yanked the starter cord again. Nothing. He re-primed the bulb again and pulled the cord furiously. He began to smell gasoline. Now it was flooded. He disconnected the fuel line, pushed in the choke lever, hoping to clear the carburetor, and cranked again. Not a sound of life from the motor. He dashed below, retrieving a small tool kit. He took the cover off the engine and, tearing knuckles as he went, reached around and removed the spark plug, replacing it with a spare.

He re-primed the fuel line once again, set the choke and throttle and pulled. By now it was starting to get light, and he could see that the harbor was empty. All the other boats were under way. He pulled and pulled, but nothing happened. The brand new engine that had worked perfectly up until this morning had let him down. By the time he got it fixed , the other boats would be well out into the Gulfstream. He would not have his plans frustrated by the malicious vagaries of an iron jib. “Joshua Slocum didn’t need an engine, and neither do I!”

He unbolted the engine from the transom, and lifting it high overhead, with a superhuman effort, let it fly into a graceful arc into the waters of the little harbor. He hoisted the anchor, raised the jib, and the little trimaran moved out to sea.

Dave later said that everything went all right until they sailed into Nassau harbor to clear Bahamian customs. He eased the tri into a convenient dock in the harbor, but the customs official refused to clear him unless he brought the boat to another dock that was directly upwind. “If you want to clear customs, you must come directly to the customs dock,” he was told.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and somehow he contrived a way to do it. He was an excellent sailor before that trip, but not having a motor, he discovered ways to sail that summer that defied the imagination. A multihull is notoriously difficult to “bring about,” i.e, turn through the oncoming wind, because of the fact that it has two or three hulls which offer resistance to the wind and water, rather than just one.

Since then I’ve seen him tack the boat up a narrow canal against the wind. (Lubbers may have trouble following this.) Although it seems counterintuitive, he would set centerboard most of the way up, with only a foot or so in the water. Presumably this would lessen the drag on forward speed, and make turning easier. Then if he used a jib at all, he would have it set extremely loosely, almost luffing, so there was no chance it would push the bow to leeward. And he would sheet the mainsail in just enough to give the boat forward momentum, not enough to make the boat heel or sideslip.

Reportedly they had a fine trip down through the out-islands and sailed home safely, tanned and happy.

Oh, and the motor. Due to the fact that so many people use that harbor, we can be sure it was rescued by an enterprising snorkeler before too much time had passed. Whether it ever ran again, we can’t say.

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