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Maxed Out: Anchors aweigh

MAX Aug 12
Pique columnist G.D. Maxwell recounts some of his sailing adventures—including the one time he almost drowned.

A largesay, 13 metres and up—sailboat is an absolute joy. Well, not if you get caught in a week’s worth of non-stop rain, but otherwise, a joy. A boat that size tends to give you confidence. It accelerates to speed almost unnoticeably, flattens out all but deep swells and feels rock-solid with its leeward toerail nearly submerged. There is a good reason large Cadillacs and Lincolns of a certain vintage are referred to as land yachts.

I’ve had the pleasure of being on such boats, most recently a 46’ Dufour (14 metres) sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. Designed and modified for just such an adventure, it was a sleek cruising boat with just enough beam to offer its occupants a bit of comfort below deck but not nearly enough to seem tubby. Running with the trade winds for 17 days, wing-on-wing, turned out to be largely uneventful and downright pleasant. An adventure with no adversity.

Unusual in my experience. Big boats lull you into a false sense they can handle anything. Mostly they can, at least until the wind starts to blow something stronger than 25 knots with gusts well into the 30s, non-sailors aboard, and you on a close reach.

At that point, even the finest of sailing yachts can become careening, seemingly out-of-control rodeo rides, with screaming adolescents and adults turning green and wondering if anyone will notice them tossing their cookies overboard. That this is the point of sailing where I really begin to relish the trip generally puts me in good stead with the captain and squarely on the non-sailor’s hitlist.  

At the other end of the continuum is sailing with little or no wind. August is often a capricious month to sail on even large lakes... like Lake Ontario. It is not unusual to be becalmed for long stretches of time when the drone of a diesel engine is the only alternative to sitting motionless and cursing your fate. Since even the best diesel sounds like someone’s dropped a handful of various sized nuts and bolts maliciously into the crankcase, running the engine is not just an admission that you brought the wrong kind of boat to the party, it is a form of auditory torture. The alternative, still air, rising humidity, and relentless sun all seeming to combine to make even fibreglass feel like it’s sweating. No-see-ums and biting flies appear to hatch from the water itself to frolic and live out their parsimonious lifespans within the confines of the cockpit, nourishing themselves freely on your ankles. Such conditions generally tilt the decision in favour of firing up the dreaded engine. Motoring is an unmitigated cry of “Uncle” when sailing is your preferred mode of travel.

However, whether sailing or motoring, motion of any sort in a large sailboat is preferable to stopping. Stopping a boat is an act of faith almost beyond the comprehension of non-sailors. To state the obvious, there are no brakes on a boat. And unlike a motorboat that may enjoy multiple large propellers, each capable of turning different directions and bringing a boat to a stop so quickly you can pop blood vessels in your eyes, sailboats have a single prop that looks as though it was stolen from the top of someone’s beanie and wouldn’t be able to blend a decent margarita at full speed.

When stopping a sailboat, you are faced with basically two choices: marina or anchor. Both can be adventures. Gracefully sliding a large boat into its home slip is challenging enough. Finding and negotiating unfamiliar dockage is almost inevitably humourous and humbling. To much waving of arms and shouting back and forth, you attempt to “feel” your way into a slip without caroming off the boat next to you or, heaven forbid, nudging into the dock in front of you. Success is never a given and the wind is never on your side, which is to say it’s always on the side necessary to blow you into one of the aforementioned perils.

The pitfalls of docking are, however, nose pimples compared to dropping your anchor—they are embarrassing but not life-threatening. The mere idea of containing the force of wind and current doing their mightiest to blow your boat onto the Canadian Shield granite of nearby islands by dropping a chunk of metal into what may at best be a muddy bottom is, let’s admit it, ridiculous. Putting your faith in an anchor is like rappelling on dental floss. Sailors inherently sense this. That’s why they often place a second anchor just to be “safe” or stern-tie many places on the B.C. coast. Kind of like doubling the floss before you hurl yourself over the cliff.

But all this nonsense assumes you’ve successfully nosed your boat into a sheltered bay where you feel safe dropping your anchor. To even get to that point, you sometimes have to negotiate water not much deeper than your boat’s keel. Forgot about the keel, didn’t you?

This is where I get to tell you about the only time in my life I believed I was going to drown. Sailing on Lake Champlain, a lesser great lake lying on the borders of Vermont and New York, I had to pick up an anchor buoy in the shallow bay of a marina. The saving grace, if there was one, was I was on a smaller, lighter racing boat of 21 feet.  

Two feet shy of the anchor, the boat’s keel ploughed the muddy bottom. Oops. The smart thing would have been to drop the sails, swim to shore, get the only power boat in the bay—the marina’s work boat—and pull the bottomed boat off the soft mud. But being embarrassed, figuring I was only in water a few centimetres shallower than the 1.2-metre keel, being 5’10” (178 centimetres), I jumped overboard determined to lift and jiggle the boat off the bottom.

You can probably see where this is going, but at the time, it made sense. Planting both feet and ducking under the hull near the boat’s bow, I heaved a mighty heave. Almost immediately I realized the movement I felt was not the boat rising out of the mud but was, in fact, my feet being driven convincingly into the mud with the full force of my own efforts, up to my calves. I was now in water over my nose with both legs held fast by the cloying bottom. Needless to say I managed to worry both legs free before the air in my lungs expired, but not by a comfortable margin and not before pondering the mirth my friends would have to stifle whenever they thought about how I’d died.

Anchors aweigh.

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