Weather forecast for May 23, 2017:
Turner Marine, Dog River, Mobile, Alabama
Mostly sunny, low 75 high 83.
South winds 13 to 18 knots.
Captain’s Log: May 22, 2017
"Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."
The 59th Dauphin Island Race was originally scheduled to take place on Saturday, April 29th. The race, considered the largest single-day point-to-point race in the United States, was canceled due to weather concerns and was subsequently rescheduled for Saturday, May 20th. My XO Shirley and I were invited to crew as rail meat on the 47ft sloop Fast & Bulbous for the rescheduled event. We jumped at the chance.
Our good friend and experienced single-handed sailor Al had just arrived on Okbayou, his 27ft Island Packet, from Pensacola the day before. After securing permission from Captain Beefheart, owner and commander of Fast & Bulbous, we invited Al to join us as additional rail meat. Al jumped at the chance. Captain Beefheart’s insignificant other, The Mascara Snake, and his large dog, Shakey, completed our crew of six.
Al, Shirley and I have a fair amount of combined sailing experience but, as tradition and protocol dictate, we deferred all decisions throughout the majority of the race to the good Captain. We assumed that Captain Beefheart, a full-time live-aboard, having spent more than five years at the marina, had a reasonable working knowledge of Mobile Bay and was fully briefed on the layout of the course.
Lesson One: Never make assumptions.
A moody sky confronted us as dawn broke on a melancholy race day. The designated starting time for our class was 9:30 and, with the starting line established on the eastern side of the shipping channel, we agreed to converge on Fast & Bulbous at 7:30 with the intention of leaving the dock by 8:00.
I somehow missed the frayed halyards and sheets as I stepped aboard but I did take note of the disarray on deck and the mess below decks. Before leaving the dock Shirley discovered that the head was not functional so I resolved to remain topside for the duration of the race. Oddly enough, there was no introduction to the boat and no discussion and/or assignment of roles and responsibilities prior to the race.
Lesson Two: Be observant and politely skeptical.
Fast & Bulbous is configured with ‘in-the-mast’ roller furling. As we joined the flotilla of smaller and larger craft heading out of the Dog River towards the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, some strictly under power and some motor sailing, we discovered that the mainsail roller furling was jammed and the sail was stuck inside the mast. Captain Beefheart, in a casual and mildly confused manner, mentioned that the mainsail furling had never malfunctioned before. With that proclamation I began to wonder if Lady Luck had an issue with Fast & Bulbous.
After about fifteen minutes of in-an-out muscling via an electric winch, the furling suddenly released and the mainsail rapidly and violently filled; the boat heeled hard and The Mascara Snake, entrenched at the helm, veered off course. After a brief scramble to trim the sail and get back on course we continued our push toward the starting line.
As we settled down from the excitement I finally took note of the severely frayed mainsheet. I also noticed that the starboard-mounted rope clutch for the mainsheet did not work. To compensate for this inoperable clutch and to assist in unfurling the mainsail the Captain had looped the sheet around a manual winch mounted on the starboard side of the companionway and then crossed it over to an electric winch on the port side of the companionway, creating a close-line across the opening. Raised eyebrows from Al and Shirley silently told me that they too had noticed this hazard. We quietly acknowledged our mutual skepticism; we were in for a rough ride.
A tattered 110 genoa unfurled as we approached the starting line and we passed the committee boat on a close-hauled port tack a mere two minutes and thirty seconds later than our official starting time. The course was a simple 8-mile sprint down the bay, around the mark and back to the start/finish line. The race rules required all participants to stay east of the shipping channel at all times, making our waterway approximately 4 to 5 miles wide. There were only two other boats in our class and the Captain was very confidant that we would win the class.
The Mascara Snake, still at the helm, instructed us to trim the genoa so that the sail was approximately 4 inches from the upper spreader. That command confused the three of us as the telltales were telling us otherwise, but we complied. Captain Beefheart decided that our best course of action would be to steer toward the Middle Bay Light as the mark had to be somewhere close by (he did not mention at this time that he actually had no idea of where the mark was, nor did he mention that he had no functional knowledge of the bay). So, with the wind 10-15 degrees off of our nose, we began a series of tacks.
Lesson Three: Ignorance is not bliss; know your captain!
Did I mention that we had no functioning electronic navigation on board? Did I mention that the chart plotter was broken? Well, now you know.
The first three tacks were relatively smooth and uneventful. Uneventful given the fact that the wind vane at the top of the mast was broken in half, the boat speed indicator jumped from zero to 3, 4, 5, or 6 knots every 5 seconds and the wind speed/direction indicator did not work at all. Even the binoculars, which required batteries (dead), did not function properly. The depth finder did work, so we had that going for us.
With each tack Shakey the Wonder Dog would desperately and unsuccessfully try to dig his claws into the non-skid to keep from sliding from one side of the cockpit to the other. On the forth tack the entire leech ripped off of the genoa and began to drag in the water, the clew being the only point of attachment. This development made tacking a bit more difficult as the separated cloth would catch in the standing rigging as it was dragged out of the water and across the shrouds to the other side of the boat. Captain Beefheart finally took the wheel and sent The Mascara Snake and Shirley forward to cut the ripped section away from the sail.
As the wind picked up we labored down the course, having no real idea of where the mark was; we stayed the course for the Middle Bay Light. At one point I mentioned to Beefheart that the majority of the fleet, now well ahead of us, was much farther east and south of our position, but he was certain that the mark was near the light.
With each tack the genoa lost more cloth from the leech; the foot began to unravel as well. The rag that was left was eventually doused. We continued our slow, dubious march south, powered by the mainsail and its curious clothes-lined mainsheet, as we watched the bulk of the fleet now heading north toward the finish line, well to our east. Although there were now no boats behind us the Captain remained confident that Fast & Bulbous would win her class; Shirley, Al and I secretly hoped that we could make it back to the dock before dark without further incident or injury.
Much to our relief, The Mascara Snake finally broke out some veggie-wraps and bottled water, which we devoured. After another hour of clawing towards the light with no mark in sight, Captain Beefheart admitted that we had little chance of finding the mark and suggested that we start the engine, turn north and head back toward the finish line. In a single voice we replied “you are the Captain!”. On came the iron genny; the bow swung around and the ride became much smoother as we headed directly down wind.
I took the helm as The Mascara Snake disappeared below decks. Shortly after starting the engine I noticed that Beefheart went below deck and lifted the companionway steps only to return to the cockpit about five minutes later. He continued to repeat this behavior as we motored up the bay, but I did not ask any questions.
Lesson Four: Be fully aware of the condition of the boat at all times.
Al relieved me at the helm for a short while and then Beefheart took over. It started to drizzle followed by a steady rain. We were fairly miserable.
Without electronic navigation the Captain relied on recognizable shore features to find the entrance to Dog River. We missed it by four miles, running aground in the dredging spoils just west of the shipping channel far up in the bay. We were now in a heavy rain and the wind was picking up.
Without a word, the Captain put the engine in neutral, went below deck, lifted the companionway stairs and disappeared once again. We all looked at each other with ‘WTF’ expressions; Shirley finally asked what was going on. The Mascara Snake replied that the radiator cap was lost somewhere underneath the engine and that the Captain had to keep filling the radiator with water to prevent the engine from overheating; he would then shove a rag in the opening where the cap should be. Mystery solved.
Beefheart emerged from below and, standing on the companionway stairs, he instructed me to take the helm; the rest of the crew was instructed to unfurl all sails. We complied.
The boat heeled hard and I put the engine in forward gear. We pivoted through the mud but we did move slowly toward the shipping channel. We eventually made it to the channel but during the process the Captain somehow got the mainsail sheet wrapped around his hand. The pressure on the sail was enormous and he could not free himself. He began to cry out in pain and shouted to Shirley to grab the sheet to relieve the pressure. She could not budge the sheet. I was beginning to picture severed fingers scattered across a bloody deck.
Beefheart’s hand was folded in half with the fingers blue by this time. Al shouted “Cut the line!”; Shirley instantly pulled the knife off of her PFD and, with one smooth stroke, cut the ¾” line. Beefheart collapsed on a cockpit bench, clutching his right hand and calling for ice. No one knows where The Mascara Snake was during the crisis but she eventually appeared with an ice bag and handed it to the Captain.
I now assumed command. Shirley downloaded a trial version of Navionics to her iPhone and we began to make our way down the shipping channel toward the Dog River bridge with the iPhone as our guide.
At this point Al looked down the channel through the rain and immediately announced that a Carnival Cruise liner was bearing down upon us. The VHF was turned off! Al quickly turned it on to discover that the captain of the liner was hailing us. The captain gave us instructions to keep to the far right-hand side of the channel. We immediately complied. The liner left us in her wake and we continued our slow trek south.
The last hour was spent motoring down the bay. We made a right turn into the Dog River channel and twenty minutes later we were dockside. With very few words exchanged between captain and crew we gathered our belongings and left Fast & Bulbous, happy to still be vertical with all of our fingers and toes in tact.
The entire experience was a nightmare, but it was also a very educational one. We learned a lot about what not to do. We learn some valuable lessons regarding with whom to sail. We learned the importance of safety equipment and last, but certainly not least, at the post-regatta party we also learned that Fast & Bulbous came in fourth out of three boats in her class.
Until next time, may your tomorrow bring fair winds and following seas!