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Monday, January 16, 2012


The above saying, "better a mile too far than a foot too near" is an old clipper ship saying. Which of course means, better to clear a reef, head land, shoal etc. by a mile too far out to sea than to come a foot too close and possibly hit an object and sink your ship. With over 50 years of operating all types and sizes of yachts, one thing I know for certain is that practically all the dangers you will encounter in well traveled waters are on your up to date chart. As long as you know where your boat is in relation to charted dangers, you should be able to keep out of trouble if you are a diligent and vigilant skipper. Practically every time I have run aground was because I wasn't paying attention to my chart.

While racing aboard my 55 schooner in San Diego we thought we would go up wind of an other boat and go inside the channel marker off Ballast Point. Rail down and doing almost 9 knots I watched my depth meter go from 60' to 5' in less than 30 seconds! Luckily we grounded on soft mud and sand and the only damage done was to my pride and the jeers of the other skippers. A look at the chart showed there was no water where we were heading. Most of my boats had a draft from 8' to almost 14'. There's not a shallow spot in Newport Harbor that I have not parked upon at one time or another. While stowing our anchor when leaving Howland's Landing near the Isthmus on Catalina Island I bounced over Eagle Reef in my 93' ketch, "Vadura". I always thought the red cone was right over the shallowest spot on that reef. Boy was I wrong. Luckily, we only had one big THUMP and my 14' draft ketch made it safely over the reef with the only damage being some deep gouges in the 20 ton lead keel. Studying the chart later, I discovered the red cone was exactly where it was shown on the chart and my seat of the pants navigation could have cost me my boat. While anchoring the 65' "Kelpie" off Todas Santos island about 7 miles out from Ensenada, Mexico I was circling at very slow speed thinking I was safe being in over 10 fathoms and was about to anchor when "Kelpie" slid up on a sea mount and started to heel over. This was the 2nd day out on a 30 day charter with 14 people aboard. Wow, was I going to sink my dad's boat and strand my charter on fly infested Todas Santos island? After about 2 minutes a gentle swell lifted "Kelpie" off the reef and I was able to anchor and dive over the side to check for damage. I was lucky again, only a little paint scratched off the 14 ton iron keel. Later, a very close inspection of my chart showed a tiny dot as big as a fly spec. Yes, that was the sea mount that at low tide was still about 6 feet under water.

While beating up the narrow channel on the west side of Tahaa in French Polynesia bound for the pass that would lead us to open sea where we could shape a course to Bora Bora my 68' schooner "Shearwater" came to a slow stop. Heavy rains had made the shallow water as dark as the deep water, also unknown to me, a crew member had set both my fathometers on feet instead of leaving them on fathoms where I always kept them set. Please God, don't let my trip end here? We were aground hard and luckily there was no swell being inside the barrier reef. A quick dive over the side showed me that we were on hard white sand with large coral heads on either side of the boat. We had to somehow back straight out and get back in deep water. We swung the booms out and had crew members crawl out to put more weight on the ends. The boat took on a fairly good heel, with that and the big GM diesel in full reverse and lots of "hail Marys" the boat slowly moved astern and we were able to back in deep water. We immediately pulled floor boards and checked for leaks. We were lucky, "Shearwater " was taking on no water and no damage was done.

Yes, old salts like to say, "if you've never been aground, you've never been anywhere." It's true in my case, I like to think I've been diligent but as you can see, I still screwed up. I did my circumnavigation with a sextant, a compass and two one hundred fathom depth finders. I had no insurance and was totally responsible for six to 14 crew members at all times. I didn't go into strange harbors at night, always had a man aloft or out on the bowsprit looking for shallow water when we were going through passes or navigating in hazardous waters. I tried to never stay on a lee shore if I could help it, and had lots of heavy ground tackle and always set anchor watches if the weather was unsettled or our back was towards the beach at night. After two and half years at sea and 40,000 miles and 21 countries behind us we entered Newport Harbor with the boat is as good as condition as when we left. Yes, we had some near misses, and are still having them. That's what makes boating fun. It's us against the sea and we are continually being challenged. My credo is, ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN AT ANY TIME........and it usually does.

P.S. I keep hearing about the passenger liner aground in Italy and the lives that were needlessly lost. Totally unbelievable? That ship had every navigation gadget known to man, and looked what happened..........

1 comment:

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