By John Dunn
This is a story about a knockdown on a heavy downwind Colburn to Buffalo (downtown) leg of the 2004 Interclub Cruise.
The vessel: Eyerly, a 1982 Beneteau First 42. Conditions: Downwind, heavy seas and chute up with a starboard pole which is alternately skimming the waters on starboard with the boom prevented to port and tipping the waves to port. We would have preferred that the thing was down but it was up and we were hoping for the best. We had survived a few roundups (which were really common that day in the fleet) and were at least ahead of the boats which we could and should be ahead of. Onboard were my son, Will Dunn, at the helm (very experienced), Jeremy Lincoln on foredeck (very experienced), my son, Tommy Dunn, on the Spinnaker sheet (years of experience at that post), Will’s wife (a lovely girl from Fort Worth, Texas – need I say more?), and poor Tim McNair. Tim had left his car in Buffalo earlier in the week and was simply looking for a ride from Colburn to Buffalo inasmuch as his vessel had headed back to Erie on this ominous day. He had never sailed with us before. Little did Tim know what lay ahead.
At this point, I must tell you that I have always tried to reassure those who fear that a sailboat might tip over. You know the type that gets white knuckles, turns green and who knows what else at the moment when a sailboat heels even a little bit. I always have prided myself in my reassurance to these unseasoned mariners that sailboats with a keel simply don’t tip over. The more they heel, the more leverage that lead keel has. The more they heel, the less leverage those sails have as the wind blows over the top of them. Then you have those sheets you can release and that helm that can take you into the wind which can be very noisy but leave you less in harms way. Invariably I have ended these reassurances with a statement to the effect that “oh sure, it is possible to tip a sailboat over but you’d have to be an idiot to do it”. Meanwhile, back to the story at hand where there were in fact white knuckles, green faces and ominous feelings on board (including those of yours truly). Others were getting their chutes down and a boat nearby suffered a Kevlar main blowout but Eyerly trucked on until…
…well, until an as yet undiagnosed combination of putting the starboard pole well into the water and most likely one of the ten footers coming from the port quarter forced Eyerly not only to have its chute under water to starboard but also into a involuntarily jibe. The problem was severely complicated by the fact that the boom was prevented to port and someone had put the preventer on upside down so that it could not be eased. Normally the jam cleat which would have released the preventer is on the boom end of the preventer and you pull the preventer sheet upward to release the jam cleat. This time the jam cleat was on the rail and you had to pull its sheet downward to ease but it could not be done because downward was into the deck and there simply was no room to ease it.
The result was a situation which certainly Eyerly had never been in. We had the approximate 20 knots of wind coming onto the port side of our main but it was prevented to the port rail which by itself had the starboard rail about four feet under. This does not take into consideration the fact that our Spinnaker pole to starboard was about six feet under water.
Tommy on the starboard rail with the Spinnaker sheet had water above his waist and as he looked at me as I clung to a starboard secondary winch running the guy with water up to my neck, I simply said, “whatever you do, don’t let go of the sheet” because that was the only thing keeping him on board. Jeremy was calmly trying to release the preventer (and he knew enough to ease if he could release it) but it would not budge. My daughter-in-law and Tim McNair did not panic and were testing their Topsiders on what were normally vertical surfaces. At this moment, Dave Haller and his Beneteau 37.7
(whom we had been very proud to have been leading on this leg) sailed by and he and my son, William, exchanged an old familiar line of Dave’s: “Are we having fun yet?”
Well, amazingly enough, we were having fun. It was a beautiful day. Eyerly was in a very strange predicament but the water was not quite flowing through the companion way to the below decks nor was it flowing in an open port in the starboard side of the cockpit (we had at least a couple inches to spare). Lake Erie was warm Eyerly was totally stopped.
We were basically “hove to”. Nobody panicked and there we were. The boat was on her side and yours truly after his many pronouncements about heeling boats felt like nothing other than…you guessed it…an idiot! I had found a way to tip a keel sailboat over.
We managed to get the chute down (I should say on board) from the water to the deck. This relieved whatever it was contributing to our dilemma. However, the main alone, jibed as it was and pinned into the wind, still had Eyerly more on her side than her bottom. We finally were successful in releasing the preventer about one inch at a time (remember it needed to be eased anyway). We eventually eased it sufficiently to get on our bottom and hoist…well…a headsail for a more conservative finish of our ride to Buffalo.
I since have rerigged my preventer so it cannot be deployed “upside down” and am proud to report that Eyerly has been sailing on her bottom ever since. Tim McNair still speaks to me…and I no longer use that “…you’d have to be an idiot…” line in explaining why keel boats don’t tip over.