Angering the sailing gods

Well, thanks for the comments on that last post, Tom Trump, but I think you jinxed us! Or, more accurately, I think I jinxed myself.

I’m warm now, drinking a hot cup of coffee (decaf!) in the sommarstuga, after having eaten about 10 ounces of wild smoked salmon and having had 30 minutes in the sauna. Not a bad afternoon, but I’d say deserved after this morning’s near bout with hypothermia.

You see, here at 60º north, when something goes wrong, you pay for it. Thankfully it was a small price, in the big picture, but I paid nonetheless. Here is what happened.

Claes (‘Clabbe’) came by again last evening, the old-time sjöman I wrote about recently. He arrived as he did the other night, in his little open wooden boat, drank a glass of wine while we finished dinner, and took us all out for a little adventure around the creeks and coves here in central Åland. The weatherfolks were calling for a cold front to pass sometime overnight, so it had clouded up for our little tour, but that didn’t matter. 

We motored past mostly farmland, where the cows were bathing (it was hot yesterday, at least for Åland), and past a family of swans en route to a small ditch that we navigated through, that opened up into a little bay by an old abandoned apple orchard. Claes grounded the boat on the shore near an rickety old barn, tied the painter off to a tree and off we went for a short promenade through the forest road and to an inshore, freshwater lake where the Ålanders often come to catch crayfish.

It was after 10pm when we returned to the dock after our little ‘snipaäventyr’ in the same wooden boat I was fawning over the night before, built in 1938 on the neighboring island of Föglö, and with a Finnish gasoline engine from the 1940s. It was almost dark. Claes left in the boat and retired home to his stuga, while Mia and I went off to bed in the bunk beds by the sauna. I knew then that the wind was going to shift to the north – why we had planned to leave today, to sail SW to Sweden – and even thought about moving the boat last night. But the bed was too comfortable, and I didn't.

This morning we awoke to heavy rain and thunder, a few minutes before 8am. The boat looked okay on anchor in the small cove, so we walked up to the stuga for breakfast. I spent the next hour or so drinking coffee and reading while the wind slowly built outside and the skies began to clear with the frontal passage. Every few pages I’d glance out the window at the boat, which seemed to be sitting okay.

I walked down to the dock when I heard some halyards banging and noticed the flags flying sideways. Sure enough, Arcturus' anchor cable was pointed north, but her bows were pointed west, sideways to the increasing wind, and she bobbed in the little wavelets in that special way which you know means the boat is sitting on her keel. Oops.

Mia and I rowed out the 100 yards or so to the boat and tried to decide what to do. There was no real danger, as the bottom of the little cove was soft seagrass, and even though the wind was pushing us further inland and harder aground, there was no real ‘worst-case’ scenario. I tried to be patient. My friend Mike Meer likes to quote a leader he had once on an outdoor adventure program. “When the shit hits the fan,” he says, “stop and have a cigarette. Nothing’s going to happen in those 3-4 minutes and it gives you a chance to relax and think.” I didn’t have a cigarette, but instead a big hunk of dark chocolate, and pondered our options.

I was a little miffed at myself for writing that kedging article for SAIL a few months ago. I had to open my mouth, and now I was forced to take my own advice. 

We got out the Danforth anchor, which we’d been using as our stern anchor, and rowed it out as far as the cable would allow. When we started hauling on it, instead of freeing the boat, all we did was manage to dredge up a gigantic pile of that aforementioned seagrass, which would come back to haunt us yet another time (just wait). So Mia remained onboard while I rowed back in to the stuga to ask Lotta if she could ring up Claes. Maybe the old-time sjöman could come to our rescue with one of his boats (though I was admittedly embarrassed to ask for his help).

In the meantime, we rigged the longer anchor cable to the Danforth to make a second attempt to help ourselves. We knew that just outside the small cove, when the water got slightly deeper (10’ instead of 5’), there was good holding mud, and if we could get the anchor there, it might work. 

Claes turned up before we had a chance to try. With he and I in his launch and Mia at the helm of Arcturus, we managed to swing the boat into the wind, but not much more than that. Mia couldn’t get any power out of the engine for some reason. It just bogged down, which I thought was because the boat was hard aground and just wouldn’t budge. Finally we just took the main anchor and all of its cable (80’ of chain and about another 200’ of rope) way out into the deeper water. I clambered back aboard and hauled away (appropriately, I had put off the windlass project until next year, so I slowly hand-over-handed it).

This worked! Arcturus slowly moved into deeper water, despite the wind pressing her towards the shore. My shoulders burned, but once the boat was unstuck, she came around pretty easily. But the engine still wasn’t making any power. 

Just then I had a very appropriate little bit of hindsight, recalling that Lotta had told us a few days ago how much trouble Tryggve has with the seagrass getting wrapped around the prop on his 9.9 Evinrude that powers his small wooden launch (which, in fact is the only thing that gets Tryggve in the water nowadays, according to Lotta). We felt this swimming too – it’s like standing on a giant sponge, or someone’s extra-thick, matted down hair. 

But we had another problem. The engine wasn’t getting any waterflow either. The strainer was clean. The impeller was fine. What then? 

I theorized that the seagrass had actually gotten in the through-hull itself. When I took the engine intake hose off and opened up the seacock, the water barely trickled in. I stuck a long screwdriver down the hole, but all that did was bring up a bit of the grass (I was on the right track), and a tiny shrimp. I put the hose back on, and this time disconnected it from the strainer side, blowing with all my might to push out whatever was clogging the through-hull (grass!). That helped a bit, but the water still just dribbled into the bilge. I wanted a geyser. 

Arcturus has the old-school bronze seacocks with horizontally opposed tapered plugs, greased in their housings to allow them to open and close. Thankfully I was familiar with it, from having dismantled it a few years ago to grease it, so began disassembling it, knowing full well that if I couldn’t get it back together again the boat would sink. Anyway, long story short, I got it apart just fine, but the thing was still clogged. Problem was, there is a stainer on the outside of the hull. Time for a swim.

And this is where that payment came due. With the passing cold front, the air temperature this morning was in the high 50s, the water about 68 (actually pretty warm for these parts – we had gotten used to having our morning swims in about 65º water). Mia had only days before accidentally found the diving mask we keep on board (a little foreshadowing anyone?), so I reluctantly climbed in.

The prop was as I expected – a basketball size clump of green hair wrapped around all three blades and fast against the shaft forward of the prop. You couldn’t even see the metal (much less anything else in the murky water). The hull strainer was also as expected, clumped with this sea-hair in the small vertical slots. Thankfully this sea-hair wasn’t quite as strong as real hair, and came apart fairly easily, though it still took me 30 minutes and probably fifteen different dives to clear everything. I was able to pick out the sea-hairs from the strainer with my splicing fid, and cleared the prop mostly by hand and a bit at the end with my diving knife. 

Once out of the water though, I couldn’t stop shivering. Lotta had been watching all this from the dock, and had even rowed out to offer their home-made sea-hair clearing stick (see, this was bound to happen), but I had it mostly wrapped up (or unwrapped) by then. Instead she returned to the stuga to get the fire going in the sauna.

Mia and I still had to move the boat to a more sheltered cove, which we found around the corner. It took a while to clear all the lines and anchor cables we’d gotten out and clean the mud off the bow from re-anchoring. When we returned to the stuga, we found the aforementioned smoked salmon on the table waiting for us, the fire burning hot in the sauna. After my chill this morning, I understood better why all Finns have a sauna in the house. 

So there it is then, a little deserved ‘action’ for being ‘having too much fun’, as Tom said, being lazy last night and not moving the boat, and for writing so much about ‘seamanship’ and how to handle problems exactly like this one (in another bit of foreshadowing, I’d only yesterday sent the link for my article on how to clear a wrapped prop from SAIL Magazine to my Swedish friend Krister, who was the one in the photo). The sailing gods weren’t going to let me off that easily.