School of the Sailor
by Rick Menzel

pic Rick “Todd!” I fervently hoped the frantic note in my voice was not quite as desperate as sounded. “Todd, which way do I steer?” It was day one of the trip my friend, Todd Andrews, and I had been looking forward to like fourth graders anticipating summer vacation. Three months before, my wife Nancy and I had become the proud owners of a Catalina 34 home ported in Westbrook, Connecticut. Our decision to move the boat from New England to our base at Solomon Island on the Chesapeake Bay was the raison d’etre for this first big trip on “blue water.” Nights and weekends, Todd and I poured over charts and guidebooks, discussing tide tables, anchoring techniques, the light signatures of ocean vessels and the intricacies of diesel engines. A week before the trip, we skippered together on a chartered Hunter 38', hosting several friends from our church’s men’s group on a weekend cruise of Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. We had prided ourselves on a successful apprentice ship in the “school of the sailor.” Like so many others who dreamed of blue water, our first taste of sailing was at the tiller of a Sunfish or a Sailfish. Later we moved to day-sailors and a first taste of keelboats. Somewhere along the journey, we became avid readers of Northern Breezes. The accounts of Barb Theisen and others who had gone before were the wind in our sails.

Nor had we neglected the academic side of “the school of the sailor.” We were graduates of Minnesota’s own Northern Breezes Sailing school and had earned our “bareboat” certificate on Lake Superior’s “sweet water” sea. We learned to handle mid-size coastal cruisers like the Catalina 34, to read charts and to plot our position through intersection and resection. Muttering ancient and modern mnemonics, we learned the difference between “deviation” and “variation” and how to “swing” the boat’s compass. We honed our skills and looked forward to the opportunity to put our learning to practice. If we knew what we knew, we were equally aware of what we didn’t know. We had worked out tide and current calculations in the classroom, but the lakes of Minnesota gave us no opportunity to put those skills to the test. We had never sailed past sunset and our ability to recognize the speed, even the course of commercial shipping at night was untried. Thoughts of weaving our way through the traffic lanes off a great port city like New York gave us the willies and we resolved to be prudent, if not timid. We would pick up the boat in Westbrook, Connecticut and test our sea legs in the protected waters of Long Island Sound. Along the way, our theoretical knowledge of tide tables would become a reality, and by the time we reached the East River and the infamous, Hell’s Gate, we would be ready. From there, we would move down the New Jersey coast in cautious hops, motor-sailing from Atlantic Highlands to Manasquan, from Manasquan to Barnegat, and finally from Barnegat to Cape May, New Jersey. There we would toast our triumph before taking our victory lap up the Delaware Bay and through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to the great bay itself. But we didn’t know what we didn’t

pic know, and what we didn’t know was fog. Nancy and I arrived in Westbrook, Connecticut a week before Todd to take possession of the newly christened Nancy Ellen and make the final preparations for the great adventure. It was early June, and each new day brought clear blue skies and gentle breezes that stirred Long Island Sound into a sea of sparkles. But the morning of our departure, the fog settled in. It was not the dense white fog of the Great Lakes that billows up in the chill night air only to sink again as the sun rises. This was like salty gauze, a second sound of wet wool pressing down on the waters of the first. Like condensation on a car window or mist on eyeglasses, this fog first seemed only an annoyance easily wiped away. And from time to time, it seemed as if the fog were just about to lift, the diffused morning light glittering with an odd iridescent, as if the whole effect were part of an old-fashioned amusement park and someone was finally getting the word to shut down the fog machine. But the fog never lifted, only thickened or thinned as an unseen sun made its way through a blue sky in a world beyond the swirling mist. Todd and I planned an easy first day jaunt, a twenty mile cruise down the sound from Westbrook to Milford. But in our lake sailor’s ignorance, we chose as our first way point not the marina, our point of departure, but an isolated buoy, a full quarter mile out into the harbor and some fifty yards east of the very solid Vshaped granite breakwater that guarded its mouth. As we motored gently down the channel and were swallowed up by the fog, I suddenly realized I had completely lost any sense of direction and no idea where we were in relationship to the way point or, more importantly, in relation to the breakwater itself. I had read how disorienting the fog could be, but I had never felt that utter sense of confusion or the pit of the stomach panic at the thought of sinking your brand new boat ten minutes into your first passage. Once more, I knew it had been done before, that sailors had spent years building a vessel which they managed to wreck in their first half hour afloat. Needless to say

such knowledge was cold comfort, making it all the more difficult to decide whether we had already passed the breakwater, whether it was to the right or to the left or about to emerge out of the gloom directly off the almost invisible bow. I felt the panic rise in me as I repeated my earlier question with the added emphasis born of real fears and imagined failures. “Todd, what the hell way do I turn?” If, like me, you ever venture offshore to take those first steps to be a blue water sailor, bring a good friend. And in addition to being a good friend, Todd is also a tax attorney and not one to get lost in a fog of numbers. “Rick, steer due east, course nine oh.” At any other time I would have criticized Todd on his faulty grasp of the phonetic alphabet and explained to him, for perhaps the twentieth time that he should give the course as “nine zero,” not “nine oh.” But today was different. Many of the issues Todd and I focused on while preparing for our first foray into blue water proved to be about as significant as the difference between “nine oh” and “nine zero.” Other than that first frantic thirty minutes off the Westbrook harbor breakwater, the rest of our first day’s cruise was uneventful and by the time we reached Milford, Connecticut, a short hop down the coast, the fog was thin enough to make our arrival a non-event. The next day found us southward bound for Stamford. By noon of that second day, the sun had broken through the fog banks and a gentle breeze let us spread out sails for the first time, the low rumble of the diesel giving way to the slap of salt-water against the hull.

Todd We passed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, crossed the Lower Bay without incident and docked briefly at Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. After topping off our tanks, we headed north to round Sandy Hook and then south toward our first scheduled marina, Manasquan, New Jersey, some 25 miles south of the Sandy Hook light. With the sky sunny and the breeze light we thought that this final leg of the day would be easy as the morning run down the East River. But either we didn’t notice the fog bank or, like all true Minnesotans, we were willing to look reality in the face and deny it. As we sailed south, the haze around us became thicker and thicker. By the time we reached Manasquan the late afternoon sun had given way to diffuse red-gold light morphing little children on the beach to ghost like sprites, ephemeral beings frolicking in the air-sea. On a calm June evening on an otherwise sunny day, we could see neither the marina entrance nor the harbor buoys whose coordinates we had so carefully entered into the GPS. But we could hear the summer surf slap against the rocks of the breakwater and caution seemed the order of the day. Rather than chance a close encounter of the granite kind, we opted to “out run” the fog continuing south to our alternate rest stop, Barnegat, New Jersey. By the time we arrived at Barnegat it was midnight and the fog was twice as thick as before, swallowing up the harbor entrance, blotting out the red and green lights as if they had never existed. It was

at this moment that Rick became obsessed with the idea that the right thing to do would be to “hove to” and sit off the Barnegat coast until morning. He hustled forward and begin an all-out assault on the unsuspecting the jib and mainsail, the latter still securely swaddled in its protective cover. The challenges he faced were many. We were feeling the toll of the long day’s adventure and boat was still unfamiliar to both Rick and me. Besides, it was one o’clock in the bloody morning, the boat rolling back and forth in the summer swell like a see saw gone mad in a grade-schooler’s nightmare. I worked to keep the boat steady while Rick carried on a determined if doomed wrestling match with the sails. After more than half an hour, the sails won and Rick gave up. “Rick, we’re going south,” I yelled into the dark, pitching my voice to the bow where an unseen Rick lay slumped and spent. With other thoughts in mind, I didn’t notice Rick never answered.

Rick Exhausted and utterly defeated, I slumped against the mast as Todd brought us on course for the run to Atlantic City. In thirty-five minutes of frantic effort, I had managed to remove the cover from the mainsail and come within a hair’s breadth of dropping the whole roller furling apparatus into the drink. Anyone guilty of half the antics I had just inflicted on my boat, let alone on my friend, I would have hailed as king of the marina morons. Who in his right mind would try heaving to on a boat so unfamiliar he hadn’t yet learned how to remove the mainsail cover? Who would plot a buoy as a GPS coordinate without first checking to see if said buoy was visible at night? But then again, who would learn just enough about GPS to get out to sea without quite learning enough to get back to shore? Welcome to Todd and Rick’s “school of the sailor!” It is no more than thirty miles from Barnegat to Atlantic City, but I doubt I will ever forget that night’s sail. Though the biggest swell probably topped out at 3', the boat was rolling enough to rattle the coordinates off a GPS. The boat was beautifully instrumented, but the glow of the dials was enough to deny the man at the helm what the military calls “situational awareness.” Blinded by the lights of the instruments and the rolling of the boat, I could probably have run down the Statue of Liberty had it been in my way. And although I’ve made my home in Minnesota for twenty years and think nothing of going off for a moonlight ski at twenty below zero, I have never been 10 Visit

colder than I was that early summer night on the Atlantic. Whether it was exhaustion, fear, or just the chill of a June night on the ocean, I could not say, but the damp worked its way through every stitch of clothing I had and in to every pore of my being. If it had not been for the constant calisthenics required to keep hands on the wheel and feet on the deck, I would have been the coldest man in New Jersey. As it was, that honor probably belonged to Todd!

Perhaps it was because we were cold and perhaps it was because we were tired, but neither Todd nor I gave the necessary thought to the growing cloud of steam that followed us down the coast of New Jersey. In our bareboat certification course, we had learned the supreme importance of ensuring a good flow of water through the engine and in more sanguine times, we might have observed what was bubbling out of the stern was more air than water. But, we were inexperienced and to the extent we thought about it at all, we attributed the “tea-kettle” effect to the boat’s motion and the continuous demands we’d placed on the engine. Besides, the temperature was more or less normal, at least as far as we could make out from the dancing dial just out of the direct sight of the helmsman. But perhaps the main reason we didn’t give the matter more of our attention was that we were already fully occupied with the duties at hand. Such is the nature of trouble at sea.

The long night was finally ending and gradually we could make out where the sea began and the fog ended. Having missed a buoy or two in our all night dash, we were relieved to pick-up the approach buoy to Atlantic City, its Morse code signal flash bouncing erratically off the fog banks around us. Then, just as we were turning on the final leg of our course towards Atlantic City, the engine struck up a chorus all its own. Given that I turn to my wife for help when the lawn mower refuses to start, it goes without saying that I have nothing to offer when it comes to diagnosing diesels. But if there were ever an engine determined to prove it operated on the “internal destruction” theory, ours was that engine. Instantly, Todd pulled the kill switch and an eerie calm settled down on our dripping decks.

Todd Boats can sometimes play the part of the jealous lover, and the Nancy Ellen was no longer to be ignored. Smoke signals having failed to get the attention of the clueless crew, the engine struck up an anvil chorus all its own. I love all things mechanical and I feel for each suffering cylinder. I rushed to the engine’s side and pulled the kill-switch. The engine fell silent and we were alone with the gurgle of the sea and the mournful dirge of the bell buoy.

Rick It is odd how a sleep-deprived mind can suddenly spring into action. The moment Todd hit the kill switch, I knew the source of our problem. In one of many dock side chats at the Westbrook Marina, another skipper had cautioned me on the dangers of “eel grass,” a marine plant that grows at shallow depths in salt waters

of the ocean and sound. In the thirty or forty futile minutes we had spent idling off the entrance to Barnegat harbor while I wrestled with the recalcitrant sails, we had probably vacuumed the bottom of every vestige of eel grass. In the next twenty miles, it had formed itself into a wad bigger that a Texas pitcher’s chew, gradually packing shut the engine intake and cutting off the flow of raw water on which the engine’s health depended. Finally things had reached the boiling point, as it were, and the engine had taken desperate measures to alert the crew to its predicament. In the next few minutes, I acquired the knowledge I should have gathered at the start, tracing the flow of cooling water back to the filter which, true to my fears, was jam packed with green weed oddly reminiscent of Christmas tree tinsel. In short order, I closed the through hull and with no small amount of effort managed to unscrew the raw water strainer from the upstream end of the through hull valve. It was an easy matter to pick the offending eel grass from the filter but quite another to remove it from the through hull itself. Because of the angle of the valve housing, I could not get at more than the first few inches of the thickly compacted mass, dislodging little more than the upper layers of the killer weed. At the present angle of attack, I’d count myself lucky to clear the valve before we ran out of water. On the other Visit Northern

hand, if I were to go over the side, I would have a straight shot at the valve and it should be a relatively simple matter to dislodge the gunk from below. In my desire to fulfill the ideal of the self-sufficient cruiser, I had properly equipped myself to perform the necessary surgery. Though fighting eel grass had never been on my agenda, I had read numerous accounts of sailors who had to go over the side to remove a variety of substances from the boat’s prop. My favorite heroic tale on this theme involved an elderly gentleman who had to take the plunge in the middle of New York harbor while his equally antique spouse cooed words of encouragement from the cockpit. And if a geriatric couple could solve their own problems, so could Todd and I.

To say that Todd was eager to see me take an ocean swim would not be accurate. Psychologically, he’d already lost me overboard at least once during my frenetic activity off Barnegat, even to the point of rehearsing the phone call he’d have to make to my bereaved spouse, Nancy. As such, he was not excited about the prospect of my voluntarily jumping overboard. But as he saw me fumbling around for mask and snorkel, he did what needed to be done.

I always wore my lifejacket and thought it might be useful if I needed to rest during my endeavors. The depth sounder told us we were in no more than 30' of water, so we dropped the anchor and made things as secure as we could, though we dared not use the engine to set the hook. As a final precaution, Todd insisted on me being tied to the boat, as if I were a Golden Retriever leashed for a backyard romp. An accomplished swimmer who had grown up less than fifty miles from the Delaware shore, I had spent many pleasant childhood days on the beach or swimming in the Atlantic, often in conditions far more challenging that those we faced that morning. But I figured it was good to humor Todd, and I played along. Rope securely fastened to my lifejacket, I stepped off boat’s transom and into the clear cool Atlantic waters. We all know those nightmarish moments when “your life flashes before your eyes.” Being modern people, we are more likely to experience those moments at the wheel of a car than on the deck of sailboat. But what about those moments when we really are in danger, but the realization doesn’t strike us until much later? That is truly the stuff of nightmares. “We knew what we knew, we knew what we didn’t know but we didn’t know what we didn’t know.” What I didn’t realize as I stepped of the stern of our boat was that we were sitting to anchor in about four knots of current and that current was seaward bound. Before I realized what had happened I was strung out at the length of my tether, more of a fish on the line than a dog in the yard. Rather than swimming to the engine intake, I had to haul myself hand over hand like a mountain climber on an icy slope, the cling to the boarding ladder while Todd reset the line so that I was tethered on the port side of the hull, just opposite the engine through hull. A few deep breaths, a few short dives and we were on our way, a wad of steaming eel grass for the victor’s crown. Two hours later we were sipping the suds at Trump’s Atlantic City marina and relating the story of our adventures to my ever dutiful wife. But I knew Nancy would never understand what I meant about “we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” or my deepened appreciation for Todd, as a fellow “mate before the mast.” But I knew what I didn’t know-I didn’t know how strong the current was and whether I would have been able to swim back to the boat if Todd had not first insisted I tie myself on to that damned line. I didn’t know how far out to sea the current ran and what boats, if any, were down stream. I didn’t know how long it would have taken Todd to have hauled in the anchor or how long the engine would have run before finally overheating for good. Would it have been long enough for him to find me in those foggy Atlantic waters? How long do you last in 62 degree water? I just didn’t know.

But I knew what I knew. Whether we reached the Chesapeake or not, Todd and I had completed our most challenging course yet in the “School of the Sailor.” In our professions and trades, experience is always the best teacher. We had learned more about ourselves, the boat and the sea then we could have learned in a thousand hours of classroom lecture. If we were not yet entitled to call ourselves “old salts,” we had traveled along way from the sweet water seas of Minnesota to the world of the blue water sailor.

Rick Menzel is a retired school teacher and freelance writer. He and his wife Nancy are preparing to sail their 34' Catalina to the Caribbean.