Wave Your Arms Wildly
by Chuck Herman
Over the past years in my easy chair or lounging on my back porch or propped up in bed, I've been reading those wonderful stories in Sail Magazine of the interesting people who sail the world. I've read about every kind of place and weather and gear failure.
Meanwhile, I sailed in my own world, sort of miniature compared with theirs, with Detroit and Chicago as home ports. Not that weather on Lake Michigan cannot get stormy enough for just about anyone and not that equipment does not fail or break or stop working on the lakes, but when it was too bad we stayed close to the harbor or inside the outer wall, or read, or just fussed around the boat, and when there was a problem we were back in the harbor that night or by the end of the weekend to get it fixed. My world of sail was a long way from that of the world of circumnavigators, solo sailers, maxi racers and delivery skippers.
Then it all changed and I had a chance to move from one world to the other. We picked.... up a Tartan 43 a#, Mackinac City on a beautiful Sunday morning in early August. The plan was to sail it back to Chicago for a friend. No big deal. I'd sailed the 330 miles between Mackinac Island and Chicago before - beautiful waters, snug little harbors every 30 to 60 miles along the route, nice towns and good restaurants in each harbor and then a final, fun, 90-mile shot across the lake to Chicago that on a clear day rises slowly out of the water for hours as its 100-story buildings grow to fall size.
Our family and another family were on board, minus my college-age son who was finishing his summer job and planned to meet us half way along the route of a leisurely 10-day cruise. Our friends lived on a small lake but hadn't sailed anything bigger than a sunfish.
The seasoned crew included myself, if you don't define seasoned too strictly, my 17-year old son who already had sailed the 333-mile Chicago to Mackinac Race and the return home just the week before, and my wife who is seasoned until the wind blows over 20 knots. After that she becomes unseasoned and assures everyone who notes her uneasiness that, "I'm fine."
Our friends had two teenage sons who we planned to make crew out of quickly. The two 13-year-old girls planned just to sit in the sun and be good passengers.
When we took over the boat from the owner he and I walked through the standard checkpoints, the rigging, the safety gear, some stuff they were leaving on board for us. He had checked the stuffing box, the engine oil, pumped the waste, filled the fuel and water tanks.
There had been a problem with the hydraulic on the backstay and a quick repair just before the boat left Chicago in the race north. When we checked the bilge I noticed some oil, not much, and put my hand in to check it. "Probably the fluid we lost from the backstay cylinder." We agreed, and I wiped my hand off on a paper towel.
We decided to keep all 14 sails on board to play with if we wanted to hang them up. Even though I had never sailed this boat before, it was like 36-or 33-footers I had sailed or owned. We exchanged the usual conversation about the boat seeming to be about as low in the water after we were loaded as before they had unloaded what seemed like a dockful of gear.
Never had I looked forward to a vacation as much as this one. I had missed the Mackinac Race because of heart surgery last summer and I really had not felt ready to get involved in a tough, 50-hour or long, 60-hour haul this year (and, of course, this year's race had been a piece of cake). Then, too, last year I had sold my boat and I'd been off the water. This was going to be the greatest. We had friends in several of the harbors. We even had another family of six join us the first day for the sail across the Straits to historic Mackinac Island.
Returning to the world of circumnavigators and delivery skippers for a moment, I'm sure there are many beautiful waters, but the Straits at Mackinac have to rate right up there with the 400-foot-high towers of the Mackinac Bridge as sentinels, traffic coasting like miniatures so high in the air across the five-mile span, the long Great Lakes ships sliding through, and the white Fcrt Mackinac and Grand Hotel high on the Island.
When we backed out of the slip I noticed that the shift was a little stiffer than I was used to. We headed to windward a bit in a solid breeze to give people a better view of the bridge above them, then we eased off on a broad reach for the Island.
We pedaled bikes the nine miles around the Island, toured the fort that had been held by the French, the British and the Americans, bought fudge, did all those things that tourists are supposed to do. The wind was giving us a full blown welcome and the next day, rather than start west and south toward home we sailed 20 miles east and downwind to the tiny town of Hessel under just the No. 3 jib to let people get used to the boat, still averaging seven knots.
Besides the small harbor, Hessel has a restaurant, a hardware store, a grocery, a bar, and a boatyard, all on an area about as big as a football field. Small, but it's worth stopping just to see the boats in the shed. I don't know how or why, but Hessel has dozens and dozens of the old wooden Chris Craft speedboats. Wooden boats that are 40 or 50 years old and restored to absolutely mint condition. Murtaugh's Boat Yard is like boatyards used to be. The presence of 21 of these excellent old wood boats isn't explained only by the fact that people here had fast boats during Prohibition to run between the Canadian and U.S. towns. Maybe it is explained better by the excellent craftsmanship of one or a few men who have specialized in bringing these boats back from the past.
Each year they have an antique boat show in Hessel. The previous year the winner had been a steam-powered wood-burning double ender first launched in 1906.
Stopping to talk with a workman (maybe the yard owner) who was caulking the bottom of a boat propped up on barrel ends and timbers, commented on the beauty of the mirror-like finish.
"This one's all right from the waterline up," he commented, "but this is the last try at this bottom. You shouldn't take a man's money unless you can give him something for it."
I'd have reason to recall that wonderful philosophy sooner than I thought.
That night the temperature dropped to 62 degrees, cooler than we thought it should be the first week of August. The wind never eased a knot. The next morning we cruised through Les Cheneaux Islands, The Snow Islands, twenty miles of channels with summer homes from years past, many in the same family for three generations, tucked into the wooded shores with boat houses out front and American flags flying, evidently to signal that someone was there. At one time we counted as many as 18 flags.
The narrow water between the islands was calm. But the wind was blowing in the 30's and there were more than a dozen boats in the shelter of Government Bay as we eased out into open water and headed to windward.
I suggested that everyone get into foul weather gear and I showed each of them how to use safety harnesses. Remember that more than half the crew had never sailed before. This wasn't Hawaii to Bora Bora or Cape Lore to Perth, but it was the real stuff for us, better than your average weekend sail. I was especially aware of the remoteness, not a building or other boat in sight. The wind kept steady or rising. It was colder than August should be. We found out that the boat was wetter than it should be too.
A reefed main helped. After a couple hours we changed to the storm jib. It let us ride easier than the No. 2 jib and we agreed that it had been a good idea to ignore the No. 3. As we came through the narrow passage between Mackinac Island and Bois Blanc, a lake freighter was coming westward and creeping up behind us, but not very fast. We were doing eight knots.
The wind was close to 40 knots generally, and more than that in the chute between the islands. We laughed as we watched the big ship inch along hardly seeming to gain on us at all.
Eventually we rounded the head of Bois Blanc Island, eased off, and had a fine ride into the waves for the last seven miles to the mainland harbor where we tied up to the gas dock. All the slips were full. Every boat that had left heading west that morning had returned. Certainly this wasn't any weather that you couldn't run a fun race in, but we arrived in the harbor at 2:40 in the afternoon and not one other boat except the commercial ferries plying back and forth to the island came into the harbor for the next seven hours.
The next morning we cast off early and motored out of the harbor under the bridge and into the swells and the moderated winds towards Grey's Reef Channel 24 miles to the west. The teenagers crawled out of their bunks after a bit, sleepy eyed, to join in the "wow's" at the huge roadway above them.
Even after breakfast and after raising the middle jib and main we kept the motor running to keep the speed up near eight knots. We were anxious to get to the channel so we could float south in the sun for the afternoon as the temperature finally rose. After the turn it would be an easy 30 miles to Charlevoix.
The word "suddenly" is over-used. Maybe the words "without warning" would be better for what happened next. But there had been warning, several warnings. What happened was that the engine stopped. My son had no doubt what it was."We're out of gas," he said. He didn't say more but it was pretty clear from the look on his face that (a) someone was a dummy for running out, especially with a diesel, and (b) it was probably me who was the someone.
I knew we weren't out of fuel. I had checked the gauge below the cabin sole. Right, we weren't out of fuel. I had checked the engine gauges earlier. Temperature was cool and pressure high, as usual. I turned off the key and we sailed along. No one had a clue as to what the problem might be. I noticed that a lot of people were looking at the Captain waiting to hear what had happened, what was happening and what was going to happen. I didn't know any of those answers, but I knew that the little world of my amateur cruise and the exciting world of my heroes in the South Seas and the North Atlantic were coming closer together.
Anyway, it was a gorgeous day. We sailed on for several hours. Charlevoix was supposed to be a beautiful town and harbor. I wished I'd been there before. The chart showed a channel about 900 feet long and 90 feet wide leading to a bridge with a 16-foot clearance that operated on the hour and the half hour. Even we amateurs know that charts are great but there is no substitute for having seen a place just once. Before we got too close inshore, I tried the motor. It started right up. I put it in gear. It shut right down. That gave me a clue to the problem, but it didn't solve anything. Straight ahead was the narrow channel, small motor boats cruising in and out, and, at the end, the closed bridge. We dropped the jib, pulled the main most of the way down and eased into the channel between the steel walls. I knew I didn't want to be in the channel with a crowd of boats waiting for the bridge. MY wife had gotten on the radio to call the bridge tender. We had the fenders out in case we had to come up alongside the steel walls, but they looked mighty rough and unfriendly. We had anchors ready, fore and aft, but I didn't know if they'd be much help in stopping 21 tons.
It was peaceful sliding along till I realized we were going faster than I liked. Everyone was ready to do something even if no one knew what to do. There was a current. Egads. We weren't slowing as I'd thought we would, and it would be almost impossible to make a complete turn if necessary even though I was crowding one wall. My wife had raised the bridge tender and he suggested she call the Coast Guard. She switched to channel 22 and called. She was answering questions. She was answering more questions. I decided she didn't need any questions from me, so I waited. Finally, she handed up the horn and started up the companionway ladder.
"Wha'd they say," I asked.
"They said to sound our horn and have everyone wave their arms wildly," she said.
"Wildly," it was the perfect word and it rang so exactly like something out of a seamanship or sea scout manual that I actually laughed and enjoyed the image it called up. Now we were maybe 150 yards from the bridge. I blew five short blasts. Everyone waved wildly. Well, not quite, but they all waved a lot and shouted. And the bridge started up. As we sailed through under one-third main with the bridge standing at attention on both sides, the bridge tender opened his window and asked if we were the boat in trouble and calling. I assumed that he saw our name painted in letters a foot high on our side near the stern. Whatever.
I tipped my hat and yelled, "Thank you." Well, that had worked pretty easily.
We were in Round Lake, maybe three-quarters of a mile across, boat slips around most of the edges, a few 30-to 50-foot sailboats anchored in the middle. A ski boat, seeing that we'd sailed through the channel with the top few feet of our main asked if we wanted a tow. Buoyed by our success so far, however, I said no, I thought we could sail over to a marina ahead (and stop when we got there). We raised the main a bit and picked our way through the anchored boats. There was a little more shouting as fenders and dock lines were switched, but not much, and we came up easily in front of a nice big gas dock and a large once-white building with the paint flaking off badly and the words "MARINE SERVICE" across the front. That was exactly what we needed.
Hardly a big deal. No ocean crossing. Just your average four-day cruise, or maybe ten-day cruise shortened to four days. Unfortunately, this is where the real story and the moral, if there is one, begins.
We took off the engine cover and it wasn't hard to see the problem. The Faryman Diesel transmission has a cover that is about 10 by 4 inches. It was almost entirely off, with three bolts gone and the fourth barely holding the cover plate and gasket askew. And in the transmission, about a thimbleful of fluid. Somehow, probably over the past several weeks or maybe months, the bolts had vibrated loose. They are inset in wells with Allen heads, so hard to notice if they are loose, even if anyone were looking right at the top -- until too late. That's exactly what it was now. One main gear had movedagainst the housing as parts wore without fluid. The shaft still turned if forced, but just barely. Things were generally frozen up.
In all sailing stories there should be participation by the reader. Empathy: that's what makes it fun. That's what I always thought and what I always thought I had when I read about my heroes tied up somewhere like Papeete, thousands of miles from home, calmly, at least it always seemed calmly, waiting three months or so for parts to be shipped out from the States. Apparently, however, their stories were on such a grand scale that I didn't understand the feelings involved at all. Soon I'd understand better. And several days later when I confided to my eighteen-year-old son that "If I knew at the beginning what I know now, I'd have done differently," he shot back that "Napoleon would have had better luck with that kind of vision too." That made me feel a little better, not much.
We were 270 miles from home. There were excellent places to stop and enjoy all along the way. But when we boiled it all down, it wasn't smart to take this size boat, and someone else's, into narrow channels with short crew. Sailing it home non stop wasn't a very good answer either. It has to come apart and be fixed eventually, I reasoned, might as well do it now. That was the wrong decision and provides the first specific lesson for sailors who operate on a small scale. Never think small. Never think anything will be easy just because you are relatively close to home, near telephones, and used to overnight delivery. Think on a large scale. Imagine yourself a delivery skipper in a far-off port. Gear down immediately to the laid back atmosphere of the South Seas. Expect to wait.
Get rid of all those American ideas like, "I'm sure they know what they're doing." or "Look, they'll do it as soon as they can." Don't even be tempted to set a timetable the way you think it will work, like "We'll have the parts tomorrow and be out of here a day or two after that."
When you dig yourself into a hole, it is one shovelful at a time. Unwittingly, I started digging. Specifically, I helped start taking the transmission out. When the mechanic disappeared, for a tool I thought, I kept right at it. After a while I went into the building to find him and the other yard types sitting around gabbing.
"How're we coming," I asked.
"We're on break," he said.
That should have been a warning that we were marching to different drummers, more exactly, that I was in their parade and would learn to march to their pace. Work proceeded. It wasn't easy to get all the bolts loose. Somewhere along the line they insisted and I agreed that it would be easier and quicker to lift the whole engine out. I even helped with that too. Talk about dumb. The engine on a workbench was rolled into the backroom, parts and tools all over the place. The chief mechanic took over.
During the next several hours, including an hour, a full hour, for lunch, one part after another came out of the transmission case. Work stopped several times while people went somewhere in the pickup truck to get a metric wrench and a right handed snap ring pliers.
I watched. I waited. I went for short walks. I mentioned several times that we had nine people being held up and I sure hoped we could order the parts that day. Finally we were ready. At least, the autopsy on every gear and bearing was complete. The coroner went into the office, pointedly closed the door behind him and I assumed was ordering the parts for quickest possibly delivery. During the next hour and a half, different people who came by mourned respectfully over the table of parts. The mechanic went on a volunteer fireman's run. I had no idea what luck he had had ordering the parts. Finally, I called the parts warehouse in New Jersey myself to see if there was any chance the parts might go out that evening. In brief, "No . . . . I haven't even started to look for them yet. I have a department here to run you know."
I asked to talk with the man in charge. He seemed pretty interested and said he'd look to see if they had all the parts in stock. I said I'd wait. I did, for 17 minutes. Meanwhile, five other people evidently saw the phone laying there and picked it up. I explained to each that I was waiting. Finally, he came back. He had all the parts we'd need, 22 of them. He explained that the whole transmission wasn't made any more. They still made all the parts, but they didn't make the transmission. Right. You may have the same thoughts as I did. If they'd just package the parts in the right order in the transmission case, -- no, that would be too easy.
In any event, $1,030 worth of parts were involved. They fit in a box about the size of a loaf of bread and it would cost $158 to ship them to us the fastest possible way -- but the entire speedy American-way-of-life process could not get started until the next morning.
Everyone knows the danger in an effort like this. Some parts are going to be left over or be left out. Not this time."Can we return any parts that we don't use," I ask. We can. "Okay. Send us every part in the case." "Okay," he said, "I'm sending you all the shafts, all the bearings, all the seals."
"Snap rings too, "I said, "everything."
Remember, this had started on Wednesday. It was Thursday. The parts would be sent on Friday. Maybe arrive by Monday. Maybe we'd be on our way by Tuesday night. We already had learned: "No we don't work after five. No, we don't work on Saturday. No, not even for a couple of hours."
Because this is a story of sailing, or trying to, we'll skip right over the next few days of walking the sand dunes, playing badminton, reading. Monday morning we learn that the parts have made it as far as the airport 40 miles away. Money had been wired from Chicago because the marina owner wouldn't accept the parts otherwise. Some of us are optimistic: "We'll be out of here by tonight." Some are pessimistic. By now my son has driven our van up from Chicago. We are mobile and ready for anything. We go over to the marina at 4:30. The parts are there because we can see that two or three of them have been set in place during the afternoon. Our mechanic is out on another volunteer fire run. The owner says he'll be back.
"What's the situation," I ask, "What can we expect?"
"I don't know," he says, "He'll be back."
We sing the melody again of "nine people waiting . . ." now ten, but not to confuse anyone. The owner says only that he is going to dinner.
"Do you want me to lock you in or lock you out." Then he lets me in on what I guess was supposed to be a secret for another day. "The parts aren't all here." he blurts out, "You cancelled some of them"
"You might as well lock me out," I said.
During the past several days, I had taken every barb without retort and put up with the lack of any interest, the stalling around, like boat owners, I'm sure in boatyards all over the world have for years, because knew it would only slow things further and increase the wait for everyone if I did otherwise. I had tried to be friendly, but not get in the way. This wasn't a foreign country I kept telling myself but these people had trouble with language. We waited an hour then went to dinner down the street. We checked back at 6:00, 6:30 and 7:00, then returned to the gas dock and the boat at 7:30. There were no lights on in the shed over the workbench.
Later that night I drove to town again and tried to phone Chicago. Things were deteriorating. Now the phones in town would not place long distance calls. I couldn't even call home to say "Uncle, I quit, we're coming home." The Sheriff's Department told us the main switches had been hit by lightning, but I knew the truth. The borders had been closed.
The next morning we were sitting in the sun near the door when it opened. The owner, the mechanic, others scraping the building started to work. No one said anything. I resolved to stay out of the way. Two boats gassed up. I had been amazed these days, watching close up as power boats took on more fuel at a feeding than I could use in several years.
Finally, at 10 o'clock my resolve melted. My wife and I went into the shed. "How are you coming" I asked.
"We're missing some parts." To get that cloud out of the sky, I explained right away that it wasn't my fault.
Then my wife asked "Did you know that yesterday?"
"When were you going to tell us? We could have waited all day."
We simply walked out, packed up, made sure the boat was secure, and left.
Two days later we got back to Chicago in our van. It had been perfect sailing weather. My friend in all his phone calls to the people at the marina had taken the same snide and curt remarks as I had, plus he'd sent money. Neither of us had received any sign of consideration or an "I'm sorry" or a "Thank you" or "We'll try."
He has owned a boat for 30 years. I've owned one for ten and sailed more years than that. Neither of us remembers a much more frustrating experience. But from all of it -- what good fortune -- there are some lessons for everyone. Maybe this sad tale will help emphasize them even for us amateurs:
- Transmissions need fluid. The transmission is something more than a small box between the engine and drive shaft to be ignored from spring to spring.
- Preventing trouble is more fun than meeting it face to face during vacation cruising.
- Don't trust others to take care of things - this includes boatyards.
- Better not to have anything on the boat that you can't fix yourself or get along without, if at all possible.
- Sailing in the friendly fresh waters of the good old U.S. is not necessarily or essentially different than visiting far away ports when you are in need of repair.
- Sailing is fun. It's all the other stuff that is frustrating.
The whole experience was summed up by our friend who was along on the abbreviated cruise with his family. He too had been watching the power boats visit the gas dock during the days we were there. "You know," he said, "They've got ya. A couple refuelings might be worth as much as this greasy job you've brought in here. I think they'd rather just pump gas."
In any event, the repairs finally were finished. The whole process took two weeks to the day, probably not bad in the total order of things. A crew drove north from Chicago to bring the boat back and the marina operator met them cordially in the middle of the night to see them aboard, help cast off, and collect his check.
The bill came to almost $2,000. To that, add the costs of all the travel involved by us as we waited around and then drove home and by the others as they made the trip north. Also, figure into the total cost somewhere the loss of what turned out to be the best sailing weeks of the summer and the return trip in what turned out to be the worst sailing week of summer.
So what was the cause of all this? It was something like a Rube Goldberg puzzle. Apparently the throttle cable had been replaced the previous winter and the idle never checked. People using the boat were new to it. They thought the idle was fast but not too fast and were told not to worry. Shifting gears had jolted the engine and shifted the engine mounts a bit too. That caused added vibration. The bolts in the transmission cover had no lock washers and maybe had not been seated tightly. They shook loose and gradually the transmission fluid sprayed out. Without the fluid the force wore the gears till they stopped. That's where the whole story started. I wouldn't have believed a little cruise could get so complex. Next time I deliver a boat I'll check one more thing before leaving the dock . . . that all of the crew can wave wildly!