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When Launch Day was marked by hard work and heavy metal

2011 May 3

The arrival in the homes of readers of this issue of SAILING coincides roughly with a momentous day in the lives of sailboat owners living north of, say, latitude 40. It's a day of profound astrological significance, when certain heavenly bodies align, at least figuratively, stirring the biorhythms, emotions, blood pressure and metabolism of sailors. When the day occurs at the bitter end of a winter as gruesome as the 2010-2011 edition, it can take on a meaning akin to a rite of pagan sun worship marking the return of warmth and light after dark times. The day is Launch Day.

Alas, for a lot of boatowners the day will probably be observed by, at most, visiting the boatyard and watching a Travelift or hydraulic trailer gently deposit their vessel in the water in a matter of a few minutes. That's easy and painless (if you don't factor in boatyard bills), but it seems there should be more fuss made over the first day of the best 150 or so days of the year, the sailing season.

There was a time when a really big fuss was made about Launch Day because in many places it was a logistical operation of near-military scale. I saw it firsthand as a child. I tagged along with my father when as a member of the crew of an offshore racing boat he pitched in with his mates on Launch Day at a big-city yacht club.

I'm still amazed he took me along. A parent trying that in today's safety-obsessed world would be reported to social services and pilloried on Facebook pages. That do-it-yourself yacht club boatyard, with primitive machinery moving objects weighing tens of tons, was a hazardous environment that would have given an OSHA inspector a seizure, had OSHA existed.

This was before the invention of the Travelift and launching-trailers, before nearly every port had a boatyard or marina. So the yacht club parking lot was packed chock-a-block with big, fancy yachts. From a kindergartner's perspective, some of them, like the nearly 60-foot-long, deep-draft P-boat (cousin of the J, Q and R and S Universal Rule designs) that resided at the yacht club, looked like skyscrapers propped up in their cradles.

You knew it was Launch Day when every boat had its heavy olive-drab canvas tarp off and new bottom paint on, each with the same thick stuff the color of burnt umber mixed with red lead, which was also daubed liberally on the parking lot tarmacadam and the crews' khakis.

Moving the boats to the stationary crane was the hardest part. Some of the methods and equipment employed to do this were probably used in the building of the pyramids. First the cradles, massive affairs built of thick, rough timbers, were jacked up with what I suppose were big, old house-moving jacks. Then a bunch of hardwood rollers, maybe 6 inches in diameter and 6 feet long, were positioned under each of the main stringers of the cradle.

Resting on the rollers, the cradle was hooked to a winch at the base of the crane with a cable and began its snail's progress to the water.

This was a cooperative operation in every sense of the word, a sort-of socialist enterprise that both included and benefitted well-heeled capitalist owners. Crews of all of the boats worked together on each launching. Dozens of guys were involved. Some walked along each side of the moving cradle to grab the heavy rollers as they became unburdened at the aft end of the cradles and tote them with alacrity to the front to repeat the cycle. Others teams manned pry bars or long four-by-fours to nudge the cradle this way or that when a direction change was needed. There was a lot of joshing and faux haranguing and an occasional curse.

When the unwieldy vehicle reached the crane, an awe-inspiring (to a kid) contraption that looked as though it was made by the gods of heavy metal from a huge-scale erector set, a welded steel spreader frame (that probably weighed as much as small fiberglass boats of today) and slings were employed and soon, after much clanking of gears and screeching of strained cable, the boat was floating.

It was a purely amateur operation. No one was certified to do the work. There wasn't a hard hat in sight. Surprisingly, I didn't see any blood shed that day.
When the sun dropped below the rusty arm of the crane, work ceased and the crews gathered in the club bar (where again I was the fly on the wall) for the closing rituals of Launch Day-drinks and rollicking stories inspired by the highlights and lowlights of the first day of the sailing season.

After sailing on this memory voyage, I'm feeling a little guilty about the casual way I've been observing Launch Day lately (ringing up the boatyard and asking if Main Street is in the water yet). I suppose I could look into one of the yacht club boat storage operations that still exist and see if I could join the fun.
On second thought, maybe I'll just ask the boatyard if I can push the button on the Travelift.