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Good Sams and Bad

2009 September 2
Most sailors are keenly aware that the sea is the last frontier-at least until space travel gets to the point where people can buy a rocketship for the price of a cruising sailboat.

With that knowledge comes some serious responsibility, especially when it concerns helping fellow mariners in distress. Hopefully, if you see another sailor having difficulty, you'll veer from your itinerary, no matter how urgent or important, and offer assistance.

A few weeks ago, Philip Kersten, a good friend of mine, sprung a leak in the centerboard housing of his Alden 44 while taking a bunch of kids to a sailing regatta in Scituate, Massachusetts. It was obvious he needed to get his boat on hard ground as soon as possible, so he put out an all-points-bulletin e-mail to friends who might be available to lend a hand.

Within hours we had assembled a crew. Philip, Mark Carbone and I sailed Tioga through the night to Manchester-by-the-Sea, home of the Crocker Boat Yard. We swapped off pumping the bilge because Tioga was taking on water the whole time.

Eventually we tied off to a mooring just beyond the harbor. Mark got a ride home from yet another sailing friend, leaving Philip and I to set our alarms so that we could pump the bilge every couple of hours. It was a long night, but the stars kept us company, and by 7 a.m. the boatyard skiff had arrived to push us into the dock.

Philip was appreciative for what we'd done and we were glad to have helped, but that isn't always the way things turn out.

The situation made me think back a few years to Misery Island, less than a mile from where we had just spent the night. My family hadn't done much sailing that season, so when we finally headed out for a weekend cruise, expectations were riding high.

The first setback arrived as dark clouds shrouded the brilliant sunshine. The wind turned around and a squall ripped across Massachusetts Bay. We doused the sails near Halfway Rock, a monolith midway between Boston and Gloucester, fired up the iron lung and pointed toward Misery Island. We hoped to tuck into the lee and the strategy was working until the engine died, kaput, just like that, and refused to start. We had plenty of fuel, so it wasn't sheer stupidity causing the problem.

With rocks threatening, we kept a safe distance and rode out the squall hove-to, wife and kids below deck, me at the helm in the horizontal rain. My foul weather gear was bone dry, back at home in the closet. Not for the first time, my son, wearing a faint smirk, handed me a black plastic trash bag with holes punched out for my arms and head.

The squall passed and left us drifting toward Whaleback, a jagged outcropping in the channel. Our whiskerpole was broken so we used the boat hook to sail wing-on-wing, inching along until we were clear of danger.

Cocktail Cove on Misery Island was crammed with boats. No room to anchor and the moorings set by the Salem harbormaster were full. Without wind or engine our options were limited, anchor in the channel amid heavy boat traffic, or use the dinghy to row our Bristol sloop, Wind Dance, closer to shore and drop a hook.

My wife later claimed I looked like Jack LaLaine or maybe John Wooten, fitness nuts who haul tractor-trailers and locomotives with a fat rope clenched in their teeth. The dinghy sprang a leak as I rowed, sending a geyser of seawater up the legs of my shorts. The kids thought it hilarious. A smug couple motored past in a sailboat, seemingly amused by my struggle. It took some doing but I finally got the boat close enough to the island to anchor. Back on board and breathing hard, I put my rigging knife to good use by opening a cold IPA.

For a few minutes, it seemed as though we'd stemmed the tide of misfortune, but it quickly became apparent that the anchorage would be bouncy. Roaring cigarette boats, runabouts overstuffed with screaming teenagers and powerful cruisers with lawn chairs lined up on deck zoomed back and forth, sending massive wakes toward the shore and the cluster of anchored boats. It was a non-stop roller-coaster ride.

The constant movement worked our 20-pound anchor loose and set us drifting toward a meticulously maintained 40-foot sportfisher with well-quaffed family picnicking in the cockpit. My wife was first to notice our change of position. Realizing we would collide unless something was done immediately, I slipped into the dinghy while my wife tied together three of our longest dock lines.

The dinghy was a saltwater swimming pool thanks to the leak. I rowed steadily toward a mooring ball that only minutes earlier had been vacated. The dock line was around my back, just like Spencer Tracy in "The Old Man and The Sea," the bitterend clamped in my teeth. I tied off line and dinghy and started hauling like a madman. I may have cursed at this point, although Chapman's Book of Seamanship frowns upon it. There were at least 20 boats within view and earshot but nobody rushed to our aid. Once again, we managed to avert tragedy. With our boat secured and my wife fretting about how the harbormaster's ground tackle 40 feet below us might be rusted and ready to break, I again put my rigging knife to use.

Before dusk I replaced the spark plugs and rigged a new fuel line, but the engine merely delivered a tubercular cough. I clamped the barbeque kettle to the stern rail, marinated four steaks and attempted to spark the grill. Like I said, we hadn't been out much since the season began. The propane canister was empty. So was the oil lamp. Thankfully there was a trace of fuel in the galley stove. We dined by flashlight on pan-fried Porterhouse steak and instant mashed potatoes. The mosquitoes arrived and it began to rain.

Later that night we opened the hatch to a clear sky. It made me recall that Jimmy Buffet song, "Biloxi", where he sings, "The stars can find their faces, in the sea."

The wind was up early the next morning, so we bailed the dinghy, pressed on duct tape to slow the leak and sailed home. We were going along at a good clip until the breeze slackened, leaving us adrift in the current. We couldn't anchor because the water was 100 feet deep.

It took six hours to get home. The kids were glad to step on land. I sat in my favorite leather chair, ice pack on my neck, rigging knife close at hand. I couldn't help but wonder why nobody came to help.