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No failure to launch

2009 May 5
The mere thought of launch day can give some sailors the jitters while others lapse into a smiling transcendental state as they contemplate the event.

For most, launch day involves a single boat, whether it means backing the trailer down a ramp, or simply writing a check to the yacht club after the crane operator has completed the job. Oddly, where I live in Nahant, a tiny peninsula north of Boston, it's nothing like that at all. Just about every boat in the yard launches on the same day. It's cheaper if we collectively hire a marine trucking company. Besides, the 50 or so boats are stored in the wharf parking lot, which doubles as our boatyard between October and May. Given the sheer number of boats, the day is pure pandemonium and a source of amusement.

Let me explain.

First there's the New England sailing season, which optimistically runs from mid-May to mid-September, occasionally into early October if we're lucky. Then there's the springtime itself, which allows us about 30 days to get our boats ready, unless you're a die-hard and like working in sub-zero temperatures with an arctic wind slicing through the rigging. I'm not one of those guys.

Starting in early April, most of us visit the boatyard for what might be called a preliminary assessment. This can lead to drinking beer with fellow sailors while standing amid the jungle of rusted jackstands and unsightly hulls, the latter usually matted with sea life that refused to surrender to the power washer or, in my case, the $2 discount store snow scraper.

Some sailors frown upon my plastic snow scraper and bucket of diluted bleach, preferring instead a brand name hull cleanser used in tandem with an approved marine-growth removal device, both available from the nearest boating store for about $50. This is perfectly acceptable, but such purchases would cut too deeply into my beer budget.

You've probably already surmised that these April inspections are short-lived because of the cold, but if the sun decides to shine, I can guarantee that the first intoxicating sails of the season will quickly get underway-all without leaving the boatyard.

Aboard the bigger boats-25 to 45 feet-cockpits become festive miniparties, some with music and grilled food. Adults, kids and dogs abound. This tends to happen in the afternoon as the sun moves toward the Boston skyline, flooding the cockpits with a warm glow. It's then that the cacophony of drills, sanders, saws, vacuums and the coughing of stubborn engines become noticeably quieter as sailors migrate from one cockpit to the next, eager to share beverages, snacks, advice, and catch up on local news. While some folks might think these parties counter-productive, they actually serve to officially hail the start of the sailing season.

As launch day approaches, the festive atmosphere is replaced by a fever pitch. It's crunch time, marked by a flurry of activity and plenty of shouting and cursing. A keen eye might notice the various boat preparation methods. For example, one longtime Nahant sailor seasonally scrapes his sloop's bottom to the gel coat-smooth as a baby's butt-then paints it white so that any marine growth can be easily detected. Another sailor annually recruits foreign labor to sand and paint. Still another paints the bottom without scraping a single square inch.
There's also a sailor who annually spends $350 on a gallon of bottom paint, intrigued by the label contents and promises. Others, more frugal like myself, compete to see who can shell out the least, going as far as blending our paints for that custom-color look.

The same fellow with a penchant for expensive bottom paint also wraps his turnbuckles with special rubberized tape that sells for about $25 a roll. The Frugals prefer a bit of black friction tape covered by white electrical tape-which is what the yard crews use aboard the Hinckleys in a wealthy town a few clicks north. Again, the differences in prep methods are glaringly obvious, as are the degrees of consideration for boatyard etiquette. We still encounter a few numbskulls who sand their bottoms-kicking up a cloud of paint dust-despite the fact that brightwork on the adjacent boat is still wet and gleaming with varnish.

When launch day finally arrives, nervous anticipation infects the boatyard. Some sailors pace, others run through checklists. The question is heard repeatedly: "When did Jocelyn say they'd get here?"

Jocelyn Marine Services in Newburyport comes to Nahant each spring to launch the boats en masse. The drama begins as a convoy of three flatbed diesel trucks roars into the boatyard. Within minutes, the first flatbed backs up to a sailboat in the front row, removes the forward pair of jackstands and slowly slips beneath until the boat is cradled in the truck's three pairs of robotic arms.

The excitement builds as the flatbeds take turns reversing down the concrete boat ramp. By this time, the sea wall is lined with young and old come to witness the spectacle. After all, not every launch goes smoothly.
Once a truck reaches the water's edge, the flatbed trailer separates from the cab but remains attached by a thick metal cable. The operator controls the winch until the trailer is fully submerged, then uses a joystick to manipulate the robotic arms. The skipper starts his engine just as the robotic arms slowly loosen their grip, setting the vessel afloat. People cheer.

Engine failure or an unexpected wind shift can send a boat into the concrete piers with a horrific crunching of fiberglass, unless they've prepared fenders and long lines. People shriek.

The whole process takes about four hours, the biggest boats going in at high tide. If the weather is kind, many of the boats will head out into Massachusetts Bay for a shakedown cruise. If it's crappy, the sailors will congregate back at the boatyard, by then no more than a parking lot, where they'll talk at length about how it went, who had it easy, and who didn't.

In either case, beer is mandatory and can be consumed in quantity without fear of reprisal from the homefront. After all, launch day is a tradition in Nahant, and traditions must be honored.