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Good will hauling

2010 December 29

Hauling out a sailboat at the end of the season is usually a sad event for most of us. It means cold weather is fast approaching and, with the exception of hardcore frostbiting, our chances of getting out on the local waters before next spring are nil.

I'd like to say I had a great sailing season this year, but I would be lying. I'd also be stretching the truth if I claimed to be anything less than ecstatic as my Bristol 27 Wind Dance was lifted by the robotic arms of a submerged boat hauling trailer and trucked 20 yards to its winter resting place.

For the past 16 years, ever since I purchased this classic beauty, the October haul day has been a weeper. I typically sailed twice a week, maybe more, even if it was just for a few hours after work. Having a boat in the water gave structure to my weekends-beer and wind. But this year was different.

Shortly after the May launch, the aging 150 genoa tore down the middle like a favorite pair of jeans that had been stretched one too many times. Then both batteries decided to give up the ghost, leaving me with no instruments or nav lights.

When the engine started coughing early in the season I sensed what was coming next-carburetor problems, overheating, a bad fuel line and, finally, fuel separation apparently due to too much sweet corn in the tank. Right after that the bilge pump stopped working. So when haul day arrived, I was ready for the hard.

Unfortunately, the boat was not, nor was mother nature. The first of two annual haul dates on my tiny Nahant peninsula just north of Boston had been postponed because of bad weather. Since up to 40 boats come out of the water within a matter of hours, the folks at Jocelyn Marine Services, the boat transportation company, reasoned that pulling six boats on an unscheduled date before the next official haul out might relieve some of the pressure. Wind Dance was one of the six.

When the big trucks pulled into the wharf parking lot, the sun was blazing, the sky a cheerful blue. Lobsterman friend Mark Scaglione gave my wife Christine and I a lift to our mooring. Spray was coming over the gunwales as he angled through waves that were being agitated by 30-knot winds. It was obvious that the wind direction would not leave us in the lee, but would at least help push our boats into the open jaws of the robotic pads on the boat hauling trailers.

Once aboard Wind Dance, the hassles continued. We tried two different fuel lines without success. Christine and I exchanged a few choice words like couples who have been married for years occasionally do. I was in the crosshairs. Why didn't you go to West Marine yesterday to buy a brand new fuel line? Weren't you thinking? What's the matter with you? Is the gas fresh? You know that good sailors are prepared.

Peter Koehler and Rob Tibbo, whose sailboats are moored near mine, called over by cell phone and radio, sensing I was under fire. Koehler's wife, Paula, who later in the day was dubbed the Queen of Communications, had listened to our radio conversations on Ch. 69 and drove home to get a fresh tank of gas and new fuel line. Patrick Morse and Bob Cusack in the Nahant Dory Club's Boston Whaler delivered the goods. Minutes later, Wind Dance's engine started and stalled, started and stalled, but the glimmer of hope was upon us.

Back at the dock, Clayton Crabtree, supervisor of the boat hauling crew, was on the fence about whether I could come out because a working engine is required. I assured him by radio that I'd get the sucker fired up and keep it running long enough to get on the trailer, but he never lifted the VHF to his ear. Instead, Tibbo and the Queen of Communications intervened in my behalf.

Before Crabtree or anyone else could pound a wooden spike through my plans, longtime friend Tom Gutermuth pulled alongside in his Catalina 30. We tossed him bow and stern lines, stuffed some fenders between us, and he towed us to the concrete ramp where the haul was wrapping up.

I quickly dropped an anchor and let the boat settle into the stiff breeze. Morse and Cusack stood by in the Whaler, ready to yank us away from the unforgiving stone wall if the engine crapped out at the last second. Others like Jim Connolly gathered on the seawall, prepared to catch the extra-long bow and stern lines coiled on our deck. Cusack had already told the boat haulers that I would be coming in hot with one chance to get it right.
Finally, I got the hand signal to come on in. Christine brought up the anchor by hand. It was heavy with eel grass. I kept the engine running, made a half circle and steamed for the submerged trailer.

The 25-knot wind was gusting to 35 on the stern as I pushed the throttle, knowing that idling down would only stall the engine. I'd like to say my concentration resembled Luke Skywalker steering his X-Wing fighter into the Death Star, but I'm afraid it was more akin to Hollywood's version of JFK taking out a wooden dock while learning to drive PT 109.

Crabtree expertly grabbed Wind Dance's white hull with the trailer's padded arms. The engine screamed and whined, the best it had run all season. When Crabtree ran his hand sideways across this throat, I cut the engine and everyone cheered.

Calantha Sears, the town's First Lady who has witnessed nearly every launch and haul day for decades, later told me she was keeping her fingers crossed. "We were all pulling for you," she said.

With the boat on the trailer, I made the sign of the cross, though I'm not particularly religious. It had been way too much drama, especially since I pride myself on coming in quietly and efficiently. Cusack compared my approach to a carrier pilot about to make a landing on a wing and a prayer.

"You snagged the hook on the third wire," he chuckled.

The other five boats had come out seamlessly and I was happy for those skippers. I would have preferred their day, but sometimes it takes a whole village to haul a boat.