(photo credit to Mindy G. Zoll; Summer solstice over Alum Creek 2013)
It shouldn’t happen… but it does. Around Florida we say that there are those that have run aground and those that lie about it. Nothing in between. But running aground on an inland lake that is ‘full’ by several feet above normal due to two weeks of rain? That’s just not supposed to happen.
So, I’m out on a Friday evening aboard Lifeline with two Sea Scouts along. Their sponsoring yacht club operates day sailing vessels as a routine. Our lake allows boats up to twenty eight feet and tonight we have four Scouts and two leaders out on Lifeline, a twenty-two foot Catalina and Wave, a twenty-seven foot Catalina. The wind is up and blowing around five-to-ten miles per hour by the National Weather Service for our area. The sky is mostly clear but for some higher elevation clouds, say seven-to-ten thousand feet, moving towards us. Nothing ominous.
My older Scout is a senior in high school this coming year and the younger one an incoming freshman. The older Scout knows how to sail and I’m testing his proficiency. They younger one had blisters within five minutes. He’s never sailed before. OK, he’s the lookout, now, and the senior is trimming the foresail as I call out the tacks, then we switch and he takes the main and foresail and I’m on the jib. I’m still calling the tacks and maneuvers.
There are eight major tacks of sail I’m testing him on. Four, really, as they mirror each other. He has to sail the boat as close to the wind as possible (close hauled, for the sails both pulled in close to the center of the boat), close reach (not sails not as close to the boat and wind off the bow on one of the two sides), beam reach (the wind is directly to the side of the boat, ninety degrees to the keel and the sails out about half way), then the broad reach, the sails out even further and instead of drafting up wind we sail with the wind pushing us down. My older Scout is doing a fine job, in spite of the shifting winds.
Now, it’s these last two items that got us into trouble.
After making all points of sail I had the Scout approach a buoy to see what control he had of the boat now. This exercise is sort of like parking your car in the shopping center or grocery lot. You have to turn the boat up into the wind in such a manner so as to stop at the buoy without hitting it. The wind becomes the brake, even to the point where one can push the mainsail forward and backwind it to stop. My Scout didn’t need to do this, he put us on the buoy as easily as parking a bicycle in the rack. So, let’s go see if we can dock the boat, then.
The courtesy dock at the State marina and boat ramps is forty (?) feet away from the ‘splashing’ dock where boats are put into the water. It’s Friday night and pretty busy but we have lots of room, it seems. The wind is from the East and the dock runs mostly on a North-South line. We planned come up on the dock as we had the buoy, turn and beam reach to moor, and luff (let the mainsail spill air) to stop and tie off. The jib (foresail) was already down to clear the bow area for line handling.
It all went as planned until we luffed the main. Instead of stopping as expected we accelerated! I watched the dock speed by, looked up at a full mainsail, and shouted “Hang on, we’re running aground!” No time to do anything but brace. The raised level of the water and the days the shoreline had submerged made for a soft, grassy and muddy impact. We hit hard, but we hit soft. We dropped the mainsail, cranked the swing keel up, and looked for other problems. The pin in the rudder didn’t break so the rudder lifted past its spring lock and popped out of the pin rests on the transom. It stayed aboard, the earth holding it nearly upright. We broke out lines for the bow and stern, tied them off, and over the side I went to bring the boat around back to the dock.
No water in the bilges, confirming a hard but soft grounding. We cranked the keel back down and it went without any trouble. Good, nothing jammed in the keel house. It took fifteen minutes or so to get the rudder back in place. I let the Scouts work on that for their own experience, this boat about ten feet longer and items all weighing more than their typical day sailing boats. They put it in place. Now the critique. What happened?
There were no obstacles or distractions and we had done everything as we planned. The mainsail filling with air was my key indicator. It’s possible I misjudged the wind direction, and it’s possible the wind shifted on us as we made our maneuver happen and we didn’t notice it. Whatever the cause, I was satisfied with their quick responses to directions and recovery. I told them this was no fault of theirs to reassure them, and when I asked if there were any questions the older one said, “What else could we have done.” “Lower the main” was the only thing I could think of, but being new to the boat and with the quick acceleration we experienced I suggested we wouldn’t have had any less of a bump. I was impressed that he asked that question.
We set sail with the older Scout still at the helm and I let him continue sailing for another thirty minutes from the helm. After that we switched and gave the younger Scout another hour on the tiller (long stick that moves the rudder on smaller keel boats) The clouds moved over the lake and the air calmed to a whisper as we sailed back down to our inlet.
Good results? When I talked with the Scout Ship’s committee chairwoman she said all four Scouts were back on the water Saturday and Sunday, the one I had on my helm seemed confident enough. He brought his girlfriend out to sail. One of the girls went out to race, the other and my younger Scout came out to see what they could learn and ride.
We’ll call that a success.