Thursday, February 9, 2012

Between Glass and a Hard Place

The schooner worked the summer season in Maine.  It then moved to New York and Long Island Sound once the cold had killed off any interest in sailing further north.  It spent the remainder of the hurricane season chartering there and completing any major refit jobs before jumping off for Bermuda and the Virgin Islands. 
For my first charter, we boarded only three passengers for a three-day cruise.  The good news was that it was great sailing.  We sailed through New York Harbor and up the Hudson River closehauled as we punched into four-foot waves and threw water  everywhere.  It was my first chance to see the Gamage working and start to get a feel for the helm.  On the down side, it was unseasonably cold and hard to keep warn.
The day after the charter, we starred in a commercial for Citibank Corp.  We really worked---tacking again and again,  jibing, changing sails.  We did a full day’s work in about three hours.  The theme was that Citibank conquered the world of business.  It started with “in the beginning, commerce was accomplished under sail.”  Gamage sailed into the viewfinder and filled the screen.  Then the filming helicopter descended lower as the story unfolded.  Citibank took its place in the modern world of commerce and finance as the camera’s view drew back to view the schooner before the New York skyline.
During that day I also made my first trip aloft to the mast truck (the very top).  I had used ratlines before, so this was just a higher version of the same.  The truck would eventually begin to feel like home.  Later, when every cabin was full with charterers, as well as the deck and saloon, the crosstrees far above the deck would become my escape for a few minutes of personal time.  Besides that, the charterers enjoyed watching someone scaling the heights.
That evening, following the commercial filming, we did a charter for the Girl Scouts.  By that time the wind had blown itself out, and we had to settle for a motor cruise around the Statue of Liberty and the harbor.  As soon as the Girl Scouts stepped off, another group boarded for a weekend charter.
One problem with carrying passengers who have no nautical experience is they have no concept of how to manage utilities aboard that they are accustomed to taking for granted.  At home, they take 45-minute showers and leave the sink water running all the time they brush their teeth, wash hands, or rinse dishes.  So, in spite of the little talk on the use of water and the head that I gave every group, by dinner time Saturday, in one day, they had emptied every fresh water tank aboard.  This was a quantity that should normally last up to a couple weeks!
We headed for Greenwich, CT, in search of water.  Being October, and after 5 pm, we found the first marina we stopped at closed.  Hoping to find a place to lie alongside and take on fuel and water, we continued until we reached the head of the harbor.  Boats were moored beam-on to the quays on both sides leaving hardly a hundred feet in which to maneuver a 115-ft. vessel.  Feeling trapped, the skipper decided he’d have to launch the tender, tie it into the bobstay and whisker stays under the bowsprit, and use its engine as a bow thruster so he could back the schooner out.  Since this was an operation that took a fair amount of time and effort, I suggested, “Why don’t you just back and fill her around.”  Backing and filling is a maneuver where you put the helm hard to starboard (right), and using the engine in short bursts forward and reverse, use the torque of the propeller to walk the stern to port without gaining any headway or movement astern.  In this way, you can turn a single-screw vessel around in about its own length.  With a continuous line of fishing boats to port, and another line of expensive yachts to starboard, there was no room to maneuver.  Also, with a large glass-fronted dockside restaurant only feet behind the yachts, it felt like there was less than no room.  The skipper smirked at me and said, “If you’re so smart, why don’t you do it,” and stepped away from the helm. 
At some point, the sooner the better, a mate has to show the skipper he can manage the vessel, so I stepped to the helm and called the crew aft.  I could clearly see how much room I had off the stern, but depth perception a hundred feet away was something else.  I'm not one to take unsafe risks.  With no wind or current to deal with, I felt it was a safe and manageable maneuver, even though a delicate and very tight one---turning a 115-ft vessel in about 95-ft of space. I had one deck hand slide out on the end of the bowsprit.  “Give me hand signals for the number of feet the bowsprit is from the glass.  It won’t be much of a drop to the ground, so if things go wrong, jump clear so you don’t get cut by the falling glass.”  Another crew member was stationed in the waist (the middle of the deck) to relay any verbal messages from the bow, since I might have trouble clearly hearing him all the way aft.  After several maneuvers, the schooner started to turn.  I slid the bowsprit between two yachts tied in front of the restaurant, and as the bowsprit slowly slid toward the glass front of the restaurant, I watched for the number of fingers being held up each time I slipped the transmission in forward.  I was a bit too busy to really look, but at one point realized people dining next to the glass were getting up and leaving their tables.  Their looks and actions would be played out a number of times by the crew over the next few days.  Once we were most of the way around, I had enough room to slide the bowsprit back out from between the yachts, and completed the turn.  With the bowsprit once again aimed for Long Island Sound, I stepped away from the helm as the skipper smiled and said, “Nicely done.”     Probably not unlike making the kick and seeing the football fly between the uprights as the last few seconds expire in a major game, it was one of those moments that lasts in your mind forever.  Of course, if I’d stuck the bowsprit through all that glass, I’d have remembered that forever as well.

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