Down the Hatch
In 1977 while a member of Tad DuPont's motley crew on Nicole (CAL 40) sailing I made a couple of wrong steps onboard, subsequently injured myself and learned a few important life lessons as a result.
Behind a barely-discernable breeze, about 50-60 sailing yachts with raised spinnakers and high-hopes drifted southward across an Annapolis starting line for the 1977 Hampton Roads Race - a 150-mile jaunt down and back up the Chesapeake Bay. Under an intense mid-day summer sun, with a favorable current on flat seas, the day's sail would become a snail's pace.
Our tired northwesterly breath not only drooped Nicole's spinnaker but also her crew's spirits. Like some wet laundry hung without a drying breeze on a humid day, our saggy sails barely pulled their light weight. The wind certainly wasn't pushing us; maybe it was the humidity that pulled our sails down the Bay. To slow our progress even more and, of course, and to test our resolve, an adverse flooding tide turned against us as night fell. As Nicol inched begrudgingly southward, floating like baked tortoise shells creeping / crawling an exhausted exhale was a more apt depiction.
Since our 11:30 AM start, the wind felt like it was sucking the life out of this race and those diehards who dared start its hundred mile course. When evening shrouded our boat, we determined Nicol had drifted approximately 6-7 miles in 8 hours.
Our sails drooped, flopped and flapped from side to side into the night. Despite our frequent efforts, we continued to fulfill our wind wishes with our hot air. Surprisingly, the evening air didn't seem to cool off as our sweating continued into the dark. One crew member remarked that all desirable and noticeable air flow had been sucked out of the Bay - trapped in a vortex black hole vacuum! We all readily concurred to that description.
Nightfall brought no relief resembling any kind of wind. A breeze from any direction would have been a comfort at this stage. We were all still racing, but the draping, dragging negative wind velocity was making us question the sanity of our efforts. The morning dawn progress report was going to difficult to accept as we continued against a relentless 3-4 knot tidal current. Our only hope was an nearing end to the 6-hour tidal cycle. Though I am sure in was lodged in our thoughts, at least no one exclaimed, "Whose brilliant idea was this race?"
Hugging Maryland's western shore and seeking shallow water to escape most of the forces of the rising tide, the sensation around Nicole felt eerier by the hour as almost total darkness surrounded our vessel. With no moon or stars visible on this solidly-clouded night all we cold see were our competition's lights sprinkled around us. We had very little indication of our making any forward progress. To add to this unusual stillness, was all our crew sat almost motionless on deck or went to sleep below to prevent any unnecessary rocking that might hinder (or help?) our movement through the water. Maybe movement would have actually helped because for all we knew for most of the night the whole fleet was moving. Also, if anyone spoke, our crew whispered because we didn't want the sound of our voices to give away our tactics. As if we had any! At the time, I thought simply talking might help generate some air flow.
While we "raced" all night, seeking an advantage over our competition any way we could, we knew that the other boats in our class were in the same position. But we also knew that when the inevitable freshening breeze arrived (we were hopeful!) we wanted to be positioned so we received its benefits first. Of course, it was a guess which direction it would come from.
Nicole was a toy in a tub. The tide moved us at its will, either in the right or wrong direction. So with the little maneuverability we had, we strategized to "sneak" into deep water once the tide began to ebb - tide is always stronger in deeper water. But with no wind and no way to see it coming our way, we played charades with the weather ahead - a guessing game about our location and what nature had in store for us before daybreak.
As dawn woke up the Bay and gave us a renewed view of the our competition, we acknowledged we were almost where we had been when darkness came last evening. There still was no breeze or hint of one on the horizon. The water mirrored glass with barely a ripple upon it. By noon, beginning our second day racing, Nicole had scarcely moved forward from the previous dusk. Now the sun had started re-baking/frying/cooking her crew to a crispier crust. While no mutiny appeared imminent, but the bedraggled look of our crew members, who realized reaching another hundred miles to our finishing line destination, was forlorn. With another adverse tide soon approaching and no prospects for wind, Tad took a quick poll and discovered an enthusiastic consensus for returning to Annapolis.
Almost as soon as he turned on the engine and pointed Nicole northward, the crew with renewed and reserved vigor and energy immediately lowered the mainsail. I immediately stepped to the bow and began to collect our drifter genoa and spinnaker, but as I started to look up, I was on my way down. I misstepped into the open forward hatch.
In a second I fell down the chute, so to speak,holding onto the chute but catching my right rib on the side of the hatch on my way down. For the first time in my 27 years, I discovered what a cracked rib felt like. Ugh...out of breath and in immediate agony, I lay down on a bunk below. With the aid of a few substantial "down-the-hatch" swigs of onboard "medicinal" rum, I rested as best I could. Every breath became challenging and no prone position was comfortable enough. Thankfully, the Bay was still flat and calm - Funny how we had wished for wind and now I was grateful for calm. Any movement that tossed and turned me was near torture. At the time I remember imagining enduring Nicole's 50 miles cruise back to Annapolis followed by an hour-long car ride to the Eastern Shore's Easton hospital. My main hope was the medicinal effects of rum would suffice until I could get examined.
As I lay on a bunk in pain, I could not help reviewing the events that led to my accident. It was amazing how many feelings I experienced in but a few seconds. Fried, exhausted, exhilarated, hopeful, relieved, shocked, breathless, pained, numbed, groggy and hopeful again, but this time for another reason.
By the time Nicole reached Annapolis hours later, I had finished more than a half a bottle of dark Bacardi's while laying down on my back below deck. The "medicine" had long since worn off. When I finally arrived at the hospital's emergency room, the X-rays confirmed my amateurish suspicions. I did indeed have 2 cracked ribs. To my surprise the doctor informed me that such a rib injury just needed rest and inactivity to heal. It apparently is one injury that needs time to heal naturally. Thankfully, I was given a pill painkiller and sent on my home.
I had time to recollect as the next week I was mostly horizontal. Sleeping was not easy. But thoughts are something else. Accidents happen or do they?
This experience taught me some valuable lessons. I concluded:
- Never assume a hatch is closed.
- Always look over where you are going to step on a boat before taking a step.
- Just because it is calm, doesn't mean you can't get hurt.
- Always have some extra rum stowed on board for medicinal reasons.
- If you don't have some Motrin, rum works great.
- If I want to go below decks, try the stairs next time.
- Down-the-hatch has more than one meaning.