Learning from Experience; My Biggest Disaster and What it Taught Me.

All Guide Posts » Boat Handling » Close Calls

June 23, 2012

Doug Hylan Doug Hylan

This incident was hardly a disaster, but it certainly could have been!  More of a mystery really.  It happened aboard GRAYLING, the 1915 sardine carrier we had the honor of rebuilding back in 1997.  GRAYLING’s owner had generously given me permission to use the boat whenever he was not in Maine, and one afternoon, after the crew had gone home, I decided I would nip off on a little overnight cruise down Eggemoggin Reach.  

One of the best parts about living in Brooklin, Maine is that there are lots of lovely little anchorages within a dozen miles, and it wasn’t a half hour before I was ready to set the hook.  I was alone – and in spite of her 65 feet and 70,000 pounds, GRAYLING is one of the easiest and most efficient boats in the world to run.   The spot I had chosen was in the lee of one of Maine’s little island jewels, about one and half miles in circumference, mostly clothed in narrow spruces but with a trail cut around the shore, uninhabited.

GRAYLING’s ground tackle consists of a hefty plow anchor that self deploys from a bow roller.  A big electric windlass, operated by foot switches close by the anchor, does the hard work of handling the all-chain rode.  I set the anchor, and decided that I would take a hike around the island before supper (more than likely, a can of Dinty Moore beef stew).  

I rowed my peapod ashore, and started my trek.  The trail had not been cleared of the previous winter’s blowdowns, and there were lots of detours.  The island was bigger than I had remembered.  And then a thick Maine fog rolled in, transforming what had been a sunny late afternoon into a cold mystery.  I am always a bit nervous when my boat is anchored out of sight, most particularly when it isn’t even my own boat!  As I came around each point of the island, I peered anxiously ahead, expecting to see GRAYLING safely where I had left her.  

After what seemed like an eternity, I came back to my pod, right where I had pulled her up on the beach.  The fog must be thicker than I thought – guess I had walked right past the big boat.   I pulled out of the little cove where I had landed, anxiously looking over my shoulder, searching.  After a few strokes, I glanced back towards the shore to get my bearings before it was lost in the fog.  To my horror, there was GRAYLING, just around a little point of land, nestled up against the granite ledges and seaweed!  My luck was fantastic – the tide was rising and there wasn’t a breath of air.  Otherwise, this could have been a real disaster!

Now the mystery part of the story begins.  My mind whirled as I turned the peapod around and headed towards GRAYLING.  Had I not set the anchor properly?  Did I not allow enough scope to account for the rising tide?  When I pulled myself aboard a minute later, I got a second shock.  There was the anchor, pulled up into the bow roller, it and the chain both covered with mud!  Someone must have come aboard, weighed the anchor and stolen away in the fog!  Who could have done such a dastardly thing!  Why?

With my paranoia in high gear I started the engine and carefully backed away from the ledges.  Did I dare spend the night in this place?  Whoever had done this could still be in the area, and who knew what their next trick might be?  But the fog was thicker than ever, and the sun was setting.  Even with GRAYLING’s nice radar and chart plotter, I didn’t feel like finding a new anchorage.  If the perpetrator came back, at least I would know who was to blame.

I reset the anchor, just a few dozen yards from my first set, and went below to heat up my Dinty Moore (with a dash of red wine and some diced tomato, it’s not too shabby).  After supper, I lay down in my bunk with a good book (not a mystery, you can be sure), when after a couple of pages, I heard the windlass motor start up, chain rattling into the locker!  I was out of the bunk like a shot, grabbed the heavy blunt object I had set aside for just this occasion, and was up on deck within a few seconds.  But by that time the windlass had stopped – the scoundrel had heard me coming and made good his escape (I hoped)!  I walked up to the foredeck and peered into the fog, straining my ears – nothing!  I stood there, trying to get my heart rate down below a thousand and think of what to do next.  Darkness and fog be damned, it was time to fire up the radar and get out of there!

As I turned to go back to the pilothouse, the windlass motor started again!  By this time I was sure I was in some kind of TWILIGHT ZONE redux.  I rushed into the pilothouse, tripped the windlass circuit breaker, and sat down to think this thing through.  Clearly, the foul play was electrical, not human.  Back up on the foredeck with a flashlight, I could see that the rubber dome that covered the electrical foot switch had degraded in the sun, and had a crack in it.  Precisely, Dr. Watson, an electrical short circuit!  The pea soup fog had provided the moisture, abetted by the salt atmosphere.

So, the motto is clear.  Keep and eye on those foot switches, and turn off the circuit breaker whenever the windlass is not in use.  And never underestimate the value of good luck!


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