Sailing soothes the senses despite off-the-scale squall




The clouds were low and gray. The rain was steady. There was no wind. It was hardly the ideal day to cast off for a first sail after a three-year interlude as a land-lubber.

But I had waited long enough to be back on the water, and, as the sign-writing on the stern of the nearby powerboat urged: Carpe Diem.

The Volvo diesel, treated to virgin oil and a fresh filter, started on the first try as the power burst from the new batteries and the fuel flowed from a cleaned-out tank. The sails were folded on, ready to be set should we find a wind beyond the breathless inlet.

But first there was a small technical matter to be sorted out. The rigger who had installed the wind indicator, depth sounder, speedo and log, left a note saying starkly: "You must calibrate the systems."

Not being of technological inclination, it sort of spoiled my day.

I had assumed all I would have to do would be throw a switch, causing the new bulkhead instruments to spring to life, providing an array of digital information I could assimilate at my pleasure. That was the not inconsiderable reward I expected for the quite considerable bill I had just paid.

But life aboard is never so simple.

For example, while I was feeding the furling genny into its track, I noticed that the wire in the roller had cut a small track into the furling drum's upper rim, through which it could jump and possibly lock the bearing.

It was the tiniest of gaps, but it could create the biggest of problems, because we all know it would happen only at the worst of moments - just as the sail was being desperately furled ahead of an approaching squall.

Backyard Boats, which re-commissioned my 31-ft. Westerly after its three years of resting shrink-wrapped on stilts while I was on an overseas assignment, does not weld aluminum.

The stop-gap solution was to install a block on the bow pulpit stanchion to run the wire at a steeper, downward angle away from the rim of the furling drum. Theoretically at least, this would make the wire less likely to find its way through the inviting hole while I looked for another boatyard that could repair the damage.

Having sorted that out, I was ready for the excitement of departure. In the midst of it, I forgot just how narrow the dog-leg channel is into and out of Backyard Boats, off the West River. As we motored out, the second green marker was safely to starboard but just a tad too far.

I had not switched on the new depth-sounder for fear of complicating the awaiting calibration exercise. Why is it on boats that one thing always leads to another?

The grounding was soft enough, that sudden deceleration, then silent lurch that every Bay sailor has experienced. There was no mystery to it, and this time, it was nothing more than a momentary embarrassment, , with only one other boat was around to witness such ineptitude.

And, talking of ineptitude, now to the matter of calibrating the digital instruments:

As is normal when faced with such challenges, I turned to my wife for help. Technologically, she is much less 17th-century than am I and has more patience with small print. The combination has served us well over the years.

But this is not a happy story.. As instructed, we did two slow, full turns to "linearise" the wind vane. But how quickly the tide can turn. The deeper we got into the instructions, the murkier the words became until we were completely lost - drowning in a flood of advice on "toggling" this or "momentarily pressing" that.

We were warned that we must be in slack tide conditions to set the correct boat speed by using "the Adjust to Speed Over Ground (SOG)screen to automatically set the current speed to SOG (if available from Sea Talk)."

We finally gave up somewhere near the notion that we should "use the vmg (decrement) and tack (increment) keys to set the wind speed calibration factor. Calibration factor values from 0.75 to 1.25 in 0.01 steps."

Or was it when the speed calibration required us to "to carry out a second calibration run (see sheet 2 of the Speed calibration flow chart), using the procedure described above in steps 4 to 8?"

This last admonishment was followed by the reassuring note: "At the end of the second run, the text End alternating with the new calibration factor is displayed at the bottom the screen."

Needless to say, no such apparition made it onto our screen.

All we wanted to know was what the wind was doing, how fast we were going, and how deep the water was.

Then nature threw us a life-line. While we were pouring and pondering over the manuals, the weather faired. Patches of blue were appearing through the clouds to the east. The wind was piping up.

"Aren't we going to sail?" asked my calibrated-out wife.

Up went the main, out came the genny, off went the motor, and we were streaming across the mouth of the South River, rail in the water, bow cutting through the white-capped chop and throwing spray into the cockpit.

One instrument that seemed to be working - no thanks to us, let it be said - was the wind-speed indicator. Calibrated or not, it registered a brisk 15-17 knots, which seemed about right.

The Westerly, a solid sloop built in Britain for the rigors of the North Sea and the English Channel, was in its element.

So were we.

Under full sail, we tacked, gybed, reached and ran. We headed for Thomas Point, the Bay Bridge, then Bloody Point, re-acquainting ourselves with the ways of our boat on each point of sail.

As we turned into the Rhode River, the wind dropped to 6.5 knots, and we glided quietly home on a broad reach at the end of thrilling, first outing.

Left in our wake were all the trials and tribulations of re-commissioning. The calibration must wait for another day.

If you have a boating event or experience - power or sail - to share, contact Gilbert Lewthwaite: phone 202-416-0262; Fax 202-872-9327; e-mail

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