Staying high and dry for the winter

maryland scenes

November 16, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,

The sailboat called Windward wouldn't be going aground, in a good way, for another hour yet, but Russ Ward was happy to wait. Whenever the time came, he'd be watching as his prized 48-footer left the chilly waters of Back Creek for the high-and-dry.

"I want to be here if you drop it," he told the dock master at Bert Jabin's Yacht Yard in Annapolis.

Ward was joking. He actually felt relaxed. For one thing, his baby is insured to the tune of $500,000. More to the point, he has faith in the men who'd soon hoist, spray and move the boat across the yard before nestling it into an above-ground wintertime berth.

"These guys know what they're doing," said Ward, a retired NBC radio newsman who at age 82 still goes blue-water sailing to the Caribbean.

They'd better know. November is haul-out month, so marinas up and down the Chesapeake Bay are busy plucking boat after boat from the water as another sailing season ebbs.

Last Wednesday at Jabin's, forklifts whizzed around carrying power boats like tray-bearing mechanical butlers. Beep-beep-beep filled the air as men swung into reverse and backed up with evident ease. One forklift driver jauntily steered with his right hand and smoked with his left.

The hydraulics of a massive device called a "travel lift" groaned noisily. First the person at the controls of the lift raised a sailboat aloft. Then, after another worker blasted muck off the hull with a long-necked power hose, the lift carried the boat across the yard in a giant sling held up by cables.

A travel lift's wheels are so big they reach a man's ribcage, and when the driver started rolling, the sailboat cargo swayed gently, its keel gliding inches above the gravel.

Across the way, two people in matching gray sweat shirts, winter hats and sunglasses worked to shrink-wrap a yacht already stowed for winter. To tighten the white plastic cocoon, one of them wielded a heat gun that looks like a big hair dryer.

Nearby, a crane soared above the ground so that a crew could reattach - or "step" - the mast of one sailboat after a repair.

For brief spells the boatyard resembled an airport the day before Thanksgiving: crowded, crazy and cacophonous. A big sailboat emerging around a corner in a travel lift's sling called to mind a Boeing 737 taxiing to the runway.

Doesn't it stress out the crews to know that the boats they handle are often worth more money than most people's houses? Boatyard owner Rod Jabin replied with a question of his own.

"Are the guys who work for a Mercedes dealership stressed because they move those cars?" he said while cruising around the yard in his twin-cab Ford pickup.

His answer: "No."

"This is what we do," he said. Jabin, a solid man with spiky auburn hair, grew up around the marina founded by his father, Bert, who is retired. Now 48, Rod Jabin has worked here full time for 26 years.

For the record, he said they've never dropped a boat, and it's been 15 years since ferocious winter winds last toppled one from its terrestrial perch.

One thing that does stress him out is where to put all the boats. He studies aerial photos taken in past years after the annual haul-out, by which time a layer of ice sometimes turns the creek milky white. Seen from this vantage, the lines of boats take on the shape of a fish skeleton.

Jabin is constantly looking to see if he can make more efficient use of his space. This year is a bit different due to the lousy economy. Some owners of smaller crafts are leaving their boats in the water over winter. The logic is this: Since they paid for a year's slip fee, why spend $4,000 or so on a haul-out, plastic-wrapping and six months of storage?

Even though the creek itself ices over, motor-driven "bubblers" circulate the water around the docks to prevent freezing. There are benefits to a haul-out - letting the bottom dry out, blasting off barnacles, repainting - but it will hardly ruin a boat to bob around in the creek until spring.

The good news for Jabin is that he's seen higher demand for big boats, whose owners tend to rely less on each paycheck. That has meant finding more room for the 50-footers, a good challenge to have.

By early December, the marina should be chock full, with 400-some boats. Smaller power boats go in the three- or four-row racks of a vertical unit called a boatel. Bigger sailboats and yachts rest upon a series of tripod stands arranged to form a hull-fitting cradle.

At precisely one o'clock, Ward's boat Windward - get it? - was floated into place for its haul-out. The Tayana sailboat had been in the water for two straight years. Last November, Ward had sailed to the Caribbean, thereby escaping winter.

Dirk Jabin, Rod's brother, sat in the driver's seat of the travel lift and used a knob to hydraulically raise the two sling straps. Dock master Keith O'Brien and a colleague slid foam padding between the fiberglass hull and the straps, and then the boat rose out of the water.

Ward looked on approvingly. Not only did the men exercise care, but the turquoise hull didn't have too many barnacles. A high-pressure hose would wash them off, along with brown-green muck coating the hull, keel and rudder.

Ward, who lives in Edgewater, plans to use the off season to repaint the lower hull, spruce up the topside and generally prepare for next year. He's already scouting voyages to Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula. Haul-in is set for April, when the travel lift will return the Windward to Back Creek with a little splash.

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