Boston Harbor Sailing Club...More Time on the Water...

The Saga of Class Action

  B.H.S.C. – It is not supposed to be the Boston Harbor Swimming Club.

The following is a “stream of consciousness” describing my recollection of the events of Wednesday evening, Aug. 8. The length of the description is intended to help others appreciate some of the details of what happened, and to learn from my errors in judgment and mistakes. Since this happened, the lyrics of one version of The St. James Infirmary Blues are playing in my head: “Oh Mothers, tell your sons not to do what I have done.”

As I opened the trunk of my car to pull out my sailing gear, I noticed how muggy and warm the afternoon of August 8 was. It was sunny, about 90 degrees, with high humidity and light wind from the west. I debated whether or not to bring my life jacket, thinking that it would be uncomfortably hot, and with the light wind, it was unlikely that conditions would warrant a life jacket. However, out of force of habit – when racing, I always wear a life jacket – I wore it this afternoon.

After rigging Class Action, we cast off to find the race committee boat. Due to very light wind in the mooring area, after casting off, we just sat there. With the wind coming from the west, the buildings of downtown Boston shield the mooring area. Ed, our fore-deck person, was kind enough to locate an oar, in the forward compartment, and paddle us beyond the east end of the mooring field, where there was sufficient breeze for the boat to gently begin sailing. When we reached the shipping channel, the wind was pleasant.

During the first race, we put the spinnaker up normally, but had some difficulty getting it down, on port tack, at the leeward mark. I asked Ed what the problem was. He said that the port spinnaker sheet was too short, so he had difficulty grabbing the starboard sheet to gather the clew. That is when I noticed the port spinnaker sheet had a stopper knot in it. I suspect previous folks sailing Class Action put the knot there to prevent the sheet accidentally running out through the block.

During the windward beat of the second race, some weather was moving across the harbor. Dark clouds formed west and north of our position. The wind became strong and gusty. It looked like light rain was falling from some of the clouds, but there was no lightning. We tightened the jib and back stay, and feathered up on port tack to avoid excessive heel. Suddenly we were blown into an accidental tack by a very rapid wind shift. Some sea water came over the gunnel, and Ed used the pump to get the water out from underfoot. This made me concerned that we were not competitive in this race.

Later, we went back onto port tack, sailed to the right side of the course, and tacked onto starboard on the lay line. A PHRF boat, about 35 feet long, going faster than we were, came up behind us, also on starboard tack. They hailed us, saying they were racing, and asked us to tack to get out of their way. I replied that we were also racing, and that we were on our lay line, and would not tack. They responded that they were going to tack soon, and told us we should keep clear.

As we approached the windward mark, the wind strength subsided, and we noticed other Solings rounding. Now adrenaline and the racing mentality returned. Despite the delay in our windward leg, we were still competitive! Because we were now in lighter wind, I thought the squall conditions had passed. With a chance to beat other boats, I let Ed raise the spinnaker, doing a bear-away set that was appropriate for the wind direction of the first race.

Initially, the spinnaker set nicely, and I thought we had a chance to catch some other boats. Then the wind became both strong and gusty. The Soling accelerated. We were getting carried toward Fish Pier. Initially, I asked Ed to prepare to jibe. Then, as he prepared to shift the spinnaker pole, I asked him to take the spinnaker down. Ed replied that he could shift the pole, and that we should jibe. I agreed, and asked him to be careful.

Now we were approaching Fish Pier, still on starboard tack. I was steering as far to port as I could, but not going exactly down wind, fearing an accidental jibe due to a wind shift. I became concerned that we would collide with Fish Pier. Then Ed said he had made the pole good, and that it was OK to jibe. I headed straight down wind, and pulled the boom over. Very quickly, the spinnaker filled on port tack. The next thing I knew, we heeled hard to starboard, so water was coming over the starboard gunnel. For a moment, the boat righted itself. Then it again heeled hard to starboard. Ed, who had been standing on the foredeck, now went overboard on the starboard side. Very quickly, the cockpit filled with water. The bow went down first. Now Felek, our “middle person” and I were in the water. I did my best to note our position, and asked Ed and Felek to do the same. As the stern sank, air exiting through the hole for the rear stay made a sound like a tea kettle on a stove.

A minute later, a Boston water taxi pulled up, and asked if we would like a ride. I cautioned Ed and Felek to keep clear of the water taxi’s propeller. As Ed and Felek climbed onto the water taxi, I looked around, and saw Ed’s brown back pack and two floor boards floating nearby. I gathered them, and swam a few feet to the side of the taxi. The captain of the taxi told us his name was C.J., he is a naval officer, in the service since 1995, and temporarily at MIT, studying naval architecture. He mentioned that he has a Catalina 36, and when he noticed we were in trouble, he came over to help. He had passengers destined for the Economic Development Industrial Corporation dock just east of Fish Pier.

When we arrived at the EDIC dock, a paramedic with a tan uniform greeted us, asking pointedly “Is anyone hurt?” We each said we were fine, and after asking a second, pointed round of “Is anyone hurt?” He left. Then a Boston police man came on board, asked what happened, and took my name and phone number. Several other Boston Police were standing on the dock and a large number of spectators were standing behind the fence, watching. After about fifteen minutes, a Coast Guard vessel came to the dock and assured the Boston police they would deal with this issue. Meanwhile, the Environmental police arrived, and kept their boat a few yards beyond the dock. After recording my name and BHSC, and Mark Healy’s name, the Coast Guard suggested the water taxi take us on our way.

The water taxi captain offered to take us to Rowe’s Wharf. He radioed his intention to the dispatcher. The dispatcher pointed out that regulations do not allow stopping at un authorized places. He ordered him to go to his normal next stop, at the Moakley Courthouse. I felt badly that my wallet was in the boat, so I could not provide a tip.

Ed, Felek and I walked to Rowe’s Wharf. We expected a reception committee, but there were few people present, and they had other things to do. I borrowed a cell phone from a Rowe’s Wharf dock hand, and called my wife, Patti, using our home phone number, asking her to bring a spare key to my car downtown. My key was in the boat. She asked where we should meet, and I said “in front of The Barking Crab”.

After a few minutes, a launch arrived, bringing racers in from the moorings. They seemed quite surprised that we had sunk. After some discussion, we learned that Mark wanted to meet with us at Fish Pier. As we walked up the gangplank, I borrowed Maxi’s cell phone, to call Patti, and change our meeting place to Fish Pier. Her cell phone rang, but she did not answer. I left voice mail asking her to change our meeting place to Fish Pier.

Walking over the Northern Ave. bridge, I began to wonder whether or not Patti had her cell phone with her in her car, or in her rush to bring the key to me, had left it at home. Because I was uncertain about her receiving the change of meeting place message, I decided to wait for her at The Barking Crab. Ed and Felek were headed to Fish Pier. I asked them look for Patti, and if they saw her, to direct her to The Barking Crab.

Waiting at The Barking Crab, I saw a guy using a cell phone, and then overheard him tell his girlfriend that he would be racing a sail boat at Newport over the weekend. I asked him if I could borrow his cell phone. He reacted as though I were a mugger about to attack him. That caused me to pause and re-assess my tactics.

Later, I saw some tourists attempting to take a group photo of themselves. I offered to operate their camera, so they could all be in the picture. After that, I asked them if they had a cell phone I could borrow. They said yes. I called Patti’s cell number, and told her I was waiting at The Barking Crab, because I was not sure she received the change of meeting place message. One of the reasons I married Patti is that she has a gentle, even disposition. When she arrived with the key, smoke was billowing out of both of her ears. She was obviously very unhappy with me. She assured me that she was not just sitting by the phone waiting for my call this evening. She was in the midst of baking zucchini bread, and it was OK for her to make a quick run downtown, but there was not time to wait for someone who was not at the revised meeting place.

Meeting Mark at Fish Pier about 9:00 PM had the atmosphere of a movie set. There was a working barge with a very bright light on it, illuminating us and the side of the building but making it impossible to see much of the harbor. Mark was talking with the Coast Guard. They were pressing him to take care of Class Action, and expressed a sense of urgency out of concern that it could be a hazard to navigation. Mark assured them that he had a salvage plan, and that Class Action would be raised the next day. Mark assured me that Class Action would be back in the racing rotation next Wednesday.

Thursday afternoon I went to Rowe’s Wharf. Mark had used a fish finder to locate Class Action, and called a barge with a large winch used to raise moorings. John Rokosz was still wearing his wet suit. He dove and saw the equivalent of the Flying Dutchman ghost ship. Class Action was resting on the bottom, with a slight racing heel. The main and spinnaker were set and full – due to tidal current. John attached the line to the lifting eye, and the winch brought Class Action to the surface. Then a high speed pump cleared water from the cockpit. I retrieved my sailing bag, Felek’s bag, and the spinnaker. Now all my gear is freshly laundered. Even my hat looks somewhat presentable.

Much to my surprise, the remote starter for my car worked perfectly after being submerged in a plastic box sold by West Marine for cigarettes. Other items in a rubber Maid container, and “sealed” in plastic bags were marinated in sea water. The navigation light I carry incase we are out past sunset, has a thick rubber case and O-ring construction. Its insides were noticeably corroded, and it will be replaced.

Here are some of the “take-away” messages from this experience.

The spinnaker is a light air sail. In heavy air, the Soling will reach hull speed with the conventional jib and mainsail. Once hull speed is reached, it takes a huge amount of energy to make a displacement hull go any faster. Even when racing, do not raise the spinnaker in heavy air. Due to unpredictable wind shifts, do not raise a spinnaker in a squall.

Be aware of both the air pattern at the boat and in the harbor area. When I focused on the windward mark, I was looking south. The turbulent weather was coming in from the north and west, behind my back. I was not looking aft of the boat. Squalls can move through the area quickly, but in this case, they had not cleared. I thought the squalls had passed because we were in the lee of the downtown buildings. A good indication of squall conditions is that the water looks black and the waves are very choppy. The water near the windward mark looked “OK” to me. A hundred yards east of the windward mark, the water was dark and churning.

If the spinnaker destabilizes the boat, release the sheet! That will make it into a huge flag, but will release the drive pressure and heeling moment. It may seem embarrassing to fly a huge flag, but with the pressure removed, it will be much easier to take down.

Never sail with a stopper knot in the bitter end of a spinnaker sheet. A stopper knot prevents the possibility of releasing the spinnaker in an emergency. This is a basic safety concept I overlooked.

Many of the Solings have doors to cover the front and rear compartments. Keep these doors in place, with the dogs tightened to seal them against the bulkhead. Solings have a lot of weight in the keel. The front and rear compartments have enough volume to provide buoyancy in case of being swamped. Then the bilge pump, and if you have it, a personal pump can be used to bail the boat out. Class Action sank so quickly because the buoyancy compartments filled with water.

Keep your knife handy at all times. I always have a serrated stainless steel knife with me when I sail. On Aug. 8 the knife was in my sailing bag, which sank with Class Action. Luckily, none of us were entangled in the sheets or other lines on the boat. If we had gotten entangled, we would have been pulled down when the boat sank. My knife was useless during this emergency.

Wear a life jacket, even on days it seems unlikely to be needed. I wear a life jacket so that if I have to go on deck, and fall over board, I will have a comfortable swim. People have fallen out of Solings when a hiking strap broke, or after being hit by the boom during a jibe.

In light air, the Soling responds proportionally to the tiller. In heavier air, the set of the sails determines where the boat will go. Practice maneuvers in moderate air, so when sailing in heavier conditions, you are familiar with how the boat will behave.

In heavy air, be ready to release the main sheet in case of a sudden gust or change of wind direction.

It is important to know both the racing rules and rules for coastal navigation. I did not want to be disagreeable with the PHRF boat. Even though we were not racing them, the overtaking boat must keep clear even if they are leeward.

While I never want to do anything that causes a problem with a boat, having insurance against liability for damage and expenses is sensible.

This is social racing, and no one wants to have an excessively militaristic mentality. Still, someone has to be in charge. When I thought the spinnaker should come down, I should have been more emphatic.

If something happens, Mark wants to know the circumstances and take action to solve the problem. Any authorities involved will want to contact Mark Healy. It helps to remember that the Club phone number is 617-720-0049

Limit items brought onto the Soling to things that can get wet. Items that should stay dry now ride in a Pelican box, bought at REI. The cell phone stays in my car.

Once a plan is agreed – such as where to meet – do not change it without getting agreement from all parties.

John Rokosz tells me most sailors have to experience a particular issue about three times so they fully understand it and can avoid doing it again. This confessional will help me avoid repeating the sins described above. I hope this description helps you avoid doing what I have done.




Written by Chuck McWilliams.  Any comments? Send me an email

Lessons Learned

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Mailing Address: 71 Commercial St #262 Boston, MA 02110
Sailing operations: The Private Marina at Rowes Wharf
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