Thursday, May 13, 2010

Still afloat

Still afloat

So there she is at her mooring, apparently unscathed by her captain's depraved negligence and folly in running her on the rocks, shown below:

The troll's jaw

She's floating as high as she ever did. A sturdy boat, bless her.

You can see the boil of the current around the mooring buoy -- it was running about three knots. And you can also see that there is apparently only one mooring line, not the two there are supposed to be. Hmmm.

A trip out to the boat and a closer look revealed this situation:

fiendish tangle I don't know how clear it is from the picture, but the two mooring lines are wrapped several dozen times around each other, and both are wrapped around the chain under the buoy. In fact investigation later revealed that one was wrapped more times around the chain than the other, and I honestly don't know how this is topologically possible on any plausible physical scenario. It's a tangle that the Prince of Darkness himself might be proud to have contrived. Or Bernini.

The current and the chop weren't horrible enough to prevent me from disentangling the pennant lines, which revealed that one of them was already chafed so badly by the chain that I had to go back to see Seth at the marina and get a replacement. This after what, three days on the mooring?

Seth is a very good guy and he gave me two lines -- "Replace 'em both," he said, "and leave one of the old ones on for an oh-shit line." Good advice, I think.

Here's a slightly more cheerful view of the shoreline -- the troll's smiling face, you might say:

The troll's smiling face

This shot quite unintentionally incorporates a building where I used to live -- just visible above the notch in the trees right in the center of the image.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ah, technology


That's the 79th Street boat basin, above. But the boats you see there inside the breakwater belong to the hereditary aristocracy. Apply for a slip today, and your great-grandchildren might possibly get it.

No, οἱ πολλοί, like me, get moorings, outside the cozy little enclosure you see, in a field extending uptown -- i.e. toward the bottom of the picture. You can see a few boats in part of the field.

It's a pretty convenient place to keep your boat if you live on the Upper West Side, but otherwise has little to recommend it. The current -- especially the ebb current -- is incredibly fierce, and it's completely unprotected from swell and chop and wakes from commercial shipping and big displacement-hull motor yachts, so your boat gets knocked around a lot. Your mooring lines chafe and sometimes part. Moorings have been known to drag. Stuff comes floating down the river at five or six knots -- logs, big pieces of timber, that sort of thing -- and bangs into your hull. A snug harbor it ain't.

Among other things, the wicked current makes it a tricky business to pick up your mooring. You have to creep up-current toward the mooring, as if you were stalking some skittish animal with a sensitive nose, grab the mooring lines -- which are probably tangled around the anchor chain under the buoy -- get them aboard and secured to a cleat, while simultaneously throttling down and shifting the motor into neutral. If you're single-handing this requires you to have three arms and be in two places at once -- the cockpit to deal with the motor and steer, and the bow to grab the mooring lines. Imaginative readers can probably visualize the scrambling, the swearing, the confusion, the Keystone Kops comedy of it all.

(Did I mention that it's a crowded mooring field, with other boats nearby to collide with if anything goes wrong; and that there's always a nasty crosswind?)

But help is at hand:

Ready to strike

Last year I happened to see the ingenious device shown above in the Bosun Supplies catalogue, a favorite compendium of boat-geek gadget-porn. (You can click on the image to see more detail.) It's a hook, with a spring-loaded shackle that closes it. The shackle is held open by a clip attached to your boat pole; that's the state shown above. You get the hook around something -- an eye, a line -- and give a tug. The hook is pulled out of the clip and the shackle closes, as shown below:


Aha, thinks I, I can run a line back from the bow to the cockpit, attach this clever little widget to the line, bring the boat up alongside the mooring buoy, get the hook around the ring on top of the buoy (the one the mooring lines are attached to), and be fast to the mooring in one quick dart of the boat pole. Now I can throttle down and shift into neutral and take more than a millisecond doing it, if necessary, knowing that I won't drift any farther back down-current than the length of the line attached to my clever self-closing hook, which is to say something less than the length of the hull. And in fact without too much scrambling I can get myself up to the bow and pull the boat along the line up to the buoy and get the real mooring lines aboard before I've even drifted that far.

That was the idea, anyway, and it worked fine -- up to a point.

My mooring this year is number NE-18, which is closer to the boat basin and the dinghy dock than last year's was -- it's at about the latitude of 90th Street, or thereabouts, a half-mile or so from the dinghy dock. And it's in the row of moorings closest to shore -- maybe fifty feet -- and in fairly shallow water (fifteen feet). I was kinda pleased by this, since I figured the current and the chop might not be so bad closer to shore.

But of course, on the other hand, you're closer to shore. And this is what the shore looks like:

Can you see that the shore is lined with big rugged boulders, laid down to keep the landfill in place back when Robert Moses extended Riverside Park, and built the west side highway?

Perhaps you can see where this is going. I'll spare you the blow-by-blow. I crept up to my mooring, darted my boat pole at the buoy, heard the satisfying click as the hook escaped from the clip and the shackle snapped shut. I calmly throttled down, shifted the motor into neutral, sauntered toward the bow -- and then heard the unspeakably horrible noise of my iron keel grating against one of those Robert Moses boulders. It's a noise I hope you never hear, and I'll awaken in a cold sweat for years to come, hearing it in my dreams.

Here's what had happened:

The galvanized iron eye on top of the buoy, which I had hooked onto, was so thick that the clever spring-loaded shackle couldn't close all the way over it and secure the hook. I really ought to have a picture of this situation, because it may be hard to visualize; but alas I don't. At any rate the hook dropped off the buoy and without knowing it I was adrift, unsecured to anything, in maybe three knots of downstream current and five knots of west wind, which pushed the poor ill-managed and incompetently-captained Scapegrace right onto the rocks, in less time than I would have believed possible.

The next thirty seconds or so are a terrible gray fog in my memory, lit by a few lurid flashes:

  • Me trying to fend several tons of wind-driven boat off a troll's jaw of snaggletoothed rocks with a flimsy aluminum boat pole. Dream on.
  • A cyclist, along the riverfront path, maybe four or five feet from my face with its pale rictus of fear and horror, looking down at me and saying "Oh whoa ho ho" or "Woo hoo hoo" or something similar. I'm glad to say he was a very dorky middle-aged West Side cyclist, wearing a helmet, and difficult as it may be to believe, I was reminded even in these extreme circumstances of Dr Johnson's famous letter to Lord Chesterfield(*).
  • Feeling the boat rock a little with the swell -- not hard aground, then! -- and scampering back to the cockpit and shifting the motor into forward and gunning the throttle and praying, no-shit praying that we could horse her back into deeper water.
The gods gave us a break. We got away from the hull-crunching shore without any more grinding and grating. We came back up to the mooring and captured it again. This time, even though the shackle still didn't close, the hook held on and I was able to fish out the mooring lines and cleat them down on my poor ill-used girl's foredeck.

I don't think the hull hit the rocks. I think it was just the iron keel. There was no water in the bilge, and the keel bolts still seemed as firmly seated and as well sealed as ever, when I took a look after my pulse rate came back to a standard deviation or two over normal. But the only way I'll really know what happened is to put on the mask and fins and plunge -- facilis descensus Averno -- into the toxic soup of the Hudson and take a look. Which I will do, as soon as I've had a tetanus shot.

Meanwhile I feel, dear reader -- and pardon my language -- like shit. I feel incompetent, and foolish, and culpable.

Back in the day the Royal Navy used to court-martial any captain whose ship was wrecked. I see the point. My ship wasn't wrecked but I still deserve a court martial, and if I had one, the way I feel right now, I would plead guilty and insist on the death penalty.


(*) "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?"

Monday, May 10, 2010

Back in the water

It's a new sailing season, and the dawn came up like thunder a couple of days ago over Eastchester Bay -- well, no, not at all like thunder; that line never made any sense to me, actually. But it came up, anyhow, like nothing but itself, and looked damn pretty doing it, with the somber leaden gleam of the water, and the Rococo pink and gold of the sky, as I took the Scapegrace out of Charlie's boatyard in the Bronx, where she spent the winter, to catch the ebb at Hell Gate and so down the East River to dodge the pouncing Staten Island Ferry at the Battery and thence up the Hudson to my mooring at 79th Street.

(I should really say, of course, that Scapegrace took me, not vice versa.)

A New York hipster like me never goes anywhere, even to sea, without his fixed-gear bike:

... shown above, somewhat indistinctly, riding in the battered but still afloat dinghy (note the missing D ring at the bow). The bike was along for the ride because I had come up to Charlie's the afternoon before, via subway and bike -- this is one of the many charms of Charlie's boatyard -- and spent the night on the boat, in preparation for a crack-o'-dawn departure.

It was very nice to be back on the boat, and very cozy, but what with the excitement and the myriad of noises in the yard and a somewhat apprehensive ear involuntarily turned to the wind -- a bit more brisk and gusty during the night than I really wished for -- it wasn't very restful.

But I awoke, or rather got up, betimes, and made some coffee. The wind had died, which was fine with me; it's a rather tight and twisty path you have to steer to get out of the yard, and hard to negotiate with any wind at all.

(An earlier attempt, two days before, with a nasty crosswind, had led to an undignified debacle, with the boat blown involuntarily back into a slip thirty feet away from the slip it left. No harm done, fortunately, except to my self-regard, and of course to the schedule. But schedules are flimsy things compared to wind and tide.)

Even without the wind, on my second and successful attempt yesterday, I was kept rather busy getting the boat out, and forgot to snap a picture of Charlie's yard until I was well away from it:

I'll have to tell you more about Charlie's boatyard one of these days; it's a wonderful place.

Very little traffic about, and very little wind, so I motored down under the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Whitestone, arriving at Hell Gate after about an hour and a half. There was a good five knots of current running, but fortunately those horrific eddies that suddenly send you shooting off at a right angle to your course were not in evidence, or at least I didn't encounter any -- this time.

The East River was full of whirlpools and upsurges, and for the first half-mile or so gave me a roller-coasterish ride. But then it simmered down and ran smooth, though strong, and I cruised at about seven knots made good -- maybe three through the water -- past the UN, where no stormtroopers descended this time, and got to the Battery in an hour.

Gave the Staten Island ferry terminal a wide berth, and kept an eagle eye on the wicked bloody-minded vessel itself, which usually leaps from its slip like a cheetah and surges straight down upon me at flank speed, blowing its horn like the trump of doom, at the worst possible moment, every time I venture near. This time I was lucky and had completed crossing its track toward the Dismal Borough before it came bounding from its lair, licking its chops and seeking whom it might devour. I'd swear it deviated a little from its usual course just to give me an uneasy moment, but then I've been paranoid about anything connected with Staten Island ever since it put Giuliani in Gracie Mansion.

On the way up the Hudson I passed some of my own trash headed downstream:

Hey! That was a perfectly good plastic bucket! Penelope must have thrown it out when I wasn't looking.

My arrival at the mooring was, as so often occurs, attended with some excitement, but I'll save that for another post.