By Michael Carr – Before you enter a channel, a harbor, a port, or any confined or restricted space you must have an exit plan. How do I get my ship out of here if things go south, or sideways, or not as planned or anticipated.
Every experienced mariner is always thinking three, four, five steps ahead. Not just the next watch, but the next day, the next drill, next cargo evolution, next refueling, next weapons, or fire drill. Always doing the ODAA loop; observe, detect, analyze, act.
“What if?” is always on your mind. What if I loose steering, loose the engines, cannot drop the anchors, etc. Plans, and backup plans, are always running through your mind. I remember poignant words from an Army Chaplain before I deployed to Iraq, “Hope and prayers are good in Church, but are not a plan for military operations.”
And so here I was, long before the Army sent me to Iraq, sailing a 90 ft. schooner up the Chesapeake Bay to the annual Annapolis Boat Show. Hundreds of sailboats are brought to this “in water” show each October, and they are packed into Annapolis’s inner harbor.
Because of the confined and limited space, boats are brought into the harbor on a strict and controlled schedule. You are assigned a location, based on your draft, length, and beam and given a time to arrive. Miss your arrival time and you possibly will not be in the show. Boats are brought in over a two-day period before the show opens, so there is no time to wait for late, or delayed arrivals.
We knew our arrival time, and were adjusting our SOA up the Chesapeake Bay to arrive right on time.
“Skipper, when do you want to start dropping sails for our arrival?” asked the Chief Mate.
I did not want to drop sails too soon for a variety of reasons; a SSW breeze of 10-12 knots was providing perfect sailing conditions. We had up three headsails, the foresail, and main. Seas were flat and we were on an inspiring reach making 8+ knots.
If we doused sails now, and started up the caterpillar diesel, we would be making the same speed.
“We will keep sailing for now” I replied. In my head I already had a plan, but I did not want to share it yet. I wanted to round Tolly Point Shoal, where we would need to harden up to port, and see if we could point high enough to sail up the Severn River, and then harden up for a close reach, or beat, into Annapolis’s inner harbor.
“Skipper, we will need some time to douse and do a proper harbor furl on the sails, and get the mooring lines ready, maybe we should drop sails soon” inquired the Chief Mate.
I looked at her, paused, took a sip of coffee from my metal mug, and smiled.
“Oh NO, you cannot sail into Annapolis!” she said. “That’s crazy, the harbor is filled with million dollar yachts, oh my god, if you hit one of those plastic boats with our steel schooner we will be toast.”
“I know.” I said. “Get the crew back here so I can brief everyone on the plan.” I said.
When our six crew were assembled I told them what I had in mind.
“We are going to sail into Annapolis under full sail. We are good sailors, we have done this before.”
I continued, “Our engine will be on, but I want to sail right up to the dock, head into the wind, and then drop all sails at once.” This is my call, all I need you to do is what you have always done, execute precision seamanship on my commands.”
“We will likely need to tack once or twice, so listen for the commands, ‘Standby to Tack, Ready About, Helms a Lee’.”
I concluded with, “When you hear me scream; “Douse all Sails!”, that means get them down as quickly as possible, we will furl them properly after we get moored.”
They looked at me with a combination of fear, excitement, glee, and most likely the thought that I had completely lost my mind.
We passed Tolly Point Shoal light close aboard and hardened up the sails. We were now on a reach. All good so far, with an increase in apparent wind we heeled slightly and our speed increased. We headed towards Green Marker #5 leaving it to starboard, on the wrong side, to give us more room to leeward. We sailed directly for the Naval Academy seawall, waiting until we were 100 feet off, and then I screamed out, “Ready About, Helms a Lee” and spun the wheel to port.
Around she came, “Good girl, you are the best damn boat here, show them all what you can do,” I said quietly to the schooner.
I eased the wheel so we did not overshoot the next tack, we were now headed directly for Annapolis Inner Harbor making 6+ knots, all sails up and drawing, and properly trimmed.
I could see a slot through the anchored yachts, the Hinckley’s, the Morris’s, the Ted Hood’s. Millions of dollars of teak, mahogany, varnish, and epoxy. I was focused, small tweaks to the wheel, adjust for leeway, for gust, for that “groove”.
Then, in the midst of this “Zen” moment the Chief Mate came running back from the bow. She never runs, no one runs on a boat. But she was hauling ass. What could be wrong?
She blurted out “Cable! Cable! There is a steel cable between those two wooden pilings up ahead! We are going to hit the cable!!!”.
I stooped down and looked under the headsails, “Shit, shit, shit,” I said. There it was a long steel cable connecting two pilings which were about 50 feet apart, and which I had planned to sail between. I then remembered, during boat shows steel cables are stretched between pilings to provide a way to tie off mooring lines.
We stared at each other, there were anchored boats all around us, we were sailing with all sails up, a bone in her teeth, this schooner was not stopping. We had maybe 50 yds. until we were going to cause massive destruction.
“Standby to Tack,” I screamed. I could see a path to port, up between rows of anchored yachts.
“Helms A Lee,” I shouted. We came around. “Fuck yes, girl,” I muttered. “We are going to nail this.” We came about and slid up between a row of yachts. Their crews were now on deck, looking at us in amazement. As we slid past, only a few feet off their polished and gleaming topsides, we all smiled and said, “Hello..how are you..”
“Douse all sails,” I commanded when I realized we had avoided both the steel cable and a colossal collision with million dollar yachts.
I pushed the engine’s throttle into gear, and we soon heard a “WOOOP, WOOOP, WOOOP” from the dock. Deckhands and crews were shouting and jumping up and down on the dock. We realized the view from shore as we screamed through the anchorage under full sail, and avoided the wire and other yachts, had been a slightly terrifying and possibly awe-inspiring.
None of us bought beer that night in Annapolis. We were “That” crew.