DISCLAIMER: The following account contains scenes of graphic violence exacted on a beautiful boat and a massive ego. Reader discretion is strongly advised.
It all started with a dream. A dream of shattering the plodding Exhilaration Barrier of 6 knots attainable by our well-loved, but slow Catalina 27, “The Smacktanic”. It was a dream of speed.
So, my wife, boys and I sought out a cheap, horribly crappy beach cat. And we found it…rotting away in a field:
After over $1,000 and 100 hours of work (detailed in the “Beach Cats in Rehab” thread), this 1975 Spirit 17 beachcat was transformed into a gorgeous thoroughbred…
…ready to carry us across the water at break-neck speed and shatter the Exhilaration Barrier once and for all.
We hadn’t named the boat yet. We figured we’d just know it after our first sail. She would tell us what her name needed to be.
So, now it was just a matter of waiting for the perfect day. Several weekends came and went. Either schedule or weather or both conspired to keep us from our destiny. Until, that is, October 5, 2012. A day that will live in painful hilarity.
Sailflow predicted sun, temperature in the ’80s and winds between 10 and 15. It was time.
We started prepping the boat and assorted gear at around 1000. Everything had been carefully thought out and readied. The new trailer hitch was on the Honda, lights were working, sails were stitched and battened, new rudders were gleaming, and boys were washing down the hulls – adding that final touch to a perfect vessel.
We filled the back of the Honda with necessary tools, back-up gear, snacks, water, sunscreen, PFDs, and everything else needed for the adventure. I then carefully placed all our electronics, wallets, and other valuable necessities into a drybag. We were ready.
We arrived at the lake at around 1130, and admired our beauty as we prepared to rig her for launch.
She was perfect.
The first inkling of trouble came with the mast raise. The mast weighs somewhere around 50 pounds. Upping the difficulty factor, it has no locking/hinging mechanism at the base. Further compounding it was the composition of crew. Though she’s a very strong rock-climber, SmackMomma (SM) weighs just over twice the weight of the mast, and stands a petite 5’4″. Then we have the Smacklings who, though tough as mules, are a mere 8YO and 12YO. So we needed a system.
To have any prayer at raising the thing, you have to tie down the base of the mast at the step to keep the thing from shooting forward or see-sawing uncontrollably while you bust several hernias lifting and maneuvering it into place. Then to avert complete disaster, you have to have someone in front of the boat with a line tied to the mast to assist with the raise, then keep it in place while the forestay is secured. It’s during the initial 8′-10′ of the raise, prior to the shrouds offering lateral support, that things are crazy as the mast wants to rotate wildly away from center – ripping out chainplates and beheading onlookers with a slashing cable. My job was to attempt to prevent this. Other than that – it’s a perfectly safe activity for the children.
We had barely been able to manage it our last try with 4 adults. We were now on our own.
The wife stood back at the mast head, supporting the mast on her shoulder, ready to hoist the first 12″. I stood on the back of the trampoline ready to take it the next 27′. SmacklingTheElder (STE) stood in front of the Honda holding a “safety line” tied to the forestay, ready to hold the mast in place once raised. And SmacklingTheYounger (STY) stood off to the side, holding the forestay pin in one hand, while throwing acorns at his annoyed brother with the other.
At my word, we began the Iwo Jima re-enactment. Immediately the mast tried it’s rotation trick. I was pushed to the starboard edge of the tramp – straining mightily to regain control and not fall to the pavement and be impaled by my beautiful boat. It swung the other way, sending me hopping to port. I was seeing stars. I hadn’t exerted myself this hard since Algebra…and it was showing in my white pallor. I cranked with all my might but only got another foot or two of raise, then an abrupt stop. The port shroud had wrapped around the rudder!
In a voice that sounded a lot like a second grade girl, I alerted SM to the problem. She rushed over and cleared the blockage. I strained again and got the mast to within 10 degrees of vertical when the motion stopped cold. Now what???? Smackmomma identified the problem. I had tied the base down too tight – the rope was not letting the mast come up those last couple of feet. I was feeling lightheaded, my mouth was like sand, I was going to pass out. Now at the bow, SM was thinking about loosening the rope, just a bit…but we knew that would only lead to disaster. She then commented on my unique shade of green.
It was time to lower – and fast. She leapt into action, committing the cardinal sin of stepping on the top deck of the port hull to bound away. A sickening crunch of delamination added to the mood – but there was no time to be upset. We’d deal with that later. If that was the worst of the damage today – we’d be fine. Just fine.
We safely got the mast back down and I collapsed onto the trampoline…begging for water.
After a few minutes I regained consciousness and bowel control. I was able to collect myself and we rethought our plan. I retied the mast base, hoping I’d guessed right this time at the amount of play needed for that last few inches. STE came up with the brilliant idea to use the trailer winch to pull the saftey line up while I raised the mast, ensuring much stronger support and the ability to lock it. Brilliant! STY offered to stop pelting STE with acorns and ensure that the shrouds didn’t foul in the rudders. Brilliant! It was time to give it another go.
I suddenly realized it would make MUCH more sense to tie the forward safety line to a halyard as opposed to the forestay. This way, the forestay was free to secure without ever taking the mast off the safety line. It was then that I realized I’d not yet rigged the halyards!!!! Holy crap! We had actually been lucky that our misfortunate attempt had been…misfortunate. We would have had to lower the mast anyway!
After making double-sure all the rigging was correct, we tried again. this time it was incredibly easy! The trailer winch took most of the weight, the base lashing was perfect, and mast settled beautifully onto the bushing. STY produced the forestay pin from his acorn-stained hands, and we were rigged, baby! Things were definitely looking up!
We had been at this for about 2-1/2 hours. That’s right, 2-1/2 hours. Having a boat in a slip that could be under sail in less than 20 minutes was looking sexier than ever. But we were committed to speed! So, onward!
We hanked on the jib, slid the foot of the main into the boom, prepped the halyards, clipped our valuable-filled drybag to the tramp, and slowly drove the trailer to the top of the boat ramp.
While waiting for 3-4 boats in front of us to launch, I strode down to the end of the ramp to scout and strategize our attempt. We had very little room for error and were launching from a rocky lee shore, which, in retrospect should have given me pause. Of course, it didn’t. Here is what we were dealing with…
We had that nice spit of sand which was about 30′ wide to the right of the ramp (which would keep us out of traffic), and my intended course would take us nicely away from danger. It seemed I had plenty of room. We would just have to do it right the first time.
I walked back up to the Honda and backed us down the ramp. It was exhilarating as our painstakingly refurbished hulls touched the water, then floated our beloved beach cat for the first time in many, many years. This was going to be AWESOME!
While SM parked, the boys and I wrangled the boat over to the sand spit – then encountered what proved to be the next huge hurdle to a safe launch. It turned out that just 6′ from the water’s edge, it dropped off a few hundred feet. We were on the edge of a canyon. This meant that there was no way to wade out to the stern help turn and control the boat. Everything had to be done from the few feet of shore we had – severely hampering any leverage to control the boat.
Fatal Mistake #1.
I decided to turn the boat parallel to the wind, instead of flipping it all the way around into irons. The thinking here was that I didn’t want the rudders exposed to the rocks if we were blown backward. The wind was pretty gusty and it seemed too much of a risk. With the boat parallel to the wind, I could raise the sails with the sheets completely eased, then hop on, sheet in, and go. It sounded solid.
Fatal Mistake #2.
SM got back down to the boat, we got both sails up and were doing fairly well for a couple of minutes. But as I was trying to tie off the downhaul, I noticed that the main was laying against the shroud, which was not letting it open up all the way. With each gust, the boat would lurch forward and toward the shore. She was READY TO SAIL!!!
SM, STE and I were in the water trying to hold this mustang – but it was moving us closer and closer to the rocks. I worked furiously to finish rigging the downhaul when a particularly strong gust hit. STE was standing between the bows, I was on the port side working on the jib sheet, and SM was trying to hold the stern. The boat shot forward…STE ducked as the boat lurched over the top of him, scraping along some submerged rocks while dragging SM behind. I tried to manhandle the thing to keep it away from further carnage and was just able to stop the momentum. But some serious scraping had occurred – as evidenced by the yellow paint on the rock. Crap!
I sighed again – thinking about all the hard work we’d put in. A crunched top-deck, and now a significant scratch on the bottom. Oh well, neither was major – and both were fixable. If that was the worst today could dish out. We’d be fine. Had I only known.
We were now in a more precarious, rocky position. But at the same time, the shoreline pushed inward a bit from where we were, giving us some room. All we had to do was angle the bows back out toward the wind – hop on and go. We told the boys to go ahead and board. SM and I worked to turn the boat to starboard – with the very little leverage we had not being able to wade out.
We had just turned the bows into a pretty good position about 30 degrees off the wind when a very big gust hit…and things went to hell in a handbasket.
It happened surprisingly fast. And was surprisingly forceful. The boat just freakin’ ROCKETED.
SM and I yelled at the same time that we need to get on fast! She jumped onto the tramp from the stern as I, still to port, tried to push the boat away from a couple of close rocks. We just cleared them and shot toward a small patch of clear water. I was basically running sideways in the shallow water as the boat accelerated. Just as I was about to jump aboard, my leading foot hit a rock and I tripped. I held to the tramp frame with one hand as I was dragged through the water at 4-5 knots. One of my shoes was sucked off my foot. I worked my other hand onto the frame. Time was slowing as the boat picked up speed.
SM and STY came to the edge of the tramp yelling encouragement for me to pull. I cranked myself onto the hull space just behind the tramp. It felt like I was going to make it. Then I looked up.
We were heading straight for the shore line strewn with huge, flat limestone boulders. I yelled for STE to steer us away. He valiantly grabbed the tiller and tried to turn. But the tiller hit me in the chest – I was blocking it. With just feet to spare, I tried shifting my weight forward and pulling the tiller past me. No luck. We were out of time.
I figured I was about to be crushed between the boat and the rocks so I let go and hit the water. I turned my head just in time to see an amazing sight in slow motion…
Our beautiful catamaran, gleaming from all the love poured into her over the past few months, bearing my entire family on her back, launched off the initial flat rocks with a sickening crunch, then literally shot 2′ into the air, the entire boat airborne. I was sure they would just continue heavenward like a Spielberg movie. But they did not. Another sickening crunch as she came crashing back to earth and continued rumbling forward. I was mesmerized…she was actually SAILING on the land. How does that happen?
The boat finally came to a halt. And everyone signaled their shocked survival.
I pulled myself out of the water onto a rock – and hung my head. Completely dejected. All that work – obliterated – in less than 2 minutes. We’d never even gotten to sail her. And now it was back to the drawing board. I’d have to completely disassemble her again, re-build both hulls again (if they were even salvageable), re-paint, re-assemble… But even before that, I’d have to figure out how to pull the surely holed boat off the rocks and get it back to the trailer. Things were looking very, very bad.
I was crushed.
Just then I heard SM asking if I was okay. She was sure I had broken my leg in the melee. I just sighed and said I was fine. I turned to see her standing beside me, with STE just behind her in tears. “We put so much work into that boat, dad”. That was a heartbreaker. I knew I needed to buck up for the kids. “It’s okay, bud, we’ll just fix it again.”, I said with the best smile I could muster, “We just need to…”
That was the moment the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life happened. Somehow, the boat turned 70 degrees to starboard, ON ROCKS. It then bounced and shuddered back into the water! I AM NOT KIDDING!
STY, that little 8YO superhero was trying valiantly to hold that bucking bronco all by himself. SM yelled for him to let it go. And with that, our 1975 Spirit 17 catamaran sailed itself right out into the lake….with our phones, wallets, keys, everything safely attached to the tramp in our trusty dry-bag. We all stood there dumbstruck. I was sure it would continue to the other side of the lake where it would crash again, but it didn’t. It inexplicably stopped dead a couple of hundred yards off-shore. Miraculously hove to.
Fortunately, STE got a picture to show that I’m not lying…
Now if any of you have ever been around horses, you’ll know that they can be very picky about who gets on their backs. If they don’t trust you, don’t think you know what you’re doing, or don’t like you – they’ll do everything they can to buck you off. But it’s what they do next that is eerily similar to this situation. Typically, after they throw you, they’ll trot a short distance away and start grazing – keeping a wary eye on you. Kind of mocking you.
Was that what just happened?
It sure as hell felt like it. Still dejected – and now in even MORE of a hopeless situation – I was quickly coming to the conclusion that we should just go home. Forget it. The boat would either sink, or someone would claim it. I didn’t care either way. Of course, deep down, I knew that wasn’t an option. But it sure sounded good about now. Oh yeah, our keys were on the boat. Wonderful.
That’s when I heard SM’s voice telling me we should catch a ride with the guy launching his boat. I was still in shock and just sat there as she hurried over to talk to the guy. He told her he would do it, but needed to dock his boat first so he could move his car off the ramp and park it. I have no idea what my face looked like at this point, but when I looked up at him, he immediately said, “Actually, I can take you right over there now. I’ll just leave the car right here…running…no big deal…”
His name was Jim. And he was a saint. He invited me on board his nice clean boat despite the fact that my leg was bloody. We decided that SM needed to come too since I’d never single-handed a cat. We left the boys on shore and headed toward the boat – as Jim threw me a nice white towel for my leg. It was the most surreal thing I’ve been through in a loooooonnnnngggg time.
Then came The Question: “So, have you guys ever sailed before?” The humiliation was complete.
Jim nudged us up to the boat and SM and I hopped onto the tramp. She was definitely low in the water – but still floating just fine. Jim wished us luck and headed back to the dock to move his car. SM and I locked the rudders and pulled in the lines that were dragging in the water. After a few minutes of squaring everything away, it was time to see if we could get her back to the ramp.
I wanted to make sure she would sail, and that I could actually sail her, so I turned her downwind away from the docks. SM sheeted in the jib and I the main and we started sailing…fast…really fast. SM immediately said, “Oh wow, this is fun.” But that was only the beginning.
After a couple of minutes downwind, we decided to gybe and head upwind back to the dock. I was still nervous about sailing her. With the damage, I was sure she was taking on water. I didn’t how how long we had – and I didn’t know how difficult it might make the sailing. So we figured we’d just try to get her back to the ramp and load her up – although we were bummed that our boys wouldn’t get to experience this INCREDIBLE SPEED! The wind was building, and we were going faster and faster. My guess is that we were doing 10 knots or so. I sheeted those groovy rainbow sails in further.
I felt the windward hull “go quiet”. Slowly, it started to lift out of the water. It kept rising until the rudder cleared. It was like FREAKIN’ FLYING! It’s hard to describe how cool it is. We were smoking along at what must have been 12-14 knots – throwing a rooster tail off the leeward hull. Despite the idiocy of the launch, this had undoubtedly turned into a BIG FREAKIN’ SAIL!
It was at this point that I realized maybe the wild horse analogy above wasn’t quite right. Maybe she had bolted back into the water not to escape us clueless knuckleheads – but to actually give us a chance to sail her. Had she remained on the rocks, we would have simply lowered her sails, drug her back onto the trailer – and gone home…utterly and completely dejected. Maybe she liked us after all. Or maybe she was just determined to get some sailing in despite our best efforts to ruin the day. Either way – she was one tough, stubborn cat. And she could freakin’ fly!
We balanced on that single hull for several seconds – SM and I yelling “yahoo’s” and smiling ear-to-ear. A gust hit us, almost dumping us. But I blew the mainsheet in time and we settled gently back onto the water. Absolute Nirvana.
We sailed up to the dock, then backed down gently to it allowing the boys to board. We had to let them have some of this. We sailed around another 15 minutes or so. The sun was shining, we were all working the boat together, no one was angry, we were just a family having a blast together. The boys kept commenting on how fast we were sailing. They couldn’t believe it. It was then that I realized that despite the unfortunate events of the day, we were all hooked. We would fix this boat. We would sail her for as many years as we possibly could. THIS was sailing!
Then came the tack.
SM and STE had been alternating on the jib sheets. STE was on the leeward sheet, and the rest of us were up on the windward rail. As the bow came through the wind and the jib back-winded to push us the rest of the way through, the leeward stern sunk beneath the waves. The bows pointed upward at about 30 degrees as the water in the hulls moved aft. “We’re sinking!”, I needlessly proclaimed, “Everyone to the high side – fast!” I blew the mainsheet, hoping for the best. The boat was now at a 45 degree, bows-up angle. The rear rail of the tramp was under. I knew she wouldn’t totally sink as she had big styrofoam blocks in both hulls, but it sure was going to suck trying to paddle a half-sunken boat half-a-mile.
Miraculously, she slowly started to come back up. Cheers erupted as she settled back into an upright, although extremely low in the water position. It was time to stop pushing our luck. I turned us toward the boat ramp and we took off like a scalded cat. We weren’t able to fly the hull this time due to being in the process of sinking, although we were still cruising along at 10 knots or so. We were so low in the water, the top deck of the leeward hull was submerged to the point that rooster tails were coming off the tramp pylons. One determined boat. No doubt.
Without too much further drama, we were able to get her back onto her trailer. I pulled the drain plugs and water shot out of both hulls. The port hull wasn’t too bad – but the starboard hull just kept spouting, and spouting, and spouting. It must have been half-full of water. Amazing.
Then we crawled underneath to survey the damage – at least the damage we could actually see. And it was substantial.
The port hull at a 4-1/2′ long gouge and delam:
And the starboard hull had a 3″ hole punched completely through:
So, we had our work cut out for us. But after some of the best sailing ever – we were all committed to doing whatever it took to get this cat back out on the water.
We got the mast down (easily, with our new system) and got everything packed back up for the trip home. It was now 1830. We had been messing with this boat now for almost 9 hours. We were exhausted – but happy.
“This boat”… That’s right she still needed a name. As we drove into the sunset and talked about the crazy events that had just unfolded, the name suddenly became obvious to all of us. Of course…
Stay tuned to the “Fiasco 2.0” thread for the lengthy repairs. Hopefully it will go more quickly this time.