Sunday, May 26, 2013

Remember that time we lost the spinnaker on the way to Panama?


     The moon is a week shy of being full, and so bright we hardly need the deck lights.  The breeze has picked up to just over twenty knots in the last hour, so it's time to bring in this giant kite that's been pulling us along all day and night.  
     So Cap puts Salty Dog on the wheel while Hoss and me go forward  to snuff the spinnaker.  Cap stays aft to let go a tweaker line, and then the sheet when me and Hoss are ready to start hauling down on the sock forward.  
    Me and Hoss have our harnesses on and we're clipped into the jacklines that spiderweb this eighty-eight foot yacht, and when we've got the blue line that's leading up the mast to the very top of the night, we yell back that we're ready.  
     So they ease the spinnaker sheet from back aft, and we start pulling like hell on the blue line, which is supposed to pull a fabric sheath (sock) down over the giant sail and collapse it, transforming it from a kite, into a giant eel dangling from the mast we can then lower into the sail locker forward.
     Hoss reaches up and grabs the line and pulls down.  The line moves a couple feet, then I reach up and pull down, and get about the same amount.  Then Hoss reaches up with both hands and cranks down using his body weight, and he gets a fair amount of line, and I reach up with both hands and crank down with all my weight, and get nothing.  
     So I'm hanging on the line, and Hoss reaches up and grabs on, and with both of us, we get a foot or so.  Then we try it again, Hoss reaching up and grabbing the line, and each of us hanging off the thing, and we get absolutely nothing.  The sock that's supposed to collapse the sail isn't moving.  
     Hoss yells back for Salty Dog to ease the sheet, and we try again, and get nothing.  
     We think maybe we're hauling down on the wrong line.  Two lines go up, maybe we got them confused.  So we grab handfuls of the other line, and pulling down we gain a few feet.  And then nothing.  And Hoss yells back to ease the sheet more, thinking the tension created by a line running from the bottom corner of the sail to the back of the boat is what's keeping the sail full of wind, and impossible to pull the fabric cover down.  
     There's a pause, and then the sail starts to flap.  Back aft Cap and Salty Dog have completely let go of the sheet line.  And now the peaceful night is filled with noise.  Hoss yells to me to clip the blue line into a block on deck so we can get it to a winch and crank it down, and he has to scream over the wild and hissing susurration of the sail folding and whipping against itself in the wind. About two-thousand five-hundred square feet of yellow and blue canvas snapping and shaking the mast, making the rig bow and bounce with the stresses of the convulsing sail.  
     We have to haul down on the line to get enough slack to put into the block, and we reach up and pull down together again, and as we stretch the nylon line the sail jerks back and I can't let go fast enough to prevent the line from running free through my fingers, and immediately I feel the stinging of salt in the small hole burned into my finger.
     And we're cranking on the winch, and the line is just getting taught, not pulling down on anything.  So we switch the lines out again, hoping we've just got the wrong one.  But we don't.  We winch down and get nothing but tension.  
     Cap comes up and eases the halyard, the line that holds the top of the sail and sock in place, hoping that relieving any tension anywhere will help.  The three of us struggle with with the lines and winches and get no result.  And all three of us are stepping all over the deck and our harnesses are tangled in with line and each other and we take a minute to straighten ourselves out, look around and try to think clearly over the flapping chaos of the sail.  
     And Cap yells back to Salty Dog to turn the boat into the wind, and he stands at the halyard while Hoss and me go forward to the clew of the sail, the corner attached to the spinnaker pole, to try and control the sail from there while Tim lowers the whole thing down on deck.  
     We turn into the wind and Tim starts lowering the sail.  Hoss and me are hoping to grab handfuls of canvas as it slackens, pile it on deck and maybe lash it to the rail with line as we go.  But we never even get an arm around the shaking canvas to wrestle it down to the deck, I was useless, couldn't even get a handful.  I just watched and was ready to do something, as soon as there was something to do, but Hoss was in hand-to-hand combat with the sail, and it threw him off at every shake.  
     And then it was in the water.  Enough square footage of canvas to cover a house now filled with saltwater, and was silent.  Like transporting from one world to another, the torrent of fabric violently thrashing at the rigging so the sound encompassed the boat and made the world seem only as large as the spinnaker could reach, and then it hit the water and silence.  
     We were in the moonlight again, and a vast ocean undulated to every horizon and the wind's thrall seemed little more than a stiff breeze to cool the sweat on my face and body as I stood there watching the sail slowly sink into the dark. 
     Hoss and Tim each pulled at a corner of the sail, and I grabbed a hank and tried to drag it up over the rail back onto the boat, but it was impossible.  
     Hoss and I working together couldn't get more than a few feet out of the water, maybe ten men could have pulled a full corner of it up and tied it off, and worked the sail aboard that way, but Cap saw the futility of what we were trying to do, and he produced a knife, handing it to Hoss with a grim look he said, "Cut it loose."  
     And Hoss took the knife and examined it, and then turned to the bowsprit where the sail was still attached pole, and he laid down on the teak deck and reached out his arms to the corner of the sail and started cutting.  
     As we drifted the sail sunk beneath the boat, and I expected it to disappear, but as Hoss sawed away at the spectre line folded into dacron and layers of reinforced canvas the sail resurfaced on the other side of the boat, which means it passed completely under us.  
     I immediately thought of all the things that meant it would be caught on.  I pictured the shape of the hull and every protuberance and what could go wrong; the bullet keel with the sail wrapped around it, the propeller shaft and the prop itself tied with specter, the rudder enveloped in a rat's nest of twisted sail, and I foresaw a night of drifting and pulling at lines and cutting sails and hanging off the side of the boat, reaching into the water to hack away at caught lines, and then Hoss cut the corner free.  
     With a twang and a slingshot of stretched fabric, the sail folded into a rolling wave, and sank.  All my worry went down with it, cleanly disappearing into the sea.  
     We walked aft, coiling lines as we went, straightening the deck, quietly.  A  post-adrenaline shock working through us, trying to fully grasp what had happened.  I kept flexing my hand with the rope burn.  Nothing bad, but enough sting to remind me, to make it all real.  
     And I decided this was a victory.  
     We all sat in the cockpit and Cap talked us through what had just happened.  We concurred that nothing more could have been done, theorizing that a capsized block in the sock of the spinnaker had seized, maybe getting canvas caught in itself or the line twisted, or a hundred other things, but the point is that we'd tried everything we could have done.  
     And though everyone was bummed at having lost the sail, I was happy with how it turned out.  Everyone still had all their fingers, good clear decisions had been made and executed, we were all still friends without anger or animosity towards anyone's actions.  We got an ass kicking, but we came out uninjured and with the boat intact.  No damage to the rig, nothing that couldn't be fixed or replaced, and Cap might have some insurance paperwork to fill out in due time, but he can handle that.  
     And so, my watch only being halfway through, Cap went to sleep, Salty Dog got comfortable in front of the stereo to play DJ, Hoss went below, and I made myself a turkey sandwich and then watched the radar as we motored into the night.