Burlington, Vermont on a calm day. Mount Mansfield in the background to the east.
I lived near Burlington, Vermont for nearly 20 years. One of the big draws for me was not only the new job, and the hiking, biking and skiing; but also – “The Lake”. Lake Champlain is 125 miles long north to south, 14 miles across at it’s greatest width and 122 feet down at it’s deepest. It’s western shore is New York territory, northern reaches are in Canada, and the eastern brim skirts nearly half the length of Vermont. It dumps into a canal system that has been used since colonial times and flows through the birthplace of the U.S. Navy in Whitehall, NY. Funny how that is, the birthplace of the U.S. Navy being 200 miles inland, but that’s another story.
I’ve lived near the ocean my entire life until I moved there. My father was a submariner, in the U.S. Navy and we were stationed all over the east and west coasts of the country, including a couple years in Hawaii. One of the things he taught us to do and to love was to sail. We would rent boats from the base special services and spend days out on the water with packed lunches, a cooler and it seemed like, never really a plan. I was so intrigued by a boat with no motor, and how you could get the thing to glide into the wind, and well as fall away from it. The aero and hydrodynamics are quite interesting, albeit a bit of a mystery to me until I studied physics in college. No matter, it was a kid’s dream to jump off the stern with one end of a spare main-sheet in one one hand and the other affixed to a cleat on the transom; to float still until all the slack was pulled tight and “wham!” you were lifted with such power, you could body surf behind the boat as my Dad smiled and laughed. I guess I didn’t really care much about how it worked I was just to busy having fun.
When my father became estranged from our family I hung on to those memories like a Teddy Bear. Funny the lessons that parents teach you, both how and what to do; and what you’d also like to never do. Leaving my family is certainly one of the things I’d never want to do. But that’s is also another story for another time. The bottom line is that I never fell out of love with sailing. I put myself through a two year technical school working under age at a restaurant, a farm nursery, a grocery store and at a lumber yard. I decided that I liked chemistry and finished an Associates Degree in Chemical Engineering technology. That’s where the company I work for found me, and I was hired to be a technician at a manufacturing and development facility in Essex Junction, Vermont.
From there I saved my money, went to night school, and finally took an educational leave of absence to finish a B.S. in Chemistry and the University of Vermont. It was there that I dove into the academia and lore of sailing in a big way. When I was not studying for a quantum physics exam, I’d relax by reading books by Hereschoff, Skene, Knox-Johnston, Toghill and others and nurtured an appreciation for traditional boat, yacht design and technology. I read the obligatory Chapman’s, but also books on building techniques, navigation, cruising, and sailing in weather. Being a woodworker I was fascinated with older plank on timber, lapstrake and strip wood hulls and decks, but also studied modern techniques like cold-molding, steel, aluminum and the ubiquitous fiberglass construction. Modern designs that combined some or all of it produced beautiful masterpieces of eye-catching seaworthiness and grace. At one point I ordered plans to build two boats, a small one design day sailer and a 30 foot double ended cutter. I was pumped to get back to work, make money and put in a couple thousand man-hours building my dreams.
“Flying Scot” one-design on a spinnaker reach.
Alas, the realities of work, a girlfriend and other interests seemed to take over, a great marriage, four fantastic kids later and I still have those plans squirreled away in my desk from 30 years ago. I take them out once in a while, and as my old boss used to say “I marvel at the intent”. I recently took a forlorn look at the nearly 50 books I have on sailing and boating on my shelves and found one that is of sentimental value to me. It’s called “The Bluewater Handbook, A Guide to Cruising Seamanship”, by Steve and Linda Dashew, 1983. On the first page beyond the cover is a handwritten note that says simply, “Thanks, from Mario, Phil, Cassidy and Snoozer”. I smile.
You see there is still more of the story here. Even though I didn’t build my dream boats, I found the time to buy a couple and have some awesome adventures on Lake Champlain. There was first a 19 foot “Flying Scot”. It’s a one design by Gordon K.”Sandy” Douglass. It was a “big little boat”. It had an open cockpit like a Lightning and seated up eight as long as you weren’t planning on tacking often (hah!). We tried to keep it under 4 people and two was optimum. It was low to the water, but wide, had a flat bottom, retractable centerboard and rounded chines. From her website: ” The Scot is a low-displacement design (she sits shallow in water) and she has a flat, tapered shape in the stern which allows her to plane. This means she will come out of the water and is not limited to her waterline hull-speed. With over 200 square feet of sail area, she has the “engine” to move well in any wind speed. Get her on a beam-reach with 15 knots of wind, and experience the thrill of a lifetime”. Indeed it was fast. It would point well into the wind for such a flat bottomed boat and plane nicely on a reach. Put up the spinnaker and you were in for a ride! We used it many times to sail on “The Lake” and it brought me to many of the 80 islands that Champlain had to offer.
Gaggle of Canada Geese on the wing.
My second boat was a little bigger. It was a C&C 25 – sloop rigged. It had a cabin, a head, a little sink, and a berth up in the bow. It came with a good outfit of sails too, since she had been both raced and used to cruise. It was also fast and I remember being in pretend races with the ubiquitous cookie cutter Pearson 26’s that I seemed to always beat, especially into the wind. Of course they didn’t know I was racing, so that may have something to do with it, but it was fun to imagine. I loved taking that boat out by myself. I’d stand up on the transom and lean against the back-stays, and control the tiller with my bare foot. After I had my course set and sails trimmed I could sail for miles like that. In a bit of wind on a reach it’d be like riding a horse, the bow splitting the backs of waves, the sleek hull knifing through the black undulations, a nice foam and slick left on the leeward side, diving and porpoising along the surface, it felt like a rocking horse. It was a wonder I was never thrown, but as most sailors know, unless you’ve lashed the tiller and sheets tight the boat will likely turn into the wind and slack if captain-less , hopefully not being pushed sideways fast enough for a good swimmer to catch up. I never had to test that thankfully.
One day in late summer I took a little party of CoOp students from work for a sail. Being a recent college grad, I jumped at the chance to socialize ;). There was Lori, a student from Louisiana, Clara from New Mexico and a young man from California named Quang. I thought it’d be fun to teach them to sail as none had ever been and well, I thought Lori from Louisiana was pretty darn cute. It was a nice sunny early afternoon, and was warm by Vermont standards, probably in the 70’s. We left Mallett’s Bay where I moored my boat and had a great little jaunt northwest towards an area called the “gut” where an old railroad causeway sliced through the head of the bay and provided protection from the broad-lake (main body of the Lake). It was about 12 miles to Plattsburgh, NY as the crow flies from there and we were working into the wind and tacking in that direction. We stopped for a bit near the gut and even had a grilled meal and a beer while anchored near the piles of rocks that made up the railroad bed.
Some fun in the sun. Lori on a windsurfer being towed and Quang up in the bosun’s chair.
We weighed anchor after lunch, and had time, so we decided to make our way into the broad-lake and dash around in the waves a bit. I took advantage of the deep water sans rocks and other hazards and long stretches of open lake to let the “kids” try their hand at guiding the boat, tacking, reaching and changing sails. We even got to run the main halyard through the spinnaker pole and use it as a rope swing for a little swimming. All the while I kept my eye to the west, as that is where the weather comes from . We started the day with clear skies and it was just beginning to cloud up a little, the wind was picking up. We played around on a southwesterly reach, with the genoa and a couple reefs in the main as the wind grew. Off to the west, above the Adirondacks, I was starting to see alto-cumulus and alto-stratus clouds, and way over by Plattsburgh the white caps were starting to poke up on the lake. Definitely some unstable air heading our way.
I’d been out here in the stink before, even by myself. But I didn’t like how fast the clouds were moving, and I’ve never flipped a boat – and didn’t want to, especially with my swabbies on board, so we decided to head back east towards Mallett’s Bay. We left the reefs in the main, and switched the genny for a 110 which was the smallest headsail I had. I saw what ever motorboats were about, all pick up and race back to where they felt safe. By the time we got within a mile of the gut the main sail was down and stowed, and we were surfing the waves due east at 14 knots with just the headsail with a generous luft in the profile. I was amazed at how well that boat took to the short, steep 5, 6, 7, and then 8-10 foot waves. That one little sail was providing all the lift and momentum we needed to not come crashing down into the trough of each watery hill. It was blowing a freaking gale. If it were the ocean, and the wave-lengths were the long rollers that you’d meet out there, it would be maybe no big deal at that wave height, but it couldn’t have been 15 feet peak to peak in this chop. We were all back in the cockpit to provide some counter-balance as well, and while my guests were white knuckling the stanchions and life-lines; I could hear the rudder ripping through the water and feel the vibrations in the tiller caused by the speed. It was 30, 40 or 50 mph gusts if it was 10, but maybe because I’d been exuding some level of confidence my crew was calm and actually enjoying the ride, and no one was getting sick. This was actually pretty damn fun!
Things can get rough on the Lake.
We were both excited and a little relieved when we saw the gut in the distance, and in awe of what the water looked like between the boat and our destination – it was like God decided to shake the water like a snow globe while simultaneously hitting us with a God-sized wind turbine. The waves were everywhere as far as you could see, however once past the cause-way they should moderate and we’d just have fast ride home. I was laser focused on our track and really pleased that it looked like we could surf to the opening we needed to get to when I spotted something a little strange. Every couple of seconds, in the distance, between the peaks of of waves, were a pair, no, two pairs of hands waving… waving frantically.
I pointed out what I saw to my young crew and they verified the sighting. A half mile away were two people trying to get our attention, and struggling to stay on top of what ever they were standing on. I let the boat fall a few degrees downwind and made a beeline for them. We were moving so fast, that it wasn’t long before we could see what was going on. In fornt of us, thrashing in the waves – up the backside of one, down the face of another – were two people, two dogs, and a capsized boat that couldn’t have been more than 10 or 12 feet long. It was a Sears Gamefisher, a fiberglass boat that looks a lot like a Boston Whaler, but it was so small! It also had a huge engine mounted to the transom, it must have been a 40 horse power by the size of it, and it was weighing down the upside down stern in a way that made the boat bobbly and unwieldy. The two dogs were in a panic trying to get on the boat, and being knocked off, and the young couple was trying desperately to save themselves, and their dogs.
We were moving towards them quickly, and had to think fast. I called out to the crew to gather as many of the spare sheets we were playing with earlier and get them cleated to the stern. We were going to throw a couple of lifelines as we came upon them, and get them to safety. Everyone on our boat had on a life vest, and it was just incredible to me how calm everyone was. We were bearing down hard when a gust of wind came from the west and pushed on our hull and headsail, we were sliding a bit sideways now and falling away from our intended target. 30, 20 and now 10 yards away….. “Quang! Get up on the windward bulwark and ready to throw those lines!”…. 5 yards, closing in … “now!” Quang tossed with all his might but the howling air had other ideas, the sheets lie in a tangle back on the deck. We slid past the turtled little boat and it’s frantic passengers, our sail cracked back to life and we sped away down wind.
Now came the hard part. We drew the jib-sheet tight as I turned the boat into the wind. The waves pounded the starboard side as the spray and water washed over us, but she turned, with authority. We were now on a windward tack heading west and towards our prey, and were moving fast. I dropped the little outboard emergency motor into the water from the transom and started it up, while Lori manned the tiller, with Quang and Clara gathering up the lines were going to use for the rescue. The bow lifted as we climbed each wave and the little 12 horse motor dug in. Between the motor and that little headsail we could get her pointed close to the wind and not get blown sideways off course. We would crash down the backside of each wave and the motor would rev in protest as it cavitated and left the water. But since the waves were so short it wasn’t long before we were climbing and the prop dug in. We were all as far back in the cockpit as we could be to reduce the pitchpoling and rocking. And were just looking at each other, again with an amazing sense of clamness and confidence that is just hard to describe. Either everyone felt like they knew what we were doing, and what we had to do — and knew we could do it, or we were just in shock. This was after all, their first time in a sailboat!
Lake Champlain – Burlington, Vermont looking west during a flood stage gale.
Between the 180 degree turn and the sideways motion of the boat we were too far away from the Gamefisher to throw our lines to we headed up wind to make another pass. One more hard tack and jibe and we were off heading down wind again. We headed straight for them this time and had the idea that as we got close, we’d dump the headsail and let the wind on the hull provide all the momentum we needed to make it to our target. 50, 40, 30 yards. I could see Mario and Phil, and their staunch faces, wide eyes and panic. They had their dogs, Cassidy and Snoozer up on the capsized hull with them this time, pinned down between their legs as they were kneeling, and then on all fours as a wave lifted them. I’d use the slick that our boat was creating down wind to help steady their situation and approach from the windward side, and this time, 10 yards, 5 yards — “Now Quang! Throw the lines!” — Phil was able to snatch one out of the air as it passed over his head.
We were heading close to them and still had the motor going. The last thing I wanted to do was ram them so I turned the boat broadside so that the port beam leaned towards them. Quang, Lori and Clara all sprang to action, leaning over the lifelines and grabbing at any hand, foot, shoulder, paw, scruff of the neck they could reach. The boat listed to port as we made contact and began pulling our new passengers aboard. The hull scraped against theirs and we were all yelling to be careful to not get pinned between them. Waves were coming over the starboard side now, as we pushed up against the capsized skiff. My boat groaned and leaned hard against theirs as Phil, Mario, and the two retrievers scrambled and clawed on board. The little skiff’s bow was underwater as my boat pushed and I could see the stern and motor lift out of the water as we fought in the waves. To my surprise, and disappointment, I saw 2 life-jackets spring out from under that little boat and get torn away by the wind and drift way.
Blue lips, white faces, sullen eyes, soaked and half drowned, my little crew that could huddled our new passengers into the cabin out of the wind. The temperature must have dropped 25 degrees and it felt like lower with the wind chill. I asked them to pull out our spare sails and wrap our guests in them to prevent hypothermia. I could hear Phil yelling from below “please try to save my brother’s boat!” I was a bit incredulous over this but looked around and saw the thing flopping around in the waves just to the north east of us. It wouldn’t be that hard to fall that way and try to get a line on it so we headed that way. With the earlier practice we knew how to approach the boat and use our slick to get a line on the u bolt that poked through the bow and cinched the line to two cleats on our stern, I then jibed more easterly and we headed to the opening in the gut and calmer waters.
Towing that 12 foot sea anchor turned out to be fruitless. It took half a dozen waves and lots of line tension, but that u bolt on the bow pulled right through the hull and adrift it went. I told Phil I wasn’t going to risk anyone’s life to try to save it, and through the gut we went, surfing like a rocket to the east. Beyond the causeway life was much easier. We got our guests warmed up an talking, and shared hugs and smiles. I could see my little CoOp crew beaming with pride, as they knew what they had just done. Save for a couple of trips around the mooring buoy before we could catch it, the rest of pretty uneventful. A phone call from the marina brought our hapless rescue-ees a ride home, and they left grateful and happy to be alive.
The causeway at the head of Mallett’s Bay.
I can’t remember what the rest of us did after that. I think after the adrenaline subsided we all decided to go home and take stock in what just happened, the swabbies being glad to have terra firma under foot :). I showered them all with adulation and appreciation and made sure they knew how amazing they were. A month or so later I got a knock on my door and visit from Mario and Phil. I guess we had exchanged addresses and phone numbers on that fateful day. Mario was a beautiful girl with chestnut hair and glowing brown eyes with fleks of hazel. Phil was a nice looking young guy with half a beard and the Vermont crunchy look of the day, in wool pants and flannel. The handed me a package and thanked me again. I was glad to help, and glad to see them. Cassidy and Snoozer were in the car with their heads poking out of the window and they looked no worse for the wear. I walked over for a pat and a lick.
That was the last I ever saw of them. Phil said that someone had found his brother’s boat on the shore of their property the next day. He didn’t say what shape it was in, but I imagine being beat up against the rocks in that wind didn’t help it much. As I look at my copy of the “Bluewater Handbook” I feel like maybe we did something good, my Dad and I. Even though he has gone through 3 wives, and survived them all, and is now in his late 70’s, mind riddled with dementia from fifty years of binge drinking, I know that Mario and Phil don’t mind what he had taught me so many years ago. I think about it as well. He’s a couple thousand miles away, and I can’t bring myself to have a full father and son relationship with him, and have self-limiting love; but I know that inside every person, there is something good. Remember the good parts.