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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Case of the Bucking Tiller

2002      “You know,” Carl said, “We have the largest body of fresh water in the world right there—right in our backyard.   A lot of people have to drive for hours to sail on Lake Superior and we look at it every day.”   All of that was true, of course.   So in the end it was she who pushed the discussion to it’s logical conclusion; to find a sailboat they would call their own. 

Seeing as how he had grown up handling small boats on the oxbow lakes of the Mississippi Delta and seeing as how Ardys had only had a ride on a sailboat some years before, the boat chosen would be a very modest foray into the world of sailing.  She (because boats are always female) was a 1973 Pearson 30 sailboat and she had been sitting on dry land (on the hard) for some time in a boatyard in Afton, MN.  Her sad tale of having been repossessed by the bank played Ardys’ heartstrings and the boat was destined to come to Duluth and to sail on Lake Superior.  So Ardys and Carl, along with another Duluth couple who also suspected that they would enjoy sailing, pooled their limited disposable recreation dollars, and became four joint sailboat owners.

Getting to know Sans Bruit--
The boat came with the name, Sans Bruit (without noise) which we pronounced “sahn bru-EE,” none of us having any knowledge of the French language.   Unable to imagine any more perfect name for her, however, she kept the one that came with her.  Within her lockers and holds were all sorts of interesting gadgets—tools of one sort or another and many other things. In fact, it appeared as though the prior owners had simply walked away from the boat one day, leaving behind clothing, books, galley utensils, maps, ships’ log and various items whose purpose was as yet unknown by us.   As we cleaned and scrubbed belowdecks, we slowly took possession of her inch by inch.  With a brush, water and cloth I learned about her curves and hiding places below.   I began to familiarize myself with the sounds of the boat--water slapping against the hull, some routine "clink" sounds from somewhere above and the way she gave a little curtsy when someone stepped on or off her.  I was astonished to find that I could see daylight through the opaque fiberglass hull.   To think that only this thin skin would separate us from Lake Superior!   

Sans Bruits' engine had not run for some time and we found it was reluctant to do so.   Thus began our introduction to the realities of boatyards, boat maintenance and slip rental.  Meanwhile, I read portions of “Sailing for Dummies” which seemed to be an apt description of our little boat ownership foursome.  Three long weeks later, the engine was purring nicely and we were eager to pull away from the dock for at least a bit of a swing outside the marina and into the Duluth harbor.   After work that day, three of us met at Lakehead Boat Basin to take her out of the slip for the first time. 

It was a beautiful summer afternoon—the sun was still well above the horizon, above the Duluth hillside that overlooks the harbor and Lake Superior.   We got onboard with my husband at the helm.  Between the three of us, his experience with boats far exceeded ours —he had owned or used skiffs, Sunfish, canoes, fishing boats, ski boats, pontoon boats, research vessels (my husband is a scientist) and most notably had worked on the  lower Mississippi River on tugs pushing the 32 barge tows.  Clearly, he was the obvious designee to handle our “new” sailboat the first time away from the dock.   The engine started right up and after a respectable warm-up, he put her in reverse.  

“The tiller feels really stiff,” he said as the boat slowly backed out of the slip.  It was obvious, in fact, that the tiller was vibrating strongly, even jerking in my husband’s strong hands as the boat began to move in reverse.  “It’s about all I can do to control it,” he added while the boat was beginning to move slowly forward.  “I’m going to go below and get a wrench —maybe there are loose nuts at the base.  Here, Ardys, take the tiller.”  Before I could muster a suitable protest that perhaps I was not the best choice for the job at that moment, after seeing how he had struggled with the tiller, I was summarily launched across the cockpit by the now very poorly restrained bucking tiller.   Simultaneously, I heard my husband’s somewhat sheepish, albeit delighted voice calling up from below, “Augh, I had the tiller (the rudder) backwards.”   This produced some relieved laughter between us.  How silly we were!  What a naive but somewhat sweetly innocent mistake.  We were so pleased to have solved our second problem with Sans Bruit—the first having been the engine for which we needed lots of help and money,  in order to resolve.  This problem was quickly solved at no expense to us.  Carl quickly turned the tiller around and Sans Bruit moved forward without further drama at the helm. Whew! 

The Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge--  
San Bruit exited the marina and out toward the shipping lane of the Duluth MN/ Superior, WI harbor, the largest shipping port on the Great Lakes.   To exit from Lakehead Marina, a boat must move in the general direction of the Duluth aerial lift bridge which is situated quite close to the little marina.  An aerial lift bridge is a novel type of bridge on this side of the Atlantic.    The bridge is raised at the request of the captains of both 1000 foot lakers and salties from around the world.  The most notable freight carried out of this harbor is taconite, sent by train from the Iron Range.  During WWII, these Twin Ports provided the war effort with countless new ships made from the iron ore mined in the Range cities, that string of towns north of Duluth that grew on top of some of the world’s richest ore deposits.  It is a busy harbor and very busy lift bridge from April through November.   

Filled with relief at having “fixed” the tiller, my husband left me to continue at the helm, with smiling faces all around.  We were out on the water on our very own sailboat!  We were under power, but still—on our own sailboat!  It was a heady moment for us all.  Carl went forward on deck, I surmised, to appreciate the sight of his boat moving through the water from a different perspective.  Our third owner/partner, Bruce, went below to see what it was like being a passenger belowdecks……Noisy?  Comfortable?  Countless “firsts” to experience as “sailors”—although none of us had as yet sailed.  In fact, Sans Bruits didn’t even have her sails onboard yet, let alone attached to the mast or forestay.   We had not yet figured out the sailing part of “sailboat” but that would come another day.   On that day,  we were satisfied just to be onboard Sans Bruit, moving forward with ease and I, for one, felt an unfamiliar surge of pride to be standing where I was, at the helm of this pleasant boat.

From below, over the sound of the engine, I heard our very calm and contemplative Bruce, “Ahhhh, we’ve got smoke down here.  We’ve got FIRE!”  “Fire” is a word that perhaps the reader has noticed seems to ring out louder than any other word surrounding it; at least that has been my impression.  Carl returned from the foredeck, “Shut it off; shut off the engine” which of course, he actually then did, himself, given that only he could readily reach the key.      Silence.     Only the sound of water lapping against the hull.  No more reports of "Fire" from below.     My husband launched himself through the companionway to the cabin sole below. The two men put their heads together.   In the absence of the engine, I could hear muttering from below, “Is it out? Did you really see flames?”  Yes and yes.  “Is there damage?”  “Well, I think we’re okay.”      Silence.      “Must have been a short in a wire or something?”  “Ya, probably so.”     Silence.      Still holding onto the tiller,  I noticed that the boat could no longer be steered without forward momentum.  My comment was, “Ummm, we are floating into the shipping lane.”

We took stock of our situation thoughtfully.  Sailboat nudging onward toward the shipping lane, perhaps 200 yards from the aerial lift bridge.  No sails…even if we’d had them onboard, we wouldn't have known how to put them up in order to sail. That was on our list of "things to learn." No anchor…..well, there WAS an anchor up at the bow, which, unfortunately was not attached to the boat as of yet.  (Another project for another day).  Somebody said, “We should call someone.”  As I had recently read the chapter in “Sailing for Dummies” which talked about VHF and Channel 16 to call the Coast Guard for help, I confidently put that forward as the next logical step.  The men were not so sure.  There was more mumbling between them—I heard words like “embarrassing” and “what should we do” and “Idiot” and “I can’t believe this” and “I don’t want everybody to see us towed back to the marina by the Coast Guard.”  Nervous laughter…. I reasserted my suggestion that the thing to do was to call the Coast Guard on Channel 16.  Reluctance continued from the men.  None of us had ever used a VHF radio, of course—a certain amount of uncertainty was expressed about using it for the first time.  Further thoughtful consultation between the men.  My dear husband, the problem solver…“I’ve got my cell phone.  Let me see if I can call someone.  Maybe we can hire somebody to tow us back.”   In spite of my suggestion clearly not taking hold with the men, I gave it one more try….”You just pick it up (radio) and you say, ‘May Day, May Day, May Day.”   Ya, I could see that wasn’t gonna happen.  

How One Calls for Assistance
My husband had the phone number of an acquaintance that had taken us out on his sailboat a month or two previously.  He called him.  “Hi, hi Joe, the funniest thing…..…..yes, the boat sale went through just fine….…” (at this point my husband mouthed, ‘he’s in a bar’) ……..” Uh, it’s a Pearson 30…….Ya, we really like it; we’ll have to take you out on it……Joe, Joe, ah, we have a little problem here.……We are actually on the boat right now, (chuckle)….. Well ya, it’s great to get it away from the dock.”  (eye rolling by all three of us)  “Ya, Joe..….We took the boat out after work to run the engine, and we actually had a little FIRE (loud word) in the engine so we had to shut it off.” (my husband mouthed to us, ‘he’s laughing’.)  To myself, I said,  ‘No kidding, I can hear him.’ ….. “No, no real damage that we can see…… it doesn’t seem .… Ya, maybe a fried wire or something.  Ya, we thought of that..……. Ya, maybe it’s not a real big deal.  We’ll see.  Joe, we are floating in the harbor. ……. Ya, ya, it is a hell of a thing, ya.   Ahhhh, what should we do?”  I noticed that my husband did not say exactly where in the harbor we were, whereas I, suddenly little “miss know-it-all’ mouthed to my husband, ‘tell him we are drifting into the shipping lane.’  Joe told my husband to call the Coast Guard.  

Finally, I thought—‘we’re going to call the Coast Guard!’   As I was apparently invisible, the men, in collusion once again, decided to call “Information” using the cell phone.  Yes, there was a phone number for the Coast Guard.  My husband called the number.   It rang into a Coast Guard station in, I believe it was, Ontonagon.  (Where the heck was Ontonagon?)  The voice on the other end could be heard telling my husband to pick up the VHF radio, push the button on the side and and request assistance from the local Coast Guard.  I dared not project any smugness about this latest directive.  I am aware that feeling humiliated in front of others is particularly distasteful and can, if exacerbated by unnecessary comments, lead to subsequent conflict in certain marriages.  I remained quiet.  Now, I had fully accepted the notion that we were not going to get out of this without calling attention to ourselves—a white sailboat floating into the shipping lane.  It was dusk by then and the houses all up and down the hillside were turning on their lights.  Sans Bruit on the other hand, was quite well illuminated on the water—and our position at the base of the Duluth hillside was much like being on the stage of an enormous amphitheater.  

Allow me to introduce the reader to the role of the lift bridge operator.  First he broadcasts an amplified verbal announcement that the bridge will rise, and then ensures that pedestrians and auto traffic are halted and off the bridge before he raises the bridge for marine traffic.  He raises the bridge well in advance of the ship’s approach for the following reason— a laker requires a mile or more to come to a complete stop and if some problem came about such that the bridge was unable to raise in time, the ship would certainly win out over the bridge;  no contest.   A ship's pilot who knows this harbor like the back of his hand, goes out to the ship and guides her in.  The lifting of the bridge is a tourist attraction, of course.  The canal leading to the aerial life bridge quickly becomes lined with people when they hear the bridge operator’s broadcast.  People strain their necks to see the approaching ship out on the lake.   It’s partly the enormity of the event, that is so fascinating.  With the ship moving through the channel, it appears as though a series of tall buildings is gliding past, taller than any building on land near the channel; and just beyond arms’ reach of the tourists with their cameras and video cams.  

“MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE.  THE BRIDGE IS ABOUT TO RAISE.”  And there we were.... drifting lazily on Sans Bruit, now squarely within the shipping lane, perhaps 150 yards from the lift bridge.   My husband called the Coast Guard using the VHF radio.  We didn’t have the luxury of spending time feeling embarrassed.  The Coast Guard responded immediately.  The situation was explained with clarification of exactly where the boat was drifting.  The Coast Guard had a number of other questions, “Is the fire out? Is the boat taking on water.”  Yes, no.  “How many are aboard the vessel?”  Three  “Are you wearing life jackets?”  No, no, we looked at each other; not one of us had thought of putting those on. “Do you have lifejackets for each of you?”  Yes. “Put on your life jackets.”  “Is anyone ill or injured?”  Well, no— not yet anyway.  “We will come out to tow you.  Remain on this channel until the Coast Guard boat arrives.”  We did.  

Sans Bruit on Lake Superior
A 16’ orange rubber dinghy with an enormous motor came alongside us, with four very fit and slender young men in Coast Guard uniforms.  It should be mentioned that the Coast Guard station in Duluth is perhaps no more than 1/2 mile from where Sans Bruit was bobbing into the shipping lane.  I thought I saw the competent young men in uniform smooth out little grins from their faces before pulling up close, but that might have been my imagination.  By then it was full dusk.  Crowds of tourists had gathered alongside the canal to watch the ship sliding between the retaining walls and into the harbor, and now, also to watch the Coast Guard attraction, no doubt—the  rescue of a little white sailboat from certain destruction.   One of the young men instructed us to fasten the line (boats do not have ropes) he had tossed, onto some blah-blah thingy toward the front end of the boat, and he pointed to where it should be attached.  In all fairness to the three of us, there were a few thingies up there on the deck and not yet having learned what each thingy was called, it was perhaps to be expected that the wrong thingy was chosen.  “No, no, over there.”  As the 1000 foot laker emerged into the harbor from beneath the lift bridge, Sans Bruit was uneventfully returned to her slip.  The Coast Guard officers were really very kind and professional toward us--nothing said that could have been construed as sarcastic or shaming.  Thus concluded the first of our adventures with Sans Bruit.