Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don’t Do What I Did!

June 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Tom Heagney & Dad

I spent my childhood watching Dad work on his Bayliner.  My father grew up in the city, the son of a super.  When he purchased his first boat back in the 1970s, he had no idea what he was getting into (and why he shouldn’t have bought an inboard/outboard). Turns out, he wasn’t much of a boatman. Though he never lost his love for the water, his problem was that he couldn’t get out there!

Years later, when Dad thought about sailing, he did what he does best: he got a book and read up on the subject.  To accompany that, he picked up a small swing-keel O’Day sailboat that needed to be cleaned, painted, and made ready to sail.  At 15, I was happy to be a part of dad’s new adventure.  I cleaned the boat while he read about how to tack.  I painted the bottom maroon while he learned about a boom.  I sanded and stained the side benches while he read about how to ride the wind.

“You know, Tom, I think we can do this,” he would say as he looked up from his book. I believed him; I was looking forward to going sailing.

We waited on the wind.  We studied the wind as if we knew what we were studying.  Then one day, the wind came blowing, so we hitched up the trailer, packed the boat, and headed out to Lake Ronkonkoma.  At the boat launch, the wind blew straight across our backs.  Dad checked his book for a few last-minutes facts before we went under sail.

With Dad on the port side and me on the starboard, our small craft was suddenly grabbed by a 30- mile-per-hour gust that launched us like a frisbee.  We were all sail, air, and wind! The boat leaned and cut into the surface of Lake Ronkonkoma, skimming straight across its one-mile expanse.  Proud of our skills, and impressed by the power of the wind, we were sailing along with Chiclet smiles and a Thanksgiving feeling of satisfaction.

Leaning to my father’s side, I was lifted up above him by the full sail.  Dad smiled at me; we were having a sailing adventure!  Everything he preached about hard work, reading, and tenacity had come to life right there in the middle of the lake.

Somewhere past the middle, Dad said I should prepare to tack, and I got ready for the boom to come my way.  Then there was a sudden crack of metal and a heavy wallop of wind, causing the boom to come at me as fast as a prize fighter’s punch.  The boat seesawed up towards my father’s side, first lifting him backwards, and then tossing him out of the boat. Dad did a back flip into the warm waters of Lake Ronkonkoma. I ducked under the sail while the boat rolled on top of me, and the force pushed me five feet under into the green waters.

I recalled the legend of the Princess in the Lake; I momentarily thought that I might be her next victim.  Fear, confusion, and a desperate need to breathe propelled me towards the surface.  With each froglike stroke, the sunlight above the water became stronger and seemingly within reach.  I broke the water’s surface, gasping for air and looking around for my father. While I did not see him at first, I could hear him screaming my name.  Then I spotted him, looking pale. I shouted, “Over here, Dad!”

We had not worn the life jackets stuffed below the boat’s benches.  Dad dove under the water to recover them, and once we had the jackets on, we had to figure out how to get the sailboat right-side-up.  We managed to get the sail free of water, but the boat was still 90% submerged.  We tried to bail, but the sailboat took on more water once we attempted to sit in it.  After struggling for what felt like forever, the only other person on the lake came to our rescue. We laid across his windsurfer board and bailed. Then Dad tied a rope from me to the bow and told me to swim for shore while he continued to remove water from the boat.

I made the half-mile swim back to the boat launch, thinking that somewhere in our sailing book was a list of safety procedures that we ignored.  On top of that, we learned a lesson that day that wasn’t in the book.  We loved each other, but we really needed to take sailing lessons!

By Tom Heagney

Comments are closed.