Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don’t Do What I Did

September 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Don't Do What I Did

If professional navigators screw up — and faulty plotting put a multi-million-dollar racing machine on the rocks in this summer’s Volvo Around the World race — what hope is there for the rest of us?  I’ve been sailing for 20 years; I committed two grievous navigational errors in a single cruise. Shame.

Together with my long-time crewmate, Nelson, wise with nearly half a century at the helm, I was taking my 30-foot sloop from Aquebogue to a yacht broker in Mamaroneck. The forecast for the two-and-a-half day cruise predicted good weather, with fair winds and moderate seas.

On the second night we planned to tuck in the lee side of Sheffield, a barrier island protecting the western approaches to Norwalk Harbor. The area around Greens Ledge Lighthouse is a known danger spot, but it is marked by a 62-foot tower, visible from miles away. About a mile east of it two buoys guide seafarers away from danger.  Buoy RN 28, a midchannel market with plenty of water on both sides is half a mile offshore, and R2A, about a quarter mile west, warns of hidden rocks off the end of the island. That’s where you should leave it to starboard, but I didn’t.

I confused the two buoys and didn’t check the numbers as we sailed by while pointing the bow toward the tower.  I left the second buoy to port. Just about simultaneously with Nelson saying, “This doesn’t look right,” the boat thumped hard on the rocks (I draw three-and-a-half feet with a full keel). Instinctively, Nelson executed a 180 under sail and I breathed a sigh of relief — the sea gods had overlooked my shortcomings.

Did I learn anything? Because I flubbed at Chart Reading 101, it’s logical to think I’d be on full alert the next morning heading into Mamaroneck Harbor. Buoy R2 marked the entrance with a string of markers stretching off in the distance. Normally, this is a sailing piece of cake as you just follow the markers visually. However, cake wasn’t on my menu that day.

We motored up the creek as it got shallower and narrower. We suddenly found ourselves trapped at the head of Milton Harbor. Darn — where did Mamaroneck Harbor slip off to and where were we? If I had eyeballed the chart more thoroughly, I would have seen that Mamaroneck Harbor veered off to the left, even though there were no markers for about 100 yards. What an embarrassment to have to ask the marina for a pilot boat to guide us.

Around drinks that night in a neighborhood pub we analyzed this skipper’s misfortunes. I confess that, like a lot of sailboaters, I rely on paper charts and dead reckoning to keep me safe. So I had broken mariners’ rule number one by letting a banned word enter my nautical dictionary: assumed. Just because I had been sailing the same waters for years, I let an assumption creep in about my familiarity with local landmarks.  I knew that landmarks can change with the weather or other factors. And I also knew that skills can change, which is why a smart boater double-checks everything, including charts, each step of the way.

Rule number two actually has three parts. 1. Know exactly where you are at all times. 2. Know where you are going. 3. Know what hazards to watch for in between. Because I didn’t know where I was when in Norwalk, I missed the danger in between, and I embarrassed Nelson and myself in Mamaroneck.

By William C. Winslow 


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