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Contact Happens

As I stood back and watched water gush from the stern-plug of my Laser, the disappointing reality hit me. My boat, the first and only one I’ve ever owned—and surprisingly watertight to this day—was no longer whole. "Editor's Letter" from our May 2012 issue.

April 18, 2012
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As I stood back and watched water gush from the stern-plug of my Laser, the disappointing reality hit me. My boat, the first and only one I’ve ever owned—and surprisingly watertight to this day—was no longer whole. When I walked around to the starboard side and took in the enormity of the 12-inch hole in the underbelly of the hull, I started to fret, with questions pilling up in my head: Was it fixable? And if so, how much would it cost? Is this an insurance situation? Should I file a protest so there’s a paper trail? Will the guy who hit me make good on paying for the repair?

Unless you’re very lucky, these are the questions each of us will likely ask at some point in our racing careers because competitive sailing, regardless of how many rules we put in place to prevent collisions, can be a contact sport. It’s bound to happen when a large number of boats converge on a single point in space and time.

The saying “If you’re not rubbing, you’re not racing” is a reality in the fleets in which I race, so I’ve been in, and have witnessed, plenty of collisions resulting in gashed hulls, splintered toerails, and bent stanchions. But until this incident, I’d never had a boat sink beneath me.

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It happened after a textbook port-starboard T-bone. By the time I caught sight of a bow heading straight for me, I knew there was no escaping what was about to happen. If you’ve ever been in a serious collision, you’ll know exactly what I experienced: a surreal moment of silence before impact. It’s like in the movies, when the sound goes silent just before something bad happens.

“Ka-boom!”

Someone nearby who saw the collision promptly hailed, “Dave, you better tack. You got a big hole there, mate.”

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With gallons of seawater already swishing around inside the hull, I pointed my bow toward the dock, about 200 yards away, and heeled the boat just enough to keep the hole out of the water. But the leeward rail was now fully submerged, and the cockpit was taking on water. When a big puff hit, it was impossible to avoid capsizing.

While standing on the centerboard, the hole facing skyward, I thought, “If I right it, it’s going to the bottom for sure. Maybe I’m better off getting towed in like this.”

With the sole race-committee boat preoccupied, rescue wasn’t an option, so I righted the boat, and within seconds, it sank to the gunnels. I sheeted in nonetheless, and the boat inched forward: a sailing submarine.

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The poor guy who inflicted the damage followed me to the shore, profusely apologized, and insisted that I take his boat and keep sailing. It’s the proper, sportsmanlike gesture, but I declined. I was intent on pulling my stricken craft from the harbor and assessing the damage.

“I just feel so bad,” he said. “Like an idiot. I tried to tack, but I couldn’t.”

“Don’t worry about,” I said, partly because I felt sorry for him, and partly because I hadn’t realized the extent of the damage. “It happens. It’s only fiberglass.”

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And that, too, was what the expert at the local speed shop told me when I dropped off the boat a few days later. After $300 or so and few hours of glasswork, I’d be back on the racecourse the following weekend. “No problem,” he said with a comforting assurance. “We’ll buff that right out.”

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