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SAILING

May 29, 2018

JIM McCUTCHON

If you have ever owned a boat for any length of time at all, you have stories to tell. Some are tragic. Some are funny. All are nostalgic.

 

Our first family boat was a Sunfish. I would have preferred a yacht, but the little Sunfish fit my budget better and was a far better choice for my eight kids who were too young for a yacht. They were excited, and they chose the sail color – purple in honor of their Lebanese heritage, which they derived from their maternal grandfather. In case you don’t know, the Lebanese of antiquity had a monopoly on the color purple. That is a side story. I’m trying to stay with the main story.

 

To complete our acquisition, I purchased life jackets for the kids, a trailer and a trailer hitch for the car. Then, thinking I remembered how to sail from summer days spent long ago in Pass Christian, Mississippi, I embarked with the four oldest children. If you are a sailor, you will know that four children, no matter how small, are too many for a Sunfish. If you have sailed or even lived in The Pass or the Sparkling City by the Sea, you will know that the wind is very different. The danger in the Mississippi Sound is being becalmed. The danger in Corpus Christi Bay is being blown away. We got blown away, or more precisely, blown into the boats tied up near the boat ramp. I managed, with some help from strangers, to get back to the ramp and haul out. Thank you strangers for being helpful and for being people who didn’t know me. I was embarrassed but undaunted. I did some reading and went back alone to practice. Then, I took only one child, the oldest, for a sail. We were becoming sailors.

 

It was a glorious experience. As I learned, I taught. As the children learned, they sailed. Before long, the older ones were sailing alone or with a friend. As we ventured beyond the rock jetties that delimited the marina, we learned that a Sunfish is easy to tump over, and we learned how to turn it so that the mast didn’t impale itself in the sand. It was the only way to get our small vessel upright again. Feelings of success and pride.

 

When the children were experienced, one of the funnest things for them was to take a friend and sail downwind, going fast enough to surf. The best way to do that was to have good old Dad or good old Mom drive to the south end of Ocean Drive, put the boat in there and come back later to pick up the wet kids at the marina. What they loved most was the speed as they caught up with and rode a wave, but, sometimes, they would go too fast. When that happened, the nose of the boat would plow into the water in front of the wave they were riding. They called it “pearling”. If done on purpose and under control, a wave would sweep over the boat, and they would right it and keep sailing. If done wrong, they were in the water next to an overturned boat. Fun either way.

 

I tried competing in a Sunfish race. Only once. Poor judgment again. The wind was howling, and I wasn’t experienced enough. It was too soon, and I got another lesson in humility. I spent more time in the water righting an upside down Sunfish than racing. This time, the people knew me. Oh well. I dragged home to hear the familiar chorus from the children, “Did you win?” No, but I finished. That alone was a small victory.

 

A few years later, a friend, Jim Gabbard, asked if I would like to partner with him in buying a Pearson Commander. Yes! I graduated to yachtsman. A Commander is 26 feet long and perfect for day sailing. It has a long cockpit and a relatively small cabin. The big cockpit is what someone who has a lot of kids needs. The cabin allows for sleeping aboard, and we used it for that at times. A Commander is also very heavy and sturdy. That came in handy as I will detail later. We kept the Sunfish for years though. The younger children enjoyed doing what the older ones had outgrown.

 

The Commander was not new when we bought her, and she had a name, “Foolhardy”. We thought that was appropriate, and we kept it. At first, we did some day sailing to get used to handling a bigger boat. Jim G. was not experienced either. Then, we started doing the Wet Wednesday races. As you might expect, two beginners in a heavy boat didn’t win, place or show. Who cares? We were part of the Midget Ocean Racing Fleet, and we loved it. We were true sailors, and we were purists. We had no motor.

 

One Wednesday night, I was at the helm with my friend, John Schulz as crew. We were far out in the bay when a Texas blue norther arrived and made sailing rough but not hazardous. The problem was how to land. Our slip was directly downwind, and, when we came in, there were whitecaps in the marina between the concrete piers, a very sheltered area. I decided to drop all sails to decrease speed long before we were close to our slip. It didn’t work. We didn’t slow down at all. My only option was to trust the one-inch nylon line tied between two heavy pilings across the entrance to the slip. That was how we always landed, by using the heavy line to stop us. Then, we used the line to pull the boat into the slip for mooring. As we approached, more experienced sailors on land yelled, “Round up.” I heard them, but I was afraid to round up with no sails for control and the wind howling. The rope was to be my savior. We hit it at hull speed. To my amazement, the boat barely slowed down as the two pilings set deep in the sand tipped toward each other and we hit the concrete, slid up some and settled back down. The rope was intact. We breathed a long sigh and tied up.

 

As we climbed ashore, sailors who had gathered to watch were commenting on my idiocy. One said that a lady driving a Cadillac swerved to avoid being hit by a boat coming up over the L-head. Another said, “If I had done that in my light racing boat, it would have split wide open.” That got my attention. I inspected the bow carefully and was relieved to see minimal damage. Thank God for heavy construction. The final blow was that I acquired a nickname, “Captain Crunch”.

 

We didn’t do any ocean cruising. The farthest we went was a short distance into the Gulf of Mexico. My two eldest sons and I were headed into the Gulf one day when the usually reliable Corpus Christi wind died with us in the ship channel and a big steamship coming. With no motor, our options were few. As we pumped the sails and used the tiller to move the rudder back and forth to get some motion, the big ship kept coming. He had no choice. He couldn’t stop in such a short distance, and he couldn’t turn without running aground at the edge of the channel. Just before we decided to abandon Foolhardy and swim to the nearest channel marker, we got just enough momentum to get near the edge of the channel. The ship slipped by. I still wonder what the helmsman on that ship was thinking.

 

Most of the time, we had leisurely sails. One of them was planned to be leisurely but became a legend. Four couples started out to sail across the bay, turn left at Port Aransas, sail north in Lydia Ann Channel and spend the night on the back side of St. Joseph Island. We packed steaks, a grill, other food and drink, a tent and all the things we would need. My sons and I had made this trip before. What could go wrong? Everything.

 

We left the dock about 3 PM. Halfway across the bay, George asked to skipper. Fine, but the wind was right on our nose, and George’s idea of tacking was to sail back and forth at 180 degree angles. After getting nowhere for a couple of hours, Jim Gabbard relieved George, and we made progress, arriving at Port Aransas not long before sundown. That was when things got interesting. There is a ferry that goes back and forth there. We had to time our crossing between ferry runs. Ocean going ships tie up there too. No problem except that Alice Gabbard decided it was time to use the head. She went below while George held a blanket over the opening to the cabin to give her privacy. Jim had on sunglasses, and, as it was getting toward dusk, he couldn’t see very well. He sailed too close under the overhanging bow of a large ship that was sitting innocently tied to a pier. The proximity caused the sails to backwind. “Help”, he said, and George dropped the blanket to help as seamen looked down on those fools in the sailboat and at Alice sitting on the head. She had worn a jump suit, so she was pretty much bare. Alice was unperturbed. She waved at the seamen as Jim tacked away.

 

By the time we got to where we were gong, it was very dark, and we were very hungry. It must have been close to midnight. We cooked the steaks, but we didn’t put up the tent. We were just too tired. Jim and Alice waded out to Foolhardy to sleep. The rest of us stretched out on blankets where we served as a banquet for mosquitos.

 

There were mosquitos on the boat too. Their buzzing kept Alice awake, but Jim who was a bit deaf couldn’t hear them. He slept until Alice said, “You son of a bitch, if I can’t sleep, you won’t.” I only heard that much, and I don’t know what compromise was reached, but they were both alive in the morning.

 

Shortly before dawn, Ellen asked no one in particular, “What time is it?” I answered, “One AM.” To that, Ellen said, “If it’s one AM, I’m going to kill myself.”

           

It was a bedraggled crew that sailed home the next day ending a nice leisurely sail and picnic.

 

One of the things that Jim and I found most enjoyable was working together to fix things on the boat. We got a major dose of fixing after one of the hurricanes. A shrimp boat that had been moored on the other side of the L-head was torn loose from its ties, lifted up above the L-head, driven across the road on which automobiles travel and deposited on top of Foolhardy. The damage was beyond our abilities. When the aftermath of the storm had settled down, poor old Foolhardy was lifted by a crane and moved to a place where she could be treated for her wounds.

 

Neither Jim nor I felt that we should do the fiberglass repair, but we decided to do the other major jobs, including replacing the shrouds and the rub rail. I’ll only describe the replacement of the rub rail.

 

A rub rail can be made of various materials. On a Pearson Commander, the typical rub rail is metal. I think it’s stainless steel. As the name suggests, its function is to protect the boat from rubbing against pilings, other boats or anything else that could cause damage. A less obvious function is to cover the seam formed by the junction of the hull and the deck.

 

We decided to use teak. We cut strips of the teak about two inches wide and one inch thick for the purpose. Since we couldn’t find strips long enough to run from the bow to the stern, we had to improvise. Jim taught me how to make a scarf joint, and we made the joints long enough that a bolt could be driven through the junction. Then, we had to bolt our rub rail to the boat, but we didn’t want to have the bolt heads visible. I bought the tools we needed to drill through, recess the head of the bolt and fill the hole with a teak plug cut from scrap pieces. Forstner drill bits worked perfectly. That rub rail is still there. Although it was many years ago, it looks great.

 

Jim Gabbard was a chest and cardiovascular surgeon who had already had a coronary artery bypass himself. As my interest in sailing waned, he sailed the Wet Wednesday MORF races with his friend, Dick Lear, an ordained minister. They didn’t fare any better than Jim and I had, but they enjoyed it. However, Jim began having angina again, and he was facing reoperation. He told his partners that he didn’t want to burden them with operating on him as he thought he would not survive. He arranged to have his surgery done elsewhere, and, just before he was due to leave town, he asked me to take him for one last sail. I agreed, but I snuck down to the boat early to take a full supply of emergency equipment. I didn’t have to use it, but it was close. Jim was popping nitroglycerine into his mouth like popcorn.

 

Jim did not survive the operation.

 

Dick Lear did the funeral, and everyone came to my house afterwards. It was not a sad occasion. As Jim had requested, we laughed a lot as we told stories of his life and his grandchildren ran up the indoor stairs and down the outdoor stairs.

 

Jim was cremated. He wanted his ashes spread in Corpus Christi Bay. Dick Lear, Alice, Jim’s children and I went out on Foolhardy for the dispersal. Alice asked me to do it. I declined. It was Alice’s job. I sailed north inside of the breakwaters to the Art Museum. Alice poured Jim’s ashes as we passed the restaurant on the middle T-head. The wind was unusually quiet. There was just enough to move Foolhardy gently along. We turned at the museum. As we passed the restaurant on the way back, exactly where Alice had deposited the ashes, Foolhardy bucked as though she was moving over an underwater obstruction. We looked at each other incredulously. Someone, I’m not sure who, said, “OK, Jim. We know you’re there.”

 

Foolhardy survives. She has been passed on to the next generation. They have refurbished her, and she sits proudly in the marina although in a new and different slip. She still has no motor. We are still purists.

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