|Marble Walls of Chatham|
One of the things I love to do best, in sailing, is run the fringes of our world.
Tiny passages thread the archipelago between the islands, as entrances to hidden harbors, among rock strewn reefs, estuaries and sloughs. Names like the Mink Run, No Thoroughfare Bay and Piglet's Sphincter evoke both their intimacy and challenge. Many are only nominally charted, their dangers poorly reported, if at all.
Even the main straights, channels and sounds are bounded by cliffs and ledges and rock gardens. To run inside the kelp line, plucking berries from over-hanging bushes or tracing ones fingers along smooth marble walls... ah... lovely.
Is this risky? Well, yes and no. After 20 years of this, I finally bumped my first rock. Not hard, but enough to wake me up and remind me that there are rules. Rules of thumb, at any rate. And methods. Here's how we do it:
- Stand in on the flooding tide, off on the ebb - If you do hit, a rising tide will lift you off, where a falling one will strand you, or worse.
- Close-hauled is safer than running - Running, as pleasant as it is, commits you. When close-hauled, you can always luff up and fall back through water you've already seen. Not to say we never run, but the tighter it is, the lighter the air we allow.
- Manage your speed - You want good steerage-way, but not much more. If you do find a new rock, you want a soft landing.
- When in doubt, head out - If we're not sure, we reflexively turn toward deeper water.
- Look ahead and to both sides - Watch for water surface disturbances, beach profile (low angle generally means shallows, steep angles generally deepen quickly... reefs are often found as ridges), weed (kelp means shoaling, popweed means rock at the surface), looms of color indicating rocks or shoaling. If a squall's coming, stand out.
- Keep one crew-member on the bow, push-pole at the ready - If you need to come about fast, nothing like a push from the bow. Keep pole at right angles for best effect... lead just a little and push until a little aft. In idle moments, you can sound with the pole.
- Trim your fores'l(s) close-hauled and afts'l free - It's often flukey in tight, or you might want to slalom among rocks or through twisty channels. With the wind astern, you're running under the free, aft sail, fores'ls blanketed. If it comes round to the bow, you're sailing on your fore sails... don't sheet the main, but trim the boom in by hand (hauling the sheets as one) to assist. We're not looking for efficiency, but the ability to react quickly, leaving mind and hands free for changing conditions.
So that rock I hit?
It was a wintery day, gusting up to a fresh breeze. Wild and beautiful place where Peril and Chatham Straits come together. We'd run a maze of barely charted reefs which rose in toothy rows from a sand bottom. Once we emerged, into a place I thought I remembered well, I let down my guard. Ran at speed through a small patch of kelp (against the rules) and, K-CHNK. There it was.
But the rising tide, shoal draft and copper bottom were on our side. Even so, it was really no trouble to pole ourselves back (me as far aft as I could get and backing sail, Anke poling at the bow) and away.
Still, it's sobering. Not a place to get caught on a winter's day, like the time, just around this very corner, we...
But well... that's our other story.