Things were slow at the Portland Wooden Boat Festival. Slow and hot. My wife and I were sitting in the shade of a makeshift awning rigged aboard Row Bird while a trickle of people ambled past on the dock. Frankly, I was getting bored. Then Mike Reese, whose motto should be, “Let’s do it!” came by and asked if I’d take him out for a ride. I knew this was Mike’s way of telling me he wanted to drive the boat, and a break from the dock sounded awfully inviting.
Mike and I used to race speedy Laser sailboats together. To be a good competitor, as I learned back then, you have to be able to do a roll-tack. This maneuver allows you to turn a boat quickly without losing speed, but has the disadvantage of requiring the whole boat to move from one side to another at a steep angle. More than one sailor has overdone a roll tack and ended up in the water.
Despite the strong wind, I figured we’d be out for a mellow, dry ride. After all, Mike was wearing his Birkenstocks, not sailing booties. While I hoisted the mainsail, Mike took the helm and before I had the chance to explain how a lug sail works, he powered up the sail and we flew across the river. The wind died back a bit as we made our first tack, and Mike encouraged me to un-reef the sail.
“Trust me on this Mike,” I said, trying not to dampen his enthusiasm. “There’s plenty of wind out there. I’m not changing a thing.”
The boat cut smoothly across the chop and I could see Mike’s already confident outlook growing stronger. “I think I’m getting the hang of this set-up,” he exclaimed as we approached the edge of the channel and a small island just beyond it. Then he did the closest approximation to a roll tack you can do in a traditional wooden boat. He leaned way out over the high side, while I instinctively ducked under the swinging boom and scrambled towards the other side, just as the oars (which were lying loosely on the thwart) shifted and slid across the boat. One popped out of the boat, landing the river as a big splash of water poured into the cockpit, while overhead the sails flapped loudly. Mike, momentarily forgetting he was steering, pointed the other way. “My hat! My hat!” he yelled.
Like any accident, it all happened so fast. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I believe I grabbed the tiller from Mike and steered the boat towards my oar while he continued pointing toward his hat, which he seemed to value more than the oar which would get us safely back to the dock.
Retrieving the oar took only a tack or two; then we turned towards the place where the hat was last seen. Suddenly, the three-story, 150 foot long party boat known as the Portland Spirit appeared 200 yards from our bow. I held Row Bird back while Mike scanned the churning water. The Spirit passed, and we trolled the wake as if searching for shipwreck survivors. But with the wind, chop, and chaos of motor boat wakes, our search was starting to look hopeless. Crestfallen, Mike started to frown. Then, in a stroke of luck, he spotted his beloved hat on the waves. Scooping it from the river, he immediately placed it on his head. “Now that was refreshing,” he proclaimed.
And compared to baking in the sun at the dock, it was indeed.