My dad’s bigger boat, a Lightning with a 27′ mast, wasn’t ready for sailing yet so we took the little 12-footer. It was a buoyant little beast, capable of carrying four adults: Brett and I and our dad, and our friend Paul. Paul loved sailing and as a result was rooked into a boatload of unnecessary adventures. He spent a lot of his time with us wet.
We always packed food because sailing made us hungry. It’s only a mile across San Diego Bay from the boat ramp where we launched so we sailed over to Silver Strand State Park to have lunch on the beach.
I was at the tiller because Dad wanted to be the first one to step ashore. I realized as we were approaching the shore that the bottom inclined so gradually the rudder was going to hit ground before the bow touched the sand.
I said, “We’re running aground.”
I said it again. “We’re running aground.”
I said, “Hey, we’re running–”
The rudder stopped. The boat kept going. The rudder tore away from its hardware and popped up in my hand.
Dad looked at the damaged rudder and said, “We were going aground on purpose. I didn’t realize that’s what you meant.” (Read more about my family’s remarkable communication abilities here.)
He moved the hardware and reattached the rudder. There are little bronze pins on the rudder called pintles, and little bronze loops attached to the boat called gudgeons. They fit together like a little puzzle.
Like a puzzle, you can’t change the size or position of the pieces or it won’t go together.
The tiller, the long handled you steer with, wouldn’t go through its bracket. Dad held at a funny angle over the top of the bracket as he steered back after lunch. Halfway across the bay my brother decided that he simply could not wait to get to shore to take care of, um, an important biological function.
Now, he’d lived on a sailboat near where we were sailing and knew that the anchorage where he lived was referred to locally as Hepatitis Cove. He had no illusions about the cleanliness of the water and didn’t feel remotely guilty about adding to the uncleanness. As he knelt at the edge of the boat, though, things took, shall we say, a turn.
Normally boat movements are fairly even. Though you’re bobbing up and down, it’s regular, you can anticipate it. Once in a while, though, there’s something called a rogue wave. A rogue wave goes against the normal pattern and disrupts it. I won’t go into the fluid dynamics of ocean waves right now. Suffice it to say that an unexpected buck in the boat sent my brother headfirst into the water.
We did man overboard drills all the time so Dad instinctively whipped the tiller over to bring the boat about, that is, to turn it into the wind so we stopped.
The sudden force on the tiller, instead of turning the rudder sharply, caused the pintles to pop out of their gudgeons.
The tiller popped out of Dad’s hand.
The wooden rudder and tiller floated away across the bay.
And we continued away from them, and my brother. as fast as the little sailboat could go.
In another round of bad news/good news, my dad had also practiced steering a sailboat using only the sails. This is one of the rare times that his always plan for disaster attitude came in handy. We came about and turned back toward my brother. As we flew past him Dad tossed me a lifejacket but by the time I caught it we were well past where my brother floated in the middle of San Diego Bay, fully dressed, with his mouth hanging open, thinking about sharks.
“Get the rudder,” Dad yelled to him. He obediently swam over and grabbed the rudder.
Another turn, and this time we were moving slowly enough for him to start climbing aboard. I was still in lifejacket mode so I shoved it at him vigorously. I did not, as my father later suggested in his retelling of the events, shove him back into the water using the lifejacket as a weapon.
Once he was aboard Dad jammed the rudder back in and we headed toward home.
“I still have to go.”
Paul laughed. “All that time in the water, you didn’t think of that?”
“No, I was thinking about sharks.”
Dad kept his hand on the tiller and his eyes on the horizon.
“You can wait.”