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 Jagular Goes South - Part 1

By Tom Pamperin - Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin - USA

To Part Two

To Part Three

Prologue

Chaos is the score upon which reality is written. —Henry Miller


End of the school year, entropy gaining ground fast and I plod through my last teaching days thinking about boat modifications for the Texas 200, a five-day sailing trip along the Gulf coast. Jagular, my Phil Bolger pirate racer, is a fourteen-foot boat with a nine-foot mast, an eighteen-foot yard, and a predilection for capsizing. Hardly a handy cruising rig.

I make mental lists. New mast. New sail. New mast step. Throughbolted oarlocks. Paint. Some kind of anchor. New tiller. Self-steering. Things to buy: new bailer. Bucket. Anchor line. At the Farm & Fleet, an aisle of folding knives catches my eye. Do I need one? Yes. Every sailor needs a knife, I tell myself. What for? Well… I just do. O.k., get the knife. This isn’t some little Wisconsin lake, after all. This is the ocean, kind of. Salt spray. Flying fish on the deck. Albatrosses. Sharks. So. Plain knife, or multitool? Compromise: a blade and Phillips screwdriver combo.

Back home, the latest paint job is threatening to peel off the bottom of the boat. Pretend not to notice; no time to try again. New Chinese junk sail a tangled mess of crude battens, duct tape, and strings everywhere, never even been on the boat yet. Give up on that. Borrow my brother’s spritsail instead. Tack on new rubrails.

Friday, last day of school, and the students are out early—I slip home after lunch to load boat and camping gear. Living room submerged under piles of gear, my usual method. Stove. Gas can. Tent. Whatever food I can find on the shelves: Raspberry Newtons. Sardines in mustard sauce. Five gallons of water. Fork. Run to grocery store. Ramen. Tuna packets. Lemonade mix. Five o’clock. Sleeping bag and poncho liner. Half a dozen books. Compass. Charts. Five-thirty. Throw a couple of drawers worth of clean clothes into the back of the car. Pin my “Go, Lemmings, Go!” button to my hat. Throw everything else on top. Hook up trailer. Stop at gas station, finally on the road.

Thirty hours later—1:30 a.m. Sunday—I pull into Fred Stone Park, which turns out to be a clutter of small boats and trailers surrounding a lumpy parking lot of hard-packed dirt, a dock, and a derelict cinderblock building with an overflowing trash barrel, a cold-water sink, and a toilet boldly unencumbered by walls or barriers. Someone has dragged the trash barrel in front of the toilet in an attempt to reduce the exposure. Nice to be among civilized folks.

A yardlight at the docks shines into every corner of the parking lot, so I throw my sleeping mat on the dirt in the shadow of my boat and collapse. Everyone else is already asleep. An hour later John Wright arrives, lean and grizzled and towing a white boat shaped like a duck’s bill. I talk with him for a while, then go back to sleep. He’s still building his boat as I drift off. Seems to know what he’s doing.

Monday Morning

There must have been oak, and bronze triple-banded, around the heart of the man who first launched a frail craft on the savage open sea. —Horace

Dawn. Gray light seeps slowly into the day. This is it—yesterday’s bus shuttling and skippers’ meetings finally done. I stand up, wade through the ankle-deep slime where Jagular floats, throw my sleeping pad and blanket in and look around: all sky and dust and scrub brush. Texas. There’s a kind of gutbucket post-apocalyptic splendor to it, a startling empty flatness alien to my north woods sensibilities. No trees in sight. Boats and people are scattered around the beach and anchored offshore. The famous floating boxes, the Puddle Ducks, are beached nearby. Yesterday I met their skippers, an anarchic crowd of rum-swilling hooligans. Further down there’s a father-son team in a yellow Michalak design, even a Bolger cartopper. Next to me is a tiny Hobie cat skippered by a shaggy-headed young guy named David. A few people are stirring here and there, making final preparations. It’s windy. Real windy.

Just after sunrise the Ducks finally drag their boats off the beach into thigh-deep water and sail away. A few more people are starting to move around. I stand on the shore trying to think of an excuse not to launch. David eyes me from his Hobie.
“Your boat gonna be all right in this much wind?” he asks.

How the hell should I know, I wonder. “Oh, yeah,” I say. “Won’t be a problem.” Try to believe myself. I have the familiar feeling that I’m about to do something stupid. Only question is how stupid. Once rigged, my spritsail flails in the wind like a mad thing. I’ve sailed in this much wind before, but not in any kind of fetch. I really have no idea what it’ll be like. I think I’ll be ok. I can swim a long way, at least.
John, watching my nervous pacing from the beach where he is still building his boat (does he ever sleep?), suggests I reduce sail. I could—should, I know—but it won’t be easy without reef points. Besides, it’s already about twenty square feet smaller than my regular sail, I tell him. John shrugs, says I might as well launch, then, see how it goes. I can always beach Jagular further along to reef if I have to. He seems politely amused at my nervousness, says I did a nice job making my sail. I don’t tell him my brother made it. One of the few marks of competence I’ve brought to Texas and it’s not even mine. Finally I drag Jagular into deeper water, out past the moored boats, and clamber aboard.

There’s a heck of a wind blowing, and I go through the usual launching fiasco, trying to keep the sheet from snagging on the leeboards, cleats, and tiller, with the boat trying to turn sideways as I fall into the cockpit and sheet in, flopping over the stern to shove down the kick-up rudder, arm soaked to the shoulder, Jagular thumping up and down as I shift my weight, one oar knocked off the oarlock, the sheet wrapped around my ankles, everything happening all at once, until I’m finally away on the starboard tack. Time to regroup, remind myself that I know what I’m doing.

Early morning at Fred Stone Park—Jack Clayton prepares to launch his Mixer; Jagular and the Ducks are already out of sight, chasing the horizon. (photo: Gerard Mittelstaedt)

Sailing east across the Laguna Madre, the waves are rolling me more than I expected. I feel nervous, clumsy, not sure I’m ready for what’s coming up. Compared to my usual cruising grounds, this is big water, and even now, just after sunrise, the wind is strong and unvarying. I sail out past the ICW, thinking through everything one more time. Finally I get everything organized, then push the tiller over to make the turn north. The Ducks are way up ahead, then only a long line of ICW buoys stretching into the distance.

* * * * *

Still on the Laguna Madre. Getting windier, but steady. I’ve tied off the sheet to the leeboard cleat; the hell with holding that thing ten hours a day. If I go over, I go over. Seems to be working. I fiddle with the self-steering gear—a line and bungee combination tied around the tiller led to jam cleats on the side decks—until it steers the boat better than I can. I’m hands-free. Bailing occasionally. Not too bad.
It gets windier, the waves growing a little. Before long, Jagular starts to surf, a dull roar of wave slipping slowly by underneath. We surge forward as if a giant hand has grabbed the boat from underneath, launching it through the water like a bath toy. A flood of exhilaration. Five seconds. Eight seconds. Ten seconds. Then Jagular settles, starts surfing again on the next wave. Amazing, this surfing stuff. I’ve heard about it before. Now I know why.

I stop bailing and enjoy the ride, surrendering to the spray and general dampness, settling in to endure the day’s small miseries. Over the years I’ve developed a surprising ability to tolerate discomfort rather than work to change the conditions that cause it. Some people call that “lazy” but it definitely has its advantages. Jagular surfs along, steering itself, leaving me in a curious mixture of exhilaration, apprehension, and inactivity. I’d read my book but it’s too wet. Instead I start singing Jimmy Buffet songs.

By the time I get to “A Pirate Looks At Forty,” I’m passing the Ducks one by one, which makes things less lonely. They wave and shout at me. I wave back and pretend to hear what they’re saying. Nice guys. I’m beginning to think their hard-man reputation may have been exaggerated, though. Back rests. Solar panels. Cabins with actual portholes. Stereos, even! Those Duck skippers look obscenely comfortable, lounging around in their little boxes. The bastards. At least I’m passing them.

Gordo from the PDR fleet: Does the “Iron Men in Wooden Boats” certification allow onboard stereo systems?


It keeps getting windier, and before long I’m bailing again. Suddenly Jagular gets on top of a big wave and surfs a long time, the longest run yet, then drops off the crest and slams into the wave just ahead. Water pours over the foredeck and into the cockpit, gallons of it. Bailing frantically now, the boat heavy and threatening to broach. Halfway bailed out, then another submarine act as Jagular buries its bow again. More water pours into the cockpit, and everything aboard is floating, held in only by tie-down lines. A couple of raspberry Newtons escape their carton and slide overboard. Bailing a little more frantically. Finally get the hang of shifting my weight way back to the stern as we start down each wave. Seems to work. Eventually the cockpit is back to mostly dry.

Jagular heads up the Laguna Madre under full sail. (photo: Andrew Linn)

The rest of the Laguna Madre passes calmly. I re-open the package of raspberry Newtons and proclaim the ancient Roman legionaries’ penalty for their mates’ desertion: decimation! One out of every ten Newtons must die, so I eat four of the remaining thirty-two Newtons. Always round up for mutinies and desertions, I explain to them. No one has the nerve to complain.
It’s not far to the Land Cut from here. I’m making good time, so I stop on one of the first spoil islands to stretch my legs and admire the lack of scenery. Flat sand. Scrub brush. Cactus. Sky. Weeds. Like sailing past an endless line of abandoned lots.

The Ducks pass me while I’m ashore. I launch and follow them into the long narrow channel of the Land Cut, catching the fleet again as they head for the beach to regroup. From here to tonight’s camp we’ll be sailing straight down a narrow canal dredged for miles through the mud flats. Gordo is last in line, looking smooth, with his backrest and his brightly colored umbrella rigged over the cockpit as a sunshade. Looks a little less smooth when the umbrella peels off in the wind and drops into the water, leaving him grabbing frantically for it. He misses. I follow him in, ready for a chance to retrieve it, but it’s already gone, sunk into the mud. I turn back into the cut, in the lead now.

I have no idea where tonight’s campsite is.

Monday afternoon

Good judgment comes from experience.
Experience is usually the result of poor judgment.

Hmm. My mast—the steel pipe that my brother theorized might be bendy enough to spill gusts and prevent disaster—seems to be bending. Should have used the brand new wooden mast I just finished last month instead. But maybe the wooden mast would have already broken. I shrug and sail on, trying to convince myself that the bend is an optical illusion. Can’t be a permanent bend, anyway—it’s steel! Steel is strong! I sail on. Jack Clayton, sailing his green Michalak Mixer—the boat I almost built instead of Jagular—is gaining ground. It’s the first boat I’ve seen besides the Ducks. He passes me, and suddenly I’m in second place. Hmm… Maybe I should have built a Mixer. Not much has changed, though; he doesn’t know where he’s going, either. Soon he’s out of sight.

It’s not long before I’m forced to admit that it’s no illusion; there’s a definite bend to the mast. Better stop and see what I can do. I beach Jagular in a mudbank and unstep the mast, try to straighten it out. Nothing to pry against, since the foot of the mast sinks into the mud when I try. Boats passing. Finally get the mast, if not straightened out, at least bent a little differently than it was before. Re-step mast with the bend to the opposite side; maybe the wind will straighten it. More boats passing. Launch again, getting mud all over the cockpit.

Hmm. Mast bending again. Not good. What to do, I wonder. Needs a backstay. I glance at the 100 feet of line in my gear bucket, the leeboard cleats perfectly located on the side decks. A backstay! I shove the tiller to port, steering for the beach again. But the mast is bending severely now. Drooping. I scramble to release the sheet, hoping to stave off complete disaster. The mast is crumpling. Folding. Bending into a shape reminiscent of a cooked noodle draped across the foredeck, foot still in the step, sail dragging through the water.

Jagular glides gently up onto the shore, thirty seconds too late.

I hop out into shin-deep mud, plans already running through my head. Worst case scenario, I ditch the rig entirely and row up the Land Cut and the ICW to the Padre Island Yacht Club. Can’t be more than fifty miles, all downwind. I can camp by myself, I have water for five days, that will be fine. Best case, I work out a jury rig. Pry the mast out of the step, slide the sail off, put the sail back on upside-down so the mangled mast foot doesn’t have to go back in the step. But first duct-tape the sprit to the crumpled mast as a splint, that can’t hurt. Reef sail by tying together the first three lacing points. Use the sprit boom for a shorter sprit. An oar for a boom.

Ten seconds after landing I’m already tugging the mast out of the step, surprised at how decisive I’ve become. It’s reassuring, this newly discovered capacity for immediate action in the face of a crisis. No dithering now. Bodes well for the rest of the trip.

Boats are passing by as I work things out, asking if I need help. No, I call back. I’m fine. Must maintain self-sufficiency, I tell myself. Make some feeble amends for stupidity. A few of the Newtons are snickering, rustling around in their packaging. I ignore them. I’m also trying not to pay attention to the nagging voice in my head telling me that I should have listened to John and reefed my sail; I’d have avoided this whole mess. Boats keep passing—fewer now, though.

I’m re-rigging the sail upside-down on the mast as Chuck and Sandra Leinweber pass by in their Caprice—an odd-looking boat, that, with the distinctive Michalak beak giving it a sharp Pleistocene profile—and Chuck asks if I need help. No, I tell him. Mast trouble, but I think I’ve got it figured out. Chuck wishes me well, sails on.

But I’m not quite alone; after a few minutes Kevin sails by in his lime green proa, asking if I need help. No boats in sight after him, even the Ducks have passed. I hesitate a moment. I’m ready to launch, and my rig will probably work. But he might be the last boat of the day. That’s a lonely feeling, so I wave him in. At least this way he can tell the rest of the fleet what happened to me if my jury rig doesn’t work out.
Kevin graciously beaches his boat alongside Jagular and hops out into the mud. He shows me how to rig a new sheeting point for the new, smaller sail I’ve rigged up, and I’m ready. Then John Wright stops by, eyes my new smaller sail, and nods. “That’ll do it,” he says. “You’ve done a nice job with your rigging.” But being complimented twice in one day for someone else’s work is too much, so I have to tell him Kevin showed me how to sheet my new smaller sail. Kevin, of course, is nice enough to imply that I had it figured out before he showed up. I counter by telling John that I knew he was right this morning when he told me to reef my sail, but that I usually had to learn things the hard way
.
“Is there another way?” he says. We all laugh. I start pulling Jagular off the beach, and Kevin politely suggests a backstay.

A backstay! I almost forgot the damn thing. I quickly unstep my new upside-down mast, rig a backstay to my starboard leeboard cleat, re-step the mast, and I’m off. Seems to be working. I feel bad about leaving Kevin and John ashore in the thick mud, but I needn’t have worried about it. Within a few minutes, they both pass me, happy to see I’m having no problems. I eat a couple more of the Newtons, and the rest stop snickering.

* * *

I beach Jagular at the Land Cut camp, at the end of a long line of boats. The Texas 200, the farce that launched a thousand ships. A misfit armada strung out along the beach, and I’ve landed at the end of the line, behind the PDR fleet, even. I realize that the motto on the Texas 200 shirt I ordered (Lord, let me at least beat the Puddle Ducks!) might not be as much of a joke as I thought when I first saw it.

Jagular arrives at the Land Cut camp under reduced sail. (photo: Chuck Leinweber)

Chuck comes by, congratulates me on making it to camp—it’s the longest distance I’ve ever sailed in a day. He admires my new oar-and-duct-tape rig, snaps a victory photo. Jason from the Puddle Duck fleet is next, and he’s also glad to see that I’ve made it. He offers me a spare mast and sail he has stowed on Tenacious Turtle, but I tell him I think my improvised rig will make it. He insists his spare rig is mine to use if I need it later. As he’s walking away, I’m thinking two things: 1) Wow, that was awful nice of him, and 2) How in the hell do you fit a spare rig in an eight-foot boat, along with everything else? I’ll be lucky if I have a spare bolt and the wrench to tighten it with aboard Jagular. Then I steal Jason’s idea about piling up paths of seaweed on the mud to keep my feet clean as I unload the boat. Kind of works.

I spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out under the three or four shade trees that the Texas coast offers. There’s even some actual grass to break up the Spaghetti Western landscape we’ve been sailing past all day. While I’m kicking back in the shade, word of other mishaps filters through the group. A capsized Sea Pearl. A crazed Frenchman dismasted and walking for miles back to Fred Stone Park, dodging ornery longhorns and ornerier ranchers. I meet a lot of people, and their boats. A giant peapod with a cabin. A Bolger folding schooner, ridiculously long at thirty feet, and surprisingly lean—Jagular’s big brother, the same size but twice as long. A few Michalak boats. Duck skippers standing in a circle on the beach, talking. There seems to be rum involved. I borrow a can opener from one of them. Cold ravioli from a can. Darkness. Unroll sleeping mat on flat sand. Collapse.

I wake at two-thirty a.m. to bright moonlight and stagger to my feet, look around, stare at the stars. No one else is up, but a boat is ghosting in silence to the beach, a white proa. It’s Laurent, the dismasted Frenchman, re-masted and re-launched under jib alone. He sails up onto the mud, drops the sail, and moves calmly around his boat lashing things down. I tell him there will be a lot of people surprised to see him in the morning.

“Everyone thought you’d have to leave your boat on the beach and walk back to your car,” I tell him. “How did you manage to keep sailing?”

He pauses, turns to me and grins. “I do not give up easily.”

To be continued...

 

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