Or, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Bridge Clearance
Story and photos by Jody Argo Schroath
Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know. Everyone who has done it, or is just thinking about doing it, has rolled that conundrum up the right side of their brain and down the left. “It will make boating too easy,” they tell themselves. “All we’ll have to do is point the boat in one direction and then get there in a little while. It will be so embarrassing.”
That’s the kind of thinking that keeps sailors in their Cabo Ricos long after they have begun thinking wistfully about sunny flybridges with 360-degree views, air-conditioning underway and enough room in the saloon for mom and pop Stratoloungers. “We’d never live it down,” they tell each other, as they gaze into the abyss.
But finally, reluctantly, they take the plunge and bring home a nice used Grand Banks or Mainship. They join the Marine Trawler Owners Association and attend a lot of pot luck dinners where they find themselves discussing inverters and battery banks over sundowners. They aim for a destination and get there shortly afterward. They are trawler people now. And they are happy.
And yet, what happens when they introduce themselves to a sailboat couple? “Hi, we’re Jeff and Sandy,” they begin bravely enough, but then immediately look down to study their Bobs. “We had sailboats for years, but decided it was time to move to a trawler.” There, they’ve said it. They can’t help themselves. Sure, they’re happy, but here is that pesky residual sailors’ guilt, as if to say, “I apologize that unlike you, I no longer have to crawl up to the mast in five-foot seas and a gale-force wind to free the main halyard from the number two spreaders. We just point her where we want to go and get there shortly afterward.”
And here I feel compelled to explain on behalf of sailors the thing that makes sailing superior to anything else in the whole world, which is, when the sails are pulling just right and the wind is steady at perhaps 15 knots and the boat is heeled just so and slicing through the water like a Ginsu knife, then all the Stratoloungers on earth don’t amount to a hill of beans. Jeff and Sandy know that. And so do I.
Which brings me to my point. In anticipation of theoretically doing the Great Loop this year—portions of which require that the mast come down anyway—I had the mast and rigging removed and put into storage last fall, before I went down the ICW. My reasoning was that the ICW is 90 percent motoring anyway with a substantial number of bridges, many of them with closed clearances lower than my mast. But now, there would be all those lovely bridges I wouldn’t have to wait for!
And so it was that I became a temporary powerboater. I even look like one. Moment of Zen is a sailing catamaran made by Endeavour out of Clearwater, Florida. Back in 2000, they saw which way the wind was blowing and started making powercats instead of sailing cats. To do that they mostly just left off the rigging and substituted slightly larger twin diesels and put on a hard top. The result is that, with the rigging removed, I pretty much look like any other Endeavour powercat.
This has changed my life in two ways I had anticipated and one I hadn’t. First, the trip down the ICW. For the most part, it was exactly as it always is, except for the getting-under-bridges thing. Which is big. This time I didn’t have to fret about missing an on-the-hour-only bridge by five minutes and having to dither around for 55 minutes, sometimes in the wind and current and the company of six or so fellow sailboats and an impatient large yacht or two. Now, with a vertical clearance of only 13 feet, I could thumb my nose at the Wrightsville Beach Bridge, for example, where I have wasted significant portions of my life waiting for an opening. And the Wapoo Creek Bridge, whose opening schedule is so convoluted that it reads like a James Joyce novel. And then there’s my nemesis, the Ben Sawyer Bridge in South Carolina, where I have in the past not only missed its top-of-the-hour-only opening, but one time its two-hour afternoon rush hour closure. Aarrrrghh! But this time, I gave the bridge tender an insouciant wave as I motored under its 35 feet of vertical clearance at 15 minutes past the hour. It was glorious.
My new identify as a powerboat has had a second anticipated consequence. When you are a sailor and have a sailboat, the amount of time you spend with the sails up is closely related to whether you are just out to bash about for the afternoon—in which case they are generally up—or you intend to get some place—in which case they are up only if the wind is blowing from the right direction and at the right speed and your destination isn’t that far, all of which means that the sails are generally furled.
I am going to confess here that I have made entire multi-day cruises and never had the sails up for that reason plus two others. One of those is sloth. Sailing is a lot of work, some of it physical and some of it mental, and I am only intermittently energetic in either direction.
The other reason is that I am single-handing with two dogs who still don’t know the difference between a jib halyard and a jib sheet. Heaven knows, I’ve tried, but they just don’t get it. And never will. So, my theory—or delusion, if you like—is if something happens to me, they will argue about which line to pull until they have crashed into something or reached Aruba, and they don’t have passports.
If I were alone on the boat without so much as a goldfish to my name and fell off, well fine. It’s my problem. If I had a friend on the boat, even a non-boating, non-sailing friend, and I fell off, I have confidence they’d figure it out. Unless we were offshore, in which case I’d already gone through what to do. But the thought of Bindi and Sammy sailing off into the sunset or Annapolis harbor . . . well, that gives me pause.
“But you could fall off under power,” you say. Well, I could, but I put the engines in neutral when I have to go forward, like to set the fenders for docking. You can’t, practically speaking, slip into neutral while sailing, and as many lines as you’ve got leading aft, you still end up going forward, because it’s a sailboat.
Anyway, the upshot is that I spend less and less time actually sailing and more and more time feeling guilty about it. “It’s a sailboat,” I say to myself whenever the wind kicks up, “you’re supposed to sail it.” Guilt. Ask Jim and Sandy. They understand.
So now, with the rig down, I still feel a yearning to set sail, but I don’t feel guilty because I can’t. Wind blowing? Gosh, nothing I can do about it. Sweet!
The third difference caught me entirely by surprise. As a sailcat, I was used to other sailboats waving at me—when they could see me through the strapped-on fuel cans, bicycles and kayaks. And of course, the Jims and Sandys in their trawlers waved to me. Trawlers are nice people; they’ll wave at anything—even WaveRunners. But the first time a fishing boat waved to me on the way south this fall, I thought it was a mistake. “Swatting a fly,” I said to myself. Then a little while later, a sportfish waved a friendly hello as it left me bucking in its wake. “Hmm,” I said, a little puzzled, “I guess it can happen.” But when three center consoles and a waterman waved to me in one day, I finally saw the light. “I’m a powerboat!” I exclaimed, apparently stating the obvious. “They are waving at me because they think I’m a powerboat.”
I was dumbfounded. I’d had no idea that would happen. I was amused, because here were all these people now waving and being friendly to me. Which, pretty soon, also annoyed me a little bit because all this time there were all these boaters waving merrily to each other but not to sailboats. Hey! And then I started feeling a little guilty because I wasn’t really a powerboat, only disguised as one. And on top of that I began feeling a little guilty for letting down the sailboat side by disguising myself as a powerboat. Whew, life is complicated. But on balance I have decided that I do like being waved at. And where are we if we don’t feel guilty about something?