By Wanda Bermúdez
Something horrible and wonderful happened to me yesterday but I don’t want my mother and my siblings and cousins to know. My mother because she worries for me too much. My siblings and cousins because they think I am crazy to choose to sail over a power boat and this will give them more fuel.
You see, I am the owner of the only cruising sailboat smaller than 30 feet in Vieques. My mini-cruiser is barely 17 feet long. Actually 16 and a half. I have been learning on it for two years and now have the confidence to go out on solo sailing excursions.
Yesterday I was supposed to do my first solo half-circumnavigation of Vieques from the Rompeolas, a mile long breakwater in the north, to Esperanza Beach in the south, because the forecast, since a week ago, was for almost flat waters but nice 10 knot winds. That was my golden opportunity. Except that the forecast changed last minute. Small craft advisories started popping up on my cell phone since 3 am. So I decided to stay in the protected waters west of the Rompeolas testing my new custom second reefing line.
When I arrived at Rompeolas the wind was steady at 10 kts and gusting over 15 kts. The waters were around 2 feet. The boat had been on a mooring buoy for several days. I set up my new reefing line to test it, hoisted the sails and off I went.
I had been in the water for less than one hour. Then while sailing close-hauled on a strong wind and on a nice heel angle, I saw in horror one of the clevis pins that holds the forestay (the cable that supports the front sail and prevents the mast from going backwards) just popped off. Didn’t break, just came off.
There I was, for 2-3 seconds, looking in awe at the thin line of cord, about 1 foot long, that connected the front bottom of my head sail to the anchor pulpit and the only thing holding my rigging together. I tried to steer into the wind hoping to stop the boat so I can move to the front and remedy the situation but then, in a flash, my whole rigging, mast, boom, two sails, ropes and cables, lifted up in the air and disappeared. The boat came to a sudden stop and the heel angle was gone.
That was the horrible part. Then came the wonderful. I did not panic at all. My American Sailing Association training must have been good for something. I moved forward and dropped the anchor to secure position and not drift further out to sea. Then I assessed the damage. The mast broke at the foot, the connecting part between the mast and the hull. No damage to the hull and the mast part broken costs about $20 and I already have a spare at home. The mast/boom/sails were still hanging underwater held in place by the lines (ropes) and shrouds (cables). The whole thing is connected together and now full of water, too heavy for me to lift. I grabbed another line and tied the mast up closer to the waterline since I couldn’t lift it.
Of course I looked towards Rompeolas but not looking for help. I wanted to make sure nobody other than the security guard at the pier saw what happened. Imagine the shame! And there was nobody there, yeah!!!!
So I looked at the outboard engine. In two years I had been able to start that engine from within the boat only twice. And sure enough it did not start with the first pull, but with the second it roared. Now I was in the game. Since there were so many lines and sails in the water under the boat, I hesitated to put the engine in forward gear fearing I would tear the sails or worst, something will catch the propeller and stall the engine. I lifted the anchor and decided to try to get to the nearest beach in reverse gear. For about 15 minutes that felt like an eternity I steered the boat backwards towards the beach. I was looking for a very shallow spot where I could stand next to the boat at lower than waist level. My boat draft with the keel up is only 16 inches.
I dropped anchor when it was shallow enough and proceeded to disconnect the sails completely from the rigging so I could bring them up to dry over the hull. It took a while to disconnect the main because I had two reefing lines installed. I disconnected the boom from the mast to make the mast lighter. The mast was full of water and was too heavy for me. Slowly but surely I was able to lift everything back in the boat in separate pieces. The best part is that I have the confidence of knowing exactly how each part is connected to the other. I can put everything back myself.
Everything secured. The sun shining beautifully, the water clear, visibility was incredible, I could see the wind generators in Naguabo and El Conquistador Hotel in Fajardo in the nearby main island. I decided to stay at the beach for a while waiting for the sails to dry and went around in my kayak dinghy exploring the area a little. Had my lunch at the beach. When it was time to leave, the engine did not want to start. Three or four times I pulled and nothing. So I stepped into the sand and started the engine from outside, one pull.
Now my boat is back on the trailer in my car port waiting for me to do a couple of repairs. The forecast calls for great weather in two days. Maybe I can do the half circumnavigation then.
Note: The writer is a 120 lb, 5’2″ female with a chronic respiratory condition.