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Red Sky at Morning, Sailors Take Warning

Saturday’s dawn was spectacular in San Diego.

latitude/Richard
© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

Last Saturday we awoke at 6 a.m. aboard Profligate at an end-tie at Driscoll’s Boat Yard in San Diego. It was calm and there was a magnificent red dawn. Naturally it called to mind the famous saying, "Red sky at morning, sailor take warning." We didn’t pay it much mind. After all, it was San Diego calm, and all we had planned was a fast motor up to Catalina, making our way north to the start of this Sunday’s SoCal Ta-Ta in Santa Barbara.

What could go wrong indeed.

We started the two engines as Doña de Mallorca went down to the dock to disconnect the shorepower cord and docklines. Ever the gentleman, we decided that we should join her on the dock to undo the lines. True, that would mean nobody would be left on the 63-ft by 30-ft cat with the engines running, but as we said, it was dead calm.

Profligate has very high freeboard, nearly six feet when you’re standing on the dock. And the lifelines are 42 inches high. So when you throw the lines aboard, you have to whip them over the top of the lifelines. With just the very long stern line remaining, we whipped the last spring line over the lifelines.

"Wow," we thought you ourselves, "that came pretty close to hitting the MicroCommander box." The MicroCommander is the cat’s fly-by-wire engine control system. Just the slightest nudge on the lever(s) puts the engine(s) in gear.

Still half asleep, it suddenly occurred to us that something was very wrong. Profligate was quickly moving aft and away from the dock. Shit, the line had hit the MicroCommander and put the starboard engine in reverse! Profligate was moving away fast. Thanks to the last remaining stern line, she was being swung in the direction of one of the boat yard docks.

Our mind flashed on the boats in Profligate‘s path: a 65-ft sportfishing boat, Chuck Driscoll’s J/105, the S&S 48 Endymion that Dennis Conner had just bought from the Driscoll family and added to his fleet; a big Jeanneau on a sales dock; a lovingly restored little speedboat; and our friend Karen’s just-sold Columbia 45. Shit, shit, shit!

We had but one chance, and that was to attempt a flying ‘scissor kick’ high jump onto the rapidly departing port back steps of Profligate. We made it halfway, which left us clinging to that no man’s land between being on the boat and being about to fall into the water. Then we heard the gnashing of fiberglass. That inspired us to hump like we’ve never humped before, which is what got us onto the back steps.

We dashed to the MicroCommander and slammed both engines into forward. The long one-second delay the MicroCommand takes to shift gears seemed to take forever. But then the props spun in forward, just inches before we hit the big sportfishing boat and the J/105. Having averted disaster, we stood there in a combination of shock and relief. The torturing of fiberglass? That had been our SSB antenna being ripped down by the long stern line. We needed a new one anyway.

Red sky in morning? We’ll be a little more careful in the future.

The motor up to Catalina was easy. As we passed by White’s Landing, we were amazed to see the size of the surf crashing just to the north of it. We hadn’t realized that a south swell wraps so far around the island. But it was just gorgeous there, with a spectacular blue sky and warm sunshine, and hundreds of boats.

We got the hook down about an hour later on Harbor Reef, which is a shallow area about 600 yards out from the most offshore of the Two Harbors mooring buoys. It’s open to much of the prevailing swell, which is often 90 degrees to the direction of the wind, so it’s really only suitable for big cats. Thus we always have it to ourselves.

Anyway, just about dark there was a shout: "Profligate, hey Profligate!" It was Stephen Driscoll, Chuck’s son. He was in a small inflatable with three others. While the Wanderer snoozed, Stephen explained to de Mallorca that he and three others had been diving at mile-distant Ship Rock. But when they were done for the day, they couldn’t get the dinghy engine started. They couldn’t call for help because they hadn’t brought a VHF or cell phone with them — which was almost as foolish as having one’s unmanned boat motor away from the dock without you.

Even though Ship Rock is a mile away from Harbor Reef, Stephen was able to recognize Profligate as she approached and set her anchor. With their options being drifting toward Mexico or swimming for Profligate, the group chose the latter. So it was that Stephen and a friend, wearing wetsuits, swam in the direction of Profligate, the nearest boat, towing the dinghy with their two friends.

Given the fact that it was Saturday on Labor Day Weekend, and the area between Ship Rock and Harbor Reef is pretty much in the middle of the nautical highway between Two Harbors and major mainland marinas, we’d have thought that they’d be seen by one of the many boats coming to or from the island. Heck, we’d have thought they might be run down. But they weren’t able to flag down any vessels. Finally, after they’d been swimming toward Profligate for 40 minutes, they managed to get the attention of a passing boat. They were towed to Profligate, from which they called friends on the Cal 40 mothership at Howland’s Landing to pick them up.

We had no idea a south swell could hit the face of Catalina so hard.

latitude/Richard
© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

So there were three big lessons from Saturday: 1) If the engine(s) is running and the dock lines are off, make sure somebody is on the bloody boat; 2) if you’re going on a dinghy adventure, make sure you bring a working VHF and flashlight; and 3) the less Chuck Driscoll knows about what nearly happened to his boat and to his son, probably the better.

It’s important to learn from the foolish mistakes of others. Do you have one you’d like to share, hoping to save other sailors from grief?

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