March 1, 2009

The Terrors of Being Towed

I ONCE SAILED a 17-foot sailboat across the English Channel from Dover to Calais. But I didn’t sail back. I was towed by a cabin cruiser. And I’ve never been so scared in my life.

I was young then. I knew it all. I gave the towboat my anchor chain and shackled a concrete weight in the middle to prevent snatching. I lowered my heavy metal centerboard for maximum stability. Big mistakes.

We left Calais at dusk in a dead calm. The other skipper had promised to go no faster than 6 knots, but we took off at 10. The tow line stretched bar taut. The concrete black slammed into the swells, showering the open cockpit with heavy spray and drenching me.

Every few minutes she’s heel far over, staggering and juddering as the centerboard gained lift. I strained against the tiller, trying to keep her in line astern. I heard water swishing down below, but couldn’t leave the helm to pump. I daren’t go forward to cast off the tow for fear of immediate capsize. I couldn’t communicate with the cruiser.

In pitch darkness, rigid with fear, I was dragged at 10 knots toward the Goodwin Sands lightship, which had its name painted on its sides in 6-foot white letters. The idiot powerboat skipper circled it and yelled: “Where are we? Which way to Dover?”

When we finally got to Dover he towed us into the Royal Navy’s submarine pen. Police pounced on us and searched both boats. Turned out there had been a big jewel theft in France. A getaway cruiser had been stolen in Calais.

The cops removed the idiot skipper and his friends, and I didn’t feel at all sorry for them. I collapsed on a damp bunk strewn with debris from the police search and vowed never to be towed again if I couldn’t cast off the tow line from the cockpit at any time I wanted.

Today’s Thought
There are many advantages in sea-voyaging, but security is not one of them.
—Sadi. (Emerson, English Traits: The Voyage.)

Another notice we noticed:
In a bar’s non-smoking section:
“If we see smoke we will assume you are on fire and take appropriate action.”

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