March 25, 2014

Farewell to 'Wetazel'

WHEN I SEE the eight-year-olds buzzing around the marina in their 8-foot Optimists I am always astonished at their confidence and ability. They sit to leeward with big grins on their fearless faces while their gunwales lap the water, and they waggle the tiller with all the panache of salty old professionals.

There were no Optimists in my early sailing days. We were not a sailing family, and I was the only one who showed any interest in the sport. That happened after a chance encounter with a young man sailing a 14-foot Redwing dinghy.  I was on the beach, and as he came past he shouted: “Want to come for a sail?”

I was 13 years old and didn’t know any better, so I said “Yes.” About two years later I discovered the local yacht club. While poking around the dinghy park I came across a boxy-looking 14-foot wooden dinghy that somebody said was “a club boat,” whatever that meant. I kept a close eye on it for some time, and it became obvious that it was never used. In fact I was doubtful that it would float, because the bottom seams had dried out, leaving small gaps between the planks.

After a few months I learned that she was called Wetazel, an appropriate name, and that she was one of a class of singlehanded catboats used in the 1936 summer Olympic Games in Germany. I didn’t know when this one was actually built, but I could tell she was very, very old.

The more I looked at her and poked around her, the more proprietary I became. Nobody at the club showed any surprise when I began acting as if I owned her. One day I took my pocket money and  bought a big can of Pliobond, a sort of liquid rubber. I slathered Pliobond all over her insides and thought in my naivety that it would make her waterproof.

I bent on her rust-stained old mainsail and took her for a sail on the bay one beautiful summer’s day. She leaked, of course, despite all the Pliobond, but I had a bailer and could keep up with it by shoveling out water every 10 minutes or so. No matter,  I was delighted with her. It felt wonderful to be in charge of my own vessel. I was the teenage captain of my own destiny and
free to do what I wanted anywhere on the seven seas.

We were on a dead run, and it was getting time to bail again, when a gust hit us from astern. It depressed the bow just a little and the boatload of bilge water suddenly all charged forward until the bow was under water. She just kept sailing on down and filled completely with water. The steel centerboard dragged her under and she sank from beneath me. I wasn’t wearing a life jacket, of course. No one seemed to in those days. But I could swim, after a fashion, and I managed to make my way to an island sandbank where I stood, shocked and shivering, with water up to my knees for half an hour or so until a little outboard runabout came along by chance and rescued me.

I never said a word to anyone at the club, or at home, about my little misadventure, and nobody ever asked what had become of Wetazel. I consoled myself by thinking that her life was over anyway, and that she had experienced a hero’s funeral. Sort of like a Viking funeral, only wetter. And I have never sailed another boat under since then.  

 Today’s Thought
The sea carries no tracks; one disappears into it and it leaves no trace, returns from it without a mark to show whence one came.
— Edward L. Beach

Books I dreamed I found in my library:
Mother and Child, by Polly Anderson
The Appointment, by Simeon Mundy
Ceaseless Fall, by Eileen Dover
Shattered Window, by Eva Brick
Front Row of the Stalls, by Seymour Legge
Droopy Drawers, by Lucie l’Astique


Anonymous said...

This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.


Unknown said...

Interesting imagery you suggest, that of a man perched atop a mast truck clinging to an iron rod. I tried, in vain, to find a picture of this stunt, but google let me down. Do you have such a picture?

John Vigor said...

Hi Dale, No, I'm sorry I don't have an illustration of a man atop the truck of a sailing ship.
I haven't had time to do a comprehensive search, but I suspect there might be a painting somewhere of sailors manning yards in a British Royal Navy fleet review in the Solent. I don't know about photographs, though. Maybe they quit this suicidal practice before the camera was invented.


John V.

Unknown said...

Thanks, John. One last comment, I just googled "manning the yards" to see what images came up. Peyton Manning passing a football was not what I expected....

Great blog you write. I read it every week, and have stolen a few of your tailpiece items. My Facebook friends like them, too....

Jack said...

Here's a short video of The Senior Service doing their thing...