THE GEARBOX on a Westerbeke engine I once owned was controlled by a small lever that stood straight up when the gears were in neutral, and leaned either backward or forward when the appropriate gears were engaged.
This lever was joined by a long cable to the remote gear control lever in the cockpit; but on one occasion, as we were coming into our marina slip, the cable slipped off the gearbox lever out of sight down below. This left the gearbox in forward gear, of course, with no way of getting it into neutral or reverse.
I moved the now-useless cockpit lever into reverse to halt the boat in the slip and revved the engine. Nothing happened to the actual gearbox, so, instead of stopping, the boat leaped forward and broadsided our dinghy, which was moored across the head of the dock. There was a loud crunching noise and lots of confusion before I had the sense to shut the engine down.
A similar thing happened to a famous boat called Tzu Hang, a 22-ton ketch sailed by Miles and Beryl Smeeton with their crew, John Guzzwell. The incident forms one of the funniest episodes in Guzzwell’s book, Trekka Round the World (Fine Edge), largely because of the behavior of Mrs. Smeeton, known always as “B.” She was a very strong-willed lady, physically as tough as nails but loving and generous to her husband and friends.
The incident occurred within sight of a posh yacht club in Auckland, New Zealand, when the Smeetons were offered the use of the commodore’s personal mooring buoy. Not wishing to make fools of themselves, the crew of Tzu Hang drew up a battle plan. Here is Guzzwell’s description of the scene:
‘ “The Commodore’s buoy is painted white,” explained Miles Smeeton. “It’s down here amongst a group of moored yachts. I know which one it is, so I’ll go off in the dinghy and leave you two to bring Tzu Hang over . . .”
‘B. got the engine going and I went up in the bow and began cranking the anchor chain aboard with the windlass.
‘I saw Miles had reached the mooring, and as the anchor came aboard he gave the signal to B. that we were all clear. She pushed the gear lever forward and Tzu Hang began to gather way as we turned downwind to approach Miles.
‘Unknown to us, below the deck, the gearshift lever became disengaged from the transmission, with the engine still in gear turning the propeller.
‘I saw Miles cup his hands and shout, “Take her out of gear, B.” as we approached him.
‘From aft I heard B. ask: “What did he say?”
‘ “He says to take her out of gear,” I relayed from the bow, standing ready with the line I was to pass to Miles.
‘ “OK, I’ve got her out of gear,” said B., moving the now-useless lever back to the neutral position.
‘ “Give her a touch astern,” directed Miles from the dinghy, looking a little anxious.
‘ “What did he say?” B. asked me from aft.
‘ “He wants you to give her a touch astern,” I called as the distance to Miles decreased rapidly.
‘B. moved the lever to the astern position and revved the engine. Tzu Hang surged ahead and I heard Miles shouting, “No! Astern, B. Go astern!”
‘ “What’s the idiot shouting now?” asked B., a steely note to her voice. “I’ve got her astern,” and she increased the power as Tzu Hang headed directly for the figure in the dinghy who was now waving his arms and yelling,
“Astern B.! You’ve got her ahead!”
‘B. was quite angry now, and she did not like being shouted at when she knew perfectly well what she was doing. She had moved the gear lever to astern and done what she was told. She was not about to listen to Miles or anyone else now. Tzu Hang was now making 7 knots and a respectable bow wave as we bore down the last few yards on Miles and rammed him square amidships. In a split second he managed to transfer himself to the bobstay below the bowsprit. He was still shouting, ”Astern, B., go astern!”
‘I looked aft at B., not sure what to do.
‘ “Did I get the bastard?” she demanded in a cold voice. “Oh, good!” she said with satisfaction as the upturned dinghy disappeared astern.
‘I looked ahead to see us rapidly approaching a large motor yacht that we were going to hit in the next few seconds unless we were very lucky. I quickly let go the anchor, and the chain came rattling out of the hawse pipe and whipped past Miles, still clinging to the bobstay.
‘Closer and closer we came to the motor yacht, and there was no doubt in my mind that we were about to sink her, too. Twenty-two tons of teak, bronze, and lead were not to be denied. I closed my eyes and was suddenly jerked off my feet as the anchor grabbed something and Tzu Hang sheered away at the last possible instant. We proceeded to go round and round in a circle, just missing the motor yacht each time.
‘I helped Miles up over the bow and he rushed aft and cut the engine. We slowly came to a halt and I thought I saw the flash of binoculars from the balcony of the yacht club.
‘When I went below, B. was sitting very quietly in the saloon, knitting, the sounds of the needles unnaturally loud. Miles and I knew when to shut up.’
Chaos is come again.
— Shakespeare, Othello
“Did you have that man-to-man chat with Jimmy, dear?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Was it successful?”
“Well, I tried to explain about the birds and the bees, but he kept switching the conversation back to girls.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)