A Leak Is Plugged, but Enthusiasm Can't Be Contained

In a boatyard off the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County, a sailboat with an evocative name heads to the launching basin, ready for the upcoming season.
In a boatyard off the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County, a sailboat with an evocative name heads to the launching basin, ready for the upcoming season. (By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, March 25, 2007

"We're sinking!"

The last time I'd uttered that nerve-racking phrase was in the mid-Atlantic aboard a 60-foot racing sailboat bound for Norway. It was no joke. By leaving a valve in the wrong position after a little cleanup job, I'd let the ocean in through a drain pipe. We came below in the dead of night to find the floorboards awash and cold water sloshing around, ankle deep. We got the leak stopped and the cabin mopped, but the skipper was not amused.

Last week, the same horror struck as I strode down the companionway on my newest old boat, Mad Will, a 33-year-old, oceangoing 31-footer, to find water lapping at the bunks and the floorboards awash all over again.

Sinking? Certainly not, the big difference being that instead of shouldering swells in mid-ocean, this time the vessel was high and dry on jack stands at Ferry Point Marina off the Magothy River. The old girl might burst from outward pressure, but she surely wasn't going to sink. Man the pumps!

The old salts say the most effective instrument for bailing is a bucket in the hands of a frightened man. I remembered that after about five minutes toiling to little effect at the hand pump. Off came shoes and socks, and I waded in with an old sheetrocker's bucket. It took a half-hour to get the floodwaters out. Now the question was, how did they get in?

You may remember the wild northeaster that roared up the coast nine days ago with a deluge of rain interspersed with bursts of ice and sleet and snow. "First it rained, then it blew, then it friz and then it snew," veteran waterfowl hunter David Michael of Crownsville would put it. The storm dumped several inches of precipitation in a short time, and somehow much of it wound up in Mad Will's bilge.

The good thing about old boats is that unlike most of the new stuff you deal with in this fast-paced, technology-crazed world, you can usually figure out things on a boat -- as long as you can bend into a pretzel to get at it. Down went the skipper into the bowels of the old fiberglass beast, tracing out drain lines designed to carry away boarding seas you might encounter in a wild ride around the Cape of Good Hope.

Somewhere between the battery compartment and the bilge pump, the offending pipe popped up -- a one-inch hose that had blown out of its tee fitting, directing the deluge off the deck and straight into the engine compartment to gather some oil and dirt, then to the bilge and, when that filled up, on to the sacred confines of the wood-paneled main saloon. Yuk!

It's been an interesting winter, to tell the truth, with plenty of boating adventures to spice it up, even stuck here on dry land. Last year, I foolishly took possession of two new old boats, Mad Will and Ida Claire, a 22-foot wooden crabbing skiff purchased to replace the homemade plywood boat that finally gave in to rot and ruin after years of honest service.

Add to that Flying Tide, the 43-year-old Boston Whaler that sits under a tarp in the side yard begging for paint and polish and you have -- well, it's a handful, especially if you do your own work, which you'd better because you couldn't pay anybody to do most of it.

Now, with spring barreling down time's pitiless highway, headlights on and horn blaring, it all comes to a head. Paint, varnish, oil, caulking, canvas, plumbing, electronics, rigging, sails, registration, insurance, dockage, ground tackle, cordage, fishing gear, crab bait -- it compresses in a whirling blur that reaches its worrisome apex right about bedtime. I have three kids, all grown, but never lost sleep over them the way I do over this fleet.

Nor does it go away. The current deadline is April Fool's Day, when everything is supposed to be launched and operational. All that does is switch the worry from deadlines to a death watch. If that same pipe pops off the tee fitting in a deluge in May, the old sailboat really might sink!

Worth it? You bet. This is the time of year when boatyards across Chesapeake country from Deltaville, Va., to Havre de Grace, Md., spring to life with the sounds of the season. Owners and helpers converge, brushes and polishing cloths in hand, to take winter covers off vessels with evocative names like Endless Summer, Blue Horizons, Spindrift and Sea Witch. (Mad Will, by the way, is named for our two youngest, Madeleine and Willie, in a shameless bid to get them to come out once in a while.)

The annual allure of the Chesapeake, the nation's largest estuary, and its many tributaries is simple: It connects us directly to every other place in the world. Tides that come and go, pulled along by the sun and moon, are the same ones that rise and fall in Banda Aceh, Cape Town, Cape Horn, Sydney, Montevideo, Oslo, San Diego, Hong Kong.

Point your old boat south down the Potomac and on to Norfolk and poke the bow into the North Atlantic swells, or go north through the C&D Canal and down Delaware Bay to find the blue water at Cape May, and you are joining seagoing legions in the second-oldest form of human global exploration, right behind walking.

On my desk I keep a print of Winslow Homer's fine painting "Breezing Up," in which four boys in straw hats charge along under gray, stormy skies in a New England sailing skiff. The old canvas mainsail is loaded and pulling like a mule while off in the distance a gaff-rigged schooner charges out to sea.

Homer knows boats; he gets every little detail right, so you can almost feel the tug of the tiller in the young skipper's hand and share his excitement at racing a schooner till it disappears over the horizon, bound for who-knows-where.

Adventure, that's what boats are about. Spring can't come soon enough.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company