Last time it was a knock-down, this time it’s a drag-out…

Now all we need is a fight!

It all started out as a regular, run-of-the-beautiful-mill sailing trip.

No really.

James has been doing the commute between Essex and Edgewater for a few weeks now, but the idea was always that we’d move down to the dock on which he works.  Rain stalled us on the two occasions we’d planned to make the 10-hour sail down. Yesterday was fine, though, and we got out of bed knowing we would be sailing all day.

We stowed gear, stored foodstuffs, and worked our mooring lines off the pilings they’d been wrapped around since we moved to Cutter Marine on April 20, 2010.  Setting off, we had no wind and resigned ourselves to motoring out to open bay.

The Chesapeake greeted us with vivid patches of blue sky behind the shifting drifts of dense cumulonimbus.  We motored; we sailed; we motorsailed.  The rhythm of wind-building and wind-dying was followed closely by our jib, which roller-unfurled and roller-furled in a flirty dance.  The main sail did a stately version, staying high but pulling in while motoring and drifting far out when sailing – we were broad-reaching all day long.

The boom far out to port as we broad reached down the Chesapeake.

Have you ever been sailing?  It’s a lovely combination of doing nothing and being busy the whole time.  Watching for crab pot buoys, keeping on course, watching other boats approach or glide away, adjusting sail – none of it is stressful.  On a light-wind day like yesterday, we didn’t even observe our usual watch schedule.  We passed the helm off whenever it felt right and the person not touching the tiller was responsible for spotting buoys.  It was relaxing and happy and we loved on each other at every opportunity.

James on the stbd lifeline

Slicing kalamatas to spark up our colby-jack sandwiches – that was the dangerous high-point of the sail until we got well into the South River.

I was at the helm and sailing obliquely toward the land just down-river from the Quiet Waters Park.  I scoped out the dark-bricked, castle-like dwelling on the cliff up-river from the park and just beyond the entrance to Harness Creek.  When James asked me how close we could get to the shore, I glanced again at the chart, confirming what I’d seen before.

“Pretty close,” was my laconic answer.

The depth sounder was showing a steady 14 feet.  That means about 16 feet of water depth – plenty for our boat.  Much of the Chesapeake and its estuarine systems run shallower than that.  I’ve been in channels with 7 and 8 feet of water.  To a Puget Sound girl, that sounds like nothing.  But I’ve been getting used to it.  And I was about to pay for my overconfidence.

The plan was to watch the depth carefully.  According to the chart, the bottom should come up to about 9 feet and stay there a little ways before jumping up to 2 feet.

It didn’t.

The depth sounder read 14 and then I felt a slow jolt, our momentum died, and the sounder changed its mind and told me – about 2 seconds too late – that I had 2.4 feet of water around me.

My boat is deeper than that.

James and I looked at each other, looked up at the full sails, and started talking.  Once we decided it would be useful to take turns with the talking thing, James began the conversation on the right foot.

“We are so fucked.”

I turned away from this statement of fact and started sculling.  That just means wiggling the rudder back and forth by pushing and pulling the tiller.  The point?  I was trying to power off of the soft bottom.  Didn’t work.

James backwinded the main each direction, one after another, while I sculled.  I thought I was breaking free because the rudder started moving more easily, but nope.  I realized that I was just using the rudder to scrape the mud away from that portion of the river and stopped pumping the tiller back and forth.

A weather eye showed that we weren’t going to sail out of this one directly – the wind was pushing us hard and harder onto the mud.  We pulled the jib in but decided to leave the main – it would be useful in heeling the boat over (which reduces the depth since the bottom of our boat has a wineglass shape).  Once we started to break free, that would be helpful.  We hoped.

Here’s where I’m proud of us.  We each have our own, idiosyncratic responses to urgent and/or dangerous situations.  James jumps into action; if he can’t, he gets upset and starts to freak out.  I slow down and start to work through solutions methodically; if I am rushed, I stiffen up in fear that I’ll make things worse.

We did all four of those things in this case.  James freaked and then calmed himself; I froze and then jumped in.

What we also did was this: we launched our dinghy in a new manner that we fashioned in the moment and instantly.  After rigging it out with oars and oarlocks, James jumped down into it, we filled it with an anchor and a bunch of chain, and he rowed out as far as the chain would reach.  He unceremoniously dumped the anchor over the transom of the dinghy and began rowing back.

I knew we had a problem before he made it back to the boat.

Turns out, our lovely anchor with its 150 feet of lovely chain?  Well, the chain is actually two shorter pieces of chain.  In two different sizes.  Neither of which fits properly into our windlass.

And here’s why that’s a problem.  The windlass has teeth in it that are spaced precisely to fit into the links of a specific size of chain.  The chain winds around the windlass and is guided off by a piece of metal called a stripper.  In this case, the chain got bound up in the teeth and the stripper couldn’t always break it off.

The upshot is that I spent a really, really long time turning a winch handle against both the entire weight of the boat and against the chain itself.  The whole point was to haul the boat off the mud, which is hard enough in the best of circumstances.  With old rusty chain that was never meant to be wrapped around a windlass?  Well, it was a long slog.

Why wasn’t James taking turns, you ask?  Well.  James started out taking turns.  At one point, the chain got so badly stuck that he leaned outboard, over the bow pulpit, in order to pull some slack for me.  Did the wind blow us a little harder?  Did James just pull too damn hard?

I don’t know.  But he pulled himself against the 1 inch stainless steel tubing that makes up the bow pulpit.  His ribs pushed into that tubing so hard that one of those ribs popped out of its accustomed home.  From one moment to the next, his groan of hard work turned into a moan of pain.

Of course, I stopped working to find out how badly he was hurt.  He’s done this before and it’s a long healing process – 4 to 5 weeks before he’s really better.  I got grim and he got upset.

“We could call someone.”

That was my suggestion, and I wasn’t talking about calling my mom to say hi.  (Hi mom!)  I sent James into the cabin to find our insurance information and the phone number for Tow Boat US.

Then I kept turning that winch handle on the windlass.  Right about the time James had everything in hand, I looked up from my Sisyphean task and realized we weren’t pointing the same direction we started in.

“James!  We’ve moved!”

And minutes later, I broke the anchor out of the mud and hauled it into its cradle on the bow.  James and I looked at one another.  “We can’t do that again.”

Rather than put ourselves through that horrible job for a second time, we dug out our secondary anchor, a Fortress, and all of its rode and chain.  In a now-businesslike fashion, we rigged this second anchor to a jib winch and I jumped into the dinghy.  After rowing about 200 feet out, I looked all around and really, truly believed that I was well into deep water.  I dropped the anchor over the transom and rowed back.

Dena in the dinghy, getting ready to set the anchor

James had recovered somewhat from the shock and pain of popping his rib out.  He was scrambling around the deck when I got back and I couldn’t really chide him for it – I was going to need him if we were to get unstuck!

We pulled and pulled and pulled.  Eventually…after a long time…it suddenly got easy.  That meant one of two things – either the anchor had come loose or we were free of the mud.  Within another few seconds, the answer become clear as we sailed gently past the anchor!

James finished hauling the line in and, once we were completely sure we weren’t going to suck mud into the engine’s cooling water intake, we cranked her up and backed off the anchor to get our tail into even-deeper water.  Soon, James had pulled the anchor up (go Fortress!) and I was motoring into the channel!


We motored at a near-idle until I felt like any mud near the water intake had been washed away.  The rest of the trip was busy – we had a whole lot of cleaning and tidying to do.

We pulled into the Oak Grove Marina almost exactly 10 hours after leaving Cutter Marine.  Even with the running-aground adventure, we made it to our new home with plenty of daylight to spare.  We spent it cleaning.

Our boat at Oak Grove Marina from the aft deck of the neighboring boat, a Carver named Slots of Fun that belongs to the club

Now we’re in a new home and we’re settled here until the end of November.  After that?  Who knows.  But I sincerely hope that our next move is, dare I say, boring?



  1. …I told that story about 20 times yesterday at my evil-empire gig and the highlight of the story was the fact that we dealt with the situation as a civilization, as a sovereign nation. Rather than calling in “the troops”, or in this case, Tow Boat US, we dealt with the issues at hand and together we solved all the problems of our world.
    The End…

  2. With all the luxury of hindsight, that is a great story– and excitingly told, Dena! I hope James’ rib and the boat are not too much the worse for wear.

  3. Wow… Well told story,with a great ending.My first reaction is that the adventure continues. My second is that this can be some reality show. It has great characters , a deep sense of adventure & a real look at reality. James, glad your all good. Dena glad your sense and training have paid dividends again. Also, I love the title of this entry. It took me a second after reading your story to catch it , then I broke out in laughter. Aloha & welcome to your new address

  4. That was Xcellent. I agree you guys should have your own TV show. I could then say, yeah, I saw them live once 🙂

    and now… time to work on the Zenamaran. May the force be with you.

  5. As a recovering TV addict and an ex-radio pirate I think it would be in especially bad taste for us to have a reality TV show dedicated to us… We both detest television!
    BUT! Can you just imagine an on-going “Reality Radio Play” about the adventures of James and Dena, wouldn’t that be cool!?

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