By Tom Pamperin - Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin - USA

I long ago adopted the motto You don't have to be prepared as long as you're willing to suffer the consequences, and for the most part it's served me well in small boat cruising. So far, Jagular's big lateen rig, unballasted hull, and my own general ineptitude have combined to give me some of those consequences in the form of a couple of unexpected dunkings. But maybe unexpected is the wrong word. Both times I was fighting winds of thirty knots or more, far too strong for Jagular to handle.

So far, Jagular's big lateen rig, unballasted hull, and my own general ineptitude have given me a couple of unexpected dunkings.

The more interesting of the two capsizes happened on my last sailing day of the year, barely a hundred yards off the town boat ramp in Winneconne, Wisconsin. The wind, as I said, was really roaring that day, and it didn’t take more than a few minutes before the inevitable happened and Jagular rolled onto its starboard side in a big gust, dumping me into the waist-deep water. No sooner had I stood up, stopped laughing and started to grab the unsecured gear that was trying to float away—shoes, seat cushion, and so on—than a fisherman watching from the nearby dock raced to my “rescue” in his own boat at full throttle. He spun his boat to a halt right beside me, close enough to risk tangling the outboard’s prop in the various lines and ropes hanging from my boat in momentary disarray. I could see he was in a hurry to save me—but not, it turned out, in such a hurry that he couldn't spare a few moments to call 911 on his cell phone before launching his heroic attempt.

I ought to mention that this fisherman had approached my brother and me as we were launching to tell us that it was really windy out there and we should think about not going out. He didn’t want to be a jerk, he told us, but he thought we should know we had no business being out there on a day like this. I nodded and smiled. It was just too windy, he said. I nodded again, then hopped into my boat, raised the sail, and cast off. He stomped away muttering and shaking his head. What he didn’t realize was that I knew exactly how easy it was for me to recover from a capsize unassisted, having done it just a few weeks earlier in water over my head.

So here he was, determined to save me. I was trying to ignore him, but not having much success. Between fending off his unwanted “rescue” and trying to ignore his frenzied shouts that I wouldn’t last ten minutes in the water before surrendering to a lingering and icy death, which was why he had called the fire department to “save” me, I glanced back at the dock to see a furious procession of law enforcement and medical teams—police car! ambulance! fire truck! county sheriff! fire truck! county sheriff! police car! county airboat crew and rescue divers!—racing to the ramp, lights flashing.

I took a quick look around. The waves were gently slapping against my thighs. Jagular was floating high on its side, an inch or two of water in the cockpit. My bottle of Pepsi was slowly floating away—I grabbed that at once, the closest thing to an emergency about the whole situation I could see. Then, again demanding—a little less politely now—that my would-be rescuer back off, I simply untied the halyard, released the mast and yard, rolled up the sail around the spars, and calmly flipped the boat upright and stowed the whole bundle aboard. I wish I could say I then rowed back to the ramp unassisted, but another quick glance toward the shore revealed the airboat crew already in their boat speeding my way, and rather than deal with them, I grudgingly accepted a tow from the heroic fisherman who had “rescued” me. To his credit, he didn’t say I told you so or any of its variants, not even once. He even seemed a little embarrassed that he had called out half the rescue workers in the county for this.

When we arrived at the dock, there were about twelve policemen and sheriffs all waiting to pull me onto dry land, generally falling all over themselves and getting in the way while trying to convince me that I should report to the ambulance immediately lest I succumb on the spot to hypothermia. They seemed surprised that I wasn’t dead already. Again, I glanced down at myself—thin quick-drying nylon pants, wet to the waist but already starting to dry; bulky, warm and mostly dry wool turtleneck sweater (slightly dampened from the waist down); warm polypro long underwear shirt underneath—and wondered what danger I was in on a 55-degrees and sunny October day, with water temps in the mid-60’s by the feel of things, and me back on dry land with a change of clothes in my car, only five feet away.

While I was repeatedly refusing all offers of medical assistance and wondering if anyone besides me (and my brother, who had quietly rowed his boat to shore and was doing his best to avoid being noticed, but who was undoubtedly finding the whole shindig as hilarious as I was, and wishing he had a camera handy) could recognize the absurdity of it all, several of the good citizens of Winneconne rushed over from their homes, whence they had been watching events unfold, and tried to wrap blankets around me. Then the ambulance guys came up to me and advised me to submit to medical attention, whereupon I told them that as an ex-EMT myself, I knew that somewhere in their kit they had a form for me to sign signifying my utter and complete rejection of any and all medical treatment, and that handing me this form and a pen was the only assistance I would accept from anyone.

Meanwhile, the fire trucks drove off, but some of the sheriffs and policemen, disappointed at my refusal to play along with all the drama, started eyeing Jagular suspiciously. I would have liked to tell them to bug off, but I know how authority tends to react to that kind of thing, and I also knew that my parked car did not have a three-dollar boat launch permit on the dashboard, for the very good reason that I had not paid the launching fee. That was only an accident, though; I didn’t have any cash handy. Usually I am happy to render unto Caesar all these kinds of moneys that actually support something I make use of, which is why I pay my hefty library fines without complaint. But I was hoping not to draw attention to the fact that I hadn’t paid the three bucks.

The wind was really roaring that day, and it didn’t take more than a few minutes before the inevitable happened and Jagular rolled onto its starboard side in a big gust, dumping me into the water.

I also didn’t want to draw attention to the absence of a Coast Guard-required wearable life preserver aboard my boat, but I figured that would get noticed. And indeed, it wasn’t long before a cop asked me why I wasn’t wearing my life jacket. “The water’s only waist deep,” I said, but he insisted it would have been “safer” if I would have been wearing it, and scolded me for my poor judgment. Next, he wanted to know, since I wasn’t wearing my life vest, where it was. “Oh, it went overboard when I flipped,” I said, thinking fast, and also noticing that I had already racked up two violations and had just remembered a third—namely, that all boats over twelve feet long have to be registered in Wisconsin (Jagular is fourteen and a half feet long) and mine isn’t.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before yet another cop approached. “How long is your boat?” he asked. Meanwhile the various sheriffs, cops, and EMTs were trying to convince me to come to the ambulance—not for medical attention this time, they claimed, but just so I could have some privacy to change clothes. I wanted to tell them that the park had been empty until they showed up, and that they were the only people I needed privacy from, but I remembered my growing list of violations and bit my tongue—hard. But there was absolutely no way I was setting foot in that ambulance or indeed doing anything more that could be interpreted as acceptance of my “rescue.” I was already mad enough at myself for letting the fisherman tow me in with his boat instead of just bailing out and rowing back on my own. That’s exactly what I would have done, except that I had left my bailer behind. Well, I hadn’t actually left it behind. Rather, I’d lost it in my first capsize several weeks earlier because I hadn’t thought to tie it down, and I somehow hadn’t gotten around to replacing it yet. I could have bailed out with my Pepsi bottle—I gave the idea serious consideration—but it would have taken too long. The airboat crew was almost upon me.

For a moment I was going to try the Pepsi bottle anyway when I thought of the scissors in my dry stowage compartment—I could have cut the bottom of the bottle off to make a better bailer—but Jagular's cockpit had taken on a lot of water when I flipped it back upright, as usual, and the bulkhead-mounted hatch for the dry stowage compartment was now underwater (a good argument, albeit too late for me, for installing the hatch in the deck instead of in the cockpit bulkhead, by the way). So I didn’t have anything to bail with, and I knew from my first capsize how tippy Jagular is when the cockpit is filled with water. If I tried to row the boat in this wind without bailing it out, I would probably capsize several more times on the way back in, precipitating several more rescue attempts. I could have just waded back to the dock pulling my boat, but I knew that there was no way the rapidly approaching airboat crew (an airboat crew, for Pete’s sake!) would have let me do it. They were determined to rescue something now that they had been called out, and so they were all leaning eagerly over the sides of their boat to scan the horizon in all directions, all the while shouting orders to each other, readying heaving lines and ring buoys, and gesturing enthusiastically as they raced toward me in their bright orange life jackets and their bright orange boat.

So I had gritted my teeth and accepted a tow from the fisherman, but no way was I going to accept anything else. And now, in between fighting off the blanket throwers and the ambulance enthusiasts and wishing I’d had a bailer with me when I flipped, I was eyeing up the cop who had asked me how long my boat was. Does he have any idea how long twelve feet is? I asked myself. I didn’t think so—most people don’t. Just tell him it’s twelve feet long, I told myself. He'll never know the difference. But no, I figured it was better to be honest and try and play dumb if he called me on it, than it would be to say twelve feet and watch him whip out a tape measure—which I was more than half suspecting he would do by this point. He was clearly out to salvage something out of the afternoon’s excitement—if not a rescue, then at least a ticket or two. So finally I told him, “Fourteen feet.” He went away.

Eventually I managed to push the sheriffs and cops and airboat guys and ambulance people aside so I could get to my car, where I got out my dry clothes and started to change into them. Most of my would-be rescuers gave up and drove off when they saw that, and I finally had time to pull my boat up on the ramp where I could bail it out—using my brother’s bailer again. I was almost done, and hoping I could get it on the trailer and get the hell out of there, when the how-long-is-your-boat cop returned. He seemed happy to tell me that I was in violation of the boating registration requirements—requirements he had spent the last few minutes looking up when he couldn’t be of any use in the dramatic rescue, I suppose. I feigned ignorance. “Oh,” I said. “I thought it was boats over sixteen feet long.” No, it was twelve feet, he told me. “Oh,” I said, “I didn’t know that,” and continued bailing. He stood around for a few moments, clearly hoping for more of a reaction. Then, with a stern admonition about needing to get my boat registered, he finally left. The “rescue” was over.

But no, there was one more sheriff coming, clipboard in hand. He wanted to know about the incident. What happened? he asked. My boat tipped over, I told him. I briefly considered telling him that I had figured all along I had at least a fifty-fifty chance of capsizing—the wind was going great guns, gusting to over thirty knots, which is way too much wind for Jagular with its big lateen rig and heavy heavy spar way aloft—but figured the less I said, the better. Who knows how the sheriffs and cops and firemen and airboat crews would have reacted if I told them I figured I’d probably capsize but I went out anyway. They’d probably write me some kind of ticket about knowingly engaging in risky behavior—risky behavior in waist-deep water a hundred yards from shore. Based on the frenzied rescue attempts, though, it seemed a likely conclusion for them to reach, so I didn’t say anything. But the clipboard sheriff wanted more detail. How fast was I going at the time of the accident? Twenty miles an hour?

Twenty miles an hour! Twenty miles an hour in a Bolger Pirate Racer! I’m sure he never figured out why I burst out laughing at his question. I never did answer him. He finally just wandered off, probably worrying about how he was going to fill up the blank spaces in his thick pile of paperwork. I loaded up my boat and drove off, thinking about putting together a smaller sprit or lug rig for next summer’s cruising.

Or maybe not. That big sail do look nice.


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