Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Saturday sail was a
cutting, rock ’n’ roll trip

If a fortuneteller told me that one day I would take my sailboat to a point off Makapuu Head, the site of some of the roughest seas in Hawaii, and there jump off the boat, leaving my two first-time crew members throwing up over the rail, I would have laughed in her face.

But when it happened last Saturday, no one was laughing.

The day began at first light when three of us set sail from Honolulu to Kaneohe Bay. I knew the trip would be rough. The tradewinds had been blowing for two weeks.

That meant we would spend the first half of our day plowing upwind through 10- to 15-foot waves.

We were doing great until we reached the typical washing-machine seas off Makapuu and my friends got seasick. To ease their misery, I decided to motor around the point and tuck in closer to shore, where the waters would be more user-friendly.

But when I tried to put the engine in gear, it stalled. I tried again, in both forward and reverse, with the same results. Below deck, I examined the motor. Everything looked fine.

When I returned to the cockpit, Jennifer, who was throwing up over the stern, spotted the problem: We'd snagged something in the propeller.

I sighed with relief. All I had to do was get that junk off the prop, and the engine would be happy again. I stopped the boat, which was bucking like a bronco, tied a safety line around my waist and took the plunge.

My heart fell when I saw what had happened. That "junk" around the prop was the end of the mainsail halyard. In those rough seas, that line had wormed its way out of its holding place and jumped overboard, where it wrapped a death grip around the prop shaft.

The boat pitched and rolled so much, I had to cling to the boarding ladder like an opihi on a cliff, waiting for the biggest sets to pass. In the brief lulls, I dived below and tugged on the halyard.

Four times I dived and yanked for as long as I could hold my breath. But my shifting of the engine had tightened the line hard enough to embed itself, and it did not budge. I would have to cut my precious halyard.

Jennifer handed down our sharpest knife, and I severed the rope -- and still it would not come off the shaft. I dived and sawed, dived and sawed until I was exhausted. Then Jennifer, miserably sick, bravely took a turn. She couldn't cut the line off, either.

So I hauled my scuba gear onto that heaving deck and struggled into it, figuring if I could breathe down there, I could work harder and cut more efficiently.

This proved to be true, and I was making good progress until the boat crashed down at an angle and knocked my mask off my face.

It also knocked my Leatherman knife, a special gift, from my hand.

I fixed my mask, Jennifer handed down another knife and back under I went. Finally, after long minutes of hard work, the last of the rope fell off. With the shaft free and undamaged, we finished the trip with no more problems.

As I write this, my hands are scabby from a dozen small propeller cuts, my arms still ache and I grieve for my lost knife and short halyard.

But, hey, I got us to Kaneohe Bay in one piece, and the boat still floats.

I consider my adventure a grand one -- now that it's over -- and I'm laughing again.

This weekend, I sail to Molokai.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.



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