Sailing, Alaska and life


To the editor: Any problems that happen while you are tied to the dock are a gift. One rainy afternoon in the Southeast Alaska Port of Ketchikan, I was moving my sailboat Empiricus out of her slip. I had an appointment in the morning to haul her out for maintenance and wanted to stage her near the travel lift.

Empiricus is a 50-foot gaff-rigged fiberglass yawl and was custom built in 1986 for ocean sailing. Her auxiliary engine is a 56-hp Yanmar and she weighs just a hair under 35,000 pounds.

My father came along for the ride that day. When the engine was warm, we cast off the lines and slipped her in reverse, purring out of the slip. We built some speed, so we could gain steerage, as we backed amongst the other moored vessels. Once we gained enough speed — about a quick walking pace — I used my foot to shift into neutral. Like many sailboats, Empiricus can steer without the propeller turning, as long as she is gliding through the water.

Much to my dismay, the linkage refused to shift. It was jammed hard reverse and we were gaining speed. The vessel is heavy and carries momentum well. Things went from daily routine to ridiculous quite quickly. I pushed hard on the linkage. It broke. We continued throttling in reverse, now at a jogging pace. I quickly killed the engine, but she had already done her work, and we were headed for collision. I turned the helm hard to port, but it was not effective enough in this small area to avert disaster, so I grabbed a fender and left the helm.

In a brief, foolish bound, I pounced on the wood pin rail that enclosed the stern, and firmly braced for impact with another vessel. Just prior to collision, I was able to deflect Empiricus’ stern to the side by planting my feet on the neighboring vessel and driving off with everything I could muster. Wow! That was stupid. I could have been crushed. Maybe I should have used that fender. There was no time to reflect on that however. I was adrift in the harbor, engineless, stuck in reverse, and the wind was picking up. Some bystanders came over to help and I threw them a long line. Now held fast to the dock, we took another line back to my slip, and warped her back in by hand. We were tied up, right back where we started.

That day was one that stuck in my mind. It was a day of learning, and I learned a lot. Had I known of the linkage problem (by testing it as I should have), I would have repaired it before casting off. In other words: any problems that happen while you are tied to the dock are a gift. Period.

In Alaska you can be five minutes from your back door, and be utterly alone. On the sea, you can be 100 feet from the dock, and be in great peril or hazardous to others. While tied to the dock, I have access to all the resources a community can offer…right at my fingertips. You have the time to plan and wait for the right season, day, or hour, to depart on your journey.

I took all of that for granted before I discovered sailing. I was one of those people who would let their day get ruined over a flat tire on the highway. Like the world was out to get me because such an untimely event entered my life. I was impatient and spoiled by conveniences. Conveniences to which I felt entitled. On the sea, once you cast off your lines, you are on your own, and entitled to nothing. The linkage incident was very early in my sailing days, yet it firmly imprinted those concepts in my mind.

I can recall many instances of finding and fixing mechanical problems at sea. As time goes on, I am less and less disappointed with the problems I find at the dock. I’ll gladly wait until morning and make a trip to the hardware store in order to solve a safety concern. When I catch myself complaining about petty details, I know…it’s time to go sailing.

Jesse Osborn holds a USCG 50 Ton Master license and is an ASA sailing instructor in Seward, Alaska. In 2013, Osborn plans to transit the Northwest Passage and winter in the ice, in Greenland. Follow his adventures, or be a part of them, at

By Ocean Navigator