Voyaging sailor fights dreaded embayment

A 398
To the editor: The nightmare of any square-rigger captain was to be embayed. If his ship was caught in a relatively narrow bay with a strong onshore wind, the following inevitable and often despairing sequence of events was often enacted. Close-hauled, at about six points off the wind, the ship would sail toward the entrance of the bay. As the shore neared, the crew would wear ship (gybe) and tack toward the other side. In wearing ship, valuable ground to windward was lost, but few captains would dare put the bow through the eye of the wind; there was a strong chance of winding up in irons or fouling the yards.

   Image Credit: Eric B. Forsyth

At the other side of the bay, the maneuver would be repeated, and the ship would head again for the opposite shore. When they got close enough for a good fix, the crew would discover to their horror that they were farther inshore than before. The combined effects of leeway and lost ground when the sails were shifted had more than canceled-out any gain to windward during the tack. Try as they might, zigzagging desperately across the bay, the crew could not get the ship clear. On each tack, the lee shore would draw remorselessly closer.

Finally, the only option left was to drop the best anchor and run out as much scope as possible, leaving the stern perilously close to the sea boiling up on shore. Every eye aboard watched anxiously for any sign of dragging with its inevitably fatal consequences for the ship. False Bay in South Africa, a little to the east of the Cape of Good Hope, was notorious for this calamity; in murky weather, ships that entered the bay, possibly due to a navigational error, were often trapped by a strong southerly wind.

In a very minor way, I played out the same sequence of events during a recent cruise in Maine, aboard my 42-foot, cutter-rigged sloop Fiona. We had had a great reach with a 12- to 15-knot southerly breeze from Monhegan Island to Damariscove Island, where we planned to anchor for lunch and explore the nature preserve. The anchorage faces south and consists of a narrow, elongated bay. The length is about 1,500 feet, and in places it narrows down to about 100 feet wide. The depth is typically about 15 feet at mid-tide. The west side is fairly steep-to, but the east side is encumbered with rocks covered at high tide.

On arrival, we found two sailboats tied to permanent moorings just inside the entrance. Numerous brightly painted buoys indicated lobster traps set on the bottom. About two-thirds of the way up the bay was an old stone dock on the west side, and just north of that was a small floating dock for dinghies visiting the preserve. This was the narrowest point of the bay. In the middle of the bay to the north of the dinghy dock was a moored raft with a stripped-down sailboat tied to the west side, the old bowsprit sticking out to the south. We came in under power, passed the sailboat moorings, dodged the lobster-pot markers and eased over to the west side. The crew ran out the 45-lb CQR over the bow roller as we prepared to anchor. I turned the boat to starboard, carefully picking a course between the lobster-pot buoys. The bay was not wide enough to complete a 180° turn.

As the bow approached the rocks, now half awash, I spun the wheel to port and reversed until the Aries self-steerer hanging off the stern was almost on the shore. When I shifted to forward and glanced again at the bow, I could see that the wind had pushed it well to port. I spun the wheel to starboard and tried again to complete the turn. No deal, the boat was heading about southeast as the bow got near the rocks on the east side. I repeated the maneuver, but by now Fiona was in a region infested with lobster-pot buoys, and the bay was narrowing. As one marker disappeared under the stern, I slipped the shift into neutral. A couple of fellows standing on the dinghy dock, probably off one of the moored sailboats, were watching my efforts with interest and helpfully shouted across that I had run over a buoy. I gritted my teeth and waved back. By now, the boat was almost abeam of the stone dock and was slowly drifting sideways to the north. I was embayed! If I did not do something I was going to wind up crashing into the raft and the old sailboat.

I gingerly eased Fiona forward until the bow was in the middle of the bay and told the crew to drop the hook. Fortunately, by now the errant lobster pot buoy had popped up behind the stern. As the anchor grabbed, the bow finally swung to the south. Slowly the dinghy dock slipped by on our starboard side; were we dragging, or was the chain straightening out? I asked the crew to pay out another 15 feet of chain. Fiona finally came to rest with the stern about 25 feet from the raft to leeward. I looked at the bowsprit on the old sailboat pointing straight at me; to have become enmeshed with it would have been an embarrassing but not fatal accident. I was left with a new awareness of one of the many fates awaiting those skillful and courageous sailors of old.

Eric Forsyth was awarded the Cruising Club of America's Bluewater Medal in 2000. When not sailing, he lives in Brookhaven, N.Y.

By Ocean Navigator