Hard Aground and the Inflatable Armada to the Rescue

We passed a deep draft racing sailboat struggling aground watching black smoke spewing from the exhaust and murky water churn aft as the skipper anxiously worked the wheel and throttle. A few dinghies unconcernedly cruised through the center of the channel ahead. I realized that the skipper was pushed out of the channel by the nonchalant dinghies.

When moving into channels, Alison often calls out shoal markers or oncoming boats, letting me know speed and course. With smaller boats in close quarters, we consciously and carefully ensure that we are not pushed out of the channel. Sometimes this requires finesse, a radio call, a yell or just the classic D.C. driver mentality.

Eleanor cheered as the deep draft sailboat worked itself free and sped into the inner anchorage leaving a wake of tepidly turbulent water to aft. The sky darkened behind us, and a few heavy drops pelted us as we rushed through the mooring fields back towards Caprica.

Sheets of wind-driven rain strafed our deck as the storm front spent the better part of a few hours passing over us. As late afternoon approached, the rain suddenly turned off. In moments, crews emerged from their boats to stand on deck and survey the scenery. From our cockpit, we watched dozens of sailors take the opportunity to scrub salt grime and brine from their decks. Others piled frenzied kids into dinghies and raced towards Cuttyhunk Island or to the nearest beech ready to set them free. Unconcerned with occasional spits of heavy rain or ominous clouds speeding through the darkened channel between the Vineyard and us.

From dead calm to a stiff breeze touching on gale force the wind suddenly rose cranking Caprica hard starboard in unison with the other moored boats. The weather service issued a waterspout warning for our area. Later, we discovered a waterspout was slowly dancing through an adjacent cove hidden from us by a wall of black clouds.

As the clouds broke and the radar cleared, I jumped in the Jack Burton Pork Chop Express to make a final water hunting/gathering run. On my return trip, a heavy pilothouse cruiser was aground on the edge of the channel just where Caprica made a hard U-turn the previous day. The sailboat was massively constructed and weighed over 25 tons. On deck, the skipper nervously paced knowing that he would be there until the next high tide or the local harbormaster called a tow boat. Towboats are expensive and on occasion have been known to claim that a soft grounding is actually a salvage operation; a small check in a box on a traffic ticket type carbon copy paper that essentially gives the tow boat operator rights to your boat unless you pay up.

I putted the Jack Burton Pork Chop Express over towards the heavy cruiser and saw a swirl of white water roiling from the bow. Just on the other side of the bowsprit, a military-style dark hulled RIB loaded with a hundred horsepower and a stern-faced, square-jawed, 511 tactical brandishing operator was cranking in full reverse. A black line drew taught between the two bows, but the heavy cruiser didn’t budge.

“Hard aground,” I thought knowing that if we could pivot the bow and roll the boat a few degrees, the heavy cruiser might escape. I planted my bow just aft of his bowsprit and cranked my little 6 horsepower to max throttle. Several dinghies were milling about with solo cup sporting drivers wanting an opportunity to help but were unsure of how. As soon as I planted the dinghies soft bow against the cruisers hull, two more dinks pulled in and then a third. Between the 4 dinghies, men, women, dogs, and children braced as we worked our throttles. Spectators stood on the dock, their yells drowned out by the hard droning outboards. A swirling white water wash pushed behind the dinghies. The dark hulled RIB pivoted forward of the bow. The operator had the face of defeat; a failed mission. I signaled with the classic knife hand chop two times. He gave a quick nod and pivoted the RIB out of sight. 


The owner of the cruiser pounced forward of the main cabin and gave me a quick thumbs up then disappeared back into the pilot house.

The heavy cruiser began to heel with black bottom paint appearing under the boot stripe. Inches turned into a foot. “It’s working!” A rosy-cheeked elderly man in the neighboring dink shouted. “There it goes!” A kid yelled, and suddenly the heavy cruiser had broken free. A small army of dinghies was quickly released and a chorus of cheers, applause and horns sounded from the dock.

The pilothouse door slid open, and I was greeted with two grinning faces. One the owner and the other his young cover girl first mate. They waved at the armada of dinghies and shouted their thanks. At the last moment, he remembered that there was a 16 foot RIB attached to his bow and ran forward to untie the military machine.

From a safe distance, I watched the pilot house cruiser thunder out of the narrow channel on the outgoing tide. The boat swung wildly between the S turn shoals and blasted into the outer anchorage where he raced around boats. From our mooring, I watched the pilothouse cruiser, and a few modern cruisers charge through the anchorage at speed then come to a sudden halt to drop the anchor. After a few painfully unsuccessful attempts to lodge anchors in the sandy eel grass coated bottom, the pilot house cruiser retreated to a remote anchorage.

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