March 15-17, 2013: The Ill-Fated Tag

Cool Change CPM FogOn Thursday, March 14, we drove down to Sausalito after work.  We were so excited.  Rick had been tuning up his navigation skills for weeks, and I had finally gotten through my anxiety to the point where I knew “I can do this!”.  The long psychological road to my being ready to skipper our own boat with a crew under the scrutiny of an instructor on a tag-a-long boat out along the California coast for the weekend had come to an end.  I was ready to Skipper.  Rick was ready to navigate.  If this went well, I would navigate for him on his May tag date.  We had an awesome crew – both guys we really enjoyed spending time with, who had also, by the way, already passed their Coastal Passage Making certification.

Even though all the boats going out for the weekend as part of the CPM classes were going to anchor out in Richardson Bay in Sausalito on Friday night, our Tag Skipper insisted we bring our boat all the way over from Sausalito to Alameda, more than 12 nm, so we could all start together.  So, Rick and I took Friday off work, and sailed over to Alameda, arriving about 1:00 p.m.  We tidied up the boat a bit, chatted with folks, and waited for our crew to arrive.  They went through all their pre-cruise chores, each being assigned different aspects of the boat to familiarize themselves with, and then I went through a rather extensive pre-cruise briefing.  There was a lot to know about Cool Change that was different from the typical charter boats, and I wanted to make sure we all understood her nuances.

The instructor arrived, stepped on board, and started pointing out things on the boat that he wanted fixed.  The covers for the haus pipes, for example, where the anchor chain used to go down into the chain locker before we installed the windlass, needed to be taped down, he said, and he wanted the hole where the chain now goes into the locker under the windlass to be closed off somehow.  He wanted all of the pelican latches on the lifelines to be taped shut.  He noticed that some of the cotter pins holding the lifelines in place were missing, and told us to replace them.  He wanted the anchor more securely affixed at the bow, etc. etc. etc.  I had a list of about 30 minutes worth of work to do to respond to his requests.  Between the four of us, we got it done, the instructor reviewed it, and we were good to go.  As far as I was concerned, the items he pointed out seemed a bit overkill – they were mostly things one would do in preparing for a big storm, I had read, and not just for a weekend cruise along the coast.  But never can be too cautious, I thought, and I respected his thoroughness.

I then had to demonstrate my close quarter maneuvering skills by performing some turns and then by backing into the side tie we had been assigned.  It was a bit tight, with just enough room on the dock behind another boat, but all went smoothly.  This particular instructor preferred that all docklines be secured from the boat deck rather than by crew stepping off the boat to secure the lines.  So I had instructed my crew to line up, each with a dock line, on dock side of the deck, and loop the dock line around the dock cleat while still on the boat deck, and call “made” when complete.  They did it brilliantly.  I know the instructor HAD to be impressed.

We then departed from the dock and headed out towards Sausalito just after twilight.  As we were motoring alongside the breakwater outside of Ballena Bay, the instructor radio’d me to tell me we had just lost our motor; put the the motor in neutral and respond.  This was the moment I expected: he had taught me earlier, what to do.   I turned the wheel to the left to change direction from the breakwater, instructed my crew to deploy the jib on a starboard tack, and voila!  Exercise completed successfully.

Rick navigated us over to Sausalito in the dark, avoiding several invisible breakwaters and container and tanker ships coming and going, while keeping us on the most direct route, and once under the Bay Bridge, hopping from one lit buoy to another until we got to Richardson Bay, about two hours.  He also heated up the Ratatoille I had prepared, so that it was nice and warm by the time we anchored.  It was a textbook anchoring job as well.  The crew was tired and ready to eat.  We enjoyed a nice meal and a fairly good sleep, although the excitement kept me awake most of the night, and it was pretty rolly in the anchorage that night.

The next morning, one of the crew made an excellent breakfast, and we were all out in the cockpit ahead of schedule.  I had already radio’d in to the Tag boat, spoken with the instructor, and we were preparing to weigh anchor.  The plan was that all 9 boats, before they took off out the Gate, would line up and get our pictures taken in the Bay at 0900.

And then, out of the blue, my cell phone rang.  I answered it.  It was the instructor.  That was very odd; he normally would only be contacting me by radio.  He then proceeded to tell me that he hadn’t slept all night, worrying about us.  He hadn’t had the opportunity to review the systems on our boat to the extent that he could rest assured they were seaworthy, and he didn’t feel comfortable allowing us to go out the Gate without having done so.  So, he was pulling us from the trip.

I couldn’t believe it.  Rick and I had spent the last six months doing nothing but getting Cool Change ready for this trip.  We had spent tens of thousands of dollars having her hauled out, replacing thru-hulls, a new bottom paint job, a refrigerator, a new main sail, a windlass, an upgraded electrical system, and tons of other things.  How could they do this to us?  If there was any doubt, why didn’t Club Nautique arrange to have our boat checked out in advance?  I felt like Iraq – accused of having Weapons of Mass Destruction that no one had actually found, but that COULD be there.  Rick and I knew there was nothing stopping Cool Change from going out onto the Coast, in fact, we had already taken her out there on our own, on a four day trip in treacherous weather down to Monterrey on our own, but the instructor didn’t know that.  All of this preparation, all of the arrangements our crew had to make to get away for the weekend, our days taken off work, all for naught.

Cool Change CPM smilesWe went ahead with the picture-taking, and then headed east back to Alameda as all of the other eight boats headed out the Gate.  It was so sad.  We were so despondent.  Sam, one of our crew, made awesome corned beef sandwiches – we ate more than we should have because all of a sudden, we had a weekend’s worth of food to dispose of in a couple of hours.

Of course, we had to go all the way back to Alameda to drop off our crew.  They had kids at home, and opted that if they weren’t going to be able to join in our tag, their second preference for the weekend was to spend the time with their families.  So we headed back there, and then had to turn around and come all the way back to Sausalito again: two round-trips from Sausalito to Alameda in one weekend!  All in all, we sailed 36 nm that weekend over 3 days for over 10 hours at speeds up to 7.5 knots, all within the Bay.

Both Rick and I were absolutely devastated.  We had done so much to prepare for this weekend, that the emotional let down was almost unbearable.  We had to make up for it somehow.  So, instead of heading directly back to Sausalito, we decided to take a slip at Pier 39 for the weekend, go out to eat for dinner at our favorite Belgium beer and mussels restaurant, and make the most of the “free” weekend.  So, we got to the slip, took showers in the very nice facilities they have at Pier 39, each had a glass of wine on our boat in the slip, and went for a walk through Pier 39.

Puppet movieWe came upon a dancing puppet in a window, and, inspired by the wine, we decided to have fun with it.  We sent the puppet movie to the instructor, just to let him know there were no hard feelings, or maybe to try to convince ourselves that there were none!

A few weeks later, Cool Change was redeemed, however.  We paid that same instructor to spend four hours on Cool Change, going through all the systems he said he had not had an opportunity to inspect.  While it was definitely worth it to have such an experienced instructor review our boat (he does boat deliveries for a living), and he came up with a number of valuable suggestions, in the end he found no significant safety issues: nothing that would have prevented us from going out that weekend.

It did turn out to be a rough weekend at sea, however.  Several boats struggled to get back up from Half Moon Bay, with high winds, high seas and short period waves.  One of the boat’s main furling mechanisms came off its track while reefed, and the skipper had to crawl up to the mast and manually fix the furling mechanism.  It would have been a test on Cool Change, but we know she would have passed.

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