I wanted to give you all a report on capsizing my CS 17 Mk I last summer. It was quite traumatic, and a blow to my ego, to say the least. Perhaps there’s something to be learned.
I was out with my daughter Anna, a very skilled dinghy sailor. We set out across Green Lake, a big inland lake in Wisconsin. It was a gray but warm day with a easterly breeze of maybe only 10 mph, gusting to 15, maybe a little more. The water temp was about 70. We hoisted the full main and mizzen and set out on a close reach, starboard tack. The snotters and downhauls were as tight as I could make them. We had to hike some, but not a lot. Anna was in the stern with the tiller; I was in front of the mizzen mast. We were having a great time flying along. We had our hands full, but we felt fully in control.
It came time to tack, close reach to close reach. We’ve done it often. Anna put the helm over and the boat popped around as I started over to the port rail. She yelled. And just that fast, we capsized. It was so quick there was no time to do anything but yell.
We realized later that the main sprit had caught in the mizzen mast rigging, probably in a halyard I’d rigged (but never used) on the front of the mast for the staysail. Instead of flopping to the other side, the main sprit was caught and the mainsail was dead center and full of air. More on that in a moment. The point is in a capsize if the wind is blowing, the boat is going over, now. There won’t be any time to crawl to the high side or over the coaming onto the board or do any of those preventive things.
I never made it to the port rail. I fell to the lee side and into the lake. I was under water for what seemed like a long time. When I came back up, the boat was on its beam and the masts were in the water. But the boat was still rolling. I paddled a couple of strokes. In that time—slowly, unstoppably—the 17 turtled. Anna and I were treading water next to a blue hull that was floating upside down. The centerboard was pointing up. So was the propeller on the outboard.
Nobody panicked. We’re both at home in the water. But I never could have recovered on my own. That’s what has scared me the most.
We swam to the stern and used the outboard bracket to climb up onto the hull. It took some time, but we were both finally able to lean our full weight onto the centerboard, and Anna had somehow grabbed the mainsheet to pull on, too. Very, very slowly, the hull started to right. Remember, the sheeted sails were still in the water, acting like big roll preventers. And I realized later that the mizzen mast had filled with water, acting as water ballast.
At last, after probably 5 or even 10 minutes, the 17 came up on its beam ends, and then fully upright.
Success, but not victory.
I had thought I would be able to move from the board to the gunnels as the boat rolled and then crawl into the cockpit as the boat righted. But once it was past 90 degrees, it came up in a rush and I couldn’t get in. Nor could Anna. We were both back in the water, alongside an upright boat with its sails up.
The sheets were stuck, either cleated or snagged. The 17 started to sail. Anna reached a trailing sheet, tied a bowline, and used that as a step to pull herself up over the side. All I could do was hang on to the stern and get towed along. I tried to hold on with one hand and get the rudder pintles back in the gudgeons with the other hand, but couldn’t. I tried to be a human rudder, but that had no effect. Anna sorted through a rats nest of sheets and lines and finally was able to loosen sheets and let the main halyard fly. When the boat slowed, I could get up alongside. I put my foot in the bowline loop, but only when Anna grabbed my life jacket and yanked me over the edge did I get back into the boat. My ribs felt that for weeks. We finally got the mizzen sheet freed and mizzen sail down, just about the time we nestled into a welcoming deep-water lee shore with some cushioning undergrowth to keep us off the worst of the rocks. But if I’d been by myself and there hadn’t been a lee shore, no telling how far I would have been pulled. Miles, maybe.
So we came to rest, fortunately. Amazingly, Ms. Q, the Suzuki 2.5 hp outboard, started on the first pull. No, I can’t believe it either. It had been submerged upside down for 20 or 30 minutes. We motored half an hour back to our cottage. There was probably 6 inches of water in the cockpit, but we opened the Anderson bailer as we motored and the cockpit was pretty dry by the time we were half way home. The rear hatch lids stayed latched and the hatches were dry. Some water got into the bow compartment and the forward “watertight” compartments. But while turtled, the entire bottom of the boat had been above the surface. The stern and bow watertight compartments were very effective.
Why it was so bad:
1. It was fast. The videos at B&B “Capsize Camp” (which was a great idea) showed CS boats lying over in stately fashion onto their beam ends. But our 17 was over before I could grab enough breath for my plunge below the surface.
2. We turtled. Forget lying on beam ends. If there’s even a bit of a blow, the momentum can knock you over.
a. You can’t loosen sheets or drop sails if they’re under a turtled hull. And note: you can’t grab safety equipment out of a locker if the boat is turtled. Wear it, or rig some sort of floating ditch bag if you’re expecting to use your VHF or strobe to signal for help, I guess.
3. The root cause was builder error, I’m sorry to admit. Somehow, despite measuring a million times, when I finally fixed the mizzen step, the spar was vertical, not raked aft as it should have been. As best I can tell, that brought it just far enough forward so the aft end of the main sprit got snared on the mizzen mast rigging as we tried to come about. Probably the fact that we had the control lines pulled as tight as piano strings brought the sprit back even closer. And it may be that we didn’t have the main sail hoisted the last couple of inches, which did not affect sail shape but did put the end of the sprit a bit closer to the mizzen. In any event, I never saw that disaster coming. It’s fixed now, and the mizzen has a proper rake.
4. I should have been more prepared. I should have had heaving lines fastened amidships to give added leverage as we pulled the hull back up. I should have had a proper boarding ladder. I now have a turtle ball from B&B that will go atop the mainmast. I should have had a spring clip or lashing to lock the rudder in place so it didn’t float free.
5. The cockpit was a spaghetti bowl of cordage. I count 12 sheets, halyards and control lines led back to the cockpit, and they were all tangled after the flip. Anna said it took her quite a while to sort through them until she could free the main halyard and sheets to let them fly. Meanwhile I was hanging on to the transom for my free sleigh ride. Solution: A Sailrite kit has now provided pockets to store all those snaky critters.
6. And it’s not like it was a heavy weather day. It happened on pretty much a normal sailing day, out of nowhere.
What was the damage? Aside from the damage to ego, it’s funny what we lost and what we didn’t. The dry bag kept the cell phones dry. The GPS in my coat pocket disappeared. A loose life jacket and two boat cushions drifted away. My right boat shoe fell off, the left one stayed on. My hat stayed on. I’d foolishly left the oarlocks out, and they’re at the bottom of the lake. But the anchor was tucked under the bridge deck and there it stayed. A sail bag stuck under the cuddy disappeared, but the staysail that had been inside somehow stayed with us. The gallon gas tank floated away, but we picked it up later on the shore, and the gas inside was fine. The gas inside the Suzuki was fine, too, since the cap and vent were screwed down tight. But the oil emulsified.
Final thoughts: I had just vowed a couple weeks earlier that “this boat will never capsize. It’s too risky.” To that end, I had rigged a complete double “jiffy reefing” system. But I’d never felt close to a capsize before, not even in heavier air. And it wasn’t heavy air that sent us over that day at Green Lake: it was the goofy problem with the snagged sprit. When it happened, it was so fast there was no time to react. So, be ready. That’s all I can say.