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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.

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Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate the details and the unfiltered tone.  I can feel the fear,  the disbelief that you could get caught in such a situation. But the truth is it could happen to anyone.


I was struck by how well you and Anna handled your capsize. Hitting the water might be a bruise to your ego and cause you to loose some confidence in yourself but that was a false confidence. That you and Anna could self rescue is grounds for real confidence. What to do when she is not along.  That presents a bit of a problem.


Now you will have to excuse me. I need to go figure out how to fasten down my rudder.

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Thank you, Paul. Very instructive and I will pay attention to several things you pointed out in my build. One question: are your sprits the length specified or slightly long?


Your self rescue also impressed me, as did your candor about potentially facing it without crew (younger, agile, and competent crew). I have crashed smaller boats (Sunfish & Lasers) and recovered without much difficulty but anything larger could be a problem. I can see capsize drills are in my future. 

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Well written, and worthy of concern.

I too "went over" a few weeks ago, but not in "Petunia" . I was sailing with a friend in his boat and after a great day of sailing toward an off shore island we headed home and like you had a snag in the main (sheet) which kept the main from coming across on a tack, and splash....

Since we both had gone through prior capsizes in our lives we knew the drill and while she was somewhere between 90-115 degrees over we swam to the mast, unfastened the halyard, pulled the sail down as far as we could,  and then stood on the centerboard. Nothing happened..... It was then we realized that we couldn't really get a good hold of the side deck  as there was nothing there to grab...She was also a bit beamier than any of the CS boats which made that distance a bit further to reach.

Luckily the water we went over in was somewhat protected from current/waves, but we still had wind to contend with. And being May the water down here was warm enough to spend time in without sapping our strength (at 73 I was the junior crew member...). We tried just about everything we could with what we had on hand and were about to take off our life jackets  as a way to get the mast head to break the surface when we saw a kid on a jet ski watching us from the beach, so we hailed her and she jetted out to help. It was only with her lifting the mast head to 90 degrees that we were able to both stand on the board and get the boat back on it's feet.

If this had happened 30 minutes earlier we could easily  have been on our way to El Salvador as there is no Coast guard, Sea tow, etc. in this area...

After getting back to the beach and collecting our gear and ourselves we both started making up 'the list' of things we both needed to do in the event of a capsize in less favorable conditions. First thing I did was to add a mid ship cleat on both sides of the cabin, and then rigged a rescue line that could be reached from the water, or while standing on the center board (see pix) . Then I sorted out a way to have my boarding ladder rigged/ready for deployment from the water (pix to follow as I am re varnishing ALL wood on the boat due to a poor choice of coatings, more in a later post...).  Both of my masts are stuffed with pool noodles wrapped in aluminum foil (possibly a better radar reflector) so now I need to get back in the water and do the real capsize test to see how long they help keep me on my beam ends, if at all.  And since I always keep at least one anchor in the cockpit ready to deploy I would also now be sure I had enough line clear so I could try to get the anchor down while doing some of the acrobatics required in this situation instead of being caught in a current that would only add to the excitement.

I've also thought of a trailing line just in case this happened and when back on her feet she decided she didn't need human help to continue on her own. I am VERY impressed that the both of you were able to re-board a runaway boat !!!

Thanks for starting this thread as it could help somebody save their boat/life....

Bill P.





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Very honest and informative story that could have turned out much worse.  My first capsize occurred in about 50+ MPH in October on the Chesapeake before I knew anything.  There were over one hundred boats in similar circumstances and boats had no extra flotation beyond the wood they were built with.  Rescue boats were over worked and I was in the water nearly an hour.  Among other lessons we found out that  hypothermia is real and recovery can be long.  Only a few boats stayed upright due to skill, circumstance and/or luck.  No one could handle that kind of wind in a CS17, no matter how well prepared and skillful.  Stay off the water when such wind is in the offing.   Us cat ketch sailors know that we should release the main when pressed but that would have been of no use in your situation since you had a built in guarantee of capsize.  Water ballast has added a really great level of safety to the Core Sounds with only minor loss of convenience and unnoticeable loss of performance in most cases.

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Thanks to all for thoughtful and helpful responses.  I hope the discussion can continue. 


Nick, I did make the sprits longer than shown in the plans, 9 inches extra length, I believe.  This was in response to some earlier posts that indicated the plan lengths were a little to short to get a full stretch on the sails.  But as long as the clew is pulled tight to the rear of the sprit, any excess length on the sprit should be out in front of the mast.  I don't think the mizzen sprit (that is, the front of the sprit) caught on the main rigging in my case .  But in any event, now that I have reworked the mizzen with the proper rake, I have tested everything as best I can in the driveway and there seems to be more than ample clearance in all situations.  Even with the 9 extra inches, the sprits are not "too long," so I recommend it.


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Thanks for the excellent write-up of your experience. I really appreciate the “lessons learned “ account. I think the best lesson from your capsize is to know how valuable a competent crew member can be.


Your analysis leaves me with the realization that I may not be able to recover my CS-20 in the event of a capsize. I guess it is time to make a practice capsize and see what happens. My best option may be to use a mast float. Other measures I will prepare are attaching lines amidship to help with righting leverage, sealing the deck hatch so it is water tight, adding hold down points to lash equipment aboard. My boat doesn’t have seat hatches, just watertight inspection covers, so I’m happy with that.


Another avenue of preparation is to think about what to do if you can’t recover the boat. How to contact help, how to avoid hypothermia and so forth.


What I hate to think about is changing one’s sailing style. Do you become more conservative, not hike out, stay in on windy days, hug the shoreline, go with maximum reefing? Buy a keelboat? Not attractive options.


I hope to see you back on Lake Michigan this summer. It’s been a long winter, but sailing season starts tonight with Wednesday night races.







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the same from me: Thank You, Paul for the story, that gives a lot to think about. This was propably one of the things no one expected to happen. So many stories start with "who would have thought....."

Did the masts fill with water ? did you have any kind of flotation inside them? on my previous boat , a dinghy,  I noticed a great difference between a mast with big holes and my later mast with only small ones. The latter slowed the turtling process down.

Take care, all of you!


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22 hours ago, alexscott said:

I wonder whether the B&B masthead float would survive hitting the water in a capsize as fast as yours. This might be worthwhile testing at the B&B dock with a bare mast with a float. 


I think it will do well.  The float itself is quite sturdy, the usual strong B&B construct of ply and epoxy.  It's mounted with an aluminum tube that fits into the mast.  But testing is always a good idea.

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18 hours ago, Wommasehn said:

Did the masts fill with water ? did you have any kind of flotation inside them?

One of the masts filled; the other stayed full of air, as best I could tell.  The one that filled apparently did so through a small screw hole that I had drilled but then not used and not filled.  Filling it is now on the to-do list. 

There isn't any flotation inside.  I'm not sure how to get foam or whatever inside the narrow tubing for that length.  I suppose I could try some at the top end, as far as it would go.  Would a two-part foam run down into the tube before it started to expand?


These tubes are too small for pool noodles, but that would be a good idea for larger tubes, as Docpal did. I suppose one could carve up some noodles.  But as long as the one mast stayed dry, I'll concentrate on keeping them tight for now.

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 It wasn't easy/fun stuffing the standard masts with the noodles...! I had to slit them, and cut off some of the overlaps which is why I resorted to the aluminum tape to keep them in a small, tight shape. Since the upper 6 inches of the masts are wooden plugs it wasn't a complete fill.

I too thought about the 2 part foam, but from my experience it would have expanded partially down the tube and then blocked further access (although air tight 'compartments' might not have been bad either...)

At the time I think the web said that each noodle could support 40-50 pounds ( about the weight of a young kid I suppose) , so I got the equivalent of maybe 2-2 1/2 noodles smushed inside after they were all carved/wrapped.

Here's a shot of how it looked: the white wire was installed with the idea that I might sometime in the future want to mount a mast head VHF antenna , still hasn't happened...

I guess the simplest "test" of this concept would be to get just the masts down to the water and see if they float on their own, but due to their length I'll have to trailer the entire boat down there rather than hang them off the top of my SUV...


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  • 5 weeks later...

A couple of people asked about the sheet bags I mentioned.  Thanks to my wife's excellent sewing skills, they are finished, and I have them installed now.  (The boat is still getting prepped in other areas for the season...) 


The bags were made up out of a Sailrite kit that is designed to produce two large sheet bags.  I drew up measurements for four small bags, and there was ample material.  One bag holds the tail ends of the five controls from the mainmast that I have led aft to the stbd coaming. We put a line of stitching from top to bottom on the netting layer to make a pocket for each line.




Another bag is along the rear of the main thwart to hold the mizzen halyard and downhaul and centerboard control lines and has pockets on each end for the main sheet tails as needed.  I'm figuring I'll use one end for trimming and put the excess from the other end in the bag.



While we were at it we made up some smaller gear bags for odds and ends.  One is at the stern seat and one along the centerboard trunk.





It's amazing how all the spaghetti just disappears once there's a set of pockets for it.  I always like to quote my son-in-law, who is an experienced dinghy and Thistle sailor, the first time he set foot in the CS 17:  "There's a lot going on here."


As noted in my cautionary tale above, the knotted mass of control lines in the cockpit caused delays in our capsize recovery.  That shouldn't happen  *if!* we ever capsize again, and in the meantime, it will make for a much more orderly and controlled cockpit.

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