Outdoors Column: I Am Good Ballast

When most people think of sailing, they think of a leisurely ride, gliding across the glassy surface of a lake. They only think this way because they have not been sailing. It is actually a high risk, strenuous activity that should only be undertaken by the bravest of souls or the fool-hearty. I apparently fall into the latter category as I was totally unprepared for the sport of sailing the first time I tried it.


My long-time friend and hunting partner, Dick, called one day to tell me he had bought a sail boat. Being a good swimmer and short on judgement, he thought I should help him on the maiden voyage. How hard could it be? I was in the Navy for four years so I know much of the nautical terminology such as LGB (large gray boat, as in battleship or aircraft carrier), UFO (unidentified floating object) and head (bathroom). Since we were sailing on a lake, we would have no problem with Navy ships (LGB’s) and if a person needed to use the head, they were out of luck as Dick’s boat did not have one. The unidentified floating objects were usually identified as we sailed over them. These were such things as float toys left behind by terrified children and one time, it was the first mate as the boat sailed over me.


The sail boat was a sixteen-foot Hobie Cat. This consists of two lightweight pontoons with canvas stretched between and a very large sail on top. The design of the boat allows it to streak over the water at a high rate of speed with only a light breeze. The day of the maiden voyage, a gale force wind was blowing. Rigging the boat is not difficult if a person is not too choosy about the knots one uses. Since it has been many years since I flunked my course in Navy knot tying, I resorted to other knots I had learned over the years when tying up horses and attaching fishing lures to my line. This may be part of the reason we sailed over several floating toys and one sailing partner. There are times the sail needs to be moved quickly which is difficult to do when tied with a locked half-hitch.


We pushed off from shore and ran up the sail. Immediately, we were off like a rocket. We discovered, shifting our body weight on the boat would keep the front from plowing into the water and keep both pontoons on the surface. This is true in a steady wind. When a sudden gust hits a full sail, the boat will pitch forward violently, launching an unsuspecting first mate overboard. This sudden loss of weight will cause the boat to rear up and flip over backwards. The lake we were sailing was not quite as deep as the mast is tall. With the mast being stuck in the mud at the bottom of the lake, all forward motion suddenly stopped and Dick went flying. Although it seemed we were traveling at over a hundred miles per hour at the time of our mishap, the boat was just a short swim away. We calmly swam back to the boat to ponder our next move. On dry land, two people can pick up and carry a Hobie Cat. It cannot be budged by two guys swimming next to it when the mast is stuck in the mud.


Before too long, a couple of guys in a ski boat motored up and helped get the sail boat turned over. They accomplished the feat with enough skill and ease, I am sure this was not their first time of righting a Hobie Cat. The next time I talked to Dick, he was sailing like an expert, even entering some races. More important, he has learned to pick a first mate that can tie a knot and stay on the top side of the boat. The next time I went sailing with Dick, I was only used for ballast.