Winter is the story telling time, the original Haudenosaunee residents of our area believed. It’s a good time to read (and write) some sailing stories while the boats are laid up so here’s one from “Sara B’s” log.
Back in 2014 we were asked to bring Sara B to a bicentennial “re-enactment” of a battle in Oswego that occurred during the War of 1812. Recalling the hassels of other re-enacments we’d done, we said we'd think about it. However, after repeated requests, we finally gave in and agreed to take the old girl up to Oswego for the re-enactment which, truth to be told, sounded pretty lame to us. Sara B, a 47 foot Tancook schooner without a cannon to her name, was to serve as a British 1812 warship. Well, at least her rig has dead eyes. No one else in the battle fleet could claim that.
We were to bombard the fort. After softening it up, the script called for us to land troops who would take the vital supplies as per historic events of two centuries ago. Except that we wouldn't really land any troops. Getting them ashore was way too complicated. We'd all just sail around in circles out in front of the fort. Except we wouldn't sail. We would use our engines.
The “battle fleet” consisted of two fiberglass sloops, a club launch, two small gaff rigged schooners plus a steel sixty foot two master. Sara B’s crew was dressed in authentic 21st century blue jeans and t- shirts as were most of the people manning the other boats. Though all of us were under power, we were told to attack with our sails up for dramatic effect.
At the last minute Sara B got a call on the skipper’s cell phone and was ordered to the seawall in front of the maritime museum to pick up two gunners. (We had deliberately turned our VHF off hoping to keep things simple.) They were in costume and came complete with a miniature but very heavy cast iron cannon. We managed to cram the hundred plus pound gun and its wooden carriage, powder box, swab, ram, and slow match onto Sara B's already cluttered foredeck where her staysail horse served as a backstop to confine the carriage recoil. Our gunners worked their weapon with some deliberation. They explained that they had been given a “black powder allowance” that they considered less than lavish. They were good sports, though, about their role playing with a small canon on a 'shiplet' about the size of an original 1812 warship's launch.
The “fleet” bombardment began at 2 pm and the fort's 18 pounders replied. Clouds of black powder smoke mostly from the 'defenders' drifted in the air and splendid echoes rolled off the Port Authority warehouse and the LaFarge cement storage silos. To add to the general mood of antiquity, a busy little drone buzzed around overhead taking photos.
We circled in an awkward procession as periodic 'fire in the hole!” warnings followed by a loud bang and a gout of flame and smoke sounded from our foredeck. The script called for about thirty minutes of noise. An hour and a half later we were still circling and banging away. Our gunners announced that their contract expired at 3 pm and anyway they had used up their allotment of black powder. We agreed. Enough loud noises. We fled the battlefield to grab a spot on the six foot cement seawall near the Porta Potties. About 45 minutes later our fellow gaffer had tied up astern. By then we had already unloaded our cannon, and tapped the ale keg (a six pack of Labatts).
We spent a wet night aboard kept awake by thunder and lightning and very heavy rain that revealed a few new deck leaks. The next morning we dawdled waiting for the predicted sunshine to arrive. A west wind and a two to three foot chop came up. We dawdled some more. Our home port lay ten miles upwind not ideal sailing for our little gaffer. Finally we decided it was time to go. The day was moving on and the wind had dropped enough to motor home. I scrambled onto the six foot high wall one last time to cast off our lines. Chris pushed the starter button. Click. No familiar cheerful chuggity chug followed. Repeated button pushing produced the same result.
The crew huddled. The electrical tester was dug out of storage and applied. Theories and discussions ensued. After a twenty minute diagnostic process the crew concluded the 60 plus year old starter, rebuilt the summer before at considerable cost, had again failed us. And by now the wind had dropped to near zero. With no wind, no motor and a forecast of strong cold front’s arrival that night and north winds to thirty knots on Monday, Sara B wasn't going anywhere.
The crew member with a wife at home called her up and we all piled into her car to get back to Fair Haven. Poor Sara B was left stranded and starter-less.
That night a dirty northeaster and rain whipped up the lake in the wee morning hours. By 9 am when we arrived in Oswego thirty five knot winds were driving waves right over the harbor breakwaters and had raised a two foot slop in the harbor. We watched Sara B the other schooner tied behind her bounce around. (The other schooner’s skipper had also been marooned the day before by mechanical issues and had spent the night aboard his boat.)
We had our 'spare' starter with us that we had used last year when the original starter first failed. Our plan was bolt it on and motor home after the weather moderated. But the heavy surge in the harbor combined with the prospect of a later wind shift into the west worried us. Already the two boats were taking a beating against the wall. A west wind would pound them against the rough crumbling concrete big time. They were already rolling enough to come close to hitting their shrouds against the edge of the bulkhead above us. Dismasting seemed likely if we stayed put.
The three of us stood beside Sara B buffeted by the wind, pelted by stinging raindrops, and beset by the urgent roar of the lake crashing against the breakwaters. After discussing, deliberating, dithering and agonizing as to taking a chance on being blown down onto the rocks by the Coast Guard station, we decided to move the boats to a nearby protected small boat basin. We would have two people on each boat and the third person would run down to the protected basin’s floating dock to take lines as the boat hopefully arrived. Sara B would go first to clear the way for the smaller schooner to get off the dock.
The other schooner owner stood by to cast off our bow. I manned the stern line and Chris went below to start the motor. A gust of wind hummed in our rigging and fear crawled up from my stomach and jammed my throat. Is this a good idea? Or really stupid. It is blowing like stink! I looked at the sharp edged rip rap under our lee at the Coast Guard station. Sara B could end up there if her motor isn't strong enough to push her against the wind, I thought. It's only 18 horsepower. Another gust roared briefly stretching our dock lines fiddle string taut. Then the mismatched Bendix gear on the substitute starter screeched against the flywheel gear teeth, and instantly the deliberate thump thump of the diesel followed. My blood pressure dropped to manageable levels as the old engine seemed to say “Don't worry. I'll get you there. I can do it.”
I tugged at the stern line. If I didn't slip it immediately on cue, our stern would slam into the jagged concrete wall when the wind grabbed the bow and blew it off. I pulled hard for slack to cast it off, and found I could just barely hold the nine tons of windblow schooner long enough to slip the line. “Ready?” said Chris. “Yeah!” “Let go the bow,” he shouted to the man on shore.
I released my line from the bitt and we were instantly blown off the dock and heading for the rocks. The old engine inched Sara B ahead against wind and chop. We had steerage way. Now all we had to do was turn her around , get into the basin, and get stopped. Once we reached the small basin we would be in the lee of the port's giant asphalt tanks and the LaFarge cement silos. As we approached the sheltered water, the downdraft off the silos must have been hitting fifty. We entered the basin and tossed the dock stander a line. He snubbed it and we swung around just missing a crash into a dock stern. Safe!
We repeated the maneuver with the other little schooner who had a considerably more powerful engine than Sara B. She ripped two cleats off the dock on her way in but we got her stopped. Both boats were tucked away in the protected basin. Two days later Sara B was back home on her mooring. The re- enactors told us we have a hundred years until the next re-enactment request. This time “no” means no!
(for more misadventures with Sara B visit her “log” at sarab.brownroad.com)