Sailing with Walter - Sunday Aug 4th 2002 (Written by Martin)
Last Sunday, Randye, myself and a friend - of Walters and ours - Noreen Kerrigan went for a sail. It was a calm
relaxing day with just the lightest of winds. Noreen's comment that "sailing is 90% boredom and 10% terror"
seemed out of place. It was hard to imagine anything going askew, but then I never could have envisioned what did
happen and how prophetic Noreen's comments would be.
As we headed up the Long Island Sound Walter seemed somewhat offended when I asked if he thought we would
catch up to the two people in a paddleboat churning away ahead of us. We only made a few tacks and when eating
lunch the boat seemed to steer it self. This was good because, as those who have sailed with Walter know, his
steering wheel sometime seems to stick a little. On returning we were compelled to turn on the motor, as Randye
needed to get Kyle to work on time. We kept up the sails to give at least the appearance of sailing. Since we were
motoring we could head straight down the shipping lane back to City Island Harbor.
In the distance we were followed by a large rust red barge. By large I mean the size of two football fields and four
stories high. Amazed at the speed on which it was gaining on us and its height out the water we all decided it must
Noreen thought maybe we wanted to get out of its path.
"Don't worry, we will". The ever-relaxed Walter said.
A few minutes passed.
Noreen remarked that she heard it took a barge a 1/2-hour just to turn.
"No problem, we're motoring so have lots of time."
A few less minutes passed.
Noreen's commented that "The barge pilot's eyes were blue"
Perhaps that did the trick. More likely it was that a blue sailboat was heading right toward us. The blue boat - and
they were actually trying to avoid the barge - realized that as we were motoring they had the right of way. They
were taking advantage of the breeze that had finally picked up and they had no intention of changing course. All of
this promoted Walter to decide now was the time for action.
The blue boat cut off our option of simply motoring straight away from the where the barge was heading, so we
would now have to rapidly and delicately maneuver between the blue boat and the barge. Walter deftly turned the
wheel hard right, but it did not budge. He tried again with the same lack of result. He now seemed concerned. "This
is a bad time for this". I jumped up to help with the wheel and together, with great effort, but to even greater relief
the wheel spun free. This relief was to be short lived. Walter turned it right and then more right, the wheel turned
easily, but alas the boat did not respond. "Oh boy, we don't have steering" Walter said with a tone of concern one
notch above his usual unflappable attitude. The steering wheel cable had snapped. Events now started to happen
rapidly. First we needed to wave off the blue boat, which had already noticed that we were franticly turning our
wheel. They now were the ones making a drastic maneuver, and once out of our immediate way stopped to watch
as we went into an uncontrolled spin drifting toward the oncoming barge. Walter shut off the inboard motor, which
helped a little but more was needed. With no steering you have absolutely no control short of dropping an anchor.
And we had no time for that. Based on the proximity of the barge and our spin and drift, my guess was they would
not ram us head on. But, with the wind having picked up, being blown into their side seemed a real possibility.
Walter jumped up to try to get the sail down and told me to go in the hole and get the emergency backup steering.
What exactly is an emergency backup steering system on a sailboat I had no clue. Noreen helped with the sail but
Randye, with her arm in a sling from recent surgery was out of the action. It was all happening to fast to panic. I
emerged with an emergency backup rudder only to be told I actually had the backup cabin door instead. It was all
happening too fast to really do anything else. We sensed the sun disappearing behind a giant moving rumbling wall
of red rust. Walter found a muffler pipe looking thing that was for the back up steering, but there would be no time
to connect it. It was clear we would be blown in the path of the barge, the only question was - would the barge still
be there or would it have passed. As we watched ourselves in slow motion approaching the red wall we could only
hope. The barge lumbered on, unaware of our presence or unable to take any action. We drifted on, very aware of
the barge, but equally unable to take any more action. Fortunately luck was with us as we drifted behind it, without
contact, spinning in its wake.
We were of course still adrift in the sound. Walter had been told about emergency steering when he purchased the
boat but had never tried it. He connected the metal pipe directly to the rudder, once the back seat was dismantled.
Only a three-minute job, but three minutes we did not have when we needed them. Once done we could now
restart the motor and head back. The blue sailboat satisfied that we were in control, sailed off. Walter told us he
had planned on getting the steering looked at next week anyway. Randye still got Kyle to work on time. Noreen
said "See, I told you it was 10% terror".