Open Water and Dry Shorts – Felix the Catboat

sail1sm“It’s an emergency, sir,” I pleaded to my boss. “I need tomorrow off because the remnants of Hurricane Ivan prevented me from taking my boat out this weekend. If I don’t pull her out this week, I don’t know when I’ll be able to do it and there’s another storm on its way.”

“Fine,” he said. “Have fun.”
Fun? What makes him think that pulling a 14′ catboat out by myself is fun? …but…I guess it will only take me a couple of hours to actually pull the boat out and I’ve now got the entire day off. Maybe he was onto something with this “fun” insinuation.

I awoke at 4am anxious to get down to West Yarmouth, Massachusetts. I loaded the car with all the tools I’d need and stopped for a coffee at the local donut shop. I’m not a regular doughnut guy and always had impressions of donut people being severely over-weight construction workers, policemen or people that hold any position at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but this time of morning I knew that they had to be fresh out of the oven. The sun was on the rise, I could feel the warmth of the hot coffee roll through my body and the first bite of the fresh chocolate doughnut melt away in my mouth. Here I was, like a giddy high school boy, on my way to the Cape to spend the whole day with my new-to-me Stur-Dee Boat catboat, Felix. I was starting to think that my boss knew exactly what he was talking about.

The 1-hour ride to the Cape was filled with daydreams of sailing around the point of Great Island and out to the lighthouse 3 miles away. In my mind, I tried to plan my attack for the boat ramp to haul her out, and a back-up plan if the motor wouldn’t work, but my mind kept falling back into the sailing daydreams. Re-focus. Plans, more plans, and back-up plans if those two don’t work. In what seemed like a flash of time, I was driving over the Sagamore Bridge and onto Cape Cod.

The sun was now perched in the sky and the light falling on the water looked like a warm blanket of fire blowing in a soft breeze. I pulled into the driveway of my in-law’s house and made preparations for the day; A bottle of water and a bag of wheat thins.  Dammit, I forgot to stop for food. The house is alive with kids and adults of all ages and stocked with food in the summer time, but this was September and the house was dormant.  Wheat Thins would have do. In the garage, I loaded up a PFD, my portable radio with a collection of classic rock and Bluegrass music, and an extra shirt. I loaded my rubber inflatable toy boat into the car a drove the 1/2 mile over to where Felix was moored.

It may be the mind of the sailor, but she seemed to welcome me when I arrived. Felix twisted at her mooring like a cat waking from an afternoon nap in the sun. I shared her excitement and hastily hopped into my “Johnny Super Sailor” toy rubber raft, pulling about 5 gallons of water into the raft with me. The cold rushing water soaking my shorts did not faze me as I paddled out and climbed aboard.  Within minutes I had her rigged and ready to go.  I hoisted up the sail, fell back off the wind, and was underway with a following breeze.

The wind was light, but the large sail area of a Marconi rigged catboat loves light winds. She effortlessly glided along the smooth glassy water. I sailed out to Hyannis Channel and was hit in the face with the question I’ve been challenged with so many times before. “Keep going out the channel to open water or stay in Lewis Bay?”

When I’m sitting home daydreaming, sailing out through the channel seems so fun and so easy, but I had never done it in a sailboat.  I had never had the confidence in Lyric, my beat up old 22′ sloop that groaned like a dying old man every time the wind blew. The channel is full of barges, speeding fishing boats, and hints of the heavier breezes from the open Atlantic. It seemed so easy in theory, but always seemed to intimidate this green sailor. I ran through a handful of what I like to call “procrastination tacks” and remembered that there is also a small bay on the other side of the channel that might be a good destination to start with. I spun Felix around, practiced a couple of gybes for good measure, headed her up as close to the wind as she’d accept, and pointed for the bay. It was to be my furthest destination as of yet at a mind boggling 2 miles away from the comfort of Sweetheart Creek and the mooring.

I crossed the channel and arrived in the bay with ease. There were some 3 ft rollers in the channel.  Felix certainly seemed to disagree with my open water hesitations. She enjoyed the rougher waters. I sailed to the back of the bay to take a look at the Kennedy Compound on the other side of a collection of beautiful old boats lying peacefully at their moorings. From one of those moorings, a large sloop came to life.  The skipper was scurrying about the deck gathering lines and I watched in awe. The big sloop slowly came about and slowed to a crawl. The sails luffed and billowed, then flapped tightened again in the wind. Off the bow of the sloop I could see an attractive older women standing on a pier looking like an L.L. Bean fall fashion catalog. Her Khaki pants were perfectly pressed and rolled up just over her ankles, and the colar of a pink polo shirt spilled out of her navy cardigan. The giant sloop slowed a bit more, the sails luffed and spilled their wind and the big vessel came to a perfect stop at the pier as if the skipper had applied the brakes. The woman picked up her colorful handbag off the pier and stepped on board without so much as placing a hand on the rail. I heard the chirping of the mainsheet block, the big sail tightened and popped full of wind, and the big sloop heeled slightly away from the dock and slowly pulled away. It is visions of seamanship and boat control like this that make me trouble calling myself a sailor.

The big sloop drew within 50 feet of Felix as I was on a port tack and she on a starboard. As we passed, I gazed over at the beautiful vessel and her very capable skipper. He stood at the helm like a father holiding his newborn infant up to the window at the hospital for all to see. His face was tanned and wrinkled like a old leather purse.  His perfect Khakis were rolled up and a different color collar spilled from his slightly different sweater. “That was impressive sir. I have got to learn that,” I said.

“Practice makes perfect, son, and don’t think I didn’t do my share of damage learning it!” he yelled back with a grin.

opensunfish2It was hard for me to imagine that there was actually a time when he was not perfect at his craft, but it was an encouraging reminder of the old “practice makes perfect” cliche. I decided that it was a task for another day and swung Felix’s bow through the wind back towards the channel. As I came about, I was barraged with a sea of colors bobbing about. About 100 Sunfish all with the same bright red, white, and blue sails were heading out the channel. I now trailed my big sloop friend into the sea of sunfish. They skated along like sandpipers on the beach, tacking and gybing in different directions and heeling over to dip the leeward rail into the water in every maneuver. But wait…they’re headed out to open water!  They, in a 9 ft, no cockpit, narrow little sunfish, are heading out into the Atlantic. Here I sit in my 14-foot cat with more beam than an Olympic gymnastics meet and a cockpit the size of Rhode Island, afraid of the open water. I hauled in my mainsheet, heeled her over and made way straight through the sunfish, out the channel, and onward to the point of Great Island.

The winds had picked up a bit and Felix pitched and bowed over the 2-3 ft rollers. I realize that this was a small adventure by most standards, but for Felix and I this was uncharted waters. The breezes were firm, but I was still quite comfortable under full sail. Eventually, I began rounding the point of Great Island with a decent head of steam, but suddenly came to an abrupt stop. The wind on the other side of the point was nonexistent. The sail luffed, the boom swayed lightly over the center of the boat and we sat idle rocking in the waves. I walked forward and stood on the bow looking around the boat.  This is an area that there are many rocks scattered about 100 yards off shore and quickly decided that this is not a desirable situation. With the big barn door rudder, I spun Felix around and pointed her back in the direction I came…hoping for some wind….Nothing. About ten minutes passed, and I was going nowhere. The rocks became less of a concern, as I now seemed to be drifting outward. It was clearly time to hurry up and wait since Felix was not equipped with any means of propulsion outside of the sail.

I uncleated the halyard, dropped sail, lashed the tiller, removed my shirt, and dove off Felix’s bow into the ocean. The water was brisk and refreshing. I swam around Felix inspecting her hull and rubbing her like a man rubbing his wife’s back just before falling asleep. Her simple yet graceful lines impressed me yet again and the hull felt smooth and warm under my hand.  After about 20 minutes drifting in the water with Felix, I remember thinking that if I could just get that wind to stop blowing her around I’d….WIND!? It was back and Felix seemed to be yelling to me to get in and ready her sail. I hoisted myself up in the transom, scurried back into the cockpit, and yanked away on the halyard. The sail climbed the mast a little with each pull and flopped back and forth like a flag. I cleated the halyard, fell back in the cockpit and pushed the tiller away. Felix fell back a bit off the wind, filled the sail, and we were off, heading east out to sea.

openlighthouseAbout 3 miles off the point of Great Island is a lighthouse. It is guarded by large rocks and can be seen from the shore on a clear night. I could now just see it in the distance and it was to be today’s final destination. The lighthouse was directly up-wind and the ability of Felix to sail close to the wind is not a strong one. She seemed up for the challenge and directed me towards a horizon point off to the northern side of the lighthouse. We were off. She took to the wind and sailed well. I fired up the sophisticated auto-pilot system that I had installed (the tiller tied off to a cleat with an old, frayed mooring penant). Sometimes she stuck to her line like a toy car on rails at an amusement park and other times she fell off or rounded up almost instantly. On the extended stints of auto-pilot, I stood on the bow and breathed in the salty fresh air. This was perfection.

The first port tack was a long one, that brought us about 1 mile off shore. I do not know if it was the warm sun, the salty air, or the fact that my shorts were now drying over the cockpit combing, but I could barely contain myself from the level of joy I was having. I kept an eye out for passing boats, but there were no vessels around. I hoped that this was not the day that Grandma Mildred cleaned out her underwear drawer only to find a pair of her husband’s high-powered binoculars. I giggled to myself thinking of the vision of some naked smiling guy out in his small sailboat having the time of his life.  Those thoughts passed and I sat back on the gunwale to enjoy the warm rays of the sun, everywhere.

Eventually, I made it to within about 100 yards of the lighthouse, but the winds seemed to be getting lighter as the afternoon approached. With no motor onboard, just the thought of paddling a 7-foot wide boat back to shore with one paddle made my back and shoulders ache. I decided to spin Felix around and make the long run back towards the mouth of Lewis Bay. I was becalmed a number of times on the way back, but I was in no rush to return and it gave me a chance to get some clothing back on before returning to civilization. As I got in closer, I realized that the Sunfish race was still happening on the other side of the channel. I sailed over near the observation boat and pointed Felix into the wind to watch the little boats race around their marks.

The sun threatened to sleep for another day and that fiery blanket that I observed 9 hours ago began to reappear on the water as the sun set.  I let out sail and started my run home. The channel was calm now and the wind seemed non-existent as the water gurgled quietly around the rudder. I sailed back into the channel and into Lewis Bay.  I glided to the mooring where Felix and I took a deep breath and began preparations for hauling her out for the long New England winter. Felix and I were friends now and over the course of our day developed a relationship that would last for years to come.


felix_rubrails2It was a sad day when I finally passed Felix onto another owner.  She was in beautiful shape from a number of my refits and seemed to wave sadly and she rolled off the lot on her trailer.  The kids and I shed a few tears and said our goodbyes, but took comfort in the fact that the person buying her was a carpenter with a collection of grandkids he was planning on taking out.  I imagine Felix as a happy, well kept boat on some fresh water lake.  She was incredibly well built by Stur-Dee Boat Company and should provide many years of the same happiness she provided to me.  The kids got over the loss of Felix very quickly when I rolled up with Marsaili (a 1973 Marshall Sanderling), but Felix and our day at sea will always hold a special place in my heart.


Thank you for reading!



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