June 15, 2006
Most of the time we're fairly certain of our identity. When sightseers strolling along the waterfront ask us what we do, we tell them we're liveaboard cruisers. If that admission elicits a blank look (which it often does), we explain that our home is a sailboat and that we change location with the seasons. It helps if this conversation is taking place within eyesight of Little Gidding. Then we can point and say something like, "See that white and blue piece of fibreglass floating over there? That's our boat. It's a sailboat, you can tell from the big aluminum pole sticking up in the middle."
For the last couple of weeks, however, we've been experiencing an identity crisis. For most of that time, that big aluminum pole hasn't been sticking up in the middle of the boat. It's hard to claim you have a sailboat when it's missing its mast. Does this deficiency make it a powerboat? If so, then we must be cross-vesselers. Try to explain that to those curious onlookers on the dock.
We entered the ambiguous realm of cross-vesselers in Catskill, NY, on the Hudson River. Catskill is 40-odd miles from the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal. Boats transiting the New York canal system encounter a slew of low fixed bridges -- some as low as 12 feet. Since we intended to take Little Gidding through the canals to Lake Ontario, our mast was definitely going to be a major impediment. Riverview Marine is one of a handful of operations in the Catskill area that boasts a mast crane. Riverview does a thriving business with boaters like us who need to either unstep their masts before entering the canal system or step them after leaving the canals. It's a haven for cross-vesselers.
We called Riverview on the VHF radio as we turned off the main channel in the Hudson River and entered Catskill Creek. It was late in the afternoon. Susan, the woman who answered our call, told us they could accommodate us and instructed us to come alongside the dock near the mast crane. Much to our surprise, a familiar figure was at the dock waiting to take our lines. "Jim Winslow!" Eileen exclaimed, "What are you doing here?"
Jim heads up the World Cruising Club in Toronto, where we've given presentations in the past. In one of those rare small world occurrences (which seem to happen all the time), he had been driving across the bridge in downtown Catskill on his way to New Hampshire when he spied our boat in the creek below. "Hey, I know that boat," he said. A couple of minutes later he was on the dock holding our lines and beaming. "Let me take you out for dinner and we can catch up on what we've both been doing for the last few years."
David looked up at the dark clouds overhead. It had begun to drizzle. "Sounds like a good idea to me," he said. "It's getting late and I don't think we're going to be dealing with the mast in this weather."
Mike Aguiar has owned and operated Riverview for 30 years. Susan, to whom we spoke on the radio, is his wife and manages the office and -- as far as we could tell -- just about everything else, with the possible exception of Mike. Mike is a no-nonsense type of guy who doesn't waste a lot of words. We asked him if it was okay if we put off unstepping the mast until the next day. "It's up to you," he said. "Just tell me when you're ready. If you need anything, let me know."
It was still raining the next morning. "I guess we'll have to resign ourselves to the fact we're going to get wet," David said.
"What do you mean WE," Eileen replied and ducked back inside the boat.
The first order of business was constructing a cradle to secure the unstepped mast on the deck. We had heard various horror stories about people losing their masts overboard when they got caught in bad weather crossing Lake Oneida, the largest piece of open water on the Erie Canal system. David didn't think that would be a good thing, so on our way north we had gone to a building supply outlet in Annapolis, bought a bunch of lumber, and piled it on the deck. "I don't know whether this will be enough," David had said. "But we don't have room on the deck for any more." His eyes lit up after he toured the grounds at Riverview and discovered a large collection of discarded cradles in one corner.
Mike told him, "You can reuse any of the material that doesn't have a boat name and date written on it. If it's unlabeled, we assume its owner isn't coming back for it."
David set to work in the rain dismantling abandoned cradles. From the number of screw and nail holes in some of the older boards, it was obvious they had made several trips back and forth on the canals in various incarnations. After a couple of hours, David had enough wood piled on the dock beside Little Gidding to open a small lumber store. He began piecing it together to construct three separate mast supports. This turned out to involve some design and construction skills that David didn't possess. He figured he could compensate for his engineering inadequacies by adding more boards and using more nails. At one point, the hammer -- slick with rain -- went flying out of his hand and made a nose dive in the middle of the creek. On the trip to the local hardware store to buy another hammer, David picked up a package of screws, figuring a change in fasteners couldn't hurt. Mike gave him some more after he ran out.
The work day was pretty well over by the time David had completed his project. Eileen eyed it dubiously and said, "Why do our supports look so much bigger than everyone else's?" David went searching for Mike and told him we would be ready to get unstepped in the morning. "Great," Mike said, "I thought you were building a house down there."
The rain stopped overnight. In the morning, we detached all of our standing rigging except four shrouds and the forestay and positioned the boat under the mast crane. One of the yardworkers, John, came on board and eyed the mast. He explained in detail how they were going to lift the mast and what responsibilities we would each have. He climbed the mast steps and secured the crane's sling a short distance below the spreaders. "That should be the balance point," he said.
David was impressed. "You must have been doing this for a long time," he said.
"Oh no," John replied, "I'm new here. I've only worked at the marina for seven years." Riverview Marine must be one of the few businesses where a seven year employee considers himself new.
Mike took the controls of the crane and David went below to make sure the wires coming out of the butt end of the mast would clear the partners without being pinched. John and a couple of other workers stayed on deck to guide the mast onto the supports. "The mast hasn't been out of the boat since 1998," Eileen told the yard crew. "It might be a little reluctant to part company."
Mike tensioned the cable. Nothing happened. He increased the tension. Little Gidding's boot top inched up out of the water. Thunk! The mast broke loose and the boat sunk back down to its normal waterline. As John had predicted, the mast was perfectly balanced in the sling and rose straight up out of the boat. The crew held one end of the mast in position as Mike lowered it onto the supports. Within five minutes it was all over and we were left to lash everything down and bundle up the loose wires.
Eileen said, "Well, we're not a sailboat anymore, at least not for the next little while. It's a lot of work being a cross-vesseler."
"And, hey, we get to do it all over again in reverse order in another week or so," David added. He surveyed his handiwork. "I wonder if there's much of a market for slightly used mast cradles?"