Carolina Cruising

Down Pamlico Sound in a 17-foot Open Boat

by Tim Lemmond
painting by Bert Petri

SMALL BOAT JOURNAL #59 February/March 1988

It was really just starting to sink in. Our planned 17-day voyage had ended at about the half-way point, after the mast had been irreparably damaged just 4 miles from a safe harbor at Ocracoke Island. Although our new friend, Gary Coye, made a most hospitable host, I only vaguely heard the pleasant conversation that accompanied the “potluck” meal we shared with him and two other new island friends, David and Karen. As they traded stories of travels, the wind in Gary’s rigging moaned out the oldest of sailor’s songs.

My mind again strayed to the instant it happened. I had looked up from the steep 6-foot wave breaking just short of our stern in time to see the port spreader snap and begin a frenzied dance, its end still attached to the shroud. The mast just above that point hinged forward some 60 degrees so that the upper 10 feet pointed forward like a huge windvane. “We’re dismasted!” I had yelled above the roar of wind and wave, a little more frantically than I care to admit. As I leaped to douse the double-reefed main, I was utterly convinced that a mast could not bend so radically without breaking.

My father, Dave, with scarcely a change in his stoic expression, remained totally engaged with steering for the narrow channel entrance more clearly delineated by the maelstrom of breakers to each side than by the channel markers. Another wave lifted our stern, threatening to broach our tiny boat. Plumes of water sprayed from our bows as we accelerated like a speedboat surfing down the steep crest, closing last on the channel opening. The next instant, as the main tumbled neatly into the lazyjacks, the mast magically sprang back and we rode comfortably under jib into the lee of Howard’s Reef.

I returned to the present just in time to hear Gary, nodding in our direction, say, “These guys are probably the best sailors here. They came all the way from Manteo in a little 17-foot open boat.” I couldn’t help but reply that had we been better sailors, we would have dropped our mainsail sooner and still had a usable mast. Sensing my gloom, David and Karen began to ask us how we had adapted the little boat for cruising in the Pamlico Sound. Soon, our disappointment forgotten, my lather and I were enthusiastically recounting our story.