Gwaihir, our 16-foot Soling was a doughty sloop. Built of fiberglass, aluminum and a bit of teak for deck, rails and hatch, she lived in my basement through the off-season. I lovingly painted her hull and lavished layers of varnish on her bright work.
I co-owned the little boat with a moody guy who lived on a shallow canal on the south shore. A Soling is easily launched from a trailer, but it was convenient to keep her in the water. If the tide was with us we could sail. Sometimes, even with the centerboard up, with a draft of just 16 inches, there wasn’t enough water at low tide to go anywhere without getting stuck in the mud. We had to wait for the tide to turn.
My husband had grown up on the water, had his own sailboat from childhood. He was completely unafraid of the ocean. Bad weather, good weather, it didn’t matter. He loved sailing.
A drawbridge spanned Sloop Channel under which you had to sail to get to the Atlantic Ocean. Our little boat’s mast was just a bit too tall to go under the bridge if it was closed. To get the bridge opened, you had to make an appointment and you had better be on time. If you were in a sailboat and hadn’t lowered your mast, you could not sail under the bridge. You had to lower your mast and use your outboard motor. Our little boat’s mast was 27 feet tall — a foot and a half too tall to go under the bridge.
There are strong tides in Sloop Channel. It can be hard to navigate, especially under sail. Moreover, a 16-foot centerboard sailboat is not ocean-worthy. Maybe if the ocean is flat, it might be “doable,” but it would never be a good idea. Each time my husband insisted we sail out to the ocean, I spent the voyage with my heart pounding hoping we didn’t become a statistic, a cautionary tale of poor judgment on the sea.
Did I mention that my son, a toddler, was with us? Did that deter my husband, his father? It did not. His father had sailed the family boat through the eye of Hurricane Carol with he and his sister aboard. He was not about to be deterred. By anything.
This day, we planned to drop the main and use the outboard to power us under the drawbridge. We hadn’t made an appointment, so the bridge wasn’t going up. Too bad. That was my favorite moment, when they stopped traffic in two directions so our little sailboat could pass beneath.
This day was beautiful with a brisk following breeze. The tide with us. We skimmed smartly over the water towards the bridge.
“Uh, Jeff? Shouldn’t we drop the mast? The bridge is coming up awfully fast…really. Look, it’s right there.”
By the time the words were out of my mouth, Jeffrey bellowed the immortal words every sailor wants to hear: “PREPARE TO REPEL BRIDGE!”
The bridge was on us. I was at the front fending off the bridge with a fiberglass boat hook, while our captain tried to start the outboard and simultaneously drop the mast before it snapped.
Note: There is a hinge at the base of the mast on small boats like this one so you can drop the mast when you go under a bridge or if you want to put the sailboat on a trailer and/or store it in your basement or garage off-season.
Fortunately, he dropped the sail and mast and started the engine — which for once started quickly. We got a little banged up, hitting the cement pylons as we bounced under the bridge. No problem. At least we still had a mast.
We had repelled the bridge. I had personally fended off the big bridge. I was out of adrenaline. Now, it was just another sunny day on the Atlantic Ocean.