08 April 2006

Buckets

Once upon a time, I thought of a bucket as being a pail. Lots of uses. You put water or sand in it. Or maybe bluefish. Or maybe even sit on it, which side up depending on why you are sitting on it. (22' open boat--think about it.)

But I have recently learned a new definition: a Bucket, with a capital B, is a meeting of super-size sailboats, coming together so the crews can drink, race, drink some more. They have Buckets in places like Newport, Nantucket, and for the last eleven years, St. Barths. This year there were 30 boats in town for the better part of a week.

For one reason or another, we have not before been on the island for the weekend of The Bucket. Boy, did we miss out. Not this time, however. Fantastic.

The boats are simply gorgeous. From afar they are inspiring. Upclose they are breathtaking.

These ocean going sailboats, ranging from 70-180 feet, have remarkably little freeboard, i.e., they sit low in the water. Each one is a museum piece. The hulls all look like they were painted yesterday with the shiniest of enamels. The decks are flawless teak boards that flow fore and aft with the shape of the boat. (Because the boats sit so low in the water, when you stand on the quay, which is about six feet above the waterline, you are actually looking down on the boat, or at least at eye-level with the deck). All metal boat parts aside from the hull and the white masts (aluminum? carbon fibre?) appear to be highly polished chrome over brass. Wood is varnished mahogany. Lines are neatly coiled (I think the nautical term is "faked") on the decks, with dozens of additional lines neatly coiled in that familiar figure-8 pattern, hanging from every available place on the mast, boom, stays, etc. And get this: on most boats, there are no railings, no lifelines, nada. Walk off any edge of the boat and you go into the sea, nothing to hinder your progress in that direction. How these people stay aboard under sail I have no idea.

What struck me as a motor boater who is always sure he is about to run over something or somebody, and therefore always looks where he is headed, is the position of the helmsman on these beauties. On most of these boats, he has his choice of two steering wheels, one to port, one to starboard. They are huge,¬ómaybe four or five feet in diameter. I assume this has to do with leverage in moving the huge rudders on these ships. The helmsman is located in the cockpit which is about 80% of the way back from the bow. And the cockpit is actually a "pit", really a hole in the deck. What's more, the cabin roof is in front of the cockpit, so when the helmsman sits in his seat, he can see nothing at all except, I guess, his wheel and his compass and his electronics. He might as well be steering from below decks. This explains, I think, two wheels. The helmsman sits or stands on either the port or starboard edge of the cockpit, and uses just the 9 o'clock, or the the 3 o'clock rim of the wheel to steer. This way he can peer around the side of the cabin, along the edge of the boat. When under way, he stands on his seat so he can have some visibility over the cabin roof as well. In any event, forward visibility is not a high priority in the design of these boats.

The crew: I am not sure how many people it takes to run these things. For The Bucket, there are lots of friends, friends of friends, and other visiting firemen aboard. I counted 28 people on deck of one the boats as it left the harbor.

(We have a sensational view from our deck. The boats come out of Gustavia Harbor under power, raise sail abreast of Corossol--that's us--and then sail around, warming up in our front yard. Fantastic. Huge masts, I would guess the length of the boat, or maybe larger, mainsails, spinnakers...wow.)

At least for the the Bucket, all crew members are in uniform, with matching shorts, shirts, and hats. All fun color combinations imaginable are utilized. Lots of lime green, pink, etc. No one was dressed all in white, except the harbormaster who supervised the docking and undocking procedures, which is, in itself, a hugely complicated bit of choreography.

I am told that many, or at least some of the boats allow the public to come aboard in the harbor. I missed that this year. It will not happen again.

For The Bucket, the Harbormaster requires the large motor yachts that normally occupy the long northern edge of the harbor, to move to the other side, so the the sailboats can dock all on the same side, stern to. The northern edge of the harbor is the side where the Gustavia main street is located, and there is a large acre-sized plaza at the quay, with a sort of huge three-sided open enclosure, with a stage area as well.

From late afternoon through late evening, the plaza is the scene of a great party. Bands play, bars are set up, hundreds of crewmembers, and would-be crew members gather, drink beer, tell lies about their sail from New Zealand, etc. Gawkers like me are free to mingle, feeling inadequate but nevertheless privileged to be there and absorb the atmosphere. Osmosis is great stuff.

Pinks usually walks Frank in Gustavia Harbor on Sunday mornings, avoiding the beaches where she is technically not permitted to be with the dog. She said the Sunday morning of The Bucket weekend was extraordinary. Crews quietly cleaning up, people on deck drinking coffee, talking to neighbors on either side, thirty magnificent ocean going yachts swaying gently in the harbor swell. Frank, of course, had the time of his life. Can you imagine the smells!

The boat everyone talks about is Endeavour. She is 140 feet long, has an extraordinarily sleek shape, and has a remarkable history. Built in England in 1934, she was at one point sunk, sold for $1 for scrap, and then rehabbed totally. I have seen her at the quayside and under sail. Next year I am going to find a way to get aboard.(Btw, I googled her. She is available for charter. $65,000 a week. Seems like a bargain to me.)

To give you an idea of the informality of this gathering, a young woman of our acquaintance here told us she was fascinated by the yachts and last year went to the quay and asked if she could join the crew for The Bucket weekend. They said yes and she spent three days aboard one of these superyachts.

With all the millions spent getting here, staying here, etc, the actual "race" part of the weekend lasts only two days, Saturday and Sunday. Though this has been a very windy season so far, both days produced a very light wind, too light to move these behemoths at any reasonable speed, so they just noodled around in our front yard instead of circumnavigating the island as scheduled. (The race is really a time trial. The boats do not leave at the same time, and there is a handicap system that has not been explained to me and which I am sure I would not understand if it were.) On Sunday, there was the added complication when visibility totally disappeared for a half hour in a rain squall off Columbier Point. The squall had very precise boundaries. Two inches of rain fell on Columbier point, two miles from our house. We got zilch.


Docking:

What a thrill just to watch this process. There are 30 boats to be docked, and quay space is such that each boat is docked no more than 3-4 feet from its neighbor. Each boat deploys fenders (inflated rubber teardrops or cylinders) which on these boats are about four feet long, maybe 2 feet in diameter, with the teardrop shaped ones being fatter. The fenders are covered in an immaculate cloth cover, usually navy blue. Anywhere from six to ten fenders are hung on each side, suspended from lines that are adjusted to the height and shape of the adjacent boat. When the boats are finally tied up, the fenders frequently come in contact with the adjacent boat because of the swell in the harbor.

Given the space and other considerations, boats are required to dock in sequence dictated by the Harbormaster. Docking "stern to" is really a work of art. I have watched this process from both sides of the harbor which is about 400 feet across. To dock stern to the northern edge of the harbor, the helmsman puts the bow of his 150' boat within 50 feet of the southern edge of the harbor. When he is directly abreast of his spot on quay, (the Harbormaster in his whites is standing exactly at that spot) he drops his anchor-- itself a shiny work of art, weighing I would estimate a couple of hundred pounds, attached to what I would guess is a thousand pounds of chain. Remember, the helmsman can see very little here. He watches a crewman standing on the bow who communicates solely by well rehearsed arm signals telling him how far he is off the southern concrete quay , and when he is exactly abreast of his place on the north quay.

Once the anchor is down, the helmsman backs his ship around so that it is now stretching directly across the harbor, and lined up with his ultimate spot. As he backs, he lets out anchor at the same rate of the ship's movement astern, no more, no less. He regulates sideways movement of the bow by using a thruster (a propeller in an underwater tube that runs laterally across the bow), and sideways movement of the stern by using the engine(s). I am not sure of what use the rudder may be here. Rudders are relatively little use going backwards, at least on motorboats, but sailboats have much larger rudders.

Because there is a prevailing easterly wind that wants to push the boat sideways as she backs to the north, the crew may employ its dinghy on the lee side of the boat to apply pressure and keep her backing in a straight line. It is really very much like the tug boats helping to dock an ocean liner.

Every crew member has his or her assignment. Most crew members are assigned to do absolutely nothing during docking. The ones working are, i) those assigned to deploy the fenders, ii) two crew members at the stern ready to heave the light line that will be followed by the heavy dock lines, iii) a crew member at the stern who will use arm signals to inform the helmsman of his stern clearance), iv) the guy at the bow still giving arm signals, (I think now informing the helmsman of his clearance to the ship already at the dock, and also the attitude of docking vessel, i.e., is he coming straight in, or is he coming in an angle, --and he may also be letting out anchor chain--I'm not sure who is responsible for that) and, of course v) the helmsman who is in charge of operating the steering wheel, the throttles, the thrusters, and he is, of course, ultimately responsible for the safety of the ship and all aboard her, as well as neighboring craft.

Everybody else is still. Not a word is spoken. Not a peep. No one screaming, "Watch out, we are too close" or "Come left, come left!" ( That last is my favorite: The helmsman is facing forward, backing up, what the hell does "come left" mean anyway? That's what I have to put up with from family members on my bucket.)

Mind you, these guys, in a 150' boat, are simultaneously docking and anchoring ( I simply can not conceive of doing both at the same time). Either one of those activities on Fish Faster is usually accompanied by a fair amount of voice commands--a diplomatic desciption of our communication practices. On Fish Faster, a voice command almost always yields one of two responses,"What did you say? I can't hear a thing!" or "Why are you shouting at me?"

Okay, so the boat backs in. The crew on the adjacent boat is moving about, constantly adjusting their fenders as their new neighbor arrives. When he gets to about six feet from the quay, the helmsman applies some forward throttle, checking his backward progress, the aft lines are put ashore and looped over the concrete and steel bits on the quai by the harbormaster, the anchor line is tightened a bit to reduce the possibility the ship will lurch backwards in the swell, and when all is secured, the harbormaster moves on the the next assignment, and I can relax. I can only watch one or two of these dockings in a day. The strain is too great.

Oh yeah, I left out the best part. When the docking boat is about to drop her anchor, virtually all activity in the harbor ceases. After all, there is not much harbor freeway remaining: the ships already docked stick out some 150+ feet into the harbor, and the docking boat is about as large, leaving only about 50 feet of water on either end of her, and she is moving, albeit very slowly. Several dinghies from other yachts in the inner or outer harbor are idling, not wanting to get too close to this maneuvering giant, when from within the harbor, appears an eight foot Walker Bay dinghy, with two occupants: a young woman rowing the boat, with a 3-4 yr old sitting on the back seat. She calmly rows past the docking ship. No panic, no hurry, no hesitation, just graceful unhurried strokes as she glides on by as if she were on the lake in Central Park. The icing on a delicious cake.

A bientot.

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