The Adventures of Nighthawk

Episode 23: Nighthawk dictates a letter…

Oops—sorry, wrong comedy show.

Nighthawk is our boat. Usually when it becomes known in conversation that David and I are the proud owners of a boat, people jump to the conclusion that we are out waterskiing or fishing every weekend. Unfortunately for us, we aren’t. Instead, we belong to that great bastion of nautical snobbery—sailors! I say unfortunately, because waterskiing and/or fishing would be infinitely cheaper. You water-skiers are sniggering right now and thinking to yourselves “you haven’t priced new water skis lately, have you?”
To which I reply that one cleat on our sailboat, which is mainly comprised of cleats, lines, downhauls, blocks, jibs, clews, more lines and gudgeons (whatever they are—we just point vaguely at the boat whenever we say the word gudgeon and hope no one ever catches on that we haven’t a clue); anyway, one cleat on our boat can cost more than a new set of water skis any day of the week, and you will need dozens of these cleats just to tie up to the dock, much less sail the boat anywhere. I have this game I play whenever we visit West Marine products wherein I look for the most expensive piece of deck tackle I can find. It is usually in the neighborhood of around $300-$400 dollars. And these are the cleats they are willing to put on display. The really expensive stuff is kept in a vault somewhere guarded by trolls and dragons. (And don’t even ask what a gudgeon costs!)

But this expensive hobby seems to be our lot in life and over the years we have owned a succession of sailboats. This particular iteration is a 1978 Balboa 21 that we bought a couple of years ago from one of David’s friends who was leaving the country and thought it might be smarter to sell the boat to us rather than try to sail it to England. This is our second season with her and we spent most of the first season trying to brainstorm a really cool name. I really liked “Two If.” Get it? Huh? Okay, David didn’t like it either, so he tried coming up with names like “Summer Wind,” only in other languages like Finnish or Latin. None of those really struck a chord. At one point, I thought he had settled on naming her “Ellie E” after his grandmother, but after trying it on for a few weeks, he nixed that one too. Somehow, she became Nighthawk. We both love our nighthawks, but I wonder if, somehow, naming a boat after a bird that will suddenly execute a plunging dive is such a great idea. I picture us sailing happily along one day when she chooses to live up to her namesake and—whoosh—dives straight down Edmund Fitzgerald like to the bottom of the sea and people ever after wonder what really happened to the Soule’s.

Nighthawk also happens to be our first ever ballasted boat. And what is ballast? Do you remember Weebles? “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!” Probably not—they were a pretty stupid toy actually, but the point is that Weebles didn’t fall down because they had ballast. You could hit them and they would just pop back upright and that was pretty much the extent of the fun. So although they did have a catchy slogan, you can see why they never really caught on. But Weebles notwithstanding, the concept of ballast has been used for years in a somewhat laughable attempt to get boats to stay upright. This is especially true for sailboats which have a tendency to “heel” or “lean” inconveniently whenever the wind blows which is, ironically, what makes sailing fun—wind that is. So heeling is just a part of the game and is also, incidentally, a smashing way to have fun scaring inexperienced sailors or “landlubbers.”

“Boy, she’s really heeling today! Hope we don’t have us a accident!”

And it mostly works like it is supposed to. Say you are sailing along and you get hit by a rogue wave or attacked by a sea monster or a giant shark or run down by a totally oblivious cargo ship. And let’s say it is a really big totally unrealistic mechanical shark that actually hits the boat hard enough to roll it completely over until it is upside down. That’s right folks—at that point, the boat will act like a giant Weeble and pop back upright (only a lot slower than your basic Weeble, so take a deep breath). Of course, it will go sailing merrily off without you because you forgot to use a lifeline and are too busy being eaten by a giant mechanical shark to swim after it. But that’s the general idea.

Ballast is a really great thing to have when you are sailing on Topaz Lake, where you can be sailing along, let’s say north, on one tack, then suddenly find yourself sailing along, still going north, but on a completely different tack wondering what the hell just happened. We once sailed in a complete circle on the same tack, which is only possible if you are sailing on a lake in the Sierra or in the giant whirlpool from Pirates of the Caribbean. In an unballasted boat, these quirky little lake sailing tricks can be quite exciting. The word sailors use is “sporting.” Conditions on Topaz Lake are pretty much either what we call “boring” or they are “sporting.” Frankly, they were beginning to turn both of us into “weenies.” (I think that’s the proper nautical terminology.) And I will admit to being far more weenieish than David. In fact, I was beginning to dread sailing on the lake, so I was all for buying a ballasted boat.

But ballast has its drawbacks. I mean, basically, it is weight. And basically, weight makes things weigh more. A lot more! So my poor truck went from hauling Hobie Cats and Wayfarers, any one of which could be picked up and moved by 3-4 burly men or women and to which the truck responded “Huh? Is there something attached back there?” To hauling a ballasted behemoth which you couldn’t pick up and move with 20 college students AND a Volkswagon and that made it creak and groan almost as badly as it did when hauling two horses across Nevada in the horse trailer. I already knew it was time to replace the truck, but Nighthawk was truly the beginning of the end.

On our final trip “over the hill,” we noticed a funny noise coming from the front end of the truck. We pulled over somewhere east of Lodi and checked all over the front end. We couldn’t see anything, so we kept on driving. We checked it again somewhere west of Lodi, but still couldn’t find the funny noise. Finally, when we made our last turn off of the freeway, David noticed the steering seemed wobbly and we pulled over and this time he noticed that we only had 3 lug nuts holding the left front wheel on. We thought we would just get some more lug nuts until we realized that the studs that hold them on were gone also! So we tightened up the three remaining lug nuts, (only one of which was really doing anything in terms of actually holding the wheel on the truck at that point) and limped the last few miles to Mom’s house. The next morning, it was off to Schwab, who was fortunately able to fix it. The mechanic said “oh, yeah, this happens all the time on these older trucks!” They always make these statements after the fact as if any fool ought to know… Why didn’t we lose the wheel when we were driving 65 on the freeway? We lead very blessed lives.

So we bought a new truck. Used actually, because we would have to rob a bank to be able to afford a new truck and I don’t think they let you sail or ride horses in prison. It is much heavier duty than the old truck, has far fewer miles and is much younger. So when our first sailing trip of the year rolled around, we thought we were set. Nighthawk emerged from her winter hibernation with a newly finished centerboard, a new Genoa and a few other improvements. (Note to water skiers: the stuff to finish the centerboard costs around $75 a quart and you will need several quarts to get the job done so you still don’t impress me!) We were all set to go. Friday afternoon, I drove home from work prepared to drive her in to town to meet David. As I was driving up the hill out of Holbrook Jct, I remember thinking what a nice day it was and how nice it was to have a diesel that didn’t even need to slow down going up a hill hauling a heavy boat. You could almost hear the strains of Beethoven’s Pastoral playing in my head, when suddenly there was a jerk and a whump behind me. I looked back in the side view mirror to see the left wheel of the boat trailer separate itself from the trailer laughing “I’m finally free!” and continue on down the road on it’s own little parallel journey.

So I calmly stepped on the brakes and pulled off the road. As I did so, my renegade wheel wandered off into the oncoming lane without the slightest sign of slowing down or turning off. Uh, Oh! I began to flash my lights madly hoping that the cars coming in the opposite direction might notice that they were about to go toe to toe with my fleeing wheel. Fortunately, the first car saw it and swerved at about the same time the wheel made it to the far side of the lane and shot off the road altogether and into the weeds. Whew! Then I freaked out. I tried calling David, but I could barely talk. Fortunately, the next person who pulled over to help me was my cousin’s husband—also a sheriff! It’s handy to have relations who drive vehicles with flashing lights and radios and clout with dispatch. He was nice enough to position his vehicle with its lights in such a way that the other cars and 18 wheelers would slow from 70 to a sedate 65 as they passed by us to show how safety minded they are. He also called for a tow truck.

If you’ve ever waited by the side of a road for a tow truck, you know what it is like to be poised on the edge of a black hole. Scientists who study black holes should stop designing fancy experiments and just study people waiting for tow trucks—their data would be much more valid than anything they could postulate from observations using the Hubble Telescope. Of course, if astronauts knew that being poised on the edge of a black hole is, in fact, identical to waiting beside the road for a tow truck, they would never volunteer to go on the mission. David actually made it from Carson City, through rush hour traffic to my location, before the tow truck did. After much debate, we decided to have the tow truck haul the boat into Schwab and leave it there for repairs.

This involved a lot of scooting, pulling, lifting, raising and lowering of ramps and general praying on everyone’s part, since it turns out that putting a one wheeled boat trailer which happens to be carrying a well ballasted boat up on top of a rather large tow truck is as complicated a procedure as docking the space shuttle to the International Space Station. But, we finally got it done and chained up and the tow truck headed for Gardnerville with the entire shebang—boat, trailer, tow truck and all—heeling slightly to the left as any good nautical operation probably should. I was somewhat concerned about what the oncoming drivers thought of this monstrosity that must have appeared, from their perspective, to be diving off to port at each and every moment, but none of them swerved off or acted the slightest bit concerned. They were probably too busy texting their spouses or BFF’s to even notice. Getting the boat and trailer off of the tow truck turned out to be every bit as complicated as getting it up there with the added excitement that gravity, which you would think would help, was in fact being just a little too helpful.

So Nighthawk still hasn’t tasted water under her keel yet this year. Aside from a black rub mark (from the tire hitting the boat) which David was able to buff out, a small crack in the gel coat and a crumpled fender on the trailer, there was no major damage. David spent most of the day Saturday checking out the Benecia wind reports which were so dismally bad (blowing 2, gusting to 3) that he was kind of relieved we didn’t make it after all. I was disappointed because I was really looking forward to calculating the mileage on the new truck while hauling something over the mountains. Still, that’ll happen soon enough. The only lingering affect reared its ugly head today. I took my horse trailer in for its annual wheel bearing pack and at every bounce, wobble, shake, wiggle and vibration, I was ready to pull over to check the lug nuts “just in case.” I had to force myself to keep driving, but I kept looking back at the tires to convince myself they were all still there anyway.

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