Control that Boom!

Boom Boon From Generous Gent

It had the potential to kill.

The monster was sixteen feet long and solid. The aluminium boom swung at head height, an accidental gybe could be fatal. Although it’s not always useful, I am quite attached to my head.

Necessity breeds invention and reluctantly we admit that one of our cleverest pieces of equipment on board was someone else’s idea, gifted to us. It’s not only the fact that this rudimentary concept saves lives and injuries, and assists us in being ‘single-handed’ when the other is asleep. The intriguing thing is that in a modern cruising world of escalating complexity, the clever part of this piece of equipment is not how it does what it does – but because it is fantastically simple. It is also cheap and anyone can rig it up in just a few minutes. Indeed, all you need is a boat, a long piece of rope and knowledge of a bowline knot. More remarkable is the nameless man that has helped prevent us from becoming sacrificial skippers at the hand of a boom.

The liberator who freed us from the prospective murder weapon onboard our boat, which is our home, resembled the epitome of ‘Granddads’. Wisps of white stringy hair lifted by the soft breeze tickled his face. The spaghetti of lines that carved deep crevices along his unassuming face had become deeper by the sun’s hand and a friendly, honest smile.

 Moored alongside the quiet town called Laurieton on the east coast of Australia (in New South Wales), we were feeling pretty smug, after all we had survived another passage on the east coast of NSW (in our humble opinion this is one of the trickiest cruising grounds in the world). As the horizon quenched the shimmering sun with the onset of a calm evening, another sailing boat glided towards us. An aging gent skippered this trim little vessel and with the minimum of fuss, stemmed the tide, came alongside and tied up. We offered to take the lines, although he obviously was not in need of any assistance.

 We then entered a period of only a few hours, which in the future we were to recall quite often and wonder why we had not taken record of the event as it was actually happening. We cannot remember the chap’s name or the design of the vessel or even the vessel’s name. However, the memory of his and modest appearance stays vivid. Our initial opinion was that he was someone that had just crossed the river and was heading into town. This thought persisted even while the slim glimmer of understanding was penetrating our even dimmer awareness.

For the sake of this yarn, we shall call him Jim.

We instantly liked this humble human, who had no raging desire to give us an instant and vivid panorama of his entire life like so many people we meet. Jim presented Noel with his sextant and asked if he knew a way of repairing the cracked sextant arc. He said, ‘It’s a bit lose, I have had to sort of hold it all together while I take a sight with one hand, and adjusting the Vernier with the other.’

 ‘Well’, thought Noel, ‘the old chap must be doing some practice sights standing on the beach. This shouldn’t present too much of a drama, cracked or not, he can just turn around and read the street sign.’ While Noel pretended to fiddle knowledgeably with the sextant Jim said, ‘I find it a bit of a bother these days, my balance is getting a bit off, but the Fleming wind vane my wife insisted I fitted this time has at least left both my handsfree, while I take the sun sights.’

 ‘And just where were you taking sights then?’ Noel enquired from beneath his creased forehead, whilst peering at the wobbly star reader. To our deepening perplexity, Jim explained that he had been on a course of around 260 degrees for the last two days. ‘Eh?’, we asked in unison (sometimes our conversation holds no bounds). ‘Oh, I have just been out to Lord Howe for my annual jaunt,’ said Jim.

‘I don’t use a GPS; it robs me of the satisfaction of finding port with just the stars, sun, compass, and log. I quite like all that.’

 

We yakked for a while and we learned that Jim regularly takes off, solo, with his sextant. (‘I can’t stand all those buttons on the GPS’.) He sails for a few weeks to keep his hand in. This trip, he reckoned, his wife slept all the better back home in Pittwater, knowing he was sailing with his one concession, the wind vane. Jim, a quietly spoken man with no pretensions, except the enjoyment of sailing, went on to explain, ‘I don’t use a GPS; it robs me of satisfaction of finding port with just the stars, sun, compass, and log. I quite like all that.’

Noel and I had been having trouble harnessing our sixteen-foot head-banging boom. Jim showed us his solution. A rope long enough to go right around the forepart of the boat onto the boom end, and back to a cleat in the cockpit.

 

It all sounded too simple.

 

Noel had been tossing up ideas involving jamming cleats, turning blocks, patented boom brakes and all sorts of paraphernalia. ‘No, no, lad, just a rope will do, let’s have a look.’ And we all toddled off to Mariah and within two minutes Jim showed us how this preventer could run in front of our Samson post, around our timber cleats on either bow and run back to aft of the cockpit. ‘You can re-tie it after each gybe to the end of the boom, or get all fancy with a snap shackle,’ Jim added.

 

‘No, no, lad, a boat’s a simple thing, you’ll get the hang of it.’

 

‘Yeah, but don’t I need turning blocks and another winch?’ Noel asked, still stunned with the pure simplicity. ‘No, no, lad, a boat’s a simple thing, you’ll get the hang of it.’

No longer do we fear our boom; the beast is harnessed and controlled with ease from the cockpit, especially on those dark nights when we are gibbering with terror on a windy night watch, running on the quarter. With the main run out all the way, we haul in the preventer and secure it on the windward quarter bit, then haul in the main sheet to make it all tight. This keeps the boom rigid and held down, maintaining a better mainsail shape, with no pumping of the sail. Backing the main is still to be avoided, but at least with an inadvertent gybe we stop the potential wrecking of gear, broken boom and gooseneck. And it has the added bonus of keeping our heads on our shoulders.

 This set up also helps us in the gybing process. When the helm is eased over (slowly does it please), the preventer controls the speed of the gybe as we can ease it out with control whilst pulling on the main sheet. Before letting the main out beyond our reach we now connect the lee end of the rope onto the end of the boom (using our fancy snap shackles), and pull on the now windward end as we ease the mainsheet, then we pull on the preventer and make secure as before.

That revealing day, some eight years ago now, Jim went on to explain his desire to eat at the RSL (Returns Servicemen’s League) and we did not have the wit or grace to ask him aboard. He quietly left the next morning.

On night passages we ponder the chance meeting with this remarkable character from Pittwater, who calmly goes about doing what he likes best, sailing and navigating the seas. Over the years we have passed this neat idea onto several boats, helping them avoid injuries, breakages and stress. We have also raised our boom above head height, losing some of the enormous sail that we never raised in entirety. Now as we alter course two degrees as told by our GPS we often wonder if Jim ever repaired that cracked sextant.

 

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