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The Incredible Launch Of The Great Bear

Multihull Sailing
July/August, 1971
by Tay Vaughan

In launching my Brown-designed 31-foot Searunner, I had one of those incredible experiences that fatigues one to the core, both physically and mentally, and makes one swear never to undergo such stress again in his by then shrunken lifespan.

I was, at one time, a novice boat-builder. Fifteen months ago I was forced to look up "chine" in Webster's following a detailed explanation by Jim Brown at plans buying time; it went through me like water through sand. Despite several day-sailing experiences with keeler friends and a six months' stint as deck boy on a Norwegian freighter, I continually confused such terms as "shroud," "stay," and "halyard." It was bad, but I had a vision which drove me: master, builder, and sole owner at the helm in strange blue waters; in the galley, my wife cooking unknown but pungently rare dishes.

The plans were extremely easy to interpret. I learned to cut compound curves in plywood with a skill saw, I became proficient with weldwood, resorcinol and fiberglass. Most importantly, I d id not lose sight of my motivating vision. Indeed, when we sent troops into Cambodia rather than withdrawing them from Vietnam, I began planking my deck on a twelve-hour work schedule. My fantasy intensified to the point where I could sit in the framed-in cockpit late in the evening and actually smell copra and the strong odor of tropical estuaries.

During one of those dreaming moments, when I had finished roughing-in most of the interior, my ship seemed to cry out that she was ready! She had undergone many metamorphoses --from bare wood to radiused chines to painted sculpture and finally to sailing craft. The sudden knowing that she would float hit me between the eyes like a sledge hammer. I ran in the house and tested the idea on my wife: "We're launching in a month! On Halloween!" Dagmar simply stood there and nodded. I knew I wasn't ahead of myself. We were indeed ready.

Thus began our launching experience, with that instant and intuitive awareness of transition from ship wright to sailor. We plotted what was left of our money, and set priorities. At the head of the list: the Home strand stove and the head-items that signified to us habitability and "being-at-sea." We could smell the salt air at the chandlery in the middle of San Francisco's business district.

Launching a boat traditionally requires a major celebration. We made the mistake of organizing a three day party geared to repay all those who had helped us during construction. I am now convinced that a half-day party would have sufficed, for it was this subjective time, never-ending party that sapped 80% of our launching energies.

The eight gallons of wine I had stocked were gone in three hours. The septic tank overflowed to the beat of a horde of bongo players who had simply asked, "Is this the place?" Someone unsuccessfully picked my pocket. The pig I had ordered slaughtered for roasting the next day turned out to be twice as big and twice as expensive as I had ordered. At five-thirty in the morning, we hung the 198-pounder over a bed of oak coals. It caught fire and exploded as the fat overheated and fire balled through the pores. I went to bed in complete disgust.

When I crawled back into the world at mid-morning, the pig was miraculously doing fine and people were arriving for the feast. By afternoon it looked like a per forming three-ring circus-children all over the boat, people wandering off to the woods in lieu of a toilet, food arriving in huge dishes and bowls, and wine every where.

After one hundred and fifty people had come and gone and the third day dawned, it was quiet. The final event - and as far as I was concerned, the most meaningful-was at sundown. For the christening a handful of persons remained. Each meditated and threw a half pint of water across the seaweed-draped bows. It was over, and all we lost were three of grandmother's spoons, a wool blanket, and most of that "other-directedness" that leads one to encourage such parties. We had a week to sober up before the "Invocation to The Great Bear" went into the water.

In the course of that week, the fiberglass on my rudder delaminated (a friend had glassed it during a rainstorm); I collected five gallons of water in the bilge from the same storm, and I overdrew my bank account.

The little things were getting me. I was being nickled-and-dimed to death, drawing both on my avail able time and my overdrawn bank. I dropped in the 400 Ib. mooring anchor; I rented the trailer; I went to get a wide-load highway permit.

No, said the highway department. I could only move the load in the morning. Traffic, not tide, determines California launchings. I borrowed two fifty pound kedge anchors, a block and tackle, three hundred feet of manila, and planned how I would slip her in at high tide on a mud flat! Jacking the boat out of its cradle and onto the trailer was not the sort of experience one might call easy on the mind. Others had tried to cheer me: "You'll be amazed how nicely she'll jack up!" and "Be glad you didn't build a monohull!" It did no good. The lifting of "The Great Bear" three feet into hollow air simply scared hell out of me.

The Great Bear moves toward her destiny. As the boat's beam was nearly 19 feet, the highway department insisted that launch depended on traffic, not tide.

A launching is always a festive ceremony that attracts wives, dogs, children and other builders in great profusion.

The same steady crew of help was assembled that had at various times l ) pounded nails, 2) mixed glue, 3) stretched fiberglass, and ~) loaned me about every imaginable tool for building a boat. In addition, two German priests and one of their wives pitched in to the end. Lights were strung out and the scissors jack and the hydraulic were placed ready fore and aft. Dagmar brought coffee and cookies. We began.

Three inches lift forward and a yell: "Hold it! The skeg's going in!" And five inches aft: "Don't let her tilt, for crissakes!" But in fifteen minutes, the crew had found natural positions and the "Great Bear" climbed into the blackness in a steady rocking motion.

Somehow everything clicked that night. That motley group of architects, electrical engineers, wives, motorcycle riders and priests simply defied gravity to the musical screams of "Watch it!" and "Aufpassen, Du Dicke!" And I ran around pretending to direct a sym phony which knew what was happening anyway. All pledged to return the next morning for the three-mile trailer haul and the launch of the "Great Bear" into her home water.

It was this glib "slipping" of the boat into the water that drew the last of my energies. Hauling the boat was easy, for my neighbor - who drives a 50-foot boom crane for a living - was in charge. Slowly and carefully he took us down the highway, pausing every few minutes to allow the "flagman ahead" signs and the flagmen themselves to reset. In an hour we were at the launching site, dead on a 5.7 high tide.

To understand the hideous experience which fol lows, I must explain the geography of the Bolinas Lagoon. The lagoon was originally a deep-water estuary formed by a drowned galley along the San Andreas Fault. As recently as the 1930's, barges landed in the lagoon to ferry lumber, potatoes, and people twelve miles south to San Francisco.

Today its 1,000 acres of water is being rapidly displaced by silt from logging and agricultural operations and it now has an average depth of but flue feet and is 80% exposed mud at low tide! There remains a winding narrow channel of decreasing depth from the mouth (a difficult entrance due to swift tidal currents and a shallow bar with sometimes heavy breakers to its head (an alluvial mud flat. It was into this channel that I had to launch.

From aerial photographs my site looked the best. On closer inspection it proved to be of relatively stable gravel due to the wash of a tiny stream. I had already driven stakes to locate potholes, muddy areas, and the hollow caused by the stream. When we arrived with the "Great Bear" in tow, I felt well familiar with the ground. The channel lay underwater about sixty feet from the road . The decision to put her in at high tide was one borne of impatience. I regret now that we didn't just leave her at the side of the road for six hours-yet I have since learned a bit more of myself. With a skiff we dropped the two kedge anchors about 100 feet off the water's edge, roue a line around a block on their bridle and hooked one end to the boat trailer-now backed into the water- and the other to the towing truck. We would simply draw the boat into the water by driving the truck away. It was, in principle, a brilliant idea!

Left: Dagmar Vaughan tries the galley on the 31-foot Searunner. Bottom: The author maps his grand strategy. Some builders maintain that a launch requires as much planning as a circumnavigation .

Water-borne at last, Invocation to the Great Bear sits at anchor in Bolinas Lagoon. The center cockpit cutter has modular fore and aft cabins.

With the ground tackle set and me bursting with the pleasure of seeing my ship afloat-poetic feelings of birth were coursing through my mind-the line was drawn taut. The truck drove away. The trailer didn't move. To my horror, the anchors dragged out of the water at our feet, huge but ineffective hooks.

Twenty friends-and I must call them friends, for they were shivering in waist-deep water under a worsening southerly sky - then gathered with the question "What do we do now?" The answer was clear to me: seeing twenty able-bodied men huddled under a wing of the "Great Bear" was like seeing a hundred! I figured we'd just "muscle" her into the little stream bed, work her from the trailer, and she'd have enough water to float out to the channel. We heaved on the trailer.

Three feet we got-a hard three feet-when the trailer canted into the stream bed, a depression of maybe two feet. She canted but went no further. We pulled. We lifted. I did a lot of non-directional swearing. Nothing helped, for the lower trailer wheel had settled into the gravel to its hub. I looked around and discovered the tide was out and my contingency plan idea was dead anyway. The water lapped at my ankles.

Time had compacted itself. Three hours of the six until low tide had passed. The "Great Bear" lay tilted now on the trailer, her bracing and support removed. One float was off the ground so far that you couldn't jump up and touch it; the other was driven into the rough sand. And the main hull was hung up on the trailer. Our rocking attempts to slide her into the water had indented the half-inch fiberglass shoe on the mini keel. I gave up, and in the most incredible despair, went home to Dagmar's consolation and a bowl of hot soup. The town of Bolinas has a varying population- some say 600, others 1,000. It is a haven for good surfing, and in its geographic isolation it has collected a truly interesting lot of people. Somehow, word went out through the town that brute force was needed that after noon to "save" my ship. I felt very shipwrecked, and the "Great Bear" did look very much in trouble, so "saving" a ship seemed the right way to put it.

By mid-afternoon the sky had cleared and the wind died, and forty persons assembled by the indisposed "Great Bear." These were forty different people than had been with me in the morning. While I waited for the jeep to pull the trailer out of the hole, several bottles of brandy and more than a few Mexican cigarettes were passed to ward off the cold.

Having quietly studied the problem, it seemed best to pull out the trailer, reblock the "Bear" level and back her into the now-exposed main channel. Ail but freeing the trailer could be effected by brute manpower.

We drove the trailer free, righted the ship amid the greatest tumult of people really enjoying themselves, and dragged the trailered beast across the flat. Somehow, the event was not one of fun and jubilation in my mind, though it would seem that all pleasures are relative. Indeed, this thing of relative pleasures still haunts me as I remember running around screaming at people to go slow don't push so hard be gentle, and essentially, don't enjoy the work so much! Not until some days later did I begin really to feel that boatbuilder's pride and satisfaction when his virgin hull is wetted.

It was a strange group that saw the "Great Bear" slide off into the channel at last: two Montgomery-Ward deliverymen who had stopped on the road and were now soaked to their knees a loaded school bus; a carload of Jehovah's Witnesses; the "brute-force-save-the-ship" crowd, and somewhere in the twilight, my wife. In the last light of a very long day we towed the "Invocation to the Great Bear" to her permanent mooring two hundred yards off the town of Bolinas.