News & Events for Chesapeake Bay

VIDEO: All it takes is some big balls

Date Posted: 2015-10-14
Source: YouTube

You're planning your trip down the ICW, but you're worried your mast might be a little tall for some of the bridges (especially lately with the flooding). What can you do?

Many seasoned skippers have worked worked out various ways to get their boat heeled over consistently and predictably to lower the mast height by a few critical feet (or to reduce the keel draft). But only one skipper I know has managed to get an 80-foot mast under 65-foot ICW fixed bridges!

You may have seen this video before, it's been out there for a few years – but for me, it never gets old (yes, I have posted this before around this time of year). 

David Parrott was the captain of the Aratinga, a beautiful 58-foot Alden ketch. To get her down the ICW, he rigged two large thick rubber bags full of water from halyards to the top of the 80-foot mast – the "balls" weighed about a ton each. A turn of the helm swings the weights away from the boat and starts the heeling process – then comes the delicate balancing act. After the bridge is cleared, a turn of the helm toward the "balls" and a pull on horizontal control lines and halyards and the yacht is upright...until she reaches the next fixed bridge.

From my rough calculation, the Aratinga needed to heel approximately 35 degrees, which would also send the top of the mast nearly 46 feet starboard of the vessel on a horizontal measure – the crew needed to carefully watch for the bridge supports, too. (Incidentally, they lowered the boat's draft by about a foot at the same time.)

If you have a more typical ICW sailboat – let's say with a 64-foot mast – and you wanted an extra 4 feet of clearance just for safety, you would need to heel over 20 degrees, and watch for horizontal clearance of 22 feet. And you'd need a lot of...uh...guts. But the real questions are: How much weight would you need on the halyard – and where can you find a big bag of water?

"Honey, could you come up on deck for a minute – and bring the bosun's chair..."

A related note: On the Okeechobee Waterway there is a man they call "The Heeler" who provides large tanks to place on one side deck and fill with river water in order to get sailboats under the lowest bridge on the route. See YouTube video: Okeechobee Limbo...20 degrees of list = Good Enough.

And just one more thing: I want to put myself on the record about the big balls of water idea – I recommend you not try it, especially with a catamaran.

See the video of the Aratinga: Boat Balls 2.

  • Comment submitted by Phil Barbalace - Thu, Oct 15th

    This is great--love it! We did this many years ago by getting a couple of, let's say, sufficiently weighted crew out on the boom.

  • Comment submitted by doug wolfe - Fri, Jan 15th

    We brought a 50' Mull design north in the early 70s. We had the same bridge height problem. For the most heel, we rigged a couple of huge sailbags at the end of the boom and filled them with water. We also hoisted a guy up the rig and he called the bridge. We backed into the bridge as we had much better control going forward, so if the masthead guy said No Go, we could get away safely. Quite an adventure.

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