The Importance of Being Ballast

“I get knocked down, but I get up again.” – Chumbawamba (Tubthumping)

We awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of a crash. Actually, it was more like several small crashes – bang, bang, bang, bang! I rolled out of my berth and walked downhill to the head. The noise that had awoken us was that of every bottle of shampoo, conditioner, and cleanser falling from the wall ledges down to the floor of the tub. Seeing that nothing was broken, I turned around, proceeded to walk uphill with some effort, and climbed back into bed. The National Hurricane Center’s historical HURDAT database shows no cyclone activity in the Atlantic during the time frame that we made our crossing. Whatever it was, the wind had the boat at an impressive heel angle. Port was downhill; starboard was up.

Windswept, Atlantic Ocean, 2016.

The next day at noon, the Captain calmly explained in his daily radio address how he had simply shifted the boat’s ballast from one side to the other. It is a somewhat slow process, however he managed to right the boat so that we all enjoyed a pleasant night’s sleep. Our cabin was on the starboard side, meaning that as we headed west, the north wind heeled the boat to port. We were on the ninth deck, which seemed to amplify the magnitude of the angle, if only in my midnight mind.

The Atlantic Ocean, kicked up a bit, as viewed from the 9th deck.
The weather couldn’t keep us from our formal dinner.

The “boat” was the Queen Mary 2, and the Captain was Christopher Wells. We were crossing from Southampton to New York in August of 2016. Less than a year later, when called upon by the Canadian Coast Guard, Captain Wells would lead the QM2 on a daring rescue mission to save a fellow mariner whose sailboat, Tamarind, had become disabled in a violent storm during a transatlantic race. Again Captain Wells had to employ the movable ballast, placing QM2 broad side to the wind to shield Tamarind and the ship’s fast rescue boat, who retrieved the solo sailor. The skipper of the sailing vessel Tamarind was given safe passage back to land in a cabin aboard the ocean liner Queen Mary 2.

A small sailboat as viewed from the 9th deck of the Queen Mary 2, Southampton, 2016.

Ballast, oddly enough, was the behind my decision to become a sailor in the first place. When I arrived in Boston to begin my studies at MIT, I knew that I wanted to join a sports team. Not tennis – I’d tried that in high school. Fencing held some interest for me, as did crew. I had, at least, rowed a boat on the water before. In the end, the sailing team’s Assistant Coach had the best sales pitch. “We’re looking for small people who can move fast and act as movable ballast.” Once I’d looked up what “ballast” was, I figured I’d fit the part, even though I had never even been on a sailboat.

Sailing a little cat, the fast boat of the MIT Sailing fleet, Charles River, Boston, circa 2000.

It also didn’t hurt that while the crew team practiced early in the morning, sailing practice was in the warm late summer afternoons. I bought my Gill gloves and boots, and eventually both a wetsuit and a drysuit, and had a blissful few years on the team, tugging on jib sheets and jumping back and forth across the centerboard with every “roll tack.” Years later, I would find myself explaining to Harv that in college, we bought Gill because we couldn’t afford Patagonia.

Siar heeled to port, water splashing over the lee rail, Tampa Bay, Florida, 2021.

My best job ever was at the sailing pavilion. I spent the summer rigging Tech Dinghy boats for alumni to day sail and taking folks out on the Charles river for short cruises aboard the fleet’s Rhodes 19s. Part of my job involved running around the river on a little skiff with a pump and a generator, assisting anyone who’d failed to shift their “movable ballast” correctly – or quickly – thus capsizing their boat. I myself have gone “in the drink” (overboard) many times on a capsized Tech Dinghy. When the Standells sang of “that dirty water” of the Charles, they weren’t kidding.

Ballast installation. On her way to 7,500 lbs.

The morning of November 16th, 2020, we received some interesting pictures from Darrell Allen, owner and president of Island Packet Yachts. Darrell had been documenting the construction of our Island Packet 349, sending us pictures of her and updates from Florida, while we sat in offices in chilly central North Carolina, our dreams floating ever south. November 16th was the day that our ballast was installed. It was laid deep in the keel, to be covered by layer upon layer of construction, up to the cabin sole. It need never be seen nor thought of again, except for the fact that its purpose is to keep the bottom of the boat in the water and her topsides above it.

Before the ballast. Yes, he’s standing in our keel.
Ballast, complete.

When a sailing dinghy capsizes, as it lays on its side in the water, you stand on the centerboard. The downward force causes the boat to right. A keelboat has her own “righting moment.” The theory behind the design is that should the boat be “knocked down” by a wave, mast to the water, she will roll upright. It has happened to other Island Packets. I’ve linked below to a tale from the Captain of S/V Flying Fish. His entire blog is beautiful, fascinating, and inspiring. Be prepared to set aside some time for binge reading.

In more pleasant conditions, the ballasted keel’s job is to moderate the angle of heel. This delights me, as I just can’t seem to shake the small boat sailor from my brain or body. The first time we got a good heel on our old Cheoy Lee, Westward, I instinctively jumped to the high side of the boat. Captain Lee got a good laugh out of it. “Al,” he said, “this boat weighs thousands of pounds. Your weight is not going to help.” He was correct. A Tech Dinghy is light enough to be pulled out of the water and on to the dock by two people. Aboard our full keel Cheoy Lee, I wasn’t much use as movable ballast.

A proper heel to starboard, Tampa Bay, Florida.

Years later, sailing aboard Siar in Tampa Bay, I again found I have a strong preference for the high side. When I tried to warn Harv by explaining that I’d learned to sail on small boats, he answered “me too.” Well, he’s also raced on the open ocean and delivered yachts between continents. We got her up to nine knots with a deep heel, the bay gushing over the lee rail. Eventually Harv agreed to let me “flatten her out” a bit. Of course, we lost a knot and a half of speed.

Harv didn’t mind the heel at all.

On our way back from that sail, we stopped to practice with our anchor windlass in the basin. A summer sailing camp was practicing in a fleet of sailing dinghies. We waved and took pictures. Despite the light air, one of the dinghy boats capsized. I watched as it lay helpless on its side, the sailors waiting for the camp instructor to assist in righting. Harv must have seen the look on my face. He took both my hands, still clad in worn Gill gloves, in his own, looked me in the eye and said, “I promise you, that’s not going to happen to your boat.” And I have to believe him. I have to believe that with her 7,500 lbs of ballast, if Siar gets “knocked down,” she’ll get back up again. I have to trust in the boat, if not yet in myself. The next time I sail aboard the Queen Mary 2, I intend to have bought a ticket.

Summer sailing camp, St. Petersburg, Florida. All boats righted.

Footnote: In April of 2021, Christopher Wells retired after 20 years with the Cunard line. In recognition of his outstanding service, he was awarded the rank of Commodore. Highlights of his career include 25 years with the Royal Navy Reserve, participation in the commissioning of the Queen Mary 2, over a decade as her Captain, and of course, a rescue at sea. Well done, Commodore, and congratulations.

Links / further reading:

BBC account of the Queen Mary 2’s rescue of Mervyn Wheatley aboard Tamarind

An account from the middle of the Ocean aboard Island Packet 460 Flying Fish

YouTube – Tubthumping by Chumbawamba (Official Music Video)

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