(Full disclosure: “Sea stories” is unvarnished pretense on the part of the author, hyperbolical. But these are the only sea stories I have. They’re mine and they’re mostly true. Notwithstanding, I am reminded of the words on the rearview mirror of my car; to paraphrase, objects may appear larger than they actually were. The reader has every reason to maintain a healthy skepticism.)
“The sea became my unspoken challenge; the wind, the tide, the fog, the ledge, the bell, the gull that cried help, the never-ending threat and bluff of weather.”
E. B. White, The Sea and the Wind That Blows
The day came up sunny and warm. Here, the summer weather is characterized by gentle breezes out of the NNW, steady throughout the daylight hours, perfect for summer sailing.
The boat was no thoroughbred, even when it had been new, which was long before we acquired it. The gel coat on the fiberglass hull and decks was gone, along with any luster it may have once had, leaving a nondescript dull green and something which was once close to white. The wood trim, what little there was, was weathered and sun bleached. The Dacron sails had lost their crispness and snap. But it came cheap, with still enough life in it for me to fulfill my wish for a sailboat of my own. It was simple, fairly easy to rig and forgiving to handle, important to a neophyte sailor.
Work to weather going out, and run before the wind coming home. This advice came from a friend who knew more about boats and boat handling than I ever would. I therefore accepted it as an axiom.
We cast off and beat into the morning breeze, intending to tack north along the entire length of the twenty-one mile lake. The main and working jib were sheeted in, the boat pointing as high into the wind as it was capable. The first two miles fell astern briskly but as we came alongside the island, the wind dropped, became fluky. I let out both main and jib sheets, falling off the wind onto a beam reach in an attempt to catch more of the light air. Each tack took longer, with less progress north. It was after noon before we had put the island behind us.
Now in open water, the wind failed. We were becalmed. No amount of sail adjustment or course correction would gather enough force to move the boat. I put my feet up and resigned myself to the sun and the views.
Just about the time I considered lowering sails, starting the outboard and turning back, we noticed a few riffles off our bow, evidence that there was some moving air not far from our position. We waited. I recall both of us encouraging it to swing our way, to belly our slack sails. At length, we both saw a cat’s paw moving across the surface of the water in our direction. Patience and begging was rewarded as a puff of air arrived over the starboard rail. Our limp sails came to life, course and sail were adjusted. We were moving.
With each hundred yards or so, the light air consolidated, sustained velocity, putting us back on course north. In an hour, we were close hauled again, making way into the wind. We had lost hours waiting, putting our destination in doubt. I stubbornly held course anyway.
Presently I became aware of a darkness settling over the north end of the lake. Small at first, it continued to gather. We were still in bright sun, but I began to wonder if I had missed some change in the forecast. The weather radio was aboard but the disturbance seemed slight, the breeze still favorable, more so than it had been for most of the afternoon. We were doing fine.
On our course lay the second of the two bridges which cross the lake. We were on a heading that would take us nearest the west end. We would sail under it there.
With one eye on the course to the bridge, the other kept watching the darkness to the north, which had spread. It now covered the lake ahead of us from shoreline to shoreline.
About a half mile away, the bridge was suddenly swallowed by the darkness. Without warning, a blast of wind slammed into us. The quiet surface was suddenly churned into whitecaps.
The sails took the full force, the boat heeled hard to port. Over the noise of the wind on sails and through the stays, I hollered at Jeni to move to the windward side of the cockpit with me. I pushed hard on the tiller, as the wind gathered strength, trying its best to blow us off our course for the bridge.
The west tower of the bridge, a massive column of concrete, now lay dead ahead.
My instinct was to reef the sails, but I could not let go of anything and still keep the boat under control. We were off course, speeding straight toward the bridge abutment, a couple hundred yards and closing. The port rail was down, spray blowing over the deck and cabin, back to the cockpit. The boat was moving as fast as the limitations of hull design would allow.
I was in no way prepared for the forces being exerted on the boat, the rigging, the sails or the rudder. This was by far the strongest wind we had encountered in our short sailing career. Everything was suddenly under stress. The rudder vibrated, the swing keel thrummed below us. Keeping one hand pushing hard on the tiller, I reached the two sheets with the other, pulled with everything I had to haul in sail to keep the boat pointing as high into the wind as possible. Reluctantly, the boat responded by degrees. Course was grudgingly corrected. If we made it, it would be close.
With the wind still howling, we shot under the bridge, still heeled over, still at hull speed, leaving the enormous column of concrete close to port, far closer than I would have chosen.
On the north side of the bridge and to the west is a large bay. With the bridge abutment in our wake, I was finally willing to give in to the wind pushing us to port, into the mouth of the bay, where the headland provided shelter. I eased my death grip on the tiller, began easing off the sheets to spill wind from the sails. Slowly, the port rail began to rise. The tension released its hold on our little ship, the vibration felt through the tiller lessened, the hum from the swing keel quieted, spray abated. Not my intended destination, but any port in storm.
Sail was lowered and secured. We motored in leisurely. The only remaining tension aboard was mine.
We found an open space at the dock, put out the fenders and tied up. For the first time, I looked back out into the lake, where the waves were still white with spray, the wind still up. With dusk descending, we ate and made up the bunks. After a short walk ashore, we went below deck, secured the companionway hatch, pulled the sleeping bag over us and slept.
In the protection of the bay, the night was quiet.
I awoke to the first glow of morning coming in through the portlight. I pulled myself out of my bag, pushed the hatch open and went on deck for a better look. The sky was a uniform grey overcast, but the squall had blown itself out. Within an hour, we had pulled in the fenders, cast off, motored back out through the bay and raised sail. Once again in open water, the sun was already doing its work to burn through the clouds. The friendly NNW summer breeze welcomed us, filling our sails with warming air. In another hour, we were running before the wind, sails set wing and wing down the East Channel.
With a favorable wind at our stern and no need to adjust course or sails, I gave the helm to Jeni. I stepped forward on deck, standing by the mast, holding the starboard side stay, feeling the gentle motion of the boat beneath my feet, enjoying the day, running before the wind coming home.