Dick Cooper - February 2009
If I'm Cold and Wet I Must Be On A Boat
What is it between sailors and stormy weather?
We hate it. We study it. We flee from it. We read about it. We fear it, yet we are fascinated by it.
Our best sea stories, told near warm hearths on winter nights, center on it.
The most memorable tales of ancient mariners turn to stormy weather for drama and often cast it as the arch villain. Man against the sea is the theme of many a novel, with the outcome as predictable as Canute’s attempts to stem the tide.
If I were a sensible man, my very first passage of any length, an overnight ride from Rochester, N.Y., across Lake Ontario to Presque Isle Bay in Canada, should have been my last. We slogged north into the dark on a sloppy south breeze in a lumpy little 25-foot Coronado. The owner, George, an old friend with whom I had day sailed before, apologized for the compass. It had lost a fair amount of fluid and the card lolled from side to side.
George made entries in the log every half hour, approximating our position by speed and direction. He had served as a navigation officer in the Navy and assured me he could find our destination.
“As long as we keep the pointy end headed north and moving forward, I guarantee we will find Canada,” he said.
By his calculations, we were approaching the Lake Ontario freighter lanes that link the Welland Canal around Niagara Falls with the St. Lawrence River. They are not marked channels. They only appear as dotted lines on the Great Lakes chart.
The freighters that connect Chicago, Duluth, Detroit and Cleveland to the rest of the world charge up and down these unmarked lanes at hull speed, pushing bow waves off like great combers rushing off in search of a beach.
“We’ll have to keep a sharp eye for any light,” George said. “They won’t be able to see us, or stop if they could.”
It was then that fog blew in, cold, damp and blinding. Our horizon was the water just over the gunwale.
“Three years ago,” my friend began, “we were sailing through the lanes in the fog. Heard a door slam, smelled bacon and were hit with the bow wave. Never saw the ship.”
He was sharing more information than I needed as I tried to steer the little tub in the red glow of the wobbling compass card.
Within an hour, I knew him to be an honest man. Over the flapping of the sails, we heard surf breaking in the dark.
George took the tiller and ordered the companionway hatch pulled shut.
“Hang on,” he shouted as the boat began to run up the face of a wave that was coming out of the fog with an angry white beard. The boat stopped dead, climbed and then dropped over the other side with a slam, the whisker pole and boom jerking and shaking in a vicious fight to tear the boat apart.
And then it was over. The fog lifted and the white stern light of a freighter was off on the horizon.
The wind shifted to the west and we took off for Canada on a jolly beam reach. We swept into the harbor, checked into customs and made a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, potatoes and toast and washed it all down with mugs of coffee.
In my eagerness to be handy, I set about making things fast, coiling lines, tidying up the cockpit and giving the mainsheet one energetic pull to make it trim. With a rifle pop, the shackle that held the main sheet to the end of the boom fractured and fell to the deck.
George was not pleased. We searched for a replacement part at several stores in the town of Belleville, but could only find an s-hook intended to join chain links.
The next day, we were sailing out of Presque Isle Bay, when the western sky began to darken. The Great Lakes, much like the Chesapeake, are known for their sudden, violent storms. The major difference is that the Great Lakes storms frequently last more than a half hour.
We were about five miles off shore when the wind began to rise. George put a reef in the main and, from my point of view, headed in the wrong direction, toward the storm. A gust hit us and turned the boat on her side. The Coronado was a California-built boat with high topsides. The entire deck was the cabin roof and the cabin windows were flush with the topsides of the hull. Sitting on the high side of the cockpit, I looked into the cabin and saw green water rush passed the window as if it were a scuba diver’s mask.
George shoved his fist into the air and shouted “Odin, give me more” as the storm grew around us.
I knew I was in trouble.
Lightning, accompanied by a simultaneous clap of thunder, hit the water a hundred yards away. Ozone, as crisp as if it had just been released from a bottle in science class, filled my nose. George turned off the wind and we rocketed along on the crests of waves. He was a man in his element, no fear on his face, his eyes scanning the rigging and the water as he held the tiller in his lap.
It was then that I looked at the end of the boom. The s-hook was starting to open. What George said next I will not repeat, but I am sure it blistered Odin’s ears.
George liked to sail without a motor. He prided himself in being able to sail into a storm or into his slip. With the future of the mainsheet seconds away, he gave in and began dousing sails. Again, lightning and thunder, now with stinging rain.
As he labored on deck, I tried to fire up the old five-horse outboard hidden under the lazarette hatch. It coughed and sputtered, started and stopped. The choke lever was broken. I popped off the engine cover and adjusted the choke by hand, inches away from the spinning flywheel. The engine caught and I took my fingers away. It died. The boat hobby horsed with no power. George took the tiller and I leaned into the lazarette like a seasick sailor at the porcelain and kept the engine running by hand, as we pounded into the waves. Sheets of rain shut down visibility and George steered as much on instinct as he did on the compass. When a harbor buoy emerged from the rain, we realized we had missed two markers but were dead in the middle of the channel.
As we tied up to the dock, the sun broke through and the storm sped off, looking for other ships to knock about.
I was wet, cold, shaken, sore and glad to be back on shore.
Just then, a double rainbow appeared, bridging the entire mouth of the bay. A flock of screaming gulls soared, backlit white by the sun against the black of the fleeing storm.
George handed me a stiff drink and put his hand on my shoulder as we watched the rainbow slowly fade.
“Damn, that was good,” he said.
It was at that moment, safe on land, humbled, awed and thrilled by the wind and sea, that I became a sailor.