Peter scuttles forward on hands and knees. Eyes watering from the wind. A steep bay-chop arrives in echelon. Waves slam under the daysailer’s long, low spoon-bow. Spray cascades across her narrow foredeck.
Albert cries out, “HOLD ON!” A particularly square-crested wave shoulders its way towards them. Peter drops his head, lowering into a defensive crouch, “HIKE!” Hunkers down, clutching the toe-rail. The bow pitches and swings, scudding across a stretch of broken water. The hull lurches to windward. Falls into a trough. The crest breaks, tumbling. The boat staggers. He slides forward. Pulls himself back. The sea boards. A shocking weight of water shoves him aft, “AgHHH!!!!” Cold! Water runs down his neck. Up his sleeves. He feels clumsy in stiff, borrowed oilskins. His heavy and wet wool sweater hangs off him, At least it keeps the wind out! Wool trousers cling to his legs, Soaked. His bare-feet warm enough from all the exertion.
“SEE IF YOU CAN GET THAT JIB DOWN!” Peter nods crisply, Haven’t forgotten! Albert turns her bow into the wind to luff the sail. Make it easier for Peter, Doesn’t want to spend all day going the wrong way. He rises from his crouch, steadying himself, holding onto the mast and the windward shroud, Better up above the waves. Flexing his knees to the impacts, he smiles. Nods. Mouths, “Ready!” Another wave blasts spray across the foredeck.
“GO AHEAD AND DROP AS SHE LUFFS!” Albert pushes the tiller hard over. The boat arcs to port. Its bow points directly into the wind and waves. The jib flutters. Turns inside-out with chaotic flapping. He’s enveloped by hard, wet canvas. Loud, whip-cracks boom in his ears. He’s already undone the halyard from its cleat. He pays out line. Albert hauls in the sheet to keep the foot of the sail out of the water. The jib starts down.
Stuck! A sharp gust inflates pockets of billowing canvas. The sail climbs back up the forestay in staccato jerks. The loose halyard and the leeward sheet whip across his face. He lunges to grab at handfuls of sail. The thrashing stops, “Ah….” He shoves it down to the deck. Tramples it under his knees. Taking a sail-tie from around his neck, he muzzles the sail, Like roping a calf!
Returning aft in a stooping crouch, Albert shouts, “HERE WE GO! A reef in the main and the jib off. She’ll behave herself now!” He pulls the tiller gently to windward and lets the mainsheet run. They accelerate as the boat circles around the wind. Dropping into a trough beam-to, she staggers and takes water over the lee-coaming before settling down onto a tearing broad-reach.
“Better get dried off as best you can! Wring out your sweater! You’ll be warmer. Wet don’t matter with wool. So long as you’re not soaking in it!” Peter’s lips are blue. His face pale, “HOW MUCH LONGER?” He has to yell even though they’re sitting tight beside each other. Waves crest and break all around. Foam rushes past inches away.
Albert gestures to port, “Long Point! Once we get in under its lee it’ll ease up! Another fifteen minutes or so…. Should get smoother. Maybe another forty-five minutes? Be back at the mooring.” Peter seems satisfied. The boat surfs down the fronts of larger waves. He grins, “Think the sun’s set?”
No sign of the sun through thick clouds and low-lying scud, “Dark soon. Shouldn’t be a problem. Easier to make out the lighthouse!” Albert nods towards the point, “Keep it to port. Just keep running downwind. Bound to end up in the harbor.”
Peter watches the sky race past their gaff. Its white tip gyrating, tearing at the low clouds. Wisps of vapor tumble across the water, driven by sharp gusts of wind, Why they call ’em cat’s-paws! A giant paw clawing the waves.
The boom is well out to starboard. Its tip bounces off a crest to leeward as she rolls down dropping off a wave. The reefing line, done up in a tight coil, skips through the water. A belly in the mainsheet splashes and drags along when the boom swings inboard in a lull. Their quarter-wave is level with the after deck, Burbling. Just kisses her narrow stern, Going as fast as the boat can go!
Close off Long Point its beacon flashes green. Reflected off foaming crests, glinting over their tossing wake, Tide’s against us. A bell-buoy clangs somewhere ahead in the chaotic chop. Albert leans into Peter’s ear, “Wind against tide! Pretty wild for a bit!”
“You said it would get easier!”
“It will. Wind’s funneling past the Point. Tide’s piling up this chop…. Another quarter… half mile? It’ll get easier.” Without a visible horizon to anchor his balance Peter feels queasy, cold, wet. Yawning, leaning against his friend and the coaming.
I’ve got it so much easier. Steering…. No time to get apathetic. Seasick, “See if you can spot the buoy! Lost track of it. Should be off the port bow. Not far by the sound of it!”
“What? Oh, the buoy…. What difference does it make? We know where we are!”
Albert, gently prods his friend, “Wouldn’t want to hit it!” Peter guffaws, “Oh, come on!” Casts about wildly before settling down to a methodical scan, Good! Now he’s got a job.
CLANG! CLANG! The bell! Can’t tell…. The wind veers and eddies. Water splashes and hisses all around. Wave-crests rush out of the darkness. Rise up at the last moment. Foamy tops loom ghostly white. The lights of the town flicker in the distance. Rain squalls block out entire neighborhoods, leaving fuzzy, glowing patches, teasing them with glimpses of home.
Loud Thwacks against the canvas. Fat raindrops Splatter against the sail. A down-pour shuts-down visibility to just a few feet of broken water. The end of the boom and the tip of the stem are barely visible. Rain drums on their oilskins and Sou’wester caps, drowning out all other sounds.
Albert peers ahead, around the mast and sail, cocking his ear for the sound of the bell-buoy. Yells into Peter’s ear, “DO YOU SEE IT?” Shoving him across the cockpit, pointing to leeward.
Every few moments they hear a Clang! Getting louder…. Albert crouches at the tiller. Bobs up and down and jinks from side to side, trying to get a better view, craning his head. Pulls off his Sou’wester, Where is it? Rain soaks his hair. Runs down his cheeks and down his neck.
Peter crouches low. His chin tight against the coaming. Eyes level with its top, grasping it with both hands. He pumps his arms to hold himself steady, Clang! “I HEAR IT! THERE!” Peter gestures a few points off the leeward bow. Turns to see if Albert can make it out under the sail, “CAN’T WE JUST STOP?”
“SHUSH! KEEP LOOKING!” The bell sounds again. Very close, CLANG! Peter yells, “TURN!!!!” Scrambles to keep his balance, pointing ahead, signaling a turn to port, waving his arm. CLANG! Very clear, very loud. Just out of Albert’s sight behind the mainsail.
A rush of broken water. The buoy’s wake rages around its base. Heaving up and down, the buoy tugs against its mooring. Surges, Like it’s steaming straight at us! Not passively resisting the current.
Albert hauls in the tiller, pressing it to his gut. Takes a quick hitch to windward. Grabbing at the multiple parts of the mainsheet, he pulls the boom inboard hand over hand, Out of harm’s way. His hip shoves the tiller away hard to execute a slalom maneuver, sending the bow back around in the direction of the buoy, Only way to get the stern to clear!
The boat slews. The long, lean daysailer pivots on its short fin-keel, Stern’s gonna miss! A gap opens between their rail and the rusty barnacle-encrusted buoy.
The boom! Still too far out! Albert works desperately to overhaul the sheet. Peter falls-in to help. The buoy lunges, dropping into a trough, CLANG! A ruddy shadow paints the sail, Broad wings…. A gull! Perched atop the iron structure. Falls away. Catches a glide just above the surface, disappearing to leeward.
A harsh red glow back-lights the sail. Its clew bulges towards them, pressed hard against the lantern’s rim. Metal knocks against metal. The bronze fitting on the end of the boom strikes a glancing blow off a rivet.
They wait. Hushed. In his mind’s eye Albert plays out the impending disaster in detail, If we tangle….
The structure disappears astern. Its red-lensed, acetylene lantern reflects off their sail before falling into the gloom. Peter yells, “WHOA! THAT WAS CLOSE!” Tossing bights of mainsheet overboard, he slaps Albert on the shoulder. Albert gently eases the sheet, swinging his head to get a final bearing on the buoy. Its light cut-off by the downpour, “Damn gull! No wonder! Blocked the lamp! All this rain!” A vivid afterimage of the lens persists. Complementary green to its red it fades as he questions the darkness.
They laugh out loud, “Always the way! All that wide sea and some little obstruction! Amazing… a near miss, or worse.” A scrap of the hymn, Nearer my God to Thee comes to Albert, “Though like the wanderer, The sun gone down, Darkness be over me, My rest a stone, Yet in my dreams I’d be….”
“Huh? Oh Yeah! Guess a ship can hit a needle-in-a-haystack!”
Albert cons the boat, calming down, thinking ahead. ““Happens more often than you’d think! Sometimes the harder you try…?”
Peter repeats his earlier question, “Why didn’t we just round up and listen for the bell?”
“Could have hove to. Should have… to leeward. Not much, but some! Worried we might just round up into it. Probably should have…. Blunder-along sometimes.”
The squall clears. A string of lights fills the horizon ahead. The chop smooths out, Inside the point. The wind veers to the Southeast. They gibe. Albert sighs, “Better keep an eye out for traffic. Watch out for moored boats! No sense running into anything else out here!”
Albert tidies-up. Peter gently hauls the dory alongside. The daysailer head to wind, Snug. Tethered to its mooring pendant, pitching gently with the faint harbor chop. A couple of big schooners on either side. Their dark bulk lost in gray shadows. Rigs whistling in the wind overhead, A welcome lee.
Wasn’t easy picking our way through the fleet in the dark! Albert had headed for a mass of lights twinkling on Railroad Wharf, dodging vessels at anchor, Hard to match them up with tiny anchor-lights twinkling high on a masthead. Bowsprits loomed out of the darkness. Hulls just dark holes in the brighter background, silhouetted against the lights of the town. Masthead lanterns dotted the sky, Distant pinpricks. Confusing constellations. Oddly disorienting on a night like this! They ranged westward on a beam-reach until he recognized the boatyard dock. Shot into the wind guided by the dim silhouette of a dory trailing from their mooring.
Peter fends-off, holding the dory’s painter, waiting for Albert to finish putting the daysailer to bed, Oh! He’s gone aft again! Redoing that Flemish Coil! “Oh, come on now! It’s fine!”
“Right with you.” Albert enjoys these small domestic routines around boats, The order. The sense of purpose, meeting the boat’s simple needs. Peaceful. The satisfaction, clarity, and immediacy of each little task. Each only asking that, They be done well…. He sighs, “All right.”
One last look. A final tug on the mooring pendant. Albert adjusts the chafing gear at the bow-chock. Pats the eye-splice down flat against the deck, One last time. Springs to his feet. Heads aft, crouching at the rail amidships. One foot in, Just so…. He steadies the dory with a hand on each gunnel. Swivels. Settles onto its center thwart. Threading the outboard thole-pins into place, he feels for his oars, “Okay, Peter.” He holds the daysailer’s rail. Peter drops the painter. Lowers himself onto the stern seat.
The dory takes a deep roll, wallowing, Expected this! Albert dampens its motion, pushing against the daysailer’s rail at the right moment. He shoves off. Spreads his oars like a waterstrider’s legs splayed out for balance. Peter settles into his seat, A light! On the dock. Over Albert’s shoulder.
Albert barely strokes the oars, coasting downwind. Moving just enough to maintain way he lets the wind and waves push them in. A gentle, creak. The oars press against the thole pins. With Albert’s calm measured motions; the look on his face as he raises his head in silhouette to check their progress; Peter’s impatience melts away, Riding in a circle of darkness, heading in towards that warm glow, coddled by gentle motion, a rising warmth. By the time they reach the dock his expression matches Albert’s.
A lantern swings overhead, casting slanting shadows as they gain the dock. Glancing up, A pair of boots. Their owner steps forward, “Glad you boys decid-ed to bring my boat back after all!”
Dyer. Albert stands. His head at the height of the older man’s knees. Peter grabs the rails expecting the dory to flip, Oh…. Light bathes worn shingles on the boathouse wall. The yard-owner’s face lost in darkness. Albert holds the oars in one hand. Grasps the ladder. “Evening Mr. Dyer.” Peter echoes him from the stern, “Evening Mr. Dyer. Quite a night!” Reaching for the nearest piling, a handful of slime. He sloshes, Ugh….
Albert shifts. Leans off-center. Peter tenses and grabs for the ladder. Yells, “WHOA!” I’ll never get used to it!
“Now boys, don’t go swampin’ me do’hry right he’ah at the do’ack!” Dyer cackles from up in the shadows, “Damn summ’ah people! ‘Xpected you lo’aht long a’fo’ah this! Don’t cha know ’nough to get in a-head of a squall?” Scratching a fine gray stubble on his hard face, “Guess not!”
Albert sets the oars down without asking for or getting any help. Loops the painter around a piling, “Go on Peter.” Sits back down to steady the boat, urging his friend to leave the stern seat and mount the ladder while he counterbalances. Peter climbs the ladder, ignoring Dyer. Albert passes him a duffel. Peter sets it against the boat house. Watches Albert rise over the edge with a final glance below to see that the dory’s secure.
Albert turns, “Sorry for the delay Mr. Dyer. Should have seen the squall coming. Guess I took her farther than I should have.” Peter stands at his friend’s side.
Dyer smiles. Chuckles. Seems to soften. Lifts his lantern to lead the way. They follow him into the boatshop, trudging on rubbery legs. Hot, now that they’re inside. Echoes of wind and waves in their ears.
Dyer stops. Blocks the passage between a workbench and a skiff blocked-up for repair, “Go’aht a boat I been werk’in on. Needs deliva’rin’ down t’a Cape Ann. You two…. Want-t-a-take h’ah? Twent’ay-seven foot sloop. Little cudd’ay…. Got a stove in-h’ah. B’ilt fo’ah lobst’ah’in.”
“Cain’t pay y’a; but fellahs the likes-o-the-two-of-you? Goin’ out the’ah in that kint-o-weath’ah – Fo’ah plea’jah!” Pointing over his shoulder into the darkness. Peter shakes his head. Starts to walk away, It’s October! He stops. Albert’s intent on Dyer, “Git yah ont’ah a schoon’ah fo’ah the ret’uhn trip. Naught the same as skyl’ahk’in about the h’ah-bah in a daysail’ah! But, you two look like y’a might be up fo’ah a-bit-o-advent’cha!” He chuckles. Peter, coloring. Albert asks, “When do you need to know?” Looking up over the old man’s head at assorted gear hanging on pegs on the far wall, “When do you need us to go?”
“Well, tha’ht’s up to you boys, reall’ay. Like to have h’ah the’ah afo’ah the full moon. Should have a spell-o-decent weath’ah ’tween now and then!”
“That’s what…, ten days?” Albert does the arithmetic in his head, fingertips twitching, “How long do you suppose it’ll take?” He turns a poker face towards Peter.
“Don’t s’pose nothin’! When it comes to nigh Novemb’ah!” Dyer chuckles and shakes his head. “Take as long as yah like; but yah might want-t-a-be-back afo’ah the snow st’ahts to fly!” He laughs out loud at his own little joke. Albert turns a blank face to Peter. Blurts out, “Quite an opportunity!” Peter’s flush fades. Albert turns to Dyer. Answers him with a carefully inflected reserve, “I’ll let you know. Thank you for the offer.” Dyer can’t resist another chuckle. Slaps Peter on the back. Peter fumbles with the door latch.
Albert and Peter separate at the railroad-crossing. Albert waves after his friend, “See you tomorrow?” Peter waves distractedly over his shoulder. Trudges on without altering his pace.
“Have to convince you somehow.” Albert gazes off at the platform across the street. He shudders, At least I won’t get ambushed again tonight!
Crossing the tracks, keeping to the near side of the street, “Oh, come on! Y’a think he’s still lurking about?”