No self-respecting sailor could resist taking a last sail before hauling out for the year. Not this sailor, anyway—even with 20-knot northeast gusts that sent the wind turbines ashore moaning and the waters of New England’s Buzzards Bay squirming.
As I rowed the dinghy out to our mooring, my gut—or was it the soft voice of the dinghy?—told me to tow our 12-foot Barnstable Cat Finn around to the landing in Megansett Harbor.
But my heart said sail. So, after tying in a reef, I dropped off the mooring, dinghy in tow. I planned to head to Scraggy Neck, come about and beat past the breakwater into the inner harbor to the landing, where my wife and Ben from the boatyard waited with the trailer.
Within a few feet of the mooring, a gust hit us, and Finn buried her nose it. I hadn’t moved the tiller. The gust put us in irons. No problem. I’d been in irons before—probably too many times to please the salty spirit of my father.
The dinghy was the culprit, I was sure. So when I got underway, I detoured to the beach to leave the dinghy behind. The harbor was no more than a 15-minute jaunt away, even with the headwind.
For a few minutes, I thrummed along through the gray-green chop, having a sprightly bon-voyage sail.
The next gust hit harder. Finn rounded right up into it—and I was in irons again, the sail flogging. Before I could get out of irons, another gust hit. My gut dipped. The day was darkening.
So much for the farewell sail. Time to turn back.
“Ready about,” I said to the boat. I spotted another gust battering the water black as it headed toward us.
“Hard a-lee,” I shouted. The sail luffed, slatted, rattled—but the boat only pointed right into the wind and then stayed there as we bucked on the waves. The next moment we were gaining speed—backward. I shoved the tiller back and forth, but the rudder would not grip. By now we were losing ground fast, accelerating outward to the open bay.
I ran through my options: untie the reefs and sail with full canvas. Lower the sail even more. Scandalize the sail. Flag down a passing boat for a tow.
I scanned the water: not a single vessel appeared in any direction. Had this been summertime, not October, boats would have abounded.
I decided to shake out the reefs, after which we regained ground—until another gust hit. Green water churned up to the coaming. Yet another gust heeled the boat harder, and I eased the sheet to keep from going over. Almost immediately the boat rounded up into the wind, the sail shaking, all headway lost.
A thudding to the north made me look up and scan the marbled sky. High against the cloud ceiling, a Coast Guard helicopter drummed our way. For a moment I thought my wife had called the Coasties. But the helicopter continued on, heading toward open water.
“I’ll get us home,” I told Finn. In response, the boat seemed to increase her speed backward.
I reefed again. Our backward motion slowed. The sail held the wind, and we clawed to a standstill. Then, heeling harder, we plunged forward. Faster we went, gaining momentum.
“We’ve got it,” I said under my breath. No matter that we were headed out toward Seal Rocks—with this much headway, we could finally come about and set a course for the harbor.
Then as if Finn herself were afraid of heading out, the tiller went light as a broken drumstick. The boat rounded up, a gust pounded down on us, and the sail flailed. I leaped up and grabbed the boom and forced the sail taut.
I was losing track of time. Reefing, scandalizing…what had I forgotten to do? I shifted my weight to rebalance the boat. I sat up on the transom and on either rail. Was the centerboard damaged? Why wouldn’t the rudder grip the water?
I also wondered whether my wife and Ben had decided to send someone out for us. But we didn’t need any help. Or did we? There were still plenty of boats moored in the inner harbor, and their owners all had dinghies and inflatables. I suspected my wife had already asked someone to look for us.
Meanwhile, the wind still whistled as I looked out at the expanse of the open bay, serrated with gray waves and streaked with foam.
At this angle of drift the wind would carry us beyond the point of rocks at the end of Nye’s Neck, on a course for Cleveland Ledge light several miles out into open water.
“Come on, boat,” I said. “We have to do it.”
Back on course, I crouched in the cockpit, an air pocket of hope that I could hold this tack still rising within me. We’ll get ourselves home yet, I thought.
I spotted a mooring field where several powerboats seesawed on their lines.
“Just get us by them,” I whispered to my boat. At the same time a word came to me out of the backwaters of my nautical knowledge. Weathercocking: In heavier winds, it is the tendency of a catboat to act like a weathervane and veer into the wind, stopping herself dead in her tracks. Unfortunately, knowing the term didn’t help me deal with it. I could only hope the boat would hold herself on this course past the mooring field.
But a gust hit us and she rounded up and sat quaking as if she had thrown her hands up in surrender. We drifted backward toward the boats and the wave-smashed rocks.
I was out of tricks. I had to save the boat. So I dropped the sail, grabbed the paddle, brought her stern-first to a rocky beach between two jetties and anchored up, soaking myself as I did so.
Above the beach, an old man, his white hair twirling in the wind, stood on a wooden landing, leaning with his elbows on the rail as he gazed down at me.
The cold was seeping into my bones through my drenched clothes. My thinking seemed to slow down. I fixated on the thought that a skiff or dinghy would appear from the direction of the harbor at any moment; magical thinking, as my wife would say.
Across the water, far back toward the harbor that had been my destination, a white-hulled sailboat was motoring out through the channel—a ketch that spent the summer moored in the inner harbor. She was too far away to hail.
“Someone called Sea Tow,” the old man shouted down to me as he pointed in the opposite direction toward open water.
Who’s that for? I thought. A pontoon boat was approaching. It idled about fifty yards off the beach.
“You okay, Cap?” came a voice over a loudspeaker.
Good God, I thought. He’s coming for me.
“I’m a 30-foot vessel and I draw four feet,” he said. “I can’t get in to you. You have to sail out to me.”
Sail out? I thought. I can’t sail out to you. The moment I haul the anchor I’ll be on the rocks. If I could, I’d sail home.
But in my daze I splashed aboard and grabbed the rudder to hook it on. The boat’s action was so violent I could no longer align pintles with gudgeons.
“He can’t sail out to you!” yelled the old man. “Float a line in!”
The towboat skipper idled for a minute as if mulling over the old man’s suggestion. Then he backed toward us and tossed me a line tied to a life jacket.
“Thank you!” I yelled to the old man.
I ended up swimming out for the line. The moment I tumbled into the cockpit with the anchor, we were off. In five minutes we crossed the water I had been battling for hours, me quaking in the spray as I huddled by the centerboard trunk. At the landing, Ben took Finn in hand, and I met my wife in the parking lot.
“I didn’t know what happened to you,” she said, trying not to sound stricken—or irked. “It was Sea Tow or the Coast Guard.”
The ketch I’d seen? My wife had talked to her skipper. As he climbed into his inflatable at the dinghy dock, she’d asked him for help. But he told her this before he buzzed out to the ketch: he didn’t have enough gas, and had too much to do before shoving off on a cruise.
I drove to the house, which was less than a minute away, and changed into dry clothes, my feet as numb and gray as pig iron. Then I remembered: the dinghy.
When I got to the beach, I saw no sign of it. I looked out at the corrugated water. No boat or dinghy showed on the gray expanse.
Then I crept over a jetty and the dinghy was below me, the rising tide licking her hull. To her credit she didn’t say I told you so.
I looked out across the gray waves to the point of rocks where we’d ended up, a black broken finger pointing back toward me, a sailor whose self-respect had been dealt a blow.
Craig Moodie’s books include A Sailor’s Valentine and Other Stories, Into the Trap, and The Sea Singer. His novel Stormstruck! is forthcoming under the name John Macfarlane.