Reassuring Illusions

It was my first time sailing the Atlantic Coast; her first time sailing any coast at all. Through the afternoon watch I kept a weather eye on thunderheads churning over Cape Hatteras 30 miles to the west.

We were motoring north with the mains’l set and sheeted home. It was Spring and the weather could turn abruptly. I had no wish to be caught with all standing by a sudden squall. Thunder cells can generate down drafts of hurricane strength that strike the surface of the sea and rush outward in a concentric blast that can knock a boat on its beam ends with little warning. This was a coast foreign to me. Even the weather was alien. It wouldn’t serve to lose the first boat I ever owned, or the first wife, either.

We were sailing north from Florida, making for a summer job in Ocean City, Maryland, working the Sea Rocket. We’d bought the boat in Fort Pierce—a 46’ ketch built by the French yard of Dufour—and made the fatal mistake of renaming her, a mistake from which we never recovered. (But that’s another story that will take time to tell.)

The Pacific Coast for all of its immeasurable violence isn’t given to the capriciousness of the Atlantic where squalls are brewed by warm water and knock down boats like nine pins. That afternoon I watched the clouds boil over the Cape, rising until the wind sheared the thunderheads in the shape of an anvil, their base black with rain, slowly advancing seaward.

Linda was below decks sleeping with the toy poodle. Neither of them much cared for the boat’s motion, rolling in a quartering sea. Linda was living on peanut butter and bananas, while Maui (the only dog I’ve known named after an island) slid from one side of the main saloon to the other, unable to gain traction.

I let Linda sleep through the her afternnon watch as we steamed north around the Cape. She had been sea sick for days and needed sleep. Beluga whales kept me company, riding the rolling surf like bleached dolphins.

After sunset I watched the electrical storms trailing tendrils of lightning across the water like Portuguese man-o-war. The dark belly of the clouds writhed in the violet light. I kept myself occupied listening the VHF radio and toying with the radar, adjusting the gain and sea clutter, looking for a target to verify range.

Linda stood the midnight watch alone. The longest she had sailed previously was San Francisco to Half Moon Bay, a day’s sail in the company of a half dozen friends. Hatteras was four days from Fort Pierce and now she was standing alone at the helm of a boat rounding a notorious graveyard of ships, the eastern sky alight with lightning and a vast weight of darkness to the west. She was alone in a way she had never experienced, alone in an alien world where almost nothing she knew was applicable.

She took comfort in the clean sweep of the radar cursor around the screen, green phosphors glowing on an empty field. Beyond the binnacle light, the engine instruments and the dial of the VHF, primal darkness lurked but the radar reassured her there were no monsters in the night, no ships bearing down, no shoreline just ahead. The cursor swept the screen as methodically as a metronome, keeping time through the long watch. The radar was her reassurance like a rosary in the hands of the faithful.

It wasn’t until the next day that I thought to tell her the radar didn’t work, that it wouldn’t return a target big as an aircraft carrier. Perhaps I should have kept quiet. A rosary only works as long as you have faith.

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One thought on “Reassuring Illusions”

  1. Incredible story. As with some of your stories, I love your use of metaphor (it’s very sea worthy;) That feeling of uneasiness, loneliness, and insignificance to the power of sea and storm is tangible and vivid.
    I know that fear, its memory still lives within and only comes out when palpated like your story does.

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