Monday, July 22, 2013

Ahoy the Glug Glug Glug

A writer friend who I'd written songs for over our ten year history called me one day and asked if I'd join him for breakfast. There he told me he wanted a partner in his sailboat; not so much a financial partner as a workmate, someone willing to polish teak, strip paint and swab the decks. He barely got his speech out before I'd agreed, impulsive creature that I am; and once I had, it was time to learn to sail.

I took to it as if it was riding a motorcycle, I seemed to have a knack for seeing the invisible wind and for dead reckoning; the art of knowing when to tack across and into the wind to reach maximum speed and efficiency toward a single point on the horizon, without eliminating comfort by having the boat at a 40 degree heel at all times.

We sailed together for some time, a blessing for me as I was quite unnerved by the possibility of making a major mistake with a huge piece of fiberglass that might cost an enormous sum of cash to repair. But then, Leo left town on a job for a few weeks, and the Never Again Two and I were left to our own devices.

I'd made the decision to take on my first solo one morning, and by midday my ex wife and I were sitting in the Harbor View restaurant in Pepin Wisconsin, psyching up for a day's adventure on the high seas.

Of course, high seas is a minor exaggeration as Lake Pepin is really a wide spot in the Mississippi, likely no more than 50 feet deep in its navigation channel and about four miles across at it's widest. But to a novice Captain, even a bathtub would have seemed an eighth sea, so I was still a mite intimidated by the chores at hand.

Marie and I climbed aboard the 28 foot Lancer and chucked our sodas and suntan oil into the hold before de-docking. I can still smell the teak oil, the lemon scented soap scum that remained after the boat's last cockpit wash and rinse, the new canvas saddle that was firmly snapped over the mains'l which lay folded neatly atop its boom.

Untied, cast off and adrift in the little pristine harbor, I connected the gas tank to her outboard motor, primed, and tugged a few pulls before the "Johnson" popped to life. And then we were away, under power and pointed toward the breakwater that would lead out to sea.

Strangers nodded and waved without fail as we passed by slip after slip, whole families puttering aboard their boats with no intent of actually sailing but only drinking in the essence of what it is to be a sailor, to have a symbiotic connection to the water and therefore to nature herself.

It's the same emotional tug one gets deep within a forest or standing atop even a middling mountain; that you are both at one with the universe, and in command of your immediate destiny.

Once beyond the breakwater I turned into the wind and had my true love of the moment hold our rudder that we might stay the course. Unfurling the sail, I yanked the main sheet and pulled the polyester triangle to the upright and locked position, its uncontrolled flapping in the eye of the breeze nearly deafening but somehow, titillating as well.
 

With a snap the wind caught and we were away, being dragged through the muddy Mississippi at speeds approaching 6 knots...almost what a grown man can walk if he steps lightly and with malice toward his always expanding paunch.
 

If you've never been I might advise you that six knots on a giant craft of steel and glass, iron and nylon rope is like 50 miles an hour in a car cruising the back roads. It's smooth, clean and powerfully fast, and when it's you in control, your heart races right alongside the boat but can never seem to keep up.

The tighter you get to the center of the wind, the tighter you pull your sail to the center of the boat, the deeper you lean until the sea itself creeps up your gunwales and nearly into the cockpit and cabin. I so loved tacking hard that if the boat hadn't been self righting, (meaning that eventually the rudder would come out of the water and once losing steerage, the boat would stand up and straighten itself out) I'd have sunk the poor thing near every time I sailed it.

It was a glorious trip on a glorious day with a glorious crew and if it hadn't been for the storm, I could have marked it down as one of a few perfect adventures I'd been party to.

But as it was we found ourselves miles from port, lazing on the shallow, sandy leeward side of a cove shaped peninsula sipping cokes and dangling hot feet into lukewarm waters when the squall line made its first appearance over the top of 400 foot tall sandstone bluffs that stand guard over the river.

What little I knew told me that riding out a storm at sea was preferable to being tossed ashore by an errant wave, so we shoved off the sandbar and raced for open water as damn near every other boat in sight raced for shore.

It was an overwhelmingly beautiful sky, the roiling mammatus clouds in rich purples and oranges, the cloud to ground lightning that ripped through the ozone like fiery javelins pounding the earths crust, the swath of opaque blackness that trailed the front as if a toddlers blanket hanging off a clothesline.

I had Marie load up the cassette player, something we'd ignored 'till now as it seemed almost sacrilegious to play manmade music over the gentle sounds of surf and sail.

I was aiming dead center, due south as the sun winked out and the far reaching fingers of death's grip stroked the gooseflesh from beneath my skin. It was cold, the wind howling and the skies a midnight blue as the first of a thousand hailstones pelted my face and hands, the only two body parts I'd not had the luck to get covered before hell started to yank on my chain.

The waves were suddenly six foot if an inch, the screaming motor barely audible above the creaking of straining wood being tossed to and fro by Neptune's hordes. And that's when I heard the trill of violins, wafting loudly from the cabin below. Marie had switched on the boom box and started my specially purchased tape just at the right moment.

As I struggled to keep the 3 ton bobber afloat and my wife and I safe from the iodine and pcb tainted carp that would surely pick at our corpses should we capsize in this "midwester", the wind of the opening bars of Wagner's Ride of the Valkieries oozed from the weathered teak slats that comprised the door to the mate's cabin and porta-potty berth. It was so fucking fun right at that moment I howled my best wolfcall, taunting the Mother to have at me with her best as I was in the zone and likely indestructible at that very moment.

Bum Bun tadadaaaada-Bum tadadaaaada-Bum tadadaaaada-Bum tadadaaaaaaaaa.

God! It was indescribable handling 28 feet of floating hammer in the most wicked of thunderstorms. In 30 years I'd not felt as omnipotent as this; not flying, not climbing, nor sliding a motorcycle down a gravel road toward a 400 foot mountainside cliff's edge brought me the same visceral pleasure as that few minutes of rockin' the boat.

And then it was past, in the same fashion as it had started; calm, warm, sticky and only the ankle deep waters in the cockpit to prove I'd faced Satan and booted his ass back to never never land.

I spose if I were a cliché bitten man I'd say it was a "king-o-the-world" moment. But I never saw Titanic, and besides...that ship sank didn't it? Perhaps they needed a more weathered and fearless Captain. "King-o-the-world" indeed!

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