Discovering the Wilds in a $400 Yacht
SCA EXCERPT FROM BUCKING THE TIDE
The flickering lantern spread a civil glow across the cabin as we had dinner, the depths of our tiredness washing over us. Clearing the bilges of the leaky 18-foot wooden sloop after settling into our sleeping bags, I left the pump propped up next to my pillow, its hose stuffed into the centerboard trunk. With this arrangement I could roll over in the middle of the night and evacuate the influx before the ever rising internal tides gave us the rudest of awakenings. “Remember Bucky,” the mate chortled seconds before snoring reverberated from his berth on the other side of the centerboard trunk, “The tide waiteth not upon the sloth of any man.”
Morning was burdened by a dull pewter sky, scarves of fog blowing low and the main halyard beating a tattoo against the mast. Tuning in a local station on the portable radio, the only piece of electronic gear aboard, the marine forecast started out with small craft warnings, calling for a 15-25 knot southwesterly. We were hoping for something more civil, decidedly more civil. There was a certain tension to our mood, that we tried to keep to ourselves, but every time the mast shuddered, the reality of the challenge was painted vividly across our minds.
That it would be a fair breeze once we cleared the Sakonnet River was the only comfort, and with an early start we hoped to put a few miles behind us before it matured to full force. We knew if we didn’t give it a try, we’d spend the rest of the day regretting it, and after studying all the escape options from Westport to Fairhaven, we shoved off for Marion, 41 miles to the east.
Bashing into a cauldron of steep sided seas, the little wooden sloop pitched over on her ear and bucked through the white crested slop. Slap. Slam, crunch the bow bit into every wave. Slacking off the wind a few degrees to minimize the pounding, which I feared would loosen every screw in her dodgy bottom, a steady stream of salty tears sluice aft.
Weathering the frenzy of whitewater bursting against Schulyer Ledge, our sense of deliverance was palpable as we bore off the wind and winged out sail. Ahead lay the plentifully periled waters of Buzzards Bay, a shallow 50-mile-long sound, contained on its southern flank by the broken chain of the Elizabeth Islands, and to the north by a low coast harboring the old whaling ports of Fairhaven and New Bedford.
As the ebbing tide turned its weight against the wind, growling seas heaped into frothy crests that toppled noisily alongside, and our lot was invested of a stirring spectacle. Hauling away at the centerboard pennant till she had little more than two feet of draft, eased the helm and gave her a more forgiving posture in case she flirted with a broach, which I’d witnessed a number of times on the race course.
Like a skier playing the rhythm of a mountain we banked our $400 cruiser off the crest on one wave, and swooped down the trough of the next with a rush of speed that set our stomachs to quivering. We worried that she might bury her bow in the backside of waves we were overtaking, but the sloop rose buoyantly to challenge after challenge.
Peering into the mists as we raced along there was a wildness to our lot beyond our most vivid imaginings, but no time for anything but paying attention to the Leight’s mood which was transmitted to us with commanding alacrity. Feeling like prey among predators I cast quick glances at the army of seas rolling up astern, and checked the backstay telltale to make sure we were square to the wind.
In the midst of it all the mate’s pallor began to take a turn for the worse. “Skip, I think I’m going to be sick,” he mumbled. His moment of extremis was exceedingly graphic. He felt better for it. I felt worse.
Not long after the mates returned to duty we were startled by a pale specter rising out of the water off the bow, and with our hearts thumping away like drum beats we struck the jib with the downhaul to slow our flight. The amorphous shape evolved into the hulk of a rusty old freighter impaled on Wilkes Ledge.
We discussed putting into Fairhaven, which was tempting as it was only a few miles to port, but without the confidence of experience these were uneasy calls that left us anxious. Hours passed, the mists grudgingly dissipated and not long after midday we washed into Sippican Harbor in as civil circumstances as could be imagined, for at this point in our life of adventure, any cruise we could walk away from was a good one.
Poking about the shallows by Tabor Academy we came to rest alongside a dinghy float at Barden’s Wharf and inquired about a berth for the night. When the dockmaster asked where we were laying, he did a double take when we pointed to the Leight. “Oh that,” he said flatly as though she were an unworthy trifle. “Stay right where you are, I won’t charge you for that.”
She might have been an unworthy trifle to him, but I saw many good things in her simple harmonies and felt affection, which seemed the optimal circumstance in which to pursue such things. —END
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