John Steinbeck opens his memoir, Travels With Charley with an account of rescuing his 22-foot motorboat from Hurricane Donna in 1960. I remember reading that story before ever experiencing a hurricane myself, and I was impressed by Steinbeck’s willingness to risk his life for his beloved boat, wading into the waters of a harbor on Long Island Sound to free her from the clutches of some other boats and then power her up and steam safely to a safer anchorage. Since then I’ve repeatedly suffered the peculiar paternal anxiety of a boat owner confronted with the possibility of losing a boat, especially during those terrible storms where there just isn’t enough time to pull it safely from the water. When that happens it’s just wait and watch.
I own a 26-year old 33-foot Endeavour sloop — the Bald Eagle Too — a gift from some good friends who were going to consign her to a charity auction after her last owner passed away (I’ve retained her name out of the superstition that a renamed boat is bad luck). The boat is a total joy — who can argue with a gift? — and it has become the center of summer life for me and my family these past three years. The first twinges of boat anxiety began to build when Irene started to threaten early last week. I phoned the local boatyard on other business — to organize the pullout of the yacht club’s motorboats — and the owner answered his cell phone with an abrupt: “If this is about your big boat, tough titty…..” I never expect to be on anyone’s priority list for boat hauling as I maintain the boat myself to save money. Big spenders get pulled first so they can continue to spend.
On Friday my son and I stripped off the sails, took down the dodger and spent an hour attending to the mooring lines, insuring the chafing gear was in the bow chocks and running a third backup line from around the mast, down the bow roller for the anchor line and then down to the splice in a bowline where the mooring pennant met the chain in a blob of sea squirts and barnacles. Somewhere down there in the black muck was a fairly new 500-pound mushroom anchor. Hefty, but still, past hurricanes have ripped moorings that size out of the mud before. When we finished pumping the bilges dry, switched off the electrical system, and made one last paranoid check we motored up the harbor to check out a hurricane mooring I was given last year during the threat of Hurricane Earl. Alas, it had a little swim float tethered to it — 2,000 pounds of serious yacht insurance for a little wooden float — but hey, not my mooring, not my place to bitch and moan, and the Bald Eagle was just going to have to tough it out on her own.
All around us, out on the edge of the mooring field, the other owners of the big sailboats were making the same preparations we had. You can instantly gauge the saltiness of a boat owner from how thoroughly they approach their storm preparations. My good friend the Judge, who has been through hurricanes dating back to the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, was doing the same thing I was — get all the canvas off the spars and spend a lot of time on the mooring pennants and chafing gear. Less experienced owners were leaving their roller reefed jibs on — a fatal mistake as the gusts will pick them open until the boat is literally sailing unattended at the mooring, wildly tacking back and forth until the mushroom is dislodged.
The danger in a mooring field isn’t necessarily what happens to one’s own boat, it’s what the 0ther boats that break free will do to you. In fact, late during yesterday’s storm a very new and hot looking racing sloop just to windward of me broke free late in the storm — probably due to the lines rubbing through, and blew down wind, just missing me but hanging up stern to bow on a small sloop that had stoutly made it through the worst of the blow, only to get dragged off by the combined weight of its own hull and the runaway. If I were the owner of the second boat I would be irate this morning, as he’s totally high and dry on the northern beach next to the boat that took him out.
I first went down to the water at 6 am on Saturday, just when the first storm bands were blowing in, and things looked fine. A party barge had broken free, but otherwise it was a good eight hours before the peak gusts were scheduled to arrive around 2 pm. I took the family out to breakfast at a seaside restaurant, but the windows were moaning so loudly in the gusts we lost our appetites. We returned home and for me, the worst was just starting.
The helplessness one feels during a storm is overwhelming. You stand at the shore, pick a good angle to view the boat, and with every hard gust that blows the tops of the waves into the air, every blast of green water that goes over the bow, the boat hobby-horsing on its tether at a 45 degree angle up and down into the air and troughs ….. Yes, I could have spent the storm out on the boat. The thought occurred to me. One tactic is to keep the diesel running and then feather the throttle during the gusts to relieve some of the tons of pressure from the mooring. But, as I learned in my younger days as a surfcaster when a wave nearly flooded my waders and drowned me while I was fighting a striper –no fish, and no boat, is worth drowning for.
The crowd at the foot of Old Shore Road was mostly gawking at a motorboat thrown into the middle of the street and the occasional sailboat dragging down onto the sands. A gorgeous Tartan sloop from Annapolis came in right at my feet, the mooring float still tied to the cleat on the deck, the boat a victim of bad chafing gear. The fact the sails were still on the spars and a big inflatable dinghy was still hanging from the stern davits was an indication the owner hadn’t prepared for the worst, yet I heard him on his cell phone being very angry with the boat yard that rented him the mooring.
I’d watch for an hour then walk back up the hill to the house for a drink of water, some food, and a few minutes of pacing around telling myself que sera, sera — no need to go back down, what will happen will happen and there isn’t a thing you can do about it. That blithe rationalization lasted about a half hour until I pulled the orange Grunden back on and made my way down the shore road, nervously watching the tree limbs over my head, convinced I would get crushed by a falling maple branch on the next puff.
At noon the police arrived and kicked everyone off of the landing, putting up crime scene tape at the top of the hill to keep gawkers from driving down. High tide followed 30 minutes later at 12:30 — the storm surge coinciding with the new moon extreme tide — and Old Shore Road flooded, carrying a sportsfisherman right onto the road and blocking it closed. A big cruising catamaran, the Split Ticket, dragged ashore — the wind catching under the cabin sole between the two hulls and just muscling it slowly down the harbor into the beach grass. Blocked by the police from the beach and losing my mind at the house, I called a friend who lives on the water and has a view of my boat to see if I could come pace and fret on his lawn.
“I’ve got bad news,” he said. “She’s gone.”
That sucked. She had broken loose. “Do you see her on the beach?” I asked.
“I don’t see it. It might be up in Inner Harbor near the Oyster Company.”
As soon as I dropped the F-bomb my wife and son knew the worst had happened. We piled into the car and starting driving to the section of the bay where she would likely come ashore. As I turned the car past the cemetery the phone rang again.
“Never mind. I see her now. I guess I couldn’t get a good angle from my kitchen.”
I said another bad word. This was like the punchline of a bad doctor joke. “I’ve got good news and bad news ….”
We drove to his house and with a beaming smile (Har, har, April Fool’s!) he handed me a set of binoculars. The Bald Eagle was still out there, getting pounded as hard as I’ve ever seen any boat get hit at anchor. I handed the binocs to my wife. She stared for a few seconds, handed them back, and turned away.
“I wish I hadn’t seen that,” she said.
I snuck back down to the landing and remained there all afternoon. Pacing. Staring. Wincing. You could tell who the boat owners were. We all stood silently, arms crossed, staring. The gawkers and spectators were snapping pictures of the boats canted over the road, laughing, socializing, caught up in hurricane fever; but we owners were together but lost in our thoughts.
Then more bad news as the gusts started to hit even harder. The Polaris, a gorgeous blue ketch, perhaps one of the prettiest boats in the harbor, was ashore just north of Lowell Point. I felt for the owner and his sons as they slogged through the surf and eel grass towards the spot just out of sight where she was rolling in the shallows. Then the C-Team, a grey sloop went on the beach at Handy’s Point. A sportsfisherman went into the trees under the bluff. The Lowell’s finger pier vanished in a tangle of planks. As I stood and spectated I felt a sharp twinge in my neck, and for the rest of the day couldn’t turn my head without wincing. I dug my finger into the spot — the kind of pain one gets from sleeping wrong — but nothing would make it go away.
My boat continued to plunge. And plunge. And careen under the impact of the williwaws and gusts. The hull heeled at a crazy angle under the force of the wind. At one point I thought I heard a jet engine out over the harbor — perhaps a stormhunter or Coast Guard Falcon jet from Otis Air Force Base? No, it was the sound of the wind honking through the spars and rigging of the 30 boats in the bay, an eerie mechanical, unnatural wail. I started to lose it. Just make it stop now. Throw a switch. Enough is enough. The boat had been riding hard for eight hours. I visualized the mooring lines where they came through the bow chocks and ran back to the cleats: a cartoon image of frayed dacron line, down to one Coyote-and-Roadrunner thread, waiting to snap with a little “plink” …..
I walked through the flotsam and wrack to Lowell’s Point to see if I could help with the Polaris. The owner and his sons were wading big anchors out into the surf and then using the jib winches to kedge the stern off of the beach. Coming ashore at half-tide was a good thing if they could keep her from being pushed any higher up on the sands. The next high tide might float her enough to be tugged free; otherwise, as in Hurricane Bob, a big Sikorsky SkyCrane helicopter with slings might be needed to get her off.
And so it went through the late afternoon. At 7 pm I made my last trek down to the harbor. The wind had veered to the southwest, sustained at 40 knots with an occasional gust up to 60. They had said Irene was not so much a high impact storm as a big, long duration one and they were right. It blew for 12 solid hours. The longer it blew the more chafing I had to fret about, and as boats continued to break free and drift down on her right up until darkness there was no celebration on my part that the worst had passed. Coming home for the last time before nightfall I saw the boat’s mooring ball on the deck. A friend had found it on the beach. Ironic the float made it ashore while the boat didn’t.
I must have knocked on wood a dozen times yesterday, looking for a tree every time I said, “She’s still out there.”
At ten I went to bed, mentally exhausted. My wife and son were both exhausted and enervated by the long day of worry and helplessness. We all crashed.
….At so, at six today I woke to bluebird skies and the ringing of the first chainsaws. I pulled on fresh pair of shorts and walked down the lane, stepping over the downed limbs and pushing through piles of green leaves. More boats had come ashore during the night. One had a white hull with a blue stripe …. was it my boat? I thought for a moment my luck had run out.
In the blazing twinkling sun, too bright to see through with sun glasses and a hand visor, I looked out to that space in the harbor where she should have been and with immense relieve saw her hull, placid and bobbing safely on her mooring. She made it. I could safely celebrate without knocking on wood.
And the pain in my neck is completely gone.