The glittering darkness

The author stands before his Herreshoff double-paddle canoe upon which, many years ago, he unwittingly embarked on an epic journey. The vessel was custom-built for him by Paul Rollins. Photo courtesy Roger Long

The first time I nearly died in a boat was an occasion of sublime and terrifying beauty. I was in Woods Hole aboard the research schooner Westward, about to go to sea for the first time. I had joined the ship in Gloucester to supervise the construction of the new deckhouse I designed, and the captain let me bring along, as deck cargo, my Herreshoff double-paddle canoe. After the voyage aboard Westward to Bermuda, I was to begin preliminary designing and planning for a second ship the organization hoped to build.

It was at the end of a long hard day of work aboard the ship that I decided I had to get away and go for a paddle in the canoe. I took a quick look at the chart on the ship’s navigation table and saw that I could paddle through Woods Hole to Hadley Harbor, go under a bridge into Vineyard Sound, and follow the shore of Nonamesset Island back to the ship. It would be dark by the time I returned, but I would see the lights of Woods Hole as I came around the point.

I headed out late in the afternoon under thick, low skies and rode a swift current into Hadley Harbor where I quickly found the bridge and paddled out into the sound. It was one of those early evenings where the direction of the sun can’t be seen, as the entire side of the sky is just a dull and dying light. I paddled down the shore and began to surf as soon as I reached the open water. There were no houses or lights on this shore, and I was making long, sizzling runs down each wave in the gathering darkness. I remember thinking that this was the wildest and most adventurous event of my life. That record didn’t last long.

I lost track of time and began to think it was way past time to reach the end of the island and see the glow of Woods Hole lights in the mist to my right. Then it began to rain and got very dark. I lost sight of the shore and found myself in a small circle of waves and mist without a compass. Only the waves gave me any direction. I was trying to work my way back toward the shore when the rain stopped, the wind began to blow harder, and I saw the expected glow faintly through the mist. I paddled toward it, the wind became insistent, and the seas rose as the mist began to lift. I was trying to come up with a plan when the lights of buildings suddenly became visible ahead in the clearing air. They didn’t look quite right, but I had never been in these waters before, so I headed for them.

The waves were quite large by now, with breaking tops that glowed with phosphorescence. I surfed off the top of a large, steep sea and the canoe buried itself in the trough up to the cockpit coaming before broaching. These boats are basically a long, narrow, decked-over dory, a bit like a kayak, and the seaworthiness of the type became evident. I began trying to slow down, to avoid surfing, but the boat would swing around anyway and slip sideways down the wave. When this occurred the glowing waterfall of the breaking top would be close enough to reach out and touch. After this happened several times I realized that reaching the lights was of secondary importance to simply staying alive. I fought the bow around and began paddling into the waves.

It was then that this very tired – but, fortunately, also very young – man began the fight of his life. A phosphorescent glow on the horizon warned of the larger waves that would suddenly turn into a sparkling mass that I had to punch into with all my strength to avoid being swung around and pushed backwards. The splash as I broke through the tops would send little pearls of light into the air around my head. The boat began to feel sluggish with the gathering weight of water and I could feel the stability diminishing with it sloshing around in the open cockpit. I didn’t have a bucket.

I don’t remember, but I suspect some worry was beginning to enter my foolish young brain. My camping gear was aboard and eventually I was able to reach through the hatch behind me and get my hand on a little camp stove. I pulled off the top, which was a small cooking cup, and used it to bail out the boat between fighting the larger waves. All sense of time went overboard with the water and I still have no idea how long I struggled amidst the glowing waves.

I saw the lights of a large boat coming toward me and realized that it was going to pass close enough to possibly run me down. Behind it were more in a line, fishing boats heading out to sea. I had with me a half-dozen small emergency flares. A ride home seemed nearly as good an idea at that point as not being run over by a trawler, so I fired one off. The boat never slowed or swerved even though it passed close enough for me to feel the wake. I fired flares in front of three or four boats with the same result and watched them disappear into the darkness.

The clearing continued and the waves gradually became smaller. Eventually I was paddling in nearly calm water, and ahead of me could see the radio towers I thought were near Falmouth. I paddled toward them. And I kept paddling. The sea became almost glassy calm and I paddled some more. I remember thinking at one point that I might have actually died and was trapped as a ghost, doomed to forever paddle toward those lights.

Gradually, the distant lights turned into a shore. A long time later, I could hear waves breaking on a beach. The faint white line of the waves guided me into a small cove where the bow hissed up onto the sand. I dragged the boat above the tide line and looked up at a huge and imposing house. I was cold and beginning to shake with the onset of hypothermia, so not about to let politeness interfere with my desire to live, I stumbled across the yard and knocked on the door.

In perfect keeping with the house, the scene, and my state of mind, the man who opened the door had a patch over one eye. I told him that I was sorry to bother him so late, but I’d just wrecked my boat . . . could he give me a ride back to Woods Hole?

“Woods Hole?” he said. “Good Lord, man, this is Padanaram!”

I’d paddled clear across Buzzards Bay, a bay I didn’t even know I was in. I thought I was in Falmouth.

The man, who I later learned was the retired Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, quickly saw my condition and took me in to put my feet in a tub of warm water and Scotch whiskey in my hand. He put me to bed and drove me to the bus station late the next morning.

I returned to the ship where there was an angry captain who wondered why I’d disappeared with so much work to be done. I was still greatly confused by the whole event. Upon further examination of the ship’s chart, I discovered that there are two bridges in Hadley Harbor. One of them opens up into Vineyard Sound. The other opens up into Buzzards Bay. I had gone out into that bay and started paddling down the north shore of the Elizabeth Islands toward Cuttyhunk.

I recovered and finished my other work, supervising the installation of 12 tons of lead ballast, and recalculating the ship’s stability. A week or two later we left for Bermuda. We blew out a sail every night. We also snapped the ship’s foremast in the Gulf Stream, after driving through a freak wave in which we were completely under water.

But that’s a story for another time.

Roger Long, formerly harbormaster of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and designer of commercial vessels, now divides his time between summers in upstate New York and snowbirding on the 43-foot Gulfstar trawler Gypsy Star.