The obstacle of pride, and a season renewed

The way I remember it, I was sailing solo through Salem Bay in a dry nor’easter that was building as the day went on. I was on a nice reach heading for Marblehead Harbor in our old Hopestill, a classic wooden Hinckley Pilot sloop designed by Aage Nielsen. The waves were five to six feet and breaking at the crests, but far enough apart to stay friendly. The air was cool, and streaming clouds allowed intermittent sun. It was a lovely day for sailing in the early fall.

Hopestill loved those conditions. I stood at her sculpted ash tiller, bracing against the side of the cockpit as she barreled along at hull speed. We rounded up slightly to slice through the biggest waves, and bore off again when they passed. Ledges and islands from my childhood flew by off to windward: Great and Little Aquavitae, Coney Island, Great and Little Misery, Inner and Outer Endeavors.

With Peaches Point on the starboard beam, the sloop’s motion began to feel a little sluggish. Something was clearly not right. So I left the helm, slid open the hatch, and stuck my head below to find water sloshing over the sole and rising fast. With helm unattended, she rounded up to face the waves. The next one broke over the bow and she failed to rise back up. The water was now at the level of the bunks.

I thought for a moment of the night we were pounding eastward toward Biddeford Pool in 20 knots of northwest – the only other time water had been that high before. The pressure of the mast on the keel against the taut shrouds as she settled into each trough was forcing a seam at the garboard to open up, sending a yard-long spray of water into the bilge. The pressure came off a bit as she lifted to the swells, and the seam would close up again. By falling off to run with the wind more aft, we found we could take the downward force off the rig somewhat, and the leak quickly subsided. We put in a new garboard plank the next winter.

But this time it was happening too fast. I donned a life jacket and looked around for other boats. A small Boston Whaler was motoring out of Dolliber Cove. I waved and waved, and finally they came over in time to pluck me out of the cockpit, which was by now almost awash. The last thing I remember was watching our lovely little boat lay over on her side and settle beneath the waves. I had failed her, and the impact would be devastating to my pride.

And then I woke up in a sweat, and slowly realized it was all just an awful dream.

This thing we have with boats and the ocean is often the stuff of dreams and pride. Much of it makes no practical sense. Some of it is just plain fantasy. Often we take it way too seriously. The dreams and the pride can bring great joy, but they can also get us into lots of trouble. They have the capacity to challenge the best of marriages and friendships.

I had a really good sailing friend, once. We dreamed many of the same boat dreams. He was the kind of hand you love to have onboard. He never got seasick. He could fix the engine. He liked it when it got rough. He knew what the next move should be without having to ask. We could talk about boats for hours. We raced and cruised for many years in my boats and in his.

But ultimately this friend and I had a fatal falling-out over a sailboat race. That’s what the power of these prideful dreams can do to people. When we lose our humility and sense of humor, things can get ugly pretty fast. Years later, I saw this same guy drive his beloved boat hard onto a well-charted ledge in the middle of a regatta – with all canvas flying – in desperate pursuit, once again, of a spot at some podium. I even saw him accost another captain at a post-race dinner over the victim’s nearly perfect bright work. I know I’ve also felt the worst of my own personality occasionally emerge when sailboat racing, so I’ve sworn off it, for now, at least.

The most amazing part of this story, something that you could never dream up, happened the year after my old friend and I fell out over that boat race. More than a hundred boats were anchored together in a crowded Downeast cove on the night before the same annual event. In past years we would raft our boats together at this event, but now, conspicuously engaged in a simmering feud, we were each careful to pick a spot as far away from the other as possible. The night was calm and the anchored fleet was riding haphazardly on slack lines. There were at least a dozen boats anchored between us.

Sometime before dawn I was awakened in my berth by a dull thud on the planking next to my head. The rig jangled from the contact. Aggravated voices could be heard outside, accompanied by the sound of footsteps shuffling across the deck. It turned out that my old friend’s boat had dragged anchor all the way across the cove, passed by the rest of the fleet without a scratch, and come to rest alongside us. Her anchor line was hopelessly wrapped around our own and the two boats were lying side by side to the two fouled anchors.

“That’s a nice boat,” said one of his crew as he hauled on the rode. “Whose boat is that?”

“Just get that anchor up so we can get the hell out of here,” was the frantic reply.

Exchanging as few words as possible, we all worked together in the dark to untangle things and get my old friend loose and back to his spot on the other side of the cove. After the sun came up, an uneasy truce prevailed as we shared a cup of coffee and confirmed the lack of serious damage. We’ve barely spoken since over the ensuing decade. My guess is that we still share the same old dreams and suffer from the same dangerous pride. And it still holds us apart – for now, at least.

Meanwhile, back at Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the 2018 season has begun. Today we offloaded two hundred sheets of plywood, crates of nails and tools, and a pile of trim boards as high as the gunnels of the old Hurricane (to mention yet another seagoing dream romantically pursued). It was cold and gusty from the northwest as April usually is. The waves rolled past the end of the granite pier like a parade of salty demons forcing us past its eastern edge. Even though the Hurricane rolled sharply as we turned to make for the calm spot behind the stone, surprisingly, the load stayed in its place. The new deck hand missed the spring line toss to the pier on the first pass. We had to back out into the chop and come at it again, and he nailed it the second time. He’s a good guy, and will make a good hand soon. We need all the good hands we can get.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer. Formerly island manager, Jack now focuses on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront.

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