The sea is not done with me yet

Tom Myers had spent many years at the helm of Mistral without incident. It wasn’t over-confidence that caught up with him. Just rotten luck.

December, 2006

By Thomas Myers
For Points East

I lost the boat. Mistral is dead. Annie and I snuck off for a week before my July classes began. (In the interest of clarity, Annie is my longtime sailing and smoking buddy; Quan is my non-sailing, non-smoking, long-suffering life partner and wife.) It was foggy, rainy, and dismal, but as we kept telling ourselves, “Who cares? It’s July and we’re finally on the boat!”

The 36-foot Bristol yawl with various names came into our lives in 1994, when Annie found and bought Frolic from an elderly surgeon with a harridan wife who nagged him into getting rid of it. He lovingly showed us its quirks and advantages, and clearly tried not to cry as we sailed it out of his life. (He had a mezuzah nailed to the companionway door. Annie, who’s right with Jesus, replaced that with a cross, and when I got it, new-age floozy, I replaced that with the Daoist yin-yang wheel.)

Into our life meant from Greenwich, R.I., down Narragansett Bay, through the canal and up to Maine – she went willingly enough to her new home in Portland, where Annie named her Tribe and we sailed her around Casco Bay and Downeast when we could. (The deal was: she bought and paid for it, I taught her how to sail it and cruise it – she had money and I had none, having just moved to Portland from the southwest, holding the tattered remnants of a former life.)

A few years ago, I had a small financial windfall, and Annie, tired of yard bills and responsibility, sold Tribe to me, and she became Mistral. I built on her basic competencies and the frills that Annie added (like the Force 10 stove by which we had dried our clothes on her very last night afloat) by adding some more wood and a few touches of my own. The sailing partnership continued, and Annie and I cruised each year in a nearly wordless communion that allowed each the space for thought, and the enjoyment of endless motion of the sea, that dance we love between the vagaries of wind and water.

She had her quirks; don’t they all? But she was strong and able, nimble and forgiving.

I cannot forgive myself for letting her die at Christ’s age, 33, while she still had plenty of life left in her. I feel so badly being the one to nail her to the crucifix, and does the sacrifice have any meaning beyond my sudden education?

It’s silly to have a cruising boat for day sails, but I happen to know, since I bought a chartplotter with an odometer on it, that I had put nearly 300 miles on the boat already this spring, mostly just sailing up and down the Damariscotta River.

Mike gets my boat in early in the season – this year I was the first from his yard – and the cold spring winds blow the winter cobwebs from my mind and muscles as I sail the river. Besides, even though it’s a large boat – a Winnebago with a keel, someone wagged – I could have it sailing within 2.5 minutes of stepping onto the deck (one of my students timed me).

My habit has been to work from 5 a.m. until 1, then leap onto the boat for the afternoon winds in these lengthening spring days, coming home to spend time with my Quan, the rabbit lady, in the evenings. Sleep? An hour sailing is worth two hours sleeping.

But Annie and I were on the first overnight time I had been allowed this year, and bad weather wasn’t going to stop us. The engine quit within the first couple of hours, right at the end of the river, but we sailed her over to Mike’s yard and he sorted the fuel line problem to have us on our way by the early afternoon – so that didn’t stop us either. The wind had come easterly (figures, we were going east) so we slogged uphill on the engine that first day, to sweet Home Harbor, tucked between the reefs behind Two Bush Light.

The next morning we sailed up out of the harbor, and out into very thick fog. The new chartplotter took much of my lifelong angst out of the Maine fog work so common to cruising here. With the new GPS, and its little arrow showing exactly where we were on the planet’s surface, we were actually enjoying ourselves. Especially if you’re sailing, you can hear all the noises of engines around you, as the fishermen spin heedlessly through the fog from trap to trap.

It guided our way into Brimstone Island, an eerie offshore eyrie where Annie collects basalt stones, polished round and smooth by the endless action of the waves that crunch and skitter the stones over each other until we come for them.

It’s a treacherous anchorage and a treacherous beach – I stayed on the rocking boat while Annie went for stones, but she and the dinghy got caught in the surf. It threw itself against her and filled with water, and she took a beating and had quite a time getting it back offshore, bailing it, and bringing it back to where I was, oblivious, across the way in the fog.

I left her to warm up, and rowed to the quieter backside of the beach, under the single tenacious and gnarly tree the island boasts, and under the keening terns and cynical gulls – they’re raising young now, so they didn’t want me to leave the beach and climb the cliffs to their nests – got a knapsack full of “feely stones” from Brimstone beach.

We plunged once more into the fog, emerging under Isle au Haut – the High Island to the French – a veritable mountain (and part of Acadia Park, a gift of the Rockefellers to a grateful nation) that, as I had hoped, bounced the fog up so that literally a few hundred yards from the shore we suddenly burst from the gray wetness into clean, dry air and visibility.

For the rest of the day we sailed – oh, how we sailed! – into Duck Harbor, Moore’s Cove, Kimball Island Passage, and sluicing down Merchant’s Row, in the upper-limit winds (we had to put in a reef to stay safe) and dry air in this column of welcome clarity that streamed downwind from this island to Stonington. A few miles one way, fog; a few miles the other, the same. We tucked in and out of its strangely distinct edges as we tacked this way and that. But in the middle, glory: wind, sun, and a string of small islands with currents and passages to play in. Flitting between Merchant’s Row on an ostensible errand to get diesel. But when we found Billings closed, we cheerfully sailed back up again.

Isle au Haut must have split the fog as a plow the furrow, and I’ll wager that we and the boat were among the few to see the sliver of new moon just after sunset sitting in our windy (keeps off the bugs) anchorage between Round and McGlathery’s, as all around us the coast was shrouded.

I digress, but I just wanted to show some of the flavor of her last days, and our last days on her. The next, and last full day of her life, was foggy and still. We got our diesel and drifted in a sea of white for most of the day, reading and praying for the sun to burn through. Instead, it started to rain heavily, but it came with wind. As we emerged from Eggemoggin Reach, we put away our books and went flying around Cape Rosier in the rain – 7 knots plus and everything straining with the wet weight. If something was going to happen, it should have happened then, skimming a lee shore with white caps surging around us, the wind keening in the wires, and the sails and lines wringing water with the bass viol hum of undulating tension.

We sailed into Castine, the Bagaduce River, the site of Quan’s ever so brief sally into the military. We tied up to an unused mooring, and checked the cell phone reception, as I had to do a teleclass that night – my only work obligation that week. The mooring was utterly kelp-bound, and clearly hadn’t been used in a couple of years, so we threaded the eye with our own docking line. But just at dusk some doofus powered across the river to tell us we couldn’t stay on the mooring, it was “private property” and “we don’t do that kind of thing around here.”

Never mind that you do do that kind of thing around here. I should have offered him “20 bucks and I’ll be gone by 7 a.m.,” but using someone else’s mooring is a privilege, not a right, so we skedaddled.

This was the first in a long line of coulda/shoulda/woulda that led to the loss. As the dark gathered, we slipped quickly around the next corner and set the anchor in a deserted little cove. (Should that have told me something?)

From my cell phone, and huddled out of the wind, but still very cold, I did the class, but it was awful – my heart wasn’t in it, and I had had insufficient time to prepare – and we went to bed.

I awoke before 5 on the fateful day. The tide had turned and was running hard out of the river, even in this little cove. I raised the mizzen so she’d lie to wind. That seemed to do the trick, so I went back to bed. Feeling and hearing the strain in the boat again, I got up a little while later and we were once more caught in the tide and were being pushed over toward some rocks. I got Annie up and we used the engine and the sails to get up the tide over the anchor (it’s difficult – the boat lies to wind, but the anchor line to tide – and in this case they were at total odds, so that the anchor line was taut down the ship’s side.

We freed the anchor, but were immediately in a rock garden, and came a cropper of a ledge before we could exit gracefully. It was a light hit, one of a number any close-in sailor will have. Being a gunkholer, I’d done one or two this year already in the river. I tried gunning her off, close hauling the sails to tip her off, and finally kedging her off, but by that time it was mid-tide, and we were stuck. It was embarrassing (fortunately, the fog still persisted) and would cause a delay of 6 hours or so, but not dangerous. The boat slowly lay over. Someone came out from the Maritime Academy (Quan’s sort of alma mater) but I was very casual. “We’re fine, we’ll be off in a few hours.”

In fact, the tide had a long way to go, the ledge was bigger than I thought, and we lay ever so-slowly down on our side. To lie in my bunk and read (and even now, I was phlegmatic enough to be doing that), I had to lie on the drawers that form the sidewall of the bunk. Getting in and out of the cabin and along the boat was like a jungle gym – and kind of fun if you discounted the danger and embarrassment.

There was a slight bowing in the facing board of the bunk, indicative of the strain the boat was under lying on its side, but no crunching, no cracking, no grinding – nothing at all to indicate the boat had a hole. Nevertheless, somehow a rock poked a hole in her while she lay there, so that when the tide started coming back in, water started pouring into the boat.

With the boat on its side, it took us a while to notice it. Once we did, we raised the alarm by cell, but it was another hour until the towboat with the pumps came. Meanwhile, we were trying to find the leak and plug it, but in perfect irony the drawers with the tools in them were the ones above my bunk, and the strain had clamped them utterly shut. The leak was under the bunks and drawers, and reaching it would have required tearing out the bunk. By the time aid came, we were too high and heavy to be pulled off.

The towboat guy was young and large and brash, and tried to get us off with pulling and cursing and yelled orders at his two 20-somethings. An older, more experienced boatyard owner came out in his lobster boat, but he was more pessimistic (and, as it turned out, correct). The scene became more and more hectic and desperate, with the water rising and the boat not.

To the very end I hoped and expected that it would turn out all right, but instead the water rose inexorably, coming faster at mid-tide, and soon cushions and pots and food and a hundred things were floating up from the port side of the cabin. Annie, distraught, was taken off by a kind couple in a Whaler, while I stayed, throwing things onto the towboat. Funny what you save – computer, yes; cell phone, still in my very wet pocket, no; CD’s yes; books, no. Binoculars, yes; sunglasses, no; sail cover (?) yes; logbook, no (this I regret very much – the memories were all recorded in there).

So ignominious, so unexpected, so very devastating. A minor misstep and here we were, motoring away from our old friend, now nearly disappeared into the sea, waves lapping over the trunk, the masts angled out of the water crazily, bits of our life floating away on the tide.

There was nothing we could do but leave her for salvage. The engine submerged, the electricals completely shorted – the insurance company declared it a total loss before they even saw it. I will get about half what the boat was worth, and way less when you consider all that was in her. But the money angle is simply a drag that can and must be dealt with.

This feels like the death of a friend. It is the death of a friend. The betrayal and death of a good old friend.

Annie and I tossed the bedraggled detritus we had saved into a pick-up truck and, bruised, dirty, wet, cold, and in shock, were driven the couple of hours back home. As we transferred the funny little pile to Quan’s truck, Annie finally let go in Quan’s arms, sobbing. I haven’t been able to yet – I am so ashamed that crying seems like an indulgence. First time in all the years of my sailing family that anyone’s lost a boat. And not even in a storm or something that could start, “There we were…!”

I have been over it, in the post-adrenalin depression, a thousand times. We shoulda stayed on the mooring (but we were told to get off.) I should have anchored somewhere else (but I had the telephone class pending and needed four bars.) The rocks we strayed onto were not on the chart (really – the locals agreed.)

I should have gotten off the anchor when I first got up. What if I had jumped into the water and put seat cushions or something between her side and the ledge – would that have kept her from being holed? I should have torn out the bunk earlier (but I had no tools.) I should have called earlier (but we had no sense of danger.).

Shoulds and coulds haunt my heart like the wraiths of fog, but the fact of her loss, that I let her down so badly, that I let such a good friend go in such an offhand way on an otherwise casual morning, has shaken the roots of my life and confidence. To what end, I know not yet, but I know this is big.

I am grateful that we are both safe, and I know that the boat is just a shell of frozen spit compared to my wife, my daughter, Annie, the place I live, and I am grateful – doubly, deeply grateful today – for them and for my many blessings. But that something so dear can be taken so quickly is certainly a wake-up call.

What will I do about the future? Too soon to tell; I must sieve through this a while – such a catastrophic failure needs time to be realized fully. I have sinned, and atonement is a long series of scrubbings, in my view.

The next day
I started my scrubbings today in the literal sense. Annie, Quan, and I boarded the pick-up early and went to Castine. The tow boat operator had gotten the boat off the rock during the night’s high tide (a pretty good miracle) by clawing out the bunk and drawers, and screwing through the hull to fix a piece of plywood with a bunch of putty and my (former) pants as a sealer.

By the time we got there, she was at the dock – mainmast down (it broke in the winds of the continuous rainstorms overnight), kelp hanging from everything, engine oil coating the galley area and in the lockers – the general sad and sodden mess you’d expect to see. The break in the hull was just shy of three feet long, under the port bunk in the main cabin, right where I had been lying, nonchalantly reading. How did this happen without a sound to announce it?

Water was still pouring in the patched leak, but the noisy pumps were keeping up with it. For 5 hours, as the whole town’s worth of idle men and a succession of tourists gawked, Annie (the stalwart, steady Annie), Quan, and I humped wet cushions, greasy books, ruined charts, even things we had no memory of but were obviously somewhere on the boat. We made a few finds – the log (soaked, but maybe savable), her prescription glasses, my Leatherman – and many disappointments, as what could float did. Quan ran interference and errands and found food and drink.

She also found out that the spot where we first tied up the mooring was being watched as a possible drug drop-off point, which explains why we were kicked off in an unofficial but very adamant and negative way. I had been wondering why an unused mooring merited such unusual vehemence and breach of etiquette, so that might explain that particular impetus, but then again rumors abound in every small Maine town.

All three of us were engine oily up to our elbows, and of course heartsick, but the boat got fully stripped just before the lift truck arrived at 3, and everything we needed to take with us filled the pick-up just to the brim. We flopped over snoring as Quan drove us home. Tomorrow we will scrub, take things to the launderette, sort and store. Hopefully we get a drying day, a clear northwesterly, soon – it has been a long spell of wet weather.

And two of the suckier days of my life.
I left her sitting on stands in Penobscot, whispering to her with my hand on her side, as if leaving your grandmother in intensive care after you drove through a stop sign – not knowing whether you will see her again, or this is it.

I am in secret what Quan is openly, an animist. I see life and intelligence in all things, and believe the lowliest of events are trying to teach us stupid humans. I know I shall learn from this, but I don’t know what. Still in shock, still flipping about like a fish out of water, as I literally am, I await these lessons with a heavy heart and chastened spirit, but very, very alert. Am I incompetent? Unworthy? Maleficent? Just plain stupid? It is undoubtedly something more nuanced and important than any of those, but right now I am tending to absolutes and self-flagellation.

What started as a simple catch on a ledge turned slowly but inexorably into full disaster. How would you hold it?


A month on
People I respect have said “hard luck” rather than “Why didn’t you…?”, so I am feeling a bit better about my culpability and capability, and in the event, very much better about my angels.

In fact, since the wreck, I have been going through religions like water.

In the week following, I was convinced that we could restore her, so I stayed firmly in the Christian camp, with a firm belief in resurrection. That apostate insurance surveyor destroyed that faith – when he arrived at the hulk from Boston in his Lexus, he shook his head and said, “Don’t even try it!” Even reducing his estimates by a third (he is from Boston), it was more money then a new boat would cost. “And you won’t be happy with the result,” he said, “It will still smell like diesel for a few years.”

As he drove out of the yard, I briefly considered, while offloading some equipment, taking up some radical religious sect that would allow me to kill everyone who still had a boat. After driving home in this state, I became Jewish, and we all sat Shiva for a few hours, recalling the good times and close shaves and “there we were” moments. Non-boat owners will not understand how close to a living thing a boat is, like a family pet. The final loss of hope that I could restore my good friend was a grieving and poignant moment, and I took the time to feel it through.

By the next morning I was a confirmed atheist: “The boat is dead. Go get another boat.”

Heartsick, I perused the Internet and Uncle Henry’s, and Mike had a few suggestions. On the one hand, there was still a lot of season left; on the other, I was still queasy, and all the considerations that go into buying a boat, and besides, the prices would fall in September, and the insurance payout was small compared to the boat’s actual value…

I dithered.

And then fate took a hand in shoving me toward my final religion. Someone visiting Quan’s animal rescue project happened to hear of the loss, and said, “Oh, my husband is selling a sailboat.” It turned out to be a sister hull of Mistral, and better than that, only four miles away by water in East Boothbay. And still better than that, priced at about the level of the insurance payout.

So I have settled on Buddhism and the principle of reincarnation. Mistral will be reincarnated as Tycha (it’s an anagram of ‘yacht’). To make a complex juggle short, I bought Mistral’s hull back from the insurance company, had it trucked to Mike’s yard, and this winter will be turning Tycha the sloop into Tycha the yawl, reinstalling the propane stove and other fittings, and otherwise beginning the several-year job of throwing money and sandpaper at her to bring her back to Mistral standards.

Meanwhile for the rest of the season, I am getting to know her – some things are better (a newer engine and radar), some things are not as good (the binnacle is farther aft and you can’t reach the jib sheets), but she is still able and nimble, and everything from the old hull fits.

I have learned little, I find. I sure do value my friends. I still like gunkholing, and though I will be more cautious, I doubt that I will never hit again. But I reassure myself with the idea that I had been in charge of sailboats for over 35 years before I lost one, If I can keep that record up, Tycha is probably safe, as I will likely die before she does.

Whichever way it goes, I cannot stop, for, as my sagacious friend wrote me recently, “The sea is not done with you yet.”

Tom Myers is a writer on anatomy and soft-tissue manipulation, who manages a wharf on the coast of Maine.