300 to Starboard

I have been working on this post ever since I heard a song that reminded me of the trip through the fog last summer. I hope you enjoy it!

“Course change to 300, in 5 seconds. 5…4…3…2..1…Mark!”

My husband’s voice echoed through the billowing fog that engulfed our small sailing yacht. I looked away from the wall of white before me, toward the identical wall to my right and clenched my right hand and the battered, wooden tiller handle. My downcast eyes stared at the roughly cracked wood, held together by the strap from a life jacket with a metal clamp over the top. They followed the 44-year-old curved handle up to the white knuckles of the hand controlling it.

No. I shouldn’t do it. I wanted to do anything but pull that tiller toward me.

According to Rob’s navigating–using only manual instruments and charts–Bay City was through the wall before us. To turn to starboard meant to motor to Alpena. We saw no landmarks; the shore could be within feet of our boat, or there could be no land in sight. All we had were the charts and our skill.

Bay City was home. They had a state-of-the-art shop, excellent hauling equipment, nice facilities, and a great staff. Alpena was the opposite. For the past week, we had been stuck there, waiting for fuel. Who ever heard of a gas dock being empty?! The showers were dirty, although that wouldn’t matter now. A dockhand had crashed our boat into the dock, and their harbor master was nowhere to be found. This was not a place I would trust with my beloved Moonraker.

“Are you sure?” I asked again. Through the fog, I could see my husband nod. Of course. A 6-hour run would be much safer than the 15 hour trip to Bay City.

With a heavy heart, I pulled the tiller handle towards me. For most of our two-week trip, I’d taken the helm. When we first entered Thunder Bay, I had piloted us through a storm. Yet the tiller never seemed as heavy as it did that afternoon.

I pulled and pulled. I could think of nothing else. Somewhere, deep within my heart, I did actually comprehend that we were in danger. While I blinked back the tears, mourning the loss of our dream, I looked around me, seeing nothing but fog, and briefly wondered if we would see land again.

Such thoughts were to be banished immediately. We had no choice.

I could not consider that the tiller handle was broken and poorly repaired. We hoped it would hold together in the current, calm conditions. The weather report did not call for a storm, but it had not called for fog either. I could not consider that we would definitely die in a storm. That there was so much fog that we could see nothing. That we were headed for a distant port that I did not trust.

300. The round compass sat across from me, mounted on the weathered, white bulkhead. Slowly the wheel within it turned: 210, 250, 260, 300. That number became my focus, my chi, during this long meditation. Maintain 300. As the propeller on the engine caused the boat to pull to port, I pulled the tiller handle toward me, in a sort of rhythm. Focus on 300. Not on fear. Not on loss. And definitely not on danger. Everything depended on 300. I had to make the compass say that. Nothing else could occupy my mind. Our lives depended on that number. And on Rob’s ded reckoning that it was right. Yet I knew where we were going. Were we really is so much danger we couldn’t make it to Bay City? What about Roger’s City, to the North? Anything but Alpena.

I remembered the day after our tenth anniversary, when we had set out on this trip. When I was grocery shopping that morning, an old song from the ’80’s had played on the radio. “It’s so very plain for me to see, the dream is over.” I found this line playing over and over in my head. Dream is over. Dream is over.

Moonraker was our dream. After a turbulent spring and June, we had set out to spend a month sailing around the Mitten, into Lake Michigan. Now it’s over. Over.

No.

300. Nothing more. I had to job to do and I could do it. Back to 300, to the task at hand. I could hold that. I may have doubted myself as a helmsman in the past, but that day I knew I could do it. I could keep us alive.

Yet my mind wandered.

Dream is over.

My mind took me back to the morning we left Alpena. Finally! I had told our friends that we were leaving that morning, rain or shine. Our friends, in turn, had cautioned us. Two people, from a boat we knew, from Bay City, had died in a storm the day before. Be vigilant, one friend wrote.

And we were! The forecast was perfect, even though the fog was beginning to rise as we past Thunder Bay Point. We would be having dinner in Presque Isle. Would it be the seafood buffet, or would we save our money and grill out? Thinking the latter, I bought charcoal before we left Alpena. Cook-outs were fun, and our 4-year-old would have a chance to run around and play. The charcoal was still sitting in the boat when we pulled it out at the end of the season.

Rob sat down with his navigational equipment, and I took the helm. Wearing her life jacket, our daughter chattered happily, as Rob told me our course. 45. Northeast. We were going to cut it close to Thunder Bay Island, but the charts all indicated we could pass. I held 45.

We did not know that Thunder Bay Island had a magnetic pull. That, if you fail to round the markers, far away from the island, it will cause your compass to read incorrectly. 45 was not 45.

Beginning to question it, Rob sent me below to retrieve his navigational equipment. I was in the back, with his parallel rules, digging for his dividers, when it happened.

The sickening thud. The vibration below my feet.

The keel hitting the rocks.

We were stuck. Trying to force the rudder to move, with the boat in reverse, Rob snapped the tiller handle.

We sent our daughter down below, hoping that the Wonder Pets would keep her occupied, while we attended to the situation.

We finally freed our boat by throwing out the anchor, while I swung on the boom. We tilted sideways, lifting the keel off of the rocks. Once again, Moonraker was floating.

For about an hour, Rob steered while I sat on the side deck, looking for the sudden shallow spots that seemed to come out of nowhere. After two hours, they had disappeared. We rounded marker 13, indicating that we were far enough from the island that our compass would not be affected. We left the bay and motored toward Presque Isle, out in the open Lake.

We turned off the DVD player, and our little girl sang while she colored at the dinette.

Feeling home free, Rob sent me below to get him a glass of iced tea. “I can finally relax,” he said.

Finally. Relax.

Down the stairs I walk, not watching where I am placing my feet. To the refrigerator, which is set inside the counter. I retrieve the iced tea pitcher, and pour him a glass. Without looking, I hand it up to the cockpit, where he sits. Now, to get me one.

It’s wet.

The carpet.

Is.

Wet.

The phrases all come to me, phrases I would rather keep out of my head. I try to abolish them from my mind. Taking on water. Disabled vessel. Sinking.

Sinking.

It is then that I notice the fog. We can see nothing. We are nowhere. We are in the middle of a white nothingness.

And we are sinking.

Moonraker, my boat, my home, my soul, was sinking. And we were as well.

300. This was my focus. I heard the bilge pump turn on again, as it had been doing about every 30 minutes. It was keeping up. For now. Below, in the v-berth, we heard our daughter laugh. She was watching cartoons. We kept handing her snacks. When things calmed down, we would let her out, when Shaun the Sheep lost his appeal. She smiled, not knowing what was going on. If she knew, it would be too much. Too much for her, for us…

Dream is over.

At the helm of Moonraker, I could fly. With the sails out, wing-in-wing, going downwind, nothing was impossible. In her I felt a freedom I had never thought was possible. This summer I experienced a life I had never known existed.

A wind blew through my hair, and I knew that if we raised the sails, we could do it again. We could make port faster, faster. Sailing was what Moonraker wanted to do.

But we couldn’t. We couldn’t because of the keel…

There it was. The keel. The thought I kept trying to abolish. The keel. If it separated, if we strained it, if it fell off… It was unthinkable. And there was no point. If the keel fell off, we would have no time to think, before it was over.

Over. But it wouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t.

300. We didn’t deviate. We wouldn’t. We would live. Thunder Bay. I had nearly lost a boat there before. This time I would not. I would see the other side. Yet, now, we were not moving in that direction. We were going back to Alpena. Back. But if we made it, there would be another day.

300. Nothing else. That helm was my duty, my calling. It was all I had to worry about. We could see nothing, but I trusted my husband. If I maintained 300, we would make it.

Through the thickening fog, I saw a distant beacon. Thunder Bay light. This time we would keep our distance. 300 kept us out past the magnetic pull, past the rocks, past the danger. Marker 13 materialized out of the fog, directly to starboard.

300. I wanted to go back to Bay City, to the place we knew. But I trusted Rob. I trusted his navigation. This was the route he had told me to take. Alpena, Alpena. He thought anything further would jeopardize our lives. If we made it to Alpena, we would be all right… The pump was running. We were floating. We would live. We just had to keep going. 300. 300. 300.

We were still encased in the fog; we were still being swallowed by it. In the distance we heard the roar of a motor at full speed. Before I even had time to tighten my grip on the tiller handle, the power boat rushed past us, too close for comfort.

We both shook our heads, marveling at the idiocy that went beyond words.

300. We plowed ahead, ahead. Then, with no warning, we began to see trees off in the distance, to starboard. Thunder Bay point. We were in its lee, which caused the fog to lift. Ahead, in the distance but now in sight, was the break wall. Alpena.

300. I still watched the compass, but it was safe now. It was time to call the marina. We already knew they did not answer radio transmissions, so Rob dialed the cell phone.

“We’re taking on water. Can you pull us out? We’ll be there in an hour.”

“Taking on water? Are you all right?”

“The bilge pump is keeping up, but the boat needs to be pulled when we get there.”

“All right. We close in 45 minutes. We’ll pull you first thing in the morning.”

We would be spending the night on a sinking boat, because they wouldn’t stay open for an emergency.

Slip 37.

We sat in the cockpit, taking it all in. Beneath our feet, the pump ran every 30 minutes. It wasn’t increasing. Moonraker was our home, and this was our last night on it. Until….

Nobody knew if and when we would be back.

And yet we had survived. We had proven our skill to each other, to ourselves. There was no question: we would sail again.

Whether on Moonraker or on another vessel, the water was calling us. And we would answer.

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