My buddy Jimmy Crossman’s dad Chester builds, restores, and maintains boats, mostly small wooden sailboats.
Another blow was supposed to hit, and Chester was racing around hauling boats out since a lot of the pleasure boaters decided they wanted their boats pulled before the storm hit. Jimmy was helping him, and Jimmy called me to see if I could help them out, too, because they were crazy busy. Since Dad said he wanted the gear to soak till after the storm and we were caught up on shore work, I said sure.
They had a boat on a trailer, all derigged and ready to go, when I got down to the Saggy Neck landing on my bike. The sky looked mean, all right, but the rain was holding off. If I hadn’t brought my oilskins, rain would have been guaranteed.
Chester jumped into the pickup and said he’d be right back.
Chester (pointing across the wolf-gray water): You boys row out to those boats out there and sail them in. I’ll be back in a jiffy.
Chester (frowning): No time to waste.
I was going to say that I didn’t really know how to sail. I’d only sailed because I’d been forced to when Briggs and I got into all that hot water the summer before last, and then once this summer.
But the wind wasn’t blowing hard, and I figured if I could sail when I was being chased by crooks, I could sail here.
He put the truck in gear and roared off towing the boat.
Now, if you couldn’t stop Briggs from talking, you couldn’t start Jimmy. He really didn’t talk. He made me feel the way Briggs must feel sometimes—that I might as well be talking to a piling. The one thing he did was sigh. He sighed a lot, maybe because he was so skinny he needed to try to get extra air in and out of his lungs. His face was always red, too. Come to think of it, so was Chester’s.
Me: How’re we getting out to the boats?
Jimmy (starting to walk toward the beach beside the landing and nodding toward a small boat): There.
Me: So we’ll sail the first boat in together, and then go out for the other one?
Jimmy (giving me a quick glance, almost like his father’s frown): Separately. Faster.
Me: Just one thing. I don’t really know how to sail. I mean I can figure it out, but the owner might not like it.
Jimmy: Don’t worry. I’ll help.
Me: Why don’t you have an outboard, anyway, and just tow them in with your dinghy?
Jimmy (sighing): Busted. Yesterday.
We slogged through the soupy sand and he shoved the dinghy into the smooth water. Then we climbed in and rowed out past the jetty. The breeze that I thought hadn’t been blowing gusted hard the minute we got beyond the beach and the jetty, making Jimmy grab for his baseball cap, and the surface of the water riffled and shivered and crawled.
Jimmy (pulling on the oars): Breezing up.
We reached the first boat, way out in the outer harbor, and I glanced down into the glass-clear water. Amazing how fast the water turns blue in the fall when the algae no longer makes it look green. I could see shells on the sand at the bottom. The water looked icy.
Jimmy (back-stroking to keep us by the boat): Here’s what you do. Take off the cockpit cover. Lower the centerboard. Take off the sail cover. Hang the rudder and insert the tiller. Undo the sail ties. Then take those two lines (he pointed at the two cleats on the foredeck) and hoist the sail. Then let the mooring line go and sail her around the light to the landing.
Jimmy: Wow what?
Me: I’ve never heard you talk so much.
He sighed and pulled on the oars and brought us up to the stern. The nameboard had “Auk” carved on it and painted in gold. Awkward was exactly how I felt.
Jimmy (nodding): Climb aboard.
Me: Okay. Wish me luck.
Now, I have to admit that once I climbed aboard, I was a little confused. In my skiff, you yank the starter and you’re off.
Here I fumbled around, trying to remember what I’d done when Briggs and I sailed in his catboats. I almost forgot to lower the centerboard. The sail took a lot more hauling than I’d remembered to get it all the way up.
Then, when I raised the sail, the wind caught it and filled it and spun us around on the mooring before we pointed into the wind again and the sail went slack. If it had been a real blow, we could have capsized.
Jimmy was already sailing off toward the jetty before I managed to let us off the mooring. I thought maybe he didn’t see what was happening: For some reason, my boat was actually going backwards. I couldn’t make her turn no matter how much I pushed the tiller back and forth.
But he saw. He yelled over the water to me.
Jimmy: You’re in irons. Push the boom away from you. Push the tiller the same way. Let the wind fill the sail. You’ll come around.
I did what he said, and in a snap (and the sail snapped, too, when we came around) we were cutting right along over the gray-blue water. I sat back and caught my breath, the tiller quivering in my hands.
We were the only boats out except for a couple of other sailboats way out toward the barrier beach and one lobster boat heading toward Fog Island light, which was a white spike in the distance. Nearer by, on Saggy Neck, I saw the white clapboard buildings of the sailing camp with their green shutters closed. The clouds formed a dark-gray ridged ceiling but the visibility was unlimited.
I liked the quiet of the sailboat—not like the constant roar of the diesel on Marie A. The wake gurgled and chuckled and the rigging creaked and clucked.
I thought about fishing in a boat like the one I was sailing, and thought that the old fishermen before everyone used engines really had to know a lot. They had to be great sailors and they had to know fish. In our waters, they fished in catboats the one I was sailing was based on.
As I sailed, I remembered hearing somewhere that no one was really sure where the term “catboat” originated. I got to thinking that maybe it started as “catchboat” since these boats were fishing vessels. I wondered about that.
I got the hang of the gusts—let the sail flap a bit in the big gusts and then let it fill when the wind drops—and before long I had to round the light at the end of the jetty that protects the harbor and the landing.
Now the gusts seemed to come on even harder, I’d say around fifteen knots or more—and I couldn’t point the boat at the landing since that was where the wind was coming from.
So I headed all the way across the harbor till I got close to the rocks on the neck of land opposite, then came about and weaved through the boats that were still moored in the inner harbor. (I clipped one pulpit with the end of the boom, but I didn’t see any damage.)
Still I couldn’t make the landing. So I had to head the other way again out to the neck of land, come about, and try again.
This time I was in better shape, and finally I brought the boat past the floating dock and the dinghy dock and into the slot of water beside the pilings of the wharf and laid her nose in a nice soft landing on the sand right beside the slanting macadam of the landing.
Flopping around one minute, getting heeled over hard the next: Briggs, I sympathize with you.
Jimmy, of course, already had his boat derigged. He was waiting at the foot of the landing.
He came over as I climbed out, his boots making a sucking sound in the wet sand.
Jimmy: Nice. And you didn’t even have to have an outboard. Hate the way those things look on the back of a pretty boat like this anyway. Spoils the lines.
Me: I know what you mean. I really liked sailing it. And now I know what to do if I’m ever in irons again.
Jimmy (sighing): You will be. Happens to everyone. Okay. Let’s get her ready.
Jimmy (untying the knot at the end of the sheet): If you want, we can sail in our boat sometime. She’s just like this one. Head out to Thrumcap. We’re not hauling her till the end of the month.
Me: Sounds good. And I’ll tell you something. If I’m going to sail, it’s going to be in a catboat. They’re like workboats.
Jimmy (nodding): You know what my old man says? “Never met a catboat owner I didn’t like.” Must be something about these boats. Hey. Do me a favor. Give me a hand with these battens.
That’s when the rain hit—and it came on hard.
Me (heading for my bike where I’d left my oilskins): At least I brought rain gear.
Jimmy: Lucky you. Mine are still in the truck.