Our Dog Star

Eleanor was afraid. Her small body trembled with a touch of hypothermia and crocodile tears glanced off of her pale cheeks, collecting on the steel deck. Alison zipped the zippers and buckled the buckles on Eleanor’s life jacket as I looked around. We were absolutely disoriented; a strange feeling where a little wonder, some hope and a pile of anxiety merged together into a mix of signals that my brain wanted to interpret as “ALARM!” but the tiny rational part of my mind said, “It’s cool. Just figure it out.” We were hanging out on The Smooch – a large steel Bruce Roberts pilothouse design that, compared to Caprica, is a modern warship built for high adventure.

As Caprica approached the Block Island inlet a day earlier, The Smooch was coming out of the west. The current ripped through the inlet tugging at the channel buoys and Caprica’s bow. I made minor corrections to the wheel, feeling the malevolent invisible force under us pulling at the keel. My index finger hooked around the throttle control and slowly powered down the diesel as we approached the stern of a large center cockpit ketch struggling against the outflowing tide.

Entering The Great Salt Pond (2018)

Again, I throttled down as the distance between us and the center cockpit closed. I felt the current’s grip around the keel tighten. The slower Caprica went, the less helm control I had, and the closer the edge of the channel came. My finger gently pushed the throttle forward for a moment to gain some steerage and then we were too close. We throttled down. This dance was repeated a dozen times as a Hunter sailboat slid into the channel behind us, then there was The Smooch and a gaggle of powerboats. There wasn’t any room for errors.

A small keelboat under full sail emerged ahead of us and slid into the Atlantic on our port side. A grey-haired man lounged in the cockpit masterfully playing the tiller and sheeting the mainsail out as a slight wind shift crossed the channel. “That’s how to do it,” Alison said to me before she began scrolling through a few messages on her phone. “Hey! That’s The Smooch behind us.” Alison pointed out past our stern, and I turned to see a prominent bow wave proudly leading her dark hull towards the channel.

Connecting through social media over a year ago, we followed The Smooch and they followed Caprica. Even with time and tide against us, we managed to enter the Block Island channel within minutes of each other.

Caprica drifted over a few prospective anchoring spots as we considered other vessels, the shore and that the wind was coming from the southeast and it was usually a south-westerly. “There’s going to be a wind shift late this afternoon,” Alison said as she took the helm and I moved forward. We were in 22 feet of water, and there was enough room around us to dump out 140 feet of chain. Another line of storms was predicted, and we wanted to be prepped from the outset. The night before we were ready to jump offshore and head for Maryland but the weather models sent us to the harbor of refuge at Point Judith instead. Block Island would be our last port of call before heading south.

“Look!” Eleanor said. Her voice shuddered with excitement as she pointed towards an enormous inflatable swan that came to life on the deck of The Smooch. Moments later, a massive splash erupted from The Smooch’s stern as an expertly executed cannonball was performed. “I want to swim!” Eleanor exclaimed and disappeared below. She emerged later clad in her swimsuit, ready to rock and jumped onto the swim platform. I had a flashback to just a few years earlier where together we entered the water for the very first time. Unsure, she stood on my legs as I held onto the swim ladder and the cold Atlantic water in contrast to the warm sun on our skin made for a memorable experience.

“Come on, Dad!” Eleanor yelled impatiently at me.

“Okay. Hold your horses.” I took the bitter end of a hundred feet of line and tied a bowline to the back of her lifejacket then patted her shoulder twice. “Good to go.” The other side of the line was secured to Caprica, giving Eleanor the ability to swim two boat lengths away on her own. Since she swam with the kids of S/V Magic, Eleanor’s confidence had exploded, and she was ready to tackle new challenges. Eleanor climbed down the swim ladder and let go. I paid out line as she swam in sweeping circles and figure eights. “I want to go far!” Eleanor yelled at me in a half giggle. I gave her a thumbs-up, and it was met with a broad smile and the beginnings of chattering teeth. She pointed away from the stern and started to swim all by her little self.

Spectators emerged on the deck of a large trawler parked next to us. From their perspective, I was calmly watching my 4-year-old daughter drift two boat lengths away. I gave a little wave and was met with stern stares from the million-dollar machine. Eleanor raised one hand above her head then crossed her arms and floated backwards. The life jacket collar cradled her head as her long legs emerged on the surface. It was a predetermined signal. I began to pull the line fast and as the life jacket snugged down on her, Eleanor rocketed back to Caprica with a series of high pitch squeals.

“Again!” she declared as our neighboring spectators gave a cheer.

With chattering teeth and her lips turning blue, Eleanor was reluctantly coaxed out of the Great Salt Pond. We’d made plans to meet the owners of The Smooch out for dinner and were looking forward to meeting Lisa, Rob and their kids in person.

We’ve met a few virtual friends in the real world over the last couple years, and sometimes it can be a little strained or awkward but The Smooch crew were absolutely cool from the get-go and it was hard to leave the dinner table that evening. The next night, we putted up uninvited to the imposing stern of their boat after seeing the kids doing cannonballs in to the water and splashing in and around the swan. Eleanor was dressed in her bathing suit and hanging over the bow like a golden retriever ready to launch into the water. She hurled herself overboard with a terrific splash and made all possible speed towards the inflatable swan. Encouraged by The Smooch kids, Eleanor ignored the chill and embraced the opportunity to play.

Alison and I climbed the steep stern which was built to withstand breaking waves and we took a moment to embrace the view; Eleanor laughing, swimming and playing with new friends against the backdrop of boats that were floating on the hook in front of a calm gorgeous sunset. Rob invited me down below for a tour, and I excitedly accepted and Alison sat down with Lisa on deck.

The Smooch

Entirely functional for underway living, The Smooch was built to take the traveler to far off lands in comfort and safety. The spacious aft cabin and a fantastic pilothouse with an inside helm station and galley were total winners; especially when thinking about our last transit across the Gulf of Maine where I spent the night shivering in the cockpit. Once I sat down in the pilothouse on the plush cushions, I could have moved in. Rob and I began bantering and time slipped away. He’s a captain of a commercial fishing vessel, and I was enthralled by his knowledge, fascinated by his stories and we spent much of the evening laughing. An hour with Rob was every bit as useful as a week at any maritime academy, and I soaked it up. Alison later expressed the same kind of enjoyment after spending time with Lisa.

Suddenly, Eleanor was down below dripping and wrapped in a heavy blanket. Her chattering teeth and blue lips signaled the end to swimming. Twilight had set in, and it was time to head back to Caprica. Not wanting to overstay our welcome, I began to graciously excuse ourselves from their fantastic hospitality. Alison and Lisa were on deck chatting, the kids ducked inside to change, but suddenly a pile of snacks and beverages were presented. Snuggled in the blanket, Eleanor was happily crunching away on Doritos, and the stories recommenced.

“The anchor light.” The thought slid into my head. We left Caprica without our standard emergency bag or turning on the anchor light, thinking that Eleanor would go for a quick swim with The Smooch kids and then we’d be right back.

I climbed down the stern of The Smooch and made the leap into our dinghy and zipped away towards our home making a mental note of the wind direction or if any new boats parked by us while I was below decks in The Smooch. The sea foam green million-dollar machine held off of our starboard side with another large trawler to our stern and several sailboats bobbed around us as the wind calmed to a slight breath while the shades of sunset spread across the anchorage. Below decks, I prepped a go-bag for Eleanor, grabbed a sweatshirt for Alison and turned on the anchor light. Climbing out of the companionway a feeling of apprehension gripped me. I paused to listen to an unsolicited thought drift through my consciousness, urging me to hang our second and very powerful deck light.

In crowded or storm conditions we hang a yellow lensed LED camping style lantern 6 to 10 feet above our foredeck for added visibility. The anchor light is about 60 feet above the water, and we’ve had a few occasions where small boats or dinghies have almost pegged us.

“Hang the light.” The thought was more of command that I quickly dismissed. The weather was calm, clear, and serene. The harbor was bathed in a golden sunset where the bright yellows and oranges merged across the delicate ripples. We didn’t need it.

I should have known better.

The trip back to The Smooch was quick and uneventful. I paused for a brief moment to take in the beauty of the Great Salt Pond with its smattering of anchored boats as the sunlit fog entered the main channel and drifted across the western dunes. By the time I was on deck, the fog had pushed into the harbor and seemed to pulse with the warm glow of the setting sun. The mesmerizing magnificent splendor of the fading light and shades or sunset colors suspended in the fog delivered a once in a lifetime radiance.

Below deck, we continued with the stories of experiences as the kids spread out and dusk faded into night. We lost track of time, or we just didn’t care, but then it was late and we heard from the deck that a kayaker was lost.

“He’s looking for the Tugboat,” Lisa said.

“That’s easy,” I thought and emerged from the pilothouse to give some quick directions. Then I saw it. I saw the fog and knew the kayaker wasn’t just lost – I was too.  While we were down below, a thick viscous fog filled the pond. To complicate matters, a wind shift changed the swing pattern of the boats in our vicinity, leaving me without a reference point.

A clouded and hazy light pulsed near the bow where a good Samaritan in a dinghy was trying to give the kayaker a little assistance. “Okay. Thanks!” bounced over the water where not even a wavelet lapped at a hull.

Lisa pointed across the port side. “Did you hear the band?” She asked, but for me – it was just silence.

“We’re pointed West,” Rob said appearing on deck.

I motioned to Alison, “So we’re over there,” and I pointed into the blackness where two faint mast lights occasionally faded in and out. In the foreground, a brilliant and prominent anchor light acted as our Dog Star. Incredibly bright among all the others, it was our first point of reference. “That’s the big trawler parked next to us,” I said then pointed at two faint anchor lights. “So we are one of those.”

It was late, conditions were deteriorating, and it was time to go. Below I gathered up Eleanor’s things, and we said our goodbyes.

“Do you have deck lights?” I asked Rob. “Just in case we have to come back?”

A minute later, The Smooch was lit up like the Fourth of July, and we had our second reference point.

On deck, Eleanor was afraid. She looked into the darkness and absolutely did not want to get into the dinghy. We had our reference points, a course to follow, and a place to come back to but to put away into the blackness was still hard to do. Alison talked Eleanor through what would happen, how we’d keep ourselves safe and eventually our girl was ready to go with us. Eleanor climbed down the stern of The Smooch then we pointed away from the steel ocean-going pilothouse and (hopefully, we thought at the time) towards our Caprica.

The dinghy was cold, slick with dew and shrouded in darkness. Our bright night time running light blasted light around us but reflected off of the fog, making visibility worse. Eleanor curled into Alison under her own sweatshirt and then like a little kangaroo; she tried to burrow under Alison’s coat. The silence around us was absolute and the deck lights of the Smooch faded quickly behind us into a dull glow.

“We’re committed now,” I said just as the looming shadow of the sea foam green trawler appeared off of our inflatable’s port bow. As we rounded the towering bow, the faint burble of a generator pulsed across the quiet anchorage. “That’s coming from the trawler that was behind us,” I said. “They were running the generator last night. I recognize that noise.” I vectored us towards the first of two anchor lights, betting ours was the brightest. The outboard was running in gear just above idle speed as we picked our way through the blackness.

My running light lit up an expanse of hull ahead. I sighed, “That’s not Caprica,” and began to vector us towards the fainter anchor light.

“No, that is Caprica,” Alison said firmly with conviction and total confidence.

We pointed towards the boat’s stern where a large CAPRICA materialized just a few feet away. With great relief, we climbed aboard, and I made a radio call to The Smooch thanking them and letting them know that we were home.

“I never want to do that again,” I said to Alison.

She smiled. “Next time, we should hang the deck light.”

4 thoughts on “Our Dog Star

  1. Susan Rice says:

    In-freaking-believeable! How incredible that Eleanor gets to experience so much; that Allison can discuss calmly with E an event that would terrify most adults and you get to meet so many with so many backgrounds!

  2. AngelaKohn and JohnBeegle says:

    I really enjoyed reading that story and was on edge when you set off to go home. That radio call must have felt good to make.

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