The Long Watch

Unseen waves crested and broke with a murderous clap; their frothing white water only faintly illuminated by the red and green bow lights. I hunkered under the dodger – a quarter dome shelter that acted as a windshield for the cockpit that half protected me from­­­­­ the rain and hail that strafed the deck. Its stainless steel frame screeched and groaned with every canvas stretching gust that threatened to flatten the suddenly fragile structure into the cockpit.

The bow fell off of the next wave, then pushed through the backside of another, and a rush of cold Atlantic water slammed into the dodger. A wall of white water pushed over the dodger and poured into the cockpit. I lost my footing and fell against the companionway slats as the boat rolled then pitched as Caprica battled the next train of waves.

As water filled my boots, I sat wedged between the cockpit table and steering pedestal where somehow my safety tether had ensnarled the spoked wheel. I worked in the near-continuous strobe of massive purple-blue electrical burst to untangle my self. A rush of bitterly cold air shocked me out of step by methodical step assessment of taking in another reef vs. maintaining speed and I considered the likelihood of facing a massive breaking wave over the stern.

My ears crackled then popped with a radical change in pressure, and those two events in quick succession gave me a reason to pause. I looked up from the winch I was cranking to see clear skies above and a stream of meteorites pouring into the top of a massive supercell storm violently rippling in shades of orange, blue and purple electric light. Beneath the spectacle, a series of waterspouts slow danced to a song that echoed in tones of thunder. I finished taking in the reef and clutched the dodger’s metal frame, to watch and witness the impressive spectacle that I had seen just once before outside of Sturgis South Dakota in the late 1990’s. 

The STORM

We were easting offshore, working to avoid the convergence of a high and low-pressure system. The collision of the two air masses created the gargantuan line of storms that passed over us a few minutes after midnight, leaving me drenched but thrilled. Just a day before, we waited in the Great Salt Pond pouring over weather models while enjoying everything that Block Island had to offer. Surrounded by boats swinging haphazardly on anchors, we watched in dismay as the harbor continued to fill on Friday eve. 

“Water Boy, Water Boy, Water Boy, Sailing Vessel Caprica over.” My voice was tired, laced with a slight slur. I radioed just after 0800. It had been a fitful night of waking, sleeping, and then checking the weather models. Occasionally I climbed out of the forward bed to check the cabin, battery status, and the anchor watch. Every floorboard groaned and squeaked under my weight thanks to the chilly, humid conditions. Alison stirred as I ninja hopscotched through the cabin Indian Jones Temple of Doom-style until the stair treads articulated a low growl signaling to my ever-patient wife that I was heading to the cockpit. She sighed and rolled over, covering her face with a pillow just as the first glow of dawn spilled through the hatches. 

I settled into a comfortable nook and spent my morning gazing across the Great Salt Pond as the stars disappeared into a pale blue sky laced with high altitude clouds. People began to stir, emerging onto their aft decks with aromatic coffee. Paddleboards, Kayaks, and rafts set out to the beaches flanked by a discord of two stoke and four stoke outboard dinghy motors. Alison gracefully entered the cockpit with two large cups of coffee, somehow managing to traverse the steep companionway steps without missing a beat. She was layered under a heavy sweatshirt and fleece jacket, but still shook in the morning chill. Alison made her customary, sucking shaking shivering sound. “It’s definitely not Maryland!” She said while handing me a cup of scalding hot coffee. Maryland was dealing with one of its most scorching summers on record, and we were trying to rationalize not returning to homeport. But it was too late. The stress of returning home in time to get Caprica ready for dock living mode and our first days of work weighed heavily on me. A burden that cannot easily be overcome knowing what would be involved. 

“Are you sure today is the day?” Alison asked as she curled under our fleece blanket and made sure that every inch of her was in direct sunlight. She knew what I was worried about, and we had been watching the weather models for days as they changed and developed until I was as sure as I could be. We were anchored in deep water with almost all of our heavy chain out. The occasional wind gust spun us, bringing Caprica perilously close to another boat that had anchored near us the night before. “It’s going to be gusty and shift like this all day,” I said just as the unmistakable THWACK of two hulls hitting reverberated across the harbor. Seconds later, an angry voice followed, “HEY!” We had seen this same situation on repeat most mornings since our arrival. Next, a swarm of dinghies would arrive at the scene to assist. One of the big boats involved in the collision would have to cut the anchor free and hopefully be able to retrieve it later. 

“The wind is going to pick up to the low 20’s and then die down to the teens just before we want to take off.” I paused to look at a series of trawlers and sailboats a few boat lengths away. They anchored near us over the past few days and were nearly on top of each other. “Getting out of here is going to suck,” I said. Alison took a swig of coffee and smiled. “I know how much you like to yell PREPARE FOR RAMMING SPEED!” The last time that happened was in a Walmart Parking lot, and I had a custom massive steel bumper welded to the frame of my truck. I laughed a little at the memory. 

“What about the front?” Alison asked just as a small sailboat buzzed our bow. We’d been watching the models for days and knew that it was all or nothing. The front was a weak area of low pressure that would push up from the south and collide with a high-pressure ridge that was sitting just offshore. Low-pressure systems are notorious for stormy weather. The deeper the Low, the worse the weather. The trick for us was to be just north of the low-pressure system and then move behind the front as it collided with the high-pressure boundary. That zone of convergence would be an ugly situation, and I wanted nothing to do with it. What was really pressing us to move south so soon was that the long-range forecast. The models over the next several days to weeks showed flat calm conditions, high temperatures punctuated with heavy southerlies. If we didn’t leave that night, we’d have to wait another seven days, putting us right at the edge of getting home in time for work. “Nothing changed,” and that was a sign that the weather models had settled down, and we would be departing at sunset. “I’ll get on the radio and call the Water Boy; fill up our tanks in case we need 150 gallons of water.”

After the water skiff left, we spent the day prepping for offshore conditions and the ultimate Poseidon Adventure situation. Caprica swung and tugged at her anchor chain throughout the day as boats left the harbor struggling to raise their ground tackle in the increasingly crowded conditions. A steady stream of weekenders arrived, filling every possible anchoring position and mooring ball in the harbor. Frequently, I went forward just as a large trawler or sailboat was getting ready to drop their anchor over our chain, “Hey,” I’d say with a smile and a quick wave. “We’re taking off tonight, so we might have to get you to move later.” Most of the time, the husband and wife dynamic duo would have a quick conference and then rip off to grab another spot before it was snatched up. Towards midafternoon another trawler came into position and began to anchor. I tried to flag them down, but we were ignored, or the anchoring situation was so stressful that we just didn’t register. That’s cool, I thought, we can worry about that later.

The dinghy was lashed, the deck was set up, and everything down below was prepped. I crawled back into the forward berth and tried to sleep, but instead just watched the shapes in clouds and anchored boats through my port. Eventually, it was pointless to try and rest; I was route planning and going through what-if scenarios. From the galley, the smell of fresh bread lured me out of the rack. Alison was baking and making meals for the next few days underway, betting that it would be too rough to cook offshore. Eleanor was parked at the table, rolling globs of playdough out and pushing them into brightly colored plastic molds. She had a cartoonish assortment of cookies, sandwiches, and ice-cream sundaes to choose from. 

“You’re not supposed to eat them!” She yelled as I scooped a neon cookie from the table and pretended to swallow it. “You’re going to get sick, Dad!” She sat back, hands out in the standard what the hell position. I reached towards her ear, and magically the cookie appeared. Eleanor sat back at first, amazed, and then perplexed. 

“You ready?” Alison asked.

I nodded, feeling the weight of fatigue and the stress of what was to come if we didn’t make our weather window; if we were out of position or had to vector too far offshore. 

“Okay, I’ll clean up.”

Thirty minutes later we were on deck, Eleanor was prepped, the engine was warmed, and we still had a trawler half a boat length ahead to deal with. After an extended amount of time and a considerable amount of daylight lost trying to signal the trawler ahead, Alison put Caprica in forward gear. The anchor chain gypsy whirled to life, and our boat eased forward. Alison spun the wheel to starboard and throttled forward and reverse coping with a sudden wind shift, then gust. With that last pivot on our keel, I was immediately amidships of the Trawler. A silver-haired, deeply tanned pastel clad woman lounging across a leather sofa looked up from her book wild-eyed. She bolted from the comfort of her air-conditioned cabin to the aft deck.

STORM Picture

“Pardon me,” I said. “Do you have any Grey Poupon?”

“WHAT?” She yelled back across the few feet that separated our boats. I felt Caprica pivot again as Alison worked the throttle to keep us stationary and in sync with the trawler’s drift. We had a few seconds left before Caprica would have to retreat in hard reverse to stop our secondary anchor from tearing a gash through the trawler’s gleaming fiberglass hull. 

“Would you mind moving your boat? We’re taking off tonight?” 

She scowled. “Jerry,” She yelled inside. “These people want us to move. They’re leaving tonight.” 

From the pilothouse, a tanned silver-haired man also clad in pastels emerged. He gave a friendly wave. “Where you headed?” He asked coolly, unconcerned that we were an arm’s length away from his trawler.

“Maryland.” I smiled.

“Maryland?” 

I watched him stand up straight and then give a classic grandpa wave to Eleanor, who was strapped into the cockpit. Caprica was quickly in full reverse, and I paid out a few dozen feet of chain to avoid smacking into the trawler as the wind gusted again. The trawler’s massive engines thundered into life, and the boat slid sideways under thruster power. An arm shot out of the pilothouse and waved us forward. Alison knew what to do as our anchor windlass ripped 200 feet of chain off of the bottom. “Anchors up!” I yelled aft just as the Trawlers engines fell silent, and Alison vectored us towards the channel. Caprica’s power plant hummed as Alison throttled forward, and we increased speed. I watched her turn the wheel hard over and felt the bow swing beneath me as Alison found a channel between the hundreds of boats between us and the exit. But with a sudden wind shift, the maze of boats turned and our way out vanished. She throttled back and paused for a moment, then set the wheel 90 degrees starboard and increased power. Anchor lights began to flicker to life as we worked our way through the anchorage, and the sun sunk lower into the horizon. 

Leaving Block Island

Alison made her final course adjustment towards the primary channel markers. We gave a hearty wave goodbye to our friends aboard a steel-hulled Bruce Roberts design built for round the world cruising. I climbed aft towards the cockpit as Alison centered us in the channel and pointed our bow towards the Atlantic. We were heading to sea with the tide and felt the current tug at the keel pulling us sideways, but the channel was clear, and Alison throttled forward. Caprica slid out of the narrow Block Island passage just as the sun began to set. We unfurled the sails and began easting out to sea as Caprica leaned into the waves with her salt-encrusted shoulders. We shut down the engine, took a bearing, and I began my long shift, knowing that somewhere in that vast emptiness ahead was the wind that would allow us to vector south.

The first few hours passed quickly in the darkness with waves breaking against the hull or the gentle lift of an out of place train of frothing breakers. Boats, ships, and fishing vessels lit up an expanse of black water to port. Their white, red and green running lights appeared and disappeared into a chasm of darkness, a void of light that large slow ocean swells obscured for miles. To my starboard, a series of dull running lights came into existence and then occasionally vanished. The distance was impossible to compute without the aid of the Radar. The red blob on the SIMRAD was growing in size as it closed on our position. Magnets, I thought. Boats are like Magnets. There was no AIS (Automated Information System) signal, but I made a radio call anyway just before 2200 hours. 

I gave the vessel location, speed, and bearing over the VHF, but there was no reply. The night was getting darker as a dense layer of clouds spanned unseen from horizon to horizon. The ocean swells grew a little larger, taller, and the wind pressed against my face. As the running lights came closer, I lit my sails with a massive spotlight, clicking the powerful beam on and off. “Sailing Vessel Caprica calling….” I put the radio down and made a hard course change, dancing from one side of the cockpit to the other pulling lines, grinding on the winch as our large forward sail flapped violently in the wind. Moments later, a hulking hundred foot plus commercial fishing trawler pounded by us. I took a bearing on their course, but that was as much as I could do. A few strenuous minutes later, Caprica was back on course. I settled into a comfortable nook with a fresh mug of scalding coffee. I watched the salt spray break colorfully over the bow, lit with Christmas cheer, thanks to our navigation lights. 

In the distance, a hint of the powerful storms that would fill our night with a barrage of howling wind, stinging rain, and strobing purple, orange lighting began to take shape. By the time my coffee was gone, the first in a succession of reefs were brought in, and Caprica was careening through the breaking waves. At the worst of it, a blindingly cold wave swept my feet and planted me between the cockpit table and the wheel. The line of weather was moving fast, rapidly intensifying with a cacophony of murderous thunder and a constant burst of electrical fire. Still, I watched in awe as the storms moved away and grew into Titans, knowing that they had just kissed us with their menacing power. With every burst of daylight bright, shadow inducing lighting, water spouts dancing in a slow hypnotic rhythm beneath the supercell were revealed. Above the storms, a steady salvo of meteorites burned through the atmosphere towards their demise. It was a little bit of a religious experience, and I knew that it was an extraordinary sight- something that only a few will ever get to see and worth the ride.

As the line of storms moved into the distance, the air-cooled and the wind settled to and easy 15-20 knots. Caprica was once again under full sail, but we were still easting far offshore. If the wind didn’t shift as promised, we would sail several hundred miles offshore before changing course and vector for the Chesapeake. Eventually, Alison arrived on deck bundled in fleece and foul weather gear. She pointed to the storms more than 50 miles away, still looming larger than life and asked, “are those coming this way?” Her voice shook slightly, seeing the tremendous explosions of lighting that, even at this distance, left a jarring gash of white staining the night vision. 

After a quick briefing, Alison took the helm, and I curled up in a wet nook, falling immediately into an exhausted sleep where lucid dreams plucked at my consciousness. I was in my classroom where the heat hadn’t been set correctly for months, and it was only a few degrees warmer inside than out. It had been a hard winter, and the students sat in front of me with their heavy jackets on and hoods up. A few chewed on school-provided breakfast bars, and a few others sat with their heads down. A student was standing in front of me, yelling, then it was getting lighter. Somebody was screaming in the hallway. It was a scream of fear, but the security guard in the back of my classroom just stood looking at me. The room began to fade away, the students dissipated, and the ceiling lights became incredibly bright just as the screaming hit a new level. 

I shot out of the dream state, still confused, not wholly awake, but I understood that the screaming was out here in the real world. It was bright, my eyes hurt. What time was it? Why was Alison screaming? We’re in the New York Shipping Channels, I thought. Did Alison change the course last night? Is there a freighter bearing down on us? I wasn’t entirely with the program yet.

“A whale!” Alison yelled, voice still trembling.

“Why the hell were you screaming?” I was still in shock, trying to figure out what was going on.

Alison pointed down and amidships. I was finally lucid and realized that a school bus-size finback whale was nearly against our hull. From my vantage point, I was looking directly into the blowhole. It was a basketball-sized grey pink sphincter opening and closing like a fish out of water struggling for breath. For a strange second, I briefly imagined what it would be like to step off of Caprica and onto the back of the whale. At any moment, it could have destroyed us, but it instead glided along nearly against our hull as we were still easting offshore. Several whales surrounded us, spouting vast plumes of mist into the air, reminding me of a carwash exit as the spray swirls against the vortex blast of the gigantic drying fans.

“Why were you screaming?” I asked, perplexed.

“I thought it was a submarine surfacing under us. It just came up out of nowhere, and water poured off of its back!” Alison was wild-eyed, and I just needed coffee. 

“That was amazing!” She said as I slid down below? 

“Is the creamer in the fridge or freezer I asked?”

“Didn’t you think that was amazing?” Alison pressed.

“Coffee.”

Down below, I checked the chart and made a note in the logbook. The last entry and position records were just a few hours old, telling me that I had slept for less than 2 hours. Totaling the night before at anchor, I was probably running on less than 6 hours of sleep for 48 hours. The chart and bearings showed us at almost 100 miles offshore on an actual course of 180 degrees. If the wind didn’t shift as predicted, we could continue on the heading for another 220 miles or until we were parallel with Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. We’d then make a course change to 280 degrees putting us in the mouth of the Chesapeake in 230 miles. I calculated our speed and figured if nothing changed, we could manage the trip in about 70 hours. But, if I was right about the weather forecast, we’d be looking at our wind shift by noon, and we’d make a heading of 244 for about 150 miles putting us at the entrance of the Delaware Bay in another 24 hours. It didn’t matter, I thought. The wind will tell us what she wants from us. “Que, Sera, Sera.”   

After a quick log entry, I checked our power status seeing that the batteries were already at 100% thanks to our two large solar panels. We still had 15 days worth of water in the tanks and nearly 500 pounds of diesel fuel aboard. “You know,” I said, emerging on deck with a hot cup of coffee, “from here it’s only another 650 miles to Bermuda. If the wind doesn’t shift and we end up 200 miles offshore, Bermuda is just a few days away.” 

Alison exhaled and shook her head. “If we end up 200 miles offshore, we can go to Bermuda, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.” She slid out of the sun and into a damp, shaded area of the cockpit. The Sun hung just a few hands above the horizon, and the day was still young. The fresh breeze that carried us through the night was beginning to slacken into a gentle breeze. The undulating mountains of heaving water slowly stopped breaking, relaxing into gentle rolling foothills with the occasional white cap. “The wind will shift.” She declared as I grumbled.

“Mom?” Eleanor’s voice called from below.

“I’m good,” I said, as the caffeine trickled through my veins.  

The sun continued to rise, the skies cleared, and the signs were unmistakable that we managed to slide right behind the weather front. The storms that just kissed us the night before were the leading edge of that atmospheric instability with cold air from the upper atmosphere interacting with the lower level warm, humid air. For hours I sat on watch as the sun moved towards its zenith on an unchanged course dipping further south, further offshore. My eyes took in the miles of blue punctuated by the occasional white cap, pod of dolphins, or lone sea turtle bobbing along. Still, my mind worked in rapid replay reliving the storm, the lighting, the waterspouts, and then the whales. Caprica was surging forward, again pressing at a course of 180 degrees while we lifted and fell with the waves. The day was sliding away, well past noon, and no sail adjustment required. Our waterline was nicely making way, and it was only the chorus line of a classic song playing on the radio that brought me out of my melodic trance. 

“Ooh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning

I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning.”

“Still 180?” Alison asked, popping up from down below. I adjusted my seat and realized that I hadn’t checked the heading in hours. I was just sitting on the high side of the rail, taking in the day, the experience, and occasionally scanning the horizon for ships. We were well offshore, and the VHF was quiet, with no radar or AIS contacts. We were alone in the big blue. 

Thankfully we were still on the proper course, but the anticipated wind shift was 3 hours past the predicted window. 

Crom laughs at your four winds, I thought just as our number one sail began to slacken and the main fell limp. The wind had just shut off, like a switch. Crom does not laugh at your four winds? I thought, but there was no change.

As Caprica’s motion hit zero, an autopilot alarm sounded with a series of piercing beeps. The rigging clanked, the boom squealed, lines smacked, and the firm forward motion came to a sudden end.

“Whoa!” Eleanor shouted from below as Caprica’s motion went from slicing through the waves to the spin cycle.

I sheeted in the sails to center and tightened the control lines as much as possible. The next step was to start the engine, to push through the sloppy chop that appeared around us as the seas became confused and ugly. Caprica bobbed, swayed, and hobby horsed in the madness. Eleanor called up again, “Dad, I can’t do my playdough in this nonsense!” 

“Patience grasshopper,” I called down using the PA feature on our SIMRAD VHF. 

Slowly, the wind came back to life first directly from the South, then slowly, degree by degree it ticket across the compass rose until it was a steady southeasterly. By midnight the wind would be a strong Easterly, and we could ride it into the mouth of the Delaware Bay. We set our new heading, adjusted sail, and Caprica’s bow pushed through the sloppy, confused sea ahead. Still, the motion calmed as we plowed forward, her shoulders pushing into the waves and foaming water spilled onto the deck. 

Gradually the seas calmed as the wind steadied into a moderate Easterly, and we found our groove. Alison emerged on deck towards the sunset with a steaming cup of chicken and dumplings to cut the evening chill. We sat together in the cockpit, in a comfortable silence broken only by the noise of Caprica pushing through the calming sea. The sun sank further towards the horizon until it disappeared into a fantastic smear of bright oranges and hues of pink painted across the skyline. Stars emerged from pale blue as the night shifted into deepening shades of lavender, then purple and finally cold darkness where the arm of our milky way galaxy broke the aloneness with the faces of millions of stars. We sat together admiring what was around us; what we had together that was just there for our family until the bitter edge of the evening chill forced Alison below.

“Goodnight, Daddy!” Eleanor called up through an open hatch. 

I didn’t think to ask Alison to turn the radio off, or if she had an old CD on repeat. The song was just too perfect.

“I’ve been trying to make it home

Got to make it before too long

Ooh, I can’t take this very much longer, no

I’m standing in the sleet and rain

Don’t think I’m ever gonna make it home again

The morning sun is rising

It’s kissing the day.”

It was a dark night, with stars lining every aspect of the sky and riveting the darkened waves with strange distorted shapes. From time to time, I made an inspection down below, checked the heading, made a log entry, and checked the radar for contacts. A few distant fishing trawlers or tug boats appeared on the horizon; their bright running lights served as a violation of the serenity of a moonless, cloudless star-filled night. Just after midnight, the coastal New Jersey nightlife lights appeared on the horizon, and the VHF radio chatter interrupted the song that always played in the background. 

“Ooh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning

I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning

Whoa, whoa, whoa

My, my, my, my, my

For Tomorrow.”

Civilization was ahead, the open ocean was to my stern, and I felt a slight sadness that our summer trip had signaling through the flashing red shore-based radio antennas that it was coming to an end. I dialed down the VHF volume and checked for surface contacts. It was amazing to see the number of red blobs moving across the radar screen like a school of cartoonish jellyfish. Every so often, the VHF chirped to life with a coast guard bulletin that would slash the calm or a desperate plea to SEA Tow interrupting the omnipresent background song.

I spent much of the night standing behind the wheel, scanning the horizon, taking bearings on different ships that now crowded my field of vision or sometimes altering course to avoid a trawler still miles away. The night eventually faded away, and the shore base lights turned into a grey strip of land; Cape May the northern terminus of the entrance to the Delaware Bay. Around us, small fishing boats blasted, pods of dolphins broke the waves, and we vectored a course through the shallow, reef strewn, and current laced entrance putting us into the Delaware Bay shipping lanes. Alison emerged on deck with fresh coffee and a tray of flaky blueberry scones. That’s when we discovered that a bird had stowed away during the night. It was small, grey, had a beak for breaking seeds and feet built for trees. We bet the creature had been blown off course the night before and landed on us out of sheer desperation. It hopped around the aft deck, gobbling nuggets of scone and occasionally looking up at the friendly giants that smiled down.

By mid-morning, we were anchored in the harbor of refuge just inside the Delaware Bay entrance. The jagged stone wall rose out of the water, and we nestled in behind it, occasionally rolling in the Cape May ferry wake. There was another cruising boat anchored a hundred yards from us, to the south – its weathered hull was sure to have seen the southern hemisphere, the tropics, and even the Pacific, I mused while enjoying the sunlight. The day was quickly becoming humid, hot, sticky, and uncomfortable. The type of sickly weather that we left the Chesapeake to avoid was now bearing down on us in full force. The weather report issued excessive heat warnings and possibly a severe thunderstorm later that evening. We had planned to stay at the harbor of refuge until the next morning to sleep and recover from our offshore odyssey. But, now that we were under the sun and embraced by the humidity, I didn’t like our plan. 

The Delaware has powerful currents, long strings of crab pots, shoals, heavy shipping traffic, and is generally unattractive. “It’s a body of water to pass through and not visit,” the guidebooks correctly state. But, in a sailboat with an auxiliary diesel engine, we were at the mercy of the tides and currents. I checked the chart and saw that in two short hours, the current would change and we could ricochet up the Deleware and make the anchorage behind Reedy Island by dark and would be in an excellent position to be in Chesapeake city by the next afternoon. Ahh, It’s going to be so hot, I thought and considered that we were just in Block Island as I swatted at a saber-toothed fly chewing into my arm. The wind was predicted to be southeasterly for the day, then shift to a northerly for the evening. It would be a perfect run, but another hard day ahead. 

I presented my plan to Alison, who reluctantly agreed and urged me down below for a little bit of sleep. In the forward berth, I pulled the layer of blankets and comforters onto the floor and collapsed exhausted onto the mattress. Eventually, the random buzz of a predator saber-toothed fly that would feed on my salt-encrusted sweat laced skin as I slept was drowned out by the song, still on repeat,

“Oh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning

Ooh, I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning

Ooh, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, whoa.”

The words faded into the background as I drifted into blissful unconsciousness. My wristwatch alarm began to vibrate, then buzz. Why was my alarm going off? I asked myself. There’s a reason it’s going off. Your phone alarm is going off now. When you set two alarms, there is a reason. 

“Sean,” Alison’s hand was on my leg, “Sean, I have coffee ready.”

She still loves me. I thought, then sat up. 

“Are you sure you want to go now. We can wait for another day. You can rest.”

I was soaked, covered in sweat. The cabin was hot and had been invaded by biting flies. Outside of the galley, Eleanor was sprawled in her underwear on the floor, her face was flush. Alison had changed into a tank top, beads of sweat ran from her forehead. It was sauna hot inside the boat and would be for the duration of our time in the Delaware and Chesapeake. 

“No,” I said, sitting up, drawn into consciousness by the smell of coffee. “This sucks. The whole reason why we head north in the summer is to escape this crap. Now that we’re here, we just need air-conditioning.”

Raising the anchor was a relatively straightforward affair, and without incident, we were heading north with the tide. It was only after we had left the harbor that I realized that the other cruising boat had gone too, I presumed for the Atlantic and points north. With Lewes Delaware disappearing to our stern, we threaded a series of shoals as the water turned a dark, murky brown.

We made a course negotiating an anchorage area where enormous freighters, tugs, and chemical tankers waited for clearance to head up the bay. We crossed the bow of a mighty ship, and Eleanor used the binoculars to spy on men that appeared as ants on the towering steel decks. Our speed over ground continued to tick upwards as we crossed through a small passage between another set of shoals to the west of Bank Light and kept just outside of the shipping lanes. We moved into the sparsely traveled Blake Channel flanked by swirling currents in mud-stained water. Keeping only to the west of the shipping channels kept us just outside of the crab pot fields where the currents submerged the floats. Catching a float would quickly disable us; we could lose steering, and cutting away the line in the swirling brown water would be dangerous. We kept a close watch as we continued farther up the bay and into the afternoon.

The breeze saved Caprica from the flies and kept us comfortable as the heat of the day began to cool, and the sun began to sink below the horizon. We were approaching the southern entrance for the anchorage behind Reedy Island. It was a comfortable place to spend the night behind a small stand of trees and marsh grasses that would keep us protected from the rolling turmoil that the wakes of the many transiting freighters would cause. But as our turn neared and the skyline was painted in pastel shades of lavender, it was hard to resist the temptation to just keep going. If we dropped the hook behind Reedy Island, we would have a comfortable night, but the day ahead promised to be hot. We’d get to Chesapeake City in the late afternoon, where the air would be stale and stagnant. There would be little chance of grabbing a spot on the public dock where we could plug in and enjoy a night of air-conditioning. Hours before, as we rounded another barren spit of land, I calculated our speed and distance to the Chesapeake & Delaware canal then checked the tide chart. Thanks to the current assist, we were exceeding our theoretical hull speed. We would make the eastern entrance to the channel right as the current shifted, giving us a perfect window to push towards Chesapeake City.

I eased Caprica over to the extreme western edge of the channel, making room for a sizeable ocean-going tug pulling a chemical tanker barge that appeared ahead. Behind us, a freighter grew out of the darkening skyline. The two massive vessels would need the entire channel to themselves if they were going to pass. We moved out of the way towards the shallows and waited to see the illusion that the two ships were on a collision course. No deafening roar, no sickly scream of steel pierced the air; instead, the two ships passed each other without incident. 

As we made our approach towards the canal, a deep dark night blanketed the surroundings leaving me with blinking red and green channel markers at the end of shoals and rock jetties as guidance. The land and shoreline were gone, fell away into the nothingness that the moonless night had surrounded us with. The VHF crackled to life with news of a disabled vessel adrift in the canal. Canal control then confirmed to the authorities that a bulk carrier was underway through the channel and could not slow down, or it would lose steerage and run aground. To further aggravate the situation, the adrift vessel was near a bridge where the bulk carrier would have to stay exactly in the center. I watched a squadron of police, fire and Coast Guard Vessels tear by me ablaze with red and blue lights. If the rescuers were late, the vessel adrift would be destroyed by the bulk carrier. 

In the background, my cockpit speakers hummed:

“I’ve been trying to make it home

Got to make it before too long

Ooh, I can’t take this very much longer, no

I’m standing in the sleet and rain

Don’t think I’m ever gonna make it home again

The morning sun is rising

It’s kissing the day.”

We began to approach the canal entrance, where two powerful currents pulled at Caprica – dragging us towards the breakwater. I’d fight the wheel, throttle up, and correct the course, but still felt like the boat was being pulled towards the shore. The channel markers, the lights ahead only proved to me that we weren’t lined up- but how far? I turned on the trusted GPS navigation program that was the foundation of why I purchased my iPhone and began adjusting course. 

A stream of text messages from a group chat lit up my phone and caused the program to hiccup. I’d clear the messages, restart the program, and boom – more text messages. There was a way to go into the settings and end this. My mind drew a blank as I pushed the throttle forward and tried to reorient myself.

“Ooh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning

I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning.”

I wanted to call down and ask Alison to kill the radio. That song! That song was always there. We had AM/FM, CD, Satellite Radio, a vintage iPod, but we’ve been playing the same song from the same 80’s hairband for days. 

What is the Riddle of Steel? I thought then realized I was getting punchy. CROM! A distorted Conan, the Barbarian said in the goopy recesses of my mind.

I fired off a text message to the group chat. It was something along the lines of it’s great to hear from you, but this group chat is killing my navigation app, and I’m entering the C&D canal. They were sailors, I thought. They would understand. 

The texting ceased just as we entered the channel and were flanked by parking lot style lights illuminating the shoreline in a buggy humid yellow haze. The current relaxed and I kept a watchful eye on the AIS for inbound ships. We stayed in the center of the canal, marveling at the lighted bridges that we passed under; their beautiful luminosities cascading from rigid steel beams created illusions that my mind couldn’t process. We continued until the bulkhead lined channel to Chesapeake city was to port. It would be a simple process to cut across the channel, turn Caprica into the current and sideslip right into the anchorage – Or you could keep going? The thought bubbled up. I could press on towards home. We could anchor in the Sassafras River and be two days from home if we pushed hard. Eleanor could swim, we could barbeque, and it might be okay. Even if it was crazy hot, we’d be far enough from shore that there wouldn’t be bugs. Swimming would be great! I had convinced myself that going so far had been easy. Alison and Eleanor would wake up and enjoy a day of swimming, relaxing, and tranquil living. 

We slid by Chesapeake City and, in moments, were around the next bend, then the next until a loud bang reverberated through the hull. Alison shot out of the companionway and stood in the cockpit. “What did we hit?” She asked and scanned the water behind us.

The boat slowed momentarily, and then everything was as it was. “It’s okay, I said. We probably tagged something with the keel. Just let me know if the bilge pump starts to run.” Her eyes widened for a second, and I chuckled. 20 minutes later, a fresh cup of coffee was handed up from the galley, and I was a new man. As Alison crawled back into bed, I kicked myself for not asking her to turn off the radio.

“Ooh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning

I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning

Whoa, whoa, whoa

My, my, my, my, my

For Tomorrow.”

As we left the canal and entered the narrow confines of the upper Chesapeake, the AIS showed a target ahead. I stood and scanned the dark stretch ahead teeming with onshore range lights, fast and slow blinking red and green channel markers at different intervals. There were so many channel markers. They seemed to just pile on top of each other like a river of lights lifting into the distance. Which one did I go to first? Which one did I line up next? Where is that AIS target? The AIS target’s data package said it was a large car carrier, but there was nothing ahead? It didn’t matter because I knew it was there. I checked the chart, took a bearing on a range light, and pulled out of the channel. 

The car carrier’s navigation lights emerged from the background clutter of lights. First, the lights indicated red and green, showing that thousands of tons of steel were pointed at my 20,000 pounds of fiberglass and aluminum. Moments later, we were port to port, and a wall of metal glided by as my boat hummed with the vibration of their engines. I took a sip of coffee and vectored us back towards the channel, and the string lighted markers that reminded me of a ball of bright Christmas lights.

The channel was busy that night. We passed a series of tugs, powerboats, a ship and made contact with another Beneteau 423 called Early Times. 

We were approaching the Sassafras River when I saw another set of running lights emerge into the channel. Not seeing an AIS signal, I made radio contact to figure out their intentions. “This is Sailing Vessel Caprica calling the vessel leaving the Sassafras River.” I was expecting to have to make the radio call several times, but an instant reply followed. 

“This is Early Times; go ahead, Caprica.” The voice was tired, but sure and weathered. I watched his starboard running light disappear then was met by a glaring stern light about a quarter-mile ahead. 

“Early Times, we’re a 43-foot sailing vessel headed south. It looks like you’re also heading south. Just wondering what your plan was so we could stay out of your way.” I clicked the mic off and briefly considered ripping down below to turn the radio off.  

“Oh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning

Ooh, I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning

Ooh, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, whoa.”

“Yeah,” There was a crackle of static “We’re a Beneteau 423 heading towards Solomons. Expecting to be there mid-afternoon. Thought we’d take advantage of the cool weather tonight to beat the heat.”

I could just follow their stern light for the rest of the night. I thought as they slid past a series of channel markers. 

We chatted briefly and were just about finished when the Coast Guard stepped on us with their powerful transmitter. 

“Mariners, be advised that channel 16 is for hailing or distress only. All other traffic should be shifted to a working frequency. United States Coast Guard out.” The voice was young, new, and raw. Seconds later, another transmission lit up channel 16. It was the most perfect Arnold Schwarzenegger accent ever used in the history of broadcast communications. 

“YOU! COAST GUARD,” Then slight Arnold type laughing, “GET TO THE CHOPPA! DOOO IT! DO IT NOW!” Then another burst of laughing and the transmission ended.

It was magnificent. Unfortunately, my laughing was quickly replaced by the song that wouldn’t quit. 

“I’ve been trying to make it home

Got to make it before too long

Ooh, I can’t take this very much longer, no

I’m standing in the sleet and rain

Don’t think I’m ever gonna make it home again

The morning sun is rising

It’s kissing the day.”

I pounded the rest of my coffee and manned the helm as we slid south past Pooles Island. Targets cluttered the Radar and AIS to below the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. A fleet of ships waited for their turns to cross under the bridge and head for Baltimore. A massive car carrier blotted out the shore lights to my southwest. The only indication that betrayed the presence of a ship was the dim navigation lights that fell unnoticeably into the background noise of the landscape. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge looked like a city nightscape from the cockpit of an airplane on approach. Car lights, navigation lights, aviation avoidance lights, and hundreds of high output construction lights made it nearly impossible to determine what was what. The wind was up, a steady current pushed from the south, and I was tired. I wondered if Early Times would duck into Rock Hall and anchor until daylight. Instead, I watched the stern light begin to line up with the channel under the bay bridge. Caprica was under full sail, making good speed, but a line of freighters wouldn’t stop for us. I didn’t want to leave the channel because it was impossible to see anything ahead with the amount of light coming off of the bridge. We could end up in a dredge. I’m going to vector towards Rock Hall and drop the hook for a few hours, I thought. This odyssey is overTime to sleep.

Still, I watched as Early Times moved ahead, in the channel. What’s this guy doing? I thought, then the VHF radio came to life, “This is the tall ship Kaiser Wilhelm the Second transiting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge southbound for Norfolk. Be advised that we are under full sail with limited maneuverability. All concerned traffic standby on channel one six and zero nine. Tall Ship Kaiser Wilhelm the Second Out.” The voice commanded total authority and was the perfect Schwarzenegger accent. 

The first rule of Project Mayhem is that you do not ask questions!

There was no Tall Ship Kaiser Wilhelm the Second ahead of us. There was only Caprica and Early Times north of the bridge, except for a few freighters making way for Baltimore.

“Oh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning

Ooh, I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning

Ooh, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, whoa.”

As the AIS signals on the south side of the bridge cleared the channel, I fell in behind Early Times and passed under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge without incident. We cruised by a parade of tugs, freighters, and car carriers standing off. It was a liberating experience to be south of the bridge and on our final leg home. As the sun began to rise and the night gave way to the early morning glow, the shores of the Chesapeake Bay stood to our east and west. The stern light of Early Times disappeared as the horizon to our south began to glow a faint orange then took on a pale blue. 

As the sun lifted to our port, Alison arrived on deck with fresh coffee. The aroma was overpowering, and as I reached for it, she laughed. “No. This is for me. You need to go down below and hit the rack.” I smiled for a second, stood, stretched, and exhaled. 

“Sounds like a plan!” As I staggered through the cockpit, Alison took her position behind the helm and began checking out the scene.

“What were you doing up here last night?” She asked.

I turned and shielded my face from the early sun, wondering if I had spilled coffee or made a mess. The cockpit was in perfect order, ship-shape as we say. 

“You were laughing, and talking to yourself in that silly Arnold accent you like to do.” She shook her head at me like I was a petulant student.

“I what?”

“You need to go to bed?” She stated bluntly.

“Ooh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning

I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning.”

“Do you mind if I turn off the radio. I’m so tired of hearing that song.” I took my first step down the companionway. Alison had a quizzical look on her face. I scanned the navigation station, the radar, electrical panel, and saw that the radio wasn’t on. Turns out, it wasn’t on the entire trip.

Wheel in the Sky was composed by Neal Schon and Robert Fleischman. Performed by the band Journey on the 1978 Infinity Album. The album was produced by Roy Thoman Baker.

Project Mayhem was the name of a conspiracy in the book Fight Club. Also a major motion picture. Palahniuk, C. (2018). Fight Club: a novel. New York: W.W. Norton & Company

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