When my 1952 high school classmate Bernie Solomon tells me I’m the fastest moving ballast he ever had onboard his sailboat, I understand this is not a big compliment. As ballast, all I have to do is move across the cockpit and hang over the windward side and use my weight to help keep the boat from tipping over.
I’m not a great sailor. When I’m ordered to attend to a shroud, sheet, cleat, halyard or other critical hardware, I’m always stumped which usually causes the loss of some forward speed. Bernie’s style as a boat skipper is that of a screaming, order-shouting tyrant of a captain. In spite of this, I am impressed with his passion and apparent skills and happily allow him to carry on like some cutlass-waving buccaneer
Bernie and I are high school classmates but we’re not exactly close buddies. We have a relationship of convenience. Bernie’s family is wealthy enough to supply him with a sailboat on which I get to bring my girlfriend Ellie on great cheap dates and he gets to meet some of her girlfriends.
I don’t know who taught Bernie to sail but it’s pretty clear that his bravado style is right out of a pirate movie. He’s got the command shouting down pretty good but he lacks the dashing good looks of a movie sea captain. He’s wiry with wavy brown hair and is blessed with a nose that is best described as monumental. Bernie enjoys an occasional joke on himself and refers to “this schnozz” as an object not to be taken lightly. “It’s an extra jib when I’m sailing,” he once joked.
On a breezy August Saturday morning we sail Bernie’s 30-foot long 210 racing sloop up Long Island Sound to a well-known Connecticut yacht club where we tie up at one of their guest moorings. Since our boat is flying the flag of another club, Bernie says that reciprocity in the yachting community permits us to be guests at this club and to use their dinning room for lunch. All we have to do is blow the air horn and call for their launch to pick us up. After a couple of toots on the horn, he turns to me and says, “I just remembered, this is a restricted club. You can’t join if you’re Jewish.” I say, “How the heck will they know we’re Jewish?” We stare at each other for a moment and he says, pointing at his nose, “Are you kidding? I wonder if they’ll even let us on the launch?”
In the distance, we hear the launch motor and see it pulling away from their dock and heading directly toward us. Bernie says, “You have the Anglo nose. You stand on the deck and greet the launch. I’ll be hiding below. When you are ready to step aboard, call me and I’ll jump up and into the launch with you.” I say, “Bernie, I don’t know. I don’t think I can…” Bernie snaps into captain mode shouting, “That’s an order! I’m the Captain and if you want lunch, you’ll follow orders.”
Surprisingly, this plan works and although we are not permitted in the dining room because of our jeans and shorts, we are allowed to sit in the kitchen and order what we wish.
In the late afternoon, back at our boat’s homeport in Mamaroneck, we are stuffing the sails back into their bags when some of our buddies, on their way to an evening of sailing, stroll by on the dock. Bernie waves and starts bragging, “We sailed right into that ‘ol restricted yacht club and I got us lunch privileges.” One of the group shouts back, “How’d you do that, Bernie?” I cup my hands and yell back, “He did it under an assumed nose!
That Sinking Feeling
Bernie’s bravado has not always been bulletproof. Earlier this spring, on the Memorial Day weekend, the warming May temperatures prompt Bernie to suggest a moonlight sail as an irresistible Saturday night double date. Ellie tells me she already has plans for a dinner date but can get home early and we could go on a late date. Wow! A late date is a maximum compliment because it suggests that I’m the social dessert for Ellie’s evening. I ask Ellie if she can fix up Bernie with one of her friends.
At ten o’clock that night there’s a full moon and sweet warm breezes when Bernie and I, in our separate cars, pick up Ellie and her friend Frannie for the drive to the harbor. The night sky is filled with stars and we can see flags waving in the moonlight, indicating we will have a good wind for sailing. We carry sweaters and a bottle of brandy, which I’ve liberated from my parents closet. We climb aboard the boat, which has a tiny racing cockpit that allows only two people to sit below the deck with heads exposed. The other two must sit on the narrow deck with feet dangling into the cockpit. Even though Bernie has started shouting commands as if we are on some battlefield, the girls and I are giggling as the boat heads up the channel. Bernie shouts, “The channel markers aren’t set in place yet. It’s too early in the season. Everybody needs to keep a sharp eye out for rocks.” At the mouth of the harbor, we tighten the lines and the boat heels to one side and we slice through the Sound, still icy cold from the winter. This is pure romance. There is no sound except for the creaking of the mast and splashing of the bow as it parts the sparkling moonlit water. I ask, “How fast do you think we’re going?” Bernie says, “I’d guess we’re making about thirteen knots. It’s a good breeze for nighttime.” Ellie is sitting in the cockpit with Bernie, who’s manning the tiller. I have my feet dangling next to her and my hand resting on her shoulder. Frannie is facing forward sitting cross-legged on the deck across from Bernie. We start singing.
“We were sailing along on Moonlight Bay
We could hear the voices ringing
They seemed to say
"You have stolen her heart…"
Suddenly, there’s a giant bang followed by a splintering sound. The boat stops dead in place as Frannie hurtles forward on the slippery deck, catching her throat on the forestay. Her body spins off the bow like a rag doll and into the water. Bernie lurches forward and reaches down for her arm, pulling her back aboard the deck. I can see she’s bruised and shaken but not bleeding. I ask, “Frannie, are you alright?” I don’t hear her answer because my attention turns to the ice-cold water climbing over the tops of my feet and up my ankles. Water is rushing up from the floor into the cockpit. Ellie is wide-eyed, sitting in the rising water. She’s not hurt. Bernie shouts, “I think we’ve ripped the keel off. Gary, grab the sail bags and stuff them into the hole in the hull, now!” My hands and forearms become numb from forcing the stiff fabric bags against the gurgling inrushing cold water. As I push them into the three foot-long gaping hole in the floor, the bags push right through the opening and float away underwater. I scream, “Bernie, the bags went through the hole.” I’m alarmed but not panicked as I try to size up what’s happening. I can see the shore a mile away and lights in a house. I know we cannot be seen or heard. The frigid water rises above my shins. I help Ellie out of the cockpit onto the narrow deck to get her body out of the cold water. I see our four life jackets floating along side the deck that is now only inches above water. Bernie screams “Grab the life jackets and stuff them into the hole, and don’t push ‘em through, damnit!” I stuff the jackets into the big hole in the bottom and the gushing of cold water seems to stop. “Bail, everybody bail,” Bernie screams. “Ellie asks “With what?” Bernie shouts, “Scoop with your hands. We’ve got to bail more than what’s leaking in through the hole. Everybody bail fast. That’s an order!”
For the first time I welcome his authoritarian tone. I don’t have any better ideas. We all splash furiously for about five minutes until we realize we aren’t sinking. Bernie says he thinks the broken keel may be resting on the rocks that we hit, keeping us afloat.
We huddle together, crammed into the tiny cockpit in order to keep our soaked bodies out of the wind. Taking stock, we realize that we are too far from shore to swim in this cold water. We can see the bottle of Brandy getting smaller as it bobs in the moonlight. It is headed across the Sound to Long Island where I imagine it will be discovered on someone’s beach and snatched up as shipwreck treasure. The air horn has floated away, so signaling our distress is out of the question. After an hour of shivering together, we notice that the water has drained out of the boat. At first I think that it’s because of my superb plugging of the hole but Bernie points out that the tide is going out and we seem to be wedged on the rocks and will stay high and dry for another twelve hours.
We’re soaked and shivering. My teeth are chattering. To keep the wind from chilling us even more, we cram ourselves into the little cockpit. Ellie and Frannie talk aloud what their parents will think when they realize that customary curfews have been ignored and how much danger they were in. They worry aloud about these things while Bernie and I chat about the immediate problems. We wonder if we have any shiny objects to reflect the rising sun to signal passing boats. We try to remember what the Morse code is for SOS signaling. My shoulder touches Ellie’s and I feel her shuddering from the cold. The warmth of her shoulder feels inappropriately pleasurable. I begin to think of ways to get closer. After all, it’s really cold here and, in my role of problem solver, maybe I need to be supplying more heat. I’m shamelessly off the disaster track and just thinking of getting closer to Ellie. I slide closer so that my left side presses against her right side. I slide my hand behind her and to pull her slightly closer, just enough so it seems like a gesture of sharing the warmth. This is the first time I am this close to Ellie. I like it. Her warmth feels pleasurable and although we’re in desperate straits and I’m a good focused problem-solver, the teenager in me is winning,
Everybody has to pee and for the next half hour we self-consciously joke about who’s going to try it first. The girls say they’ll hold it until we get rescued. Surprisingly, Bernie and I are shy about peeing off the edge of the boat even though it’s nighttime. Bernie says, “Ill bet we all did it already.” Then, we become quite.
It’s silent except for the occasional light splashing of the water against the rocks. It’s cold and serene. The moon is moving across the sky. The panic has drained out of each of us and we estimate the hours until daylight when we will surely be discovered. Then we become quiet. Comforted by the warmth of our huddled bodies, we drift off to sleep.
The sound of a small powerboat’s rumbling engine wakes us. I can’t believe we actually fell asleep. The horizon is fringed with a thin line of pre-dawn pink. Each of us is blue-lipped, pale and haggard but we begin yelling and waving at the little day cruiser, chugging out of the harbor a few hundred yards away. The boat turns and approaches but stops about 100 yards away. A young man and woman wave at us and shout, “We can’t come any closer because of the rocks. Can you swim here?” We explain that we’ve been here all night and are too exhausted. He yells back “I’ll go get my dinghy and be back.” We’re all smiling until we see him sail away from the port and aim, not into the local harbor but across the Sound, four miles to Long Island. Bernie says, “Where the hell’s he going?”
We stare at the horizon for an hour hoping that he didn’t change his mind. We guess it’s about 6:00am and there’s still no local boat traffic. Then we see the little cabin cruiser return, towing a tiny dinghy. He stops again about fifty yards away and drops an anchor. He steps off the transom of his boat into the little rowboat and starts rowing towards us. Bernie says, “Gee, that’s only a six foot pram.” I think it’s the smallest rowboat I’ve ever seen, but I’m happy it’s coming for us. He rows to within twenty feet of our rock-mounted boat. “This is as close as I can get.” He shouts.
Bernie begins screaming commands. “Alright, the ladies will go first.” Since we are perched above the water, Bernie grabs the life jackets out of the hole and says, “Here, wear these and swim to the dinghy.” He and I slip into the water to help the women maneuver from the rock into the cold sound. Ellie and Frannie climb into the jackets and slide over the side of our wounded sloop onto the slippery rocks. Frannie eases into the cold water and starts paddling to the rowboat. Bernie bellows “Swim to the stern and place your hands on the back and lift yourself out of the water.” When she’s in the boat, the man rows to the powerboat where the woman helps Frannie into cockpit. This operation is repeated with Ellie while Bernie continues to yell instructions,
The man returns and Bernie yells, “Gary! You’re next, I’ll stay here with the boat until you’re aboard.” I smile thinking that Bernie is really playing his roll as the sea captain but he is safe from having to go down with his ship because it’s high and dry on the rocks. The life jacket is too small for me so I toss it at Bernie and start swimming the few yards to the dinghy. I place my hands on either side of the aft end and start to push down to lift myself up out of the water. My weight causes a little wave of water to spill over the stern. The man says “Whoa…easy!” It’s clear to me that this tiny boat will not support the two of us without swamping. “Bernie, I’m too heavy,” I yell over my shoulder. “I’ll just hang on while he paddles back to his boat.” Bernie yells back, “No, no. The water’s too cold and I don’t want anybody drowning on my watch.” I complain, “But Bernie, I’m going to sink this man’s boat!” Bernie shouts “Damnit! Just do what I say. Get in the boat, and that’s an order!” I figure Bernie knows more about boats than I do so I’ll try it again. This time I grab each side of the back of the little boat and push down mightily. I’ve got one leg over the stern when water rushes into the boat over three sides. In a second, the boat is completely swamped. The rescuer is treading water and says, “Oh, Shit.” Bernie leaps in and the three of us try to raise and rock the water out of the dinghy. We’re all slipping and banging our legs on the rocks. Finally the boat is barely floating again with about eight inches of water in the bottom. The man crawls inside and sits on the seat holding a single oar. The other oar has floated out of view. He doesn’t wait for us and starts to paddle his rowboat, canoe style, using the single oar. Bernie and I swim behind him helping to push. We’re both exhausted. I’m hanging on and pushing the little boat while spitting out mouthfuls of frigid salt water until we finally arrive back at the powerboat.
After a round of thanks to our rescuer with apologies for sinking his dinghy, his wife serves us hot black coffee and he takes us back to our dock. It’s ten minutes after seven. We’ve been wet and cold for eight hours.
Ellie and I climb into my car and drive the twenty minutes to her house. She looks awful with matted salt water-soaked hair pressing against her head, Her eyes are red and her lips are very blue. There are big dark circles surrounding her eyes and her skin is a pasty white. She’s lost her sweater and is shivering. I turn on the heat and we start to giggle. “I’m really sorry, Ellie. This was not such a good idea.” Her only response is “I hope I can get in the house before my parents find out I’ve been gone all night.” I speed up.
At her house, we don’t drive into the driveway because we want to minimize the noise of our arrival. We leave the car down the block and race to her front door. I’m relieved that this misadventure is finally all over and we’re both home unscathed. But, I am wrong. As she reaches for the door, it opens from the inside. Her father is standing in his birding outfit, a tweed jacket with leather patches on the sleeves, binoculars dangling around his neck and a field manual under his arm. He stares at the two of us. “I thought you were in your room,” he snarls at Ellie. Before she can answer, he stands aside and points to the stairs indicating that’s where she’s to go. I start to speak and he points and stares into my eyes with a fierce look and says, “You. I’ll see you this afternoon in my study at three-thirty sharp.”
In the afternoon, I’m on time for this appointment and scared. I receive an appropriate twenty-minute tongue-lashing ending with the statement “It’s not that you did such a thoughtless thing, it’s that you had so little regard for Ellie’s safety. You put my daughter’s life in danger.”
I know he is right and I am thankful he doesn’t ban me from their house.
In the days following, Bernie’s boat is lifted from the Sound’s bottom where it sank when the next high tide floated it off the rocks. It filled with water again and this time it sank all the way to the bottom. The floating crane that recovers the boat totally crushes the hull during the lifting.
Bernie is pretty deflated by the clumsy added damage done by the rescue crane but he can’t be more deflated than I am after seeing Ellie’s father open that front door. With her dad’s stinging lecture, ringing in my ears, I decide to drop all forms of bravado from my repertoire. I realize bravado relies on bluff as much as stuff. I also drop Bernie as a cheap date source.
©2010 Gary Gladstone