A most wicked sail

Rosemary’s little O’Day 19 was the only sailboat out on the Chesapeake Bay that Sunday afternoon in mid-April. It was one of the few boats on the water at all. As we began our sail, even the fishing boats were coming back to port. Their yellow-slickered occupants stared at us with mouths gaping like the hapless creatures they had hooked. Looking back on that day, I imagined the fishermen were thinking, “We will hear about them on the news tonight, in a report about two people missing in a sailboat disaster.”

Before our departure, the anemometer at the house registered 8 MPH and the water looked barely ruffled, but by the time we made our way out through the creek and into the Bay, conditions had changed dramatically. The wind had risen, and the water had begun to roll in waves about three feet high. Rosemary and I were up for adventure, and desperately needed an invigorating sail, so we raised the main sail and headed toward our goal, which was the Point No Point lighthouse that stood two miles out.

As we zipped across the water, the wind speed rose to about 22 MPH, with stronger gusts. Even without a jib, the little boat was handling all the wind she could. We raced across the mounting waves in a beam reach, keel humming.

The boat heeled so far that I had to hold the tiller tightly, with my right foot braced against the leeward bench and my left against the centerboard trunk. It took every core muscle to hold myself in place. I held in the main sheet in my left fist, as I dared not risk cleating the line. Without the ability to let the sail out quickly, a gust could knock the boat over, spilling us into the dangerously frigid ultramarine brine.

My right arm guided the tiller, constantly adjusting for fluctuating wind and the substantial rollers, often holding it hard to windward, compensating for the little boat’s strong tendency to head up into the wind. With so much pressure on the tiller and sail, there was no opportunity for Rosemary to relieve me at the helm. I had to hold on for the duration.

Whitecaps topped the rolling waves, which had grown to perhaps four or five feet high. Spray began to fly. We decided to give up reaching the lighthouse and turn back. Watching the rollers for a slight break, Rosemary and I timed our tack to make it safer, and headed back to shore.

Sprays of salty water hit my head like blocks of ice.  Cold fingers of brine made their way past the neck of my windbreaker and trickled down the warmth of my torso.

As it often happen with sailing, the wind soon shifted, coming out of the narrow channel, the one we needed to enter. A sailboat cannot sail straight into the wind; it must tack back and forth in a zig-zag pattern. Tired and cold, we beat against the wind, with the rigging whistling as we tried to reach the shore. We were sailing on the edge; the wind and waves high as the boat could handle. At times, she threatened to swamp under a sudden gust. There was a period during which it seemed we could simply just not make it back.

Somehow, we managed to beat our way into the channel, where we were able to lower the sail and motor up the creek, around the bend, and back to Rosemary’s dock. Even in the shelter of the cove behind her house, the rigging whistled in the wind as we put the boat away. Exhausted, we staggered back to the house, climbing the long staircase and entering the living room. There, we saw the waters of the Bay spread before us, the place we had just sailed under such challenging conditions. But no longer was the water peaked to whitecaps. Instead, like something from a Stephen King novel, the surface showed the same gentle ripples we had seen before the sail, and once again, the anemometer read 8 MPH. How strange that the water was calm before and after our sail, and yet, for the two hours we were out, the wind and water were whipped into a frenzy, giving us a most wicked sail.

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