And on the 7th day, I heard a voice

What do you think is the current price for guano? I spent 2-1/2 days scrubbing cormorant crap off this boat. Cormorant crap is the worst. It smells horrible, and sticks like glue.I felt a little piece of my heart sink the moment I saw the boat. From my vantage point, the driver’s seat of a rental car, the vessel was hardly more than a white dot bobbing gently on a mooring far off in the Cape Cod Bay. Still, my heart knew something was deeply wrong, and it tried to tell me. Looking back, I should have stopped to listen to that tiny voice. I should have taken the time to fully hear the highly important message from my heart.

From that distance, I was dazzled by the sparkling water and by the idea of an autumn sailing adventure with a friend, a month of pleasurable wandering by boat as we moved the Aloha 34 sloop from Wellfleet MA to Wilmington DE before the 2015 sailing season ended.

Unfortunately, I let strict adherence to my personal values override the message my wee inner voice spoke. I had Made A Commitment! Quinn*, owner of the sailboat named BELLA, would not be able to safely make the voyage alone. Therefore, someone counted on me for something important, and I simply had to Be Reliable.

Also bearing weight was a lifetime of having been told to shut up and accept whatever crap I was handed, and enough gaslighting in my youth that I still sometimes questioned what I knew to be true. In my life, I had received plenty of crap, which included great disrespect, abuse, neglect, and even some torture. The earliest experiences of these had taught me such treatment was to be expected, was normal, was what I deserved. For these reasons, I toughed it out for days aboard BELLA, through deplorable conditions, repeated displays of incompetence, and chronic disrespect. Until I heard a voice.

From that first shoreside view, I could not yet know that BELLA was horrendously filthy, overly full of belongings in great disarray, and was not sea ready. I had yet to realize that a someone who seemed like good shipmate is not necessarily a good friend or a safe skipper. In addition, I did not recognize that I don’t have to keep a commitment when it turned out the other party willfully and grossly misrepresented the situation to which I had agreed.

Maybe I was spoiled by the quality of the skippers I had encountered at Quantico Yacht Club, where I had been an active member for about five years. The QYC skippers’ tendency was to plan well, in advance, and have Plans B, C, and D as fallbacks. The same was true for my KALMAR NYCKEL captains, whom I know I can deeply trust to put safety first. I had come to expect safety and planning as standard, but that first day, Quinn’s “luck o’ the Irish” operation had us rowing the dinghy out the long way to his boat against the wind, in a tide so low we ran afoul of clam cages, and hit the sandbar at the harbor mouth. We had to get out and walk the boat through the shallow water until we were free of the bar.

As we approached the boat, I began to recognize that BELLA was caked with cormorant and seagull guano, as well as fish parts and small fish. The guano was so thick on the bimini that it flaked off the canvas in chunks. The stench of ammonia and old fish, combined with a sickening sweetness, was an assault to my nose. I didn’t want to touch anything topsides. Quinn gave me a tour of the boat, which was cluttered, disorganized, and dirty. We had to move piles of clothing, gear, and tools in order to simply sit down.

I discovered the best way to clean guano off the boat was to fill the small bucket with seawater, dip the brush, scrub, repeat until the water was used up, and then wash down that section with a fresh bucket. While doing this, I learned that the head and galley port lights leak. The former resulted in guano washing down into the galley that I had recently cleaned. I felt disgusted and frustrated, but put my focus on Doing What Needed To Be Done.

Previously, Quinn had shown respect toward me, but he seemed to think that, once I was on his boat, he no longer needed to put on that kind of show. He busied himself with non-guano cleaning tasks, some of which–like testing the engine–were obviously legitimate. However, he also disappeared below for periods of time during which he did not make any sounds of activity, and I got the idea he was busy texting friends, while I scrubbed the guano off his neglected boat. Still, my actions were ruled by my irrationally high standards, and sense of what I deserved, so I focused on Doing The Right Thing, which was to Keep My Commitment and Be A Good Sport.

It was not until I needed to use the head that the skipper told me that there was no such facility on his boat. He told me I would have to pee in a bucket and poop onto napkins in a plastic bag, and we would keep the solid waste onboard between shore stops. I was horrified by the latter idea, but there was no escape; for two days, the wind was too strong and unfavorable for rowing the dinghy, and the super tide made harbor water too shallow for the deep draft boat, so we stayed put. I wished I had thought that we might be unable to come back for a day or two and had planned accordingly. I wished my supposedly experienced skipper had done this, too, instead of telling me to bring only the barest essentials.

I figured if I was going to be aboard that boat for a month, I’d better get it cleaned and organized, so, after two days of scrubbing guano, I worked to shape up the interior. On the third day, conditions were favorable to take BELLA into Wellfleet Harbor, thank goodness. I had never been more happy to use a toilet and take a shower, even the crummy $3-for-3-minutes cold shower that the Wellfleet marina offered.

While Quinn spoke with the harbormaster and a local friend, I hauled our gear and provisions from the rental car to the boat. Fortunately, I had also brought along a number of large plastic storage bins, leftovers from home ownership, with which I could make some order out of the chaos within the boat.

Before long, the harbor water was thinning, so we were underway back to the mooring ball at 1500. As I hooked and made off the mooring line at the ball, Quinn ran BELLA over the dinghy painter and fouled it on the prop, which shut down the engine. This meant someone had to dive under the boat and cut the line free.

“I don’t do cold water,” Quinn informed me. “I’m too old.” I considered the options: find a diver, wait for them to show, and pay through the nose–we’d agreed to split costs–or do it myself. So I said I would get into the water to unfoul the prop. I put on my bathing suit and went down the ladder into the chilly September brine of Cape Cod Bay. I tried to use my feet to unfoul the line without going completely under. But the fetch kept slamming the dinghy into me, and me into BELLA. It also kept shoving salt water up my nose.

I asked Quinn to cut the painter and get the dinghy out of my way because the little boat was trying to kill me. The old man did not want to cut the painter, so I angrily told him he must. He’d already ruined the line by running over it and he was a sailor, so he could splice, couldn’t he? He relented, rigged up a temporary painter, then handed me his serrated folding rigging knife with a lanyard. I cut the painter so Quinn could move the homicidal dinghy out of my way. I did not want to dive under the boat without any kind of mask or goggles, so I held on to the severed painter and used my feet to work the line off the propeller and rudder.

After about a half hour, I climbed back into the boat for a 30-minute break, then went back into the water for around 30 more minutes. I managed to unfoul the line part way before I was too chilled to continue. After an hour of cold water immersion, I was so sapped I could barely climb the ladder. It was not until I was back aboard that Quinn told me he had goggles somewhere on the boat. By then I was too done to try them. I dried off and felt like a deflated balloon for hours. I tried to warm up again with hot tea and layers of clothing. Quinn checked the weather forecast, which predicted that the water would be much calmer by morning.

I woke early and prepared a big pot of hot soup. Quinn and I ate some for breakfast. I figured the rest could help warm me up at lunch, after my third encounter with the chilly brine. I had asked Quinn for the goggles ahead of time, but he blew it off, and when I was ready and needed them, it took him awhile to find them in his cluttered mess of a boat. Then I had to try on one pair and adjust them, but they didn’t work for me. So I tried the other pair and adjusted them. This took time, pushing back our schedule, minute by minute. I felt great annoyance, but the idea that I should abandon the mission still did not enter my head. Someone was relying on me for something important!

Finally in the water again, with goggles, I used my toes to unfoul nearly all the rest of the line, except for the bitter end, which had frayed and was too tangled and tight. I decided I had to dive down and use the knife. This took four dives, but I cleared the prop by 0930.

Finally, on day 5, after other minor disasters and more work-shirking on Quinn’s part, at 1613 were under way to leave Wellfleet. I was elated to be departing the harbor, where too many bad things had happened, and too many disasters been barely averted. Somehow, I was sure things would improve once we were traveling. But I was wrong; they worsened.

I drove the boat while Quinn secured a few things, removed the sail cover from the main, and set up the lazy jacks. Following the markers, we picked our way along the winding channel until near sunset, when we could finally raise sail and cut the engine. I kept the boat on a beam reach for hours as we crossed Cape Cod Bay. Quinn went below to take a nap, and I sang sea shanties and other songs to myself while I drove, enjoying some solitude and sail as the big moon rose astern. That interlude was the best part of the entire week-long adventure.

I was tired by the time Quinn said we needed to douse the sails in order to enter the Cape Cod Canal. He said he wanted me to become more familiar with BELLA, so I furled the jib on its roller, and since I had the only automatic PFD, I went forward to douse the main. We entered the Cape Cod Canal just after 11 p.m., the full moon’s glow helping us to see. We passed the Sagamore Bridge just before midnight, then I slept for about 45 minutes before Quinn called down the companionway. He woke me because he didn’t want to drive the boat as we exited the canal. I trusted my eyesight better than his, so, I drove BELLA through what seemed an almost endless channel lined with big markers on each side. Quinn indicated we would anchor near the headland where the old canal had run, for it would give us shelter from the wind. That way the boat would not bounce too badly through the rest of the night.

At 0150 we were anchored at Wings Neck, and minutes later, the rain began to fall. We slept until about 0700, and took a slow morning in order to recover some. Also, we carefully flaked the main and put it under cover, to reduce windage and potential damage to the sail. We weighed anchor shortly after 1030. Quinn planned to make for New Bedford. We left the shelter of the shore and found green seas with 5’ swells topped with rolling whitecaps and some blown spray. Quinn paced on the foredeck, and we were out for about an hour before he decided conditions were too rough. We turned back, passing Wings Neck and going more inland for better shelter. I drove the boat while Quinn kept lookout and “navigated” with his car GPS and chart book. Seriously. His car GPS. “Call out the depth every few seconds,” he told me. That was his solution to a non-functioning chart plotter. He noted that sailors of yore had used a similar method. Um, yeah, and they freaking died! To call out the depth every few seconds was as stressful as it was tedious.

At 1148 we anchored at Phinneys Harbor. We had tried to set anchor twice before, but it dragged on the seagrass bottom. During this time, I kept smelling whiffs of something that I feared was the transmission burning. Quinn said that there was a problem with the trans and that it would cost about $1,200 to fix it. He said it might work fine for years, or slowly worsen and then die. “Or suddenly die and leave us stranded,” I noted. 

I took about an hour nap while Quinn researched places to hole up more safely. He settled on Point Independence Yacht Club, a sheltered harbor with facilities in a cove on the other side of the canal. I looked up the club online and called for info. The harbormaster said we could tie up on the fuel dock. With winds as they were BELLA would beat against the transient dock if we tied to it.

On our way to Point Independence Quinn was again on bow watch and had me call out depth constantly as I drove the boat. Fog settled in and we lost our way. We could not see any markers and had no reference point. I wondered how we would get out of that, and recalled Atticus Finch’s admonition, “It’s not time to worry yet.”

Quinn told me to keep calling out depth. All I could see around us was lobster pot markers, like a minefield. Suddenly, Quinn urgently told me to “turn south,” which meant a sharp turn to port. I did so, and the boat immediately ran aground. The impact knocked Quinn down. He looked up at me from the cabin deck below the companionway, a mix of surprise and blame on his face. In moments he was over the shock and took the wheel. Quinn got us off the bar or spoils, turned south again, and ran us aground a second time. I was seriously wondering if we were going to get out of that, when suddenly the fog lifted! We could see the bridge over the canal and I determined that we were in the Mashnee Island “flats” area, which is…flat. So much for Quinn’s old-car-GPS and-call-out-your-depth navigation method.

In the dark, Quinn and I threaded our way up the obstruction-strewn channel to Point Independence Yacht Club and tied up at the fuel dock. We drank the last two beers, ate some reheated soup, and soon after I decided I was done with that day. 

I woke at about 0300, a voice inside me screaming, “I need to get off this boat NOW!” Immediately, I realized that was right; I had to leave as soon as possible. I could not see spending weeks more aboard that boat, without a head or even navigation equipment, with leaks, with great disorganization and clutter, and Quinn doing little to mitigate the challenges.

When Quinn ran over the dinghy painter, he had announced, “I will find new ways to make stupid mistakes,” and indeed, he did. Sort of. He made the same mistakes repeatedly. He used poor judgment, ignored time and tide deadlines, neglected to check forecasts, or to even make a basic plan. But he did make the mistakes in new ways. His stupid mistakes cost us dearly in money or time or put us in a bad situation. Indeed, by hiding the facts about the boat condition and safety he had put me in a bad situation from the start. I decided I would not tolerate that any longer.

Even so, part of me felt guilty, because my decision would put Quinn in a spot. He took it well and admitted he had been afraid I would leave. The old man decided to make the rest of the transit alone, including going “outside,” on the ocean, to sail past NJ, which has no safe harbor. That meant he would sail solo for about 20 hours straight. I worried about him, but my being there would not make things safe enough, only put two people at risk instead of one.

Luckily for me, one of my KALMAR NYCKEL Crew Training classmates lived in the area. Greg kindly took us to a restaurant for great seafood and offered to drive me to the bus station in Providence RI. After I transferred to another bus in NYC, I arrived in Wilmington, DE, where my friend and shipmate, Sally, met me at the bus station. She took me to her home, fed me homemade chili, and put on a humorous movie, all of which helped me feel better.  

Sally, a highly experienced cruiser, said she would make that transit with no fewer than three other people, and she would have a chart plotter and a back-up plotter. My friend’s comments were supportive feedback on my decision to quit the transit, and verification that my being there would only have put both of us at risk. Later, I asked a highly experienced and respected captain for feedback, which was, “That was a difficult situation and you made the right decision. Most people wouldn’t.” 

I tried to keep the friendship with Quinn–and even helped the old man prepare his boat for storage after he moved it to a local marina–but his disrespect continued. For one thing, he tried to stick me with half the cost of bills for boat repair materials he had bought after I left. I declined, but when we split the valid expenses that included car rental, fuel, tolls, and provisions, I recognized just how much the voyage had cost me: about $500 and 10 days of my life to sail about 50 miles. That was outrageously expensive, even for sailing, especially aboard a slovenly boat with a reckless skipper. However, I decided it was perhaps a cheap lesson if I could fully apply it to future decisions. Ultimately, I told Quinn that his behavior had been reprehensible and unforgivable, and insisted that he stay away from me.

After I was back ashore, a mutual acquaintance accused me of abandoning Quinn when I quit the voyage. However, Quinn had abandoned me before the journey had even begun. He coaxed me into a difficult, stressful, and dangerous situation, by hiding the condition of his boat and himself with a pretty picture of words and ideas. As a dear friend later noted, Quinn assumed my competence would carry the day. He could depend on me to make up for his lack, and he disguised his use of me with the idea that he was giving me an opportunity. My friend concluded that “respect is not enough to go sailing with. It can be too easily faked.”

Fortunately, soon after the Cape Cod ordeal, I landed a Hunter 38 delivery with Matt Rutherford. That 11-day voyage offered the sailing, solitude, quiet, blue water, and wide open sky that greatly helped me recover from the painful experience with Quinn.

That miserable Cape Cod voyage taught me a great deal. I learned that I have a tendency toward irrational guilt, which, according to the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, is “a feeling of discomfort about something we’ve done against our irrationally high standards, developed early in childhood to please an adult.” It leads us to emphasize self-punishment over behavior change, trapping us in guilt. Aware of that, I could look back and see how large a role this irrational guilt played in keeping me bound to a desperately bad situation. Since the awful voyage, I have been aware that I need to listen to my inner voice ever earlier, when it even murmurs, instead of ignoring it until it screams. Good idea, eh?

*A pseudonym


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3 Responses to And on the 7th day, I heard a voice

  1. Sarah Murphy says:

    Wow!! Nuff said!

  2. Clyde Nordan says:

    Sounds like an old Navy Chief I met at North Landing. I volunteered myself somehow into helping him for a few minutes that turned into six hours. Nasty boat and the only tool he had was a five-pound maul which he didn’t mind whamming and cursing on a Sunday morning. It’s a wonder the folks at the Renaissance Hotel didn’t call the authorities or the behavioral medicine people.
    Glad you survived.

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