Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Escape From Alcatraz

Some new writing, just hammering out a piece recounting a sailing voyage with John Haslett. Exploring the topic, sketching out the territory...you pick the analogy :)

John and I cruised out under the San Francisco Bay Bridge at 3am. The dark bulk of Alcatraz slipped by on the starboard as we nosed into a heavy chop coming in from the Pacific. Despite four tons of lead in the keel the Annie B rythmically lifted on the face of each swell, teetered on top and then banged down hard on the other side, the sailboat shuddering each time with the sound of striking an oil drum with a baseball bat. I smiled when I thought of how impressed I'd been when first reading about those four tons of lead. An illusion of course; how much did the swells amass? Thousands of tons, millions...uncountable! Only keeping the the knife-like shape of our craft pointed into the swells allowed us another day of life. Keeping that orientation was not difficult but it was life itself.

Big freighters, dark slabs low to the water marked by red and green lights spaced widely apart, slid steadily by in their narrow sealanes. “Big iron can't stop or turn, even if it sees you," John had told me about container ships once, “and they can never see you.” He'd pointed to the radar reflector high on our mast, on that earlier voyage, saying “That's nice, but don't trust it.” John, tall and affable, carried the easiness of a man with wide and varied experience and little need to speak of it. Rather, he made light of most things. But when he'd pointed out the bauble of aluminum that I'd thought might buy us some safety by showing us up on freighter radar screens, John had spoken evenly.

It was clear night out ahead and we kept the bow under a particular star to maintain our course between the invisible freighter sealanes. The glints and glow of San Francisco—I imagined people in the high-rise buildings ordering wine and eating bloody slabs of beef—receded into a haze behind and left as we nosed out into the Pacific. Later, dawn came up behind us, illuminating only miles of undifferentiated white fog that hid land. At the helm, John wheeled us South while I freed a snag on the jib and then staggered back to the cockpit with a new sea gait that shifted most of my body weight to one leg before quickly—but predictably—shifting it back to the other. Now the swells came in from the starboard, rolling us on the sailboat's long axis, heeling over towards shore, rising upright on the swell and then heeling seaward again in an endless pattern. Perhaps what I loved most about sailing was the constant motion. Travelling atop an everchanging, elastic medium, stillness is an alien concept, and I now entered a world of continual movement--continual adjustment and continual problem-solving--with my friend.

Fifteen miles offshore we were safe of the freighter lanes and driving South under a fine West breeze. My skin was already clammy and cold, just hours out of dry-dock. Back there, just outside Oakland, we'd spent weeks sanding and repainting the hull, stopping up unnecessary through-holes in the hull, reinforcing the steel plates securing the mast lines, and building a new electrical system. The work was largely coarse and entirely satisfying, preparing a vessel for open ocean. Nothing could be delicate. Every wire I fastened into place was a triumph, and when we connected the batteries and the lights and radio came on I soaked up the satisfaction of making something where before there had been nothing, assembling matter into a life-supporting arrangement. There in the acres of concrete of the dry-dock we'd been broiled under the sun with the Annie B up on giant stilts, allowing access to the entire hull. In the evenings we drank cheap beer from a cooler, looked over our charts and talked about future voyages. Our past expeditions were so familiar to one another that they needed little comment, and this voyage was assembling with each glance at the charts. John had slept inside while I'd enjoyed the unusual feeling of sleeping out on the deck of a ship firmly aground. In the mornings I'd climbed down a ladder lashed to a rail and walked over to the concrete showers to wake up. Free of my work for some time, preparing the vessel for a trip with my friend, had been a perfect time. If we'd never put into the water I wouldn't have cared. After two decades of pushing myself hard outdoors, I'd finally learned to value the journey as much as achieving arrival at a concrete destination. Well, closely enough, anyway.

But out of drydock and at sea I was again on a seeming pinnacle. Just before setting out a disastrous telephone conversation with my girlfriend had left me shaking and scattered, but out at sea I was rebuilt. Today it was John's turn to be seasick. He grapsed the hatch rails firmly as he went below, saying “I'm finished. Just keep 160 degrees true. I'll see you in a while.” My own seasickness had come and gone, I felt clean and strong and when the hatch closed behind John the ship was mine. I held two lives in my hands as I worked the lines and rudder to keep us on course and prevent us rolling over with a swell. Twice I surfed the sailboat down the landward-driving swells, spray hosing up from the sharp prow, my mind racing to drive my hands to properly control the vessel. I did not bury the prow, though, and I did not roll the Annie B as John slept below in complete ignorance of his peril. Eventually I remembered that John had kept me alive by many prudent acts as we had sailed off South America, and I finally tempered my actions to keep him alive by ceasing from my ridiculous down-wave sailboat surfing departures to keep a good course.

Two nights later I lay in a narrow bunk as the Annie B dove and sailed up in its pattern of motion. There was nothing left to vomit and my skin felt cold and damp. I didn't dare look in the little mirror mounted on a bulkhead. It was an interesting object aboard a vessel built for two men. Why bother to look at yourself? Life was the correct arrangement of sail and lines, the correct use of certain knots in certain places, the delivery, to your friend, of a cup of hot chocolate at just the right time. But John had also told me, a long time before, that an early stage of breakdown was a disconcern with basic hygene. It seemed reasonable, but I could not look into the mirror for fear of what I might see. I looked to the side, out a small porthole, at blackness. I'd gone below in daylight. I pulled the sheet over my face.

Down the coast we pushed East to land at Moss Harbor near Monterey. Wind and currents dictated that we come in late at night. We crossed the freighter lanes, glanging left and right for big ship lights, and pushed ahead into a still fog. “Let's get off the sail and motor in,” John said, and I cranked down the mainsail and switched on the ship lights as John started the little motor. I pulled out charts and we agreed on a course and nosed ahead into the blackness. Some time later a white point of light showed dimly in the dark mist. “The southern outer marker bouy,” John said, “Let's cut a little left of it. Let's....let's go left of it and then go into harbor entrance.” But something was wrong. John was tentative, which was unusual, and some sense gave me unease; the water was particularly still, but at the same time we could hear breakers ashore, meaning that we were very close to land. “Let's head for the bouy,” John repeated, “We'll cut past it when we get there.” We both knew that we shouldn't have to do that, that we should be sure what the light was, but it sounded right...even though some intangible thing was not right, I could feel it and from John's voice I could hear it. But we knew what we were doing, did we not? Our minds contained archives of experience outdoors. Of course we would reach the bouy, cut left of it, and enter the harbor in complete darkness.

Grinning with confidence I gunned the engine. We would approach the bouy, cut past it, and land in darkness, it was now a sort of mantra in my mind. We closed in on the bouy light. It sat rock solid. Even from the heaving deck, something about that was incorrect. Riding on water, even quite still water, it should be in motion as well, a motion perhaps very slight but one that we could detect, but we did not detect any motion in the light at all. John and I each realized the gap between theory and reality at the same moment: we had driven past the breakers and into very shallow water, and with the waves now booming and the light still holding rock steady, everything was perfectly wrong. Putting the final puzzle piece into place, John said “That's not the bouy, it's a land light.” Under my expert hand we were driving at seven knots for the house-sized boulders of the harbor entrance pier, maybe 50 yards away. John looked back at me from his stance on the prow and I hauled on the rudder. Now the question was whether we could turn in time, or go aground. I didn't know whether I should kill the engine to slow us down, or gun it to turn us faster: I decided on gunning it. We turned and ran back out seaward. Who knows how close we'd come to the rocks. We laughed well on our way out; maybe I had not laughed so hard for some years. The light, what we'd so much wanted to believe was a beacon of safety, was on firm land, and it had pulled us in almost to the rocks. In the dark, we'd seen what we wanted to see.

Out past the breakers we killed the engine and anchored in water so still that it could not be the open ocean but must be a bay, which was confirmed by the short anchor line needed. We sat in the cockpit, the air stinging with diesel fumes.

“What the hell was that” John laughed. Sipping from a canteen, I said,

“We just about drove this thing straight into the rocks!”

(c) 2013 Cameron M. Smith

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