“The masts fell just before daybreak, and for a moment there was a burst and turmoil of sparks that seemed to fill with flying fire the night patient and watchful, the vast night lying silent upon the sea. At daylight she was only a charred shell, floating still under a cloud of smoke and bearing a glowing mass of coal within.” –Joseph Conrad, Youth
It was a cloudy, chilly morning. We sat on the deck of a forty-eight foot sloop waiting for our turn to be let loose of the harbor in which we moored for the night; there had been a need for provision, and now we were stuck as the harbor police tried to sort out the mystery of an abandoned package at the end of the break-water. The mood was lazy, with little to do but wait out this annoying set-back on our week-long tour of the Hudson River. I was near dozing when all attention turned to the first mate as he began to tell a story from when he was a kid.
“It was a morning much like this”, Jaime began. The crew was gathered at the slip prepping the Jessie-O for her first race of the year, we were already running late and the air was filled with a mixture of tension and anticipation. I was the first mate and it was given to me to pick up on these things. My dad was the captain of the twenty-two foot sloop and he trusted me to see to it that the ugly mood of the crew was as little a distraction as possible. You may be tempted to the thought that I received my first commission as first-mate based solely on the fact that my dad was the captain, and I can assure you that any vocalization of this sentiment will find the business end of my right hand leaving you to muse both hapless, and confused. I was first-mate because I’d proven myself able. There were five of us, too many to be sure, but the old man wanted to make sure we didn’t end up short-handed at the last minute, which this shiftless crew was wont to do—leave a captain in the lurch on the day of the race. The morning was such as to convince any man that the Jessie-O was in no mood to race. But it is given to a few salty-dogs to push a vessel beyond her imagination, and we had a race to get to. We were fifteen minutes late, and we made ready the sloop and got underway.
The first indication of the poor luck of the day came at the hand of the least able hand on the Jessie-O (though he was the oldest in years); we had barely cleared the end of the slip with the boat’s bow when he fumbled for the tiller, and engaging the outboard kicker’s transmission into the forward position, was given a clear order for “More Throttle” to which he shut the throttle completely down and stalled the motor, sending us adrift with little room for correction. My dad scrambled back to the cockpit and revived the sketchy old Honda, and gave the tiller over to me and we headed out of the marina. Having cleared the break, we fire-walled the outboard and were under way south to the Port Orchard Yacht Club to register for the race.
We were fighting current and wind when it was noticed that we were woefully low on fuel. “That’s it!” said the captain. “Send everything overboard that is not useful.” We began to lose all unnecessary provision to lighten the burden. We had disposed of every conceivable thing, and still we were running slow, add to that the weather had turned the kind of foul that makes one wonder if there were not a black cloud, or two, on the boat herself…having considered this possibility we began drawing lots to see who among us was the bearer of bad luck. First one, then two deck-hands were cast over-board, leaving our crew of five reduced to three: my father Chad, myself, and the butter-fingered green-horn who’d set us adrift in the marina, name of Patso. It was still clear that nothing short of a miracle would get us to registration on time, but we were not to be deterred that easily…we motored on.
The weather had begun to look better, and things were looking up as we swept passed the port rail of the registrars boat, and handed him the proper paper-work. We proceeded past the rest of the boats already gearing up for the start of the race. We shut the motor down, brought it out of the water and began hoisting sails.
Having run through various drills, and preparatory exercises, we were on our way back to the starting line with the intention of clearing it just as the horn sounded the start of the race for division one vessels, of which we were one. It was not be. There came over the radio an announcement of postponement, the race would not start for half an hour. It seems the inlet was host to a foul beast, long and black as a moonless night. She laid low in the water. She test-fired her generators and her breath reeked of desiccated dinosaurs; her stench choked out the inlet—this cold-war hold-over. Her atomic power was harnessed by the United States Navy, for the most part, but today she was nothing more than a nuisance, she and all of her “Coastie” bridesmaids. We tacked back toward the southern tip of the inlet and decided to eat some sandwiches…the day was showing itself to be less than productive, and my mother’s BLTs were a great remedy for days stacked with crippling disappointment.