I put a reef in
the mizzen and raised it. The main and mizzen on the Meadow Lark are rigged
with small gaffs, so I felt like a one-armed paperhanger keeping the two
halyards in order while the wind tried to wrap them around the masts. Once the
mizzen was up and trimmed, the boat turned like a weather vane into the wind
and hove to. I began to feel in control. I put up the working jib and
immediately the boat swung out of the eye of the wind and began to sail, always
a magical moment. A part of you still asks, why are we moving upwind?
At this point my
dog Molly, who had long stared at me in complete distrust and antipathy, began
to howl. But I sat down at the tiller and purposefully headed us for Boca
Grande. Eventually, my helmsmanship brought her howling to a stop and she went
back to bed. And my own thoughts of baiting crawfish traps with her carcass
Even under jib
and jigger, the Meadow Lark made good speed, and we sailed along the Key West
shore a mile or so out. In the green breaking troughs, amid screaming sea
gulls, the wind singing in the shrouds, I kept looking shoreward and feeling
the inordinate contrast of traffic, passing buses and well-rooted trees.
My next zone of
fear was Northwest Channel, the main ship channel. We had to cross it to get to
the area of uninhabited islands, at the end of which lay the long, verdant
island of Boca Grande with its beach and shelter. I knew a spring tide would be
falling toward the Atlantic and that seas would be especially heavy there.
Right at the
corner where the island meets the channel and where a point of shoal ground has
built up from tidal action, a New York fireboat at least a hundred feet long
had gone aground. The fireboat was headed south to be converted into a yacht
and had landed on the spoil bank. To seaward of the fireboat, about a quarter
of a mile behind, an oceangoing tugboat was maneuvering. I decided to tack
between the stern of the fireboat and the tug.
We started our
tack, sailing toward the bleak-looking ship as the seas beat into its side. We
were about 200 yards from the fireboat when a lifeboat suddenly appeared from
around its stern and two men waved us frantically back. And at that point a
surge drew the cable taut that connected the tug and the fireboat.
We had gone too
far to tack to seaward of the tug as well as the fireboat; the angle was wrong,
we couldn't make it. We were blowing down steadily and losing time. Molly
reappeared in the companionway, driving up the tension.
I started the
auxiliary and it immediately overheated. That was out. The lifeboat stopped and
rolled in the sea a hundred yards away and watched us bear down helplessly on
The bottom here
was hard sand and it I anchored, it would be a long drag before we grabbed, if
we did at all. It was then I remembered Herreshoff and Commodore Munroe and the
gospel of shoal-draft boats, of sharpie mail boats that skimmed the inlets at
West Palm in the 1890s in impossible conditions.
direction and headed around the bow of the boat. As we closed the distance, I
could see a line of breaking water between the bow of the fireboat and Key
West. There was rock close in. I asked my wife to close the cabin so that I
wouldn't have to see my dog watching me and I picked the tightest line to the
fireboat I dared and sailed on.