Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Day Twelve: tedium and terror

There's an old military aphorism to the effect that war is long intervals of tedium interspersed with moments of pure terror. Sailing is a bit like that too. Ishmael and I had our terror early on, as we were leaving Wellfleet harbor.

Wellfleet has a narrow, twisty, but well-buoyed channel, which leads you on a nice conservative course around various obstacles. The trouble is that the buoyed channel leads you the long way around, to the south, and Ishmael and I were quite keen to head north. So we decided to take a shortcut, over what used to be Billingsgate Island and is now a sandbar, exposed only at dead low tide. The Scapegrace only draws four feet of water, and though we hadn't really consulted the tide table -- well, to be honest, we hadn't consulted it at all -- we figured Billingsgate was well submerged. You can see it on the map below, a sinister blur of grey, like a tumor on an MRI:

You can probably see where this is going. It's late afternoon, the sky is overcast, the light has that peculiar coppery color. But then the light gets more and more yellow, the little wavelets just that bit more steep, and Ishamel and I simultaneously decide to check the depth gauge:

6.5 ... 6... 5... 4.5... 4...

... and then there's a gruesome grinding sound, like that noise when they're cleaning your teeth, except four octaves lower, coming right up through hull and deck and shinbones into your very bowels. I look over the side and there's the sand, clearly visible through barely four feet of water, racing along under our keel and grating against it with every little hummock or hillock.

Reader, I hate to boast, but I must say, to my own credit, that I kept my composure. Normally the idea of going aground absolutely unhinges me. But Ishmael is an experienced sailor, so I wasn't on my own. The ground was soft sand, not rock. The nice deep channel that we should have stayed in was maybe a hundred yards away, so if we had to kedge off(*), we could.

As it turned out, after a few more of those horrific gratings and grindings, the depth gauge started to tell a more cheerful story:

5... 5.5... 7... 9... 10.... 17... 25!

We were back in the channel, and from thenceforth followed the buoys with Pharisaic zeal, until we were well out in the bay and even your anxious old Granny would have turned off the depth gauge.

Night fell -- as it is wont to do, every twenty-four hours or so -- and we set a course for Provincetown. Ishamel took the watch and I went down into the vee-berth and collapsed.


(*) Kedge off. You take the anchor in the dinghy and drop it in deeper water at the very end of the anchor line. Then you pull pull pull on the anchor line and with luck, you drag yourself and the boat out into the deeper water. The one time I have had to do this, it actually worked.

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