Bang. Bang! Orangutan! Bump and swish; burble and slosh. Something’s rolling, rolling, rolling, back and forth, up on deck. The sound and commotion wakes me from my beer-heavy sleep and I get the first conscious sense of the boat rocking and jerking on top of the long deep waves coming in the channel toward shore. First put slack on her mooring, Dory is pushed out and away, stopping short with a shudder like a snarling dog on the end of its leash; only to thrash backward till the mooring line slacks and another wave starts the process again.
We’d known it was stormy last night when we left the bar in Heriot Bay, but hadn’t wanted to stay tied up at the busy dock any longer. So we’d cast off and let the wind blow us up to the north end of the bay. There we anchored and fell deeply asleep below deck, in the tiny cabin.
She doesn’t sail worth a damn. Yet we have no motor. Jim wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re sailors” he insists.
I quickly dress and ease myself out of the snug cabin, moving the boards from the entry and climbing out into the cockpit where the wind hits me with ruthless force. It’s midsummer, a time of restless wandering between neighboring islands and pubs and friends’ houses and my home on Cortes Island, where there’s work and chores to be done, and guilt to be faced over jobs undone or half-started. This storm is simply a midsummer southeaster, not cold, but grey and chill, with powerful winds and waves that drive right into the Discovery Islands after picking up speed and height all the way from the bottom end of Vancouver Island. The Salish Sea, bounded by Vancouver Island and the Mainland, can pack a mean punch.
Our Dory is cute and kind of pretty, but that’s about all the praise I have for her. She was once a funky ancient Newfoundlander fishing vessel, somehow she made her way from the east coast to the west where we found her, derelict. We bought her for a song.
My partner, Jim, and I outfitted her for sailing, though this was never a style she was designed for. We gave her a mast, and a brand new set of sails. She is so short on keel that we’ve stored pieces of railroad tie in the bilge for ballast, and attached dagger-boards or leeboards to the gunwales to help her point upwind. In spite of our best efforts, she doesn’t sail worth a damn. Yet we have no motor. Jim wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re sailors” he insists. I catch sight of Jim, already up, kneeling at the bow.
“What are you doing?” I call to him, against the wind.
“Getting ready to go” he answers, hands busy with knots and lines and sails.
“Not in this weather?” My stomach gives a lurch. Fear enters.
“You’re the one who wanted to go home” he reminds me of our argument last night, how he wants to stay and look for work, and I am tired of it all and just want to head home to re-group. It was just one more in our series of recurring arguments, and thinking about it I feel sick and sad, all over again.
“I don’t want to go anywhere in this wind”.
“What’s that, I can’t hear you over the wind!” He shouts. It’s an old joke between us, but not at all funny today. Jim is making his way carefully along the narrow gunwale to reach the cockpit where I stand. His fine straight brown hair, cut shaggily without any style, is blowing into his nose and mouth. His eyes sparkle with the challenge of venturing out into the storm. He continues coiling and straightening lines.
“Hey, I was awful last night. I’m sorry.” I try with some difficulty. Jim doesn’t look up. “Well how about some breakfast?” I’m clutching at straws, and thinking how it’s always me who has to apologize, dammit!
“Let’s get going. We can eat later.” So that’s the way he wants it. My angry thoughts come quickly; Sure Jim, if you ignore everything, it will just go away. I turn with frustration to the task at hand, pulling up the anchor and grabbing one of our long oars to keep the boat off the sides of the narrow rocky channel we need to get through. Once through that protected space we will be into the mile-wide channel between Quadra and Read Island where we will have to tack into the wind in order to clear the south end of Read to head east toward Cortes.
As the Dory approaches Hoskyn Channel, we can see the whitecaps ahead, menacing and fierce in the storm-light. And then we are out in them. The wind slams into us full force. We immediately lose ground and are pushed north, as we frantically try to haul in the sails to catch the wind without tipping the boat and hold the tiller steady. We watch the lines and the dagger boards strain against the brutal force of the sea. We have a mile of headway to make into this wind before we can turn for the run home.
He looks unruffled, as if he’d been sitting with a book in front of the fire all day.
We have a long stretch of channel to cross, and in any decent sailboat we’d be able to easily gain ground. However, with the dubious nature of Dory, we are stymied by the power of the wind and tide. She moves fast across the water. We gain precious feet, heeling over as far as we dare. We strain together, Jim, Dory and I. All arms and legs holding to keep her pointed high into the wind, and then it’s time to turn before we hit the rocky shore. In the turn the wind catches us playfully and we lose all the ground we gained on the tack. Regaining control on the wild ride back across, we once again make some headway. And when we reach our starting point, we are several yards downwind of the channel we came out of. We are losing this battle. We can’t even go back into the little channel where we started, it’s unreachable.
So we do the only thing we can do, and that is tack again, and head back across, hoping for better luck or skill this time. The waves have reached gigantic proportions, and tiny Dory slips down between the crests into the troughs from where we can no longer see land or anything but angry water, and then she is picked up to teeter perilously on the next wave’s crest, riding high for a heartbeat before sinking back down between the rollers.
We keep this up for what seems like hours. Back and forth, we fly, gaining, then losing ground toward our goal, being driven farther and farther up the channel. Fingers numb from holding tight to lines washed by the salt spray, both of us thoroughly soaked. The sun is racing across the sky. We are trapped in motion. No time to go below and rest. No time to feed our aching bodies. No break from this horrible, tearing wind, the constant scream in our ears, whipping us as we continue to call commands to each other,“tighter!” “hold that line!” “coming about!” “try harder!”.
We are beat. “We are beat” I tell myself, and as if in answer Jim takes the tiller from my hands and turns it hard, letting the boat point downwind, where she has wanted to go this whole time.
“To Hell with it” Jim calls, letting out the mainsail, letting us run with the wind, heading up the channel, putting fast miles between us and home. Running in the wrong direction. We are passing a small islet and seeing our chance, scramble to turn one more time. We get behind the little island, put a few trees and rocks between us and the wind and get as close as we dare to the lee side of the island. We drop anchor and sit without a word: shaking, cold, hungry, crushed.
As we allow the uncanny silence to fill our assaulted ears, our bodies begin to relax. We sit on deck, sails flapping gently, too tired to move or talk. The water quietly laps the shore. It’s hard to believe that the storm is still raging, just out of sight. At last we gather our wits and begin to build sandwiches and hot coffee to warm and renew ourselves. I eat slowly, feeling my strength return.
“Sh’we try her again?” says Jim, mouth full of sandwich.
“You’re crazy! You want to go back out there?” I am tired, angry, and I just want to go to sleep. He looks unruffled, as if he’d been sitting with a book in front of the fire all day.
“Sure. Tide’s probably changed by now. We’d have a better chance.” I look at him in despair.
“You’re incredible.” I’m exasperated.
“Look. We can just stick our nose out, and if it’s no better, we can come back here.”
“If we can GET back here.” Argument is useless, as it always is. Jim is already at the bow, pulling the sag out of the jib, straightening lines, and getting ready to raise anchor.
“You ready?” He calls back to me.
“Okay, I guess. “ I grab the tiller. He hauls up the anchor, and we nose cautiously out of our shelter to find surprisingly calm seas. A steady but gentle northwest wind has come up. The tide has changed. The satanic storm is over, the gods are with us again. Gladly we set our sails, and with the wind at our back, we head home.