Summer of 1977
The wind was calm but the sky was gray and uneasy. A long oily swell surged and broke on the ledges surrounding the small cove on the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. Moonshadow poked her nose into the transparent waters which did little to hide the rough rocky bottom dotted here and there with kelp swaying back and forth in the currents of the tiny bay.
"Doesn't look to good to me, Carolyn,
we might get the anchor to set but if we got into trouble in the night I doubt
we could get out with all these ledges at the entrance.
"Looks pretty bad to me too, why don't we try up in Port Hebert?" Carolyn replied.
"Guess so. It's the only place left, it'll be dark soon. Damn, I wish we could get a better forecast!"
We had been unable to get weather information with any regularity on our 3 weeks sailing on this beautiful but isolated coast. There seemed to be no continuous forecasts on the VHF like we got in the US. so we made do with information they gave out sporadically on commercial stations. The last we'd heard was not good: what was left of Hurricane David was forecast to pass close tonight with winds of 40 knots. We thought we should be able to weather this OK, our ground tackle was good: a 35 lb. CQR plow with 40 ft. 3/8 chain and a 22 lb. Danforth as backup, but we needed a good anchorage and on the chart Port Hebert looked kind of iffy.
It was shown to be a long straight river running NW and SE. Protection was OK across it's width but not inspiring along it. We motored up beyond a shingle beach with a lonely little beacon perched on a point which jutted out into the stream. Ahead we saw a few gaily painted Novi fishing boats moored to huge telephone pole like moorings. Our cruising guide talked of anchoring north of the settlement wharf we could see further beyond on the eastern shore. It was built like a corral with a massive timber pier surrounding a tiny fleet of offshore vessels. Ashore was a cluster of deceivingly decrepit looking fish houses and outbuildings. The rest of the shores were lined with silent evergreens standing tall over patches of summer shrubbery and grass. In other circumstances this would have been a delightfully quaint spot but as the light grew steadily dimmer, its isolation was what we felt most anxiously. We saw no one ashore.
It was just about high tide as we dropped the hook into the still waters of the river. The boat lay obediently to the remains of a flood current, her bow pointed out the harbor to the open Atlantic. I paused to consider our surroundings: not too bad I thought, we would weather whatever was thrown at us, we had a sturdy boat, good gear, and we had done our homework, hadn't people in the many sailing books I'd read come safely through far worse than forty knots? I gave a final tug on the anchor rode and went below to make supper.
A fitful puff of wind lifted Alan Hope's collar as he opened the door of his battered pickup. There was dampness and hint of urgency in its breath. He strode to the edge of the wharf and inspected the lines securing his sturdy 40 foot fishing boat Two Sisters. He dropped to the deck and got a length of line which he used to double up on his stern spring. He glanced about, satisfied himself that all was secure, and then looked out beyond the pier to the blue hulled sloop lying at anchor. "Unusual to see a yacht in here" he thought "and if I were them I'd be in secured to a fish boat what with weather coming." He shrugged. It was hard to figure these yachts: those few that came in always chose the same strange spot to anchor, right where the current ran the swiftest. "Well, those boats must be different I guess." He understood enough of the sea and its ways to know that things were not always as they seemed, that what worked was what survived and the sea was the ultimate judge and jury.
The dishes were dried and put away, the cabin was lit with the cheery glow from our kerosene lamp when we felt Moonshadow heel to a gust. I slid open the hatch and checked the harbor. All was dark except for one bright light on the wharf and the rhythmic blinking of the entrance light. The wind coming up the harbor was becoming insistent. The boat yawed oddly as she was struck with each puff but all seemed OK and I slid the hatch shut once again.
"Seems OK to me" I reported, "but the wind is coming up quickly."
"We should probably stay up a little later than normal to keep an eye on things," said Carolyn.
We both tried to settle in with our books but the murmur of the steadily increasing wind tugged at my attentions. Moonshadow's motions seemed to mirror my unease, not the normal pitch of the bow to the waves but an uneasy corkscrew. I have since learned that the wait is often worse than the tempest itself. When a storm has reached the peak of its fury you know your adversary's might but when the wind's pitch is slowly working up the scale, playing a threnody of increasing urgency on the rigging, its strength is the product of imagination and therefore unlimited. But this was our first gale and I could not take even small comfort in the lessons of experience, on the other hand I had no clear idea of how bad things could get.
After some time staring at pages full of unintelligible black marks I got up. "I'll just check things on deck," I told Carolyn.
Sliding the hatch back exposed a world that had changed dramatically in the last few hours. Gusts of wind tore across the water lifting spray. A frothy chop hurried in white rows across the river to vent ire by pounding on the side of our hull. In the darkness I could just make out clouds which seemed low enough to gore themselves on the masthead VHF antenna. By the glow of a the lamp on the commercial wharf I could see the fishing boats nod in their berths.
I looked about and walked forward against the insistent wind. My heart sank when I looked down and saw our anchor rode stretched out toward Moonshadow's stern tight up against the hull. Reaching down, I tested it; it was bar taut. I could see the dark current boiling past our stem forming whirlpools that broke off and disappeared into the night.
Back in the cabin I tried to explain what I had found to Carolyn. "Somehow the boat has gotten broad side to the current with the anchor line wrapped around the rudder or the keel. It can't swing around the proper way and the force on the line is tremendous, the current must be 2 or 3 knots. I don't think the anchor will last long." We both went forward on the bouncing deck to look again. "I don't think it would be good to turn on the engine," I theorized, "If the rode is near the propeller and it got wound up we would be in real bad shape. Better to wait I think." I looked at Carolyn helplessly.
We returned to the cabin and decided to try to rest. We each lay in our dungarees and flannel shirts on opposite settees under a light blanket. We didn't have long to wait. About eleven o'clock there was a resounding crack and the boat's motion changed abruptly. My stomach turned into a knot. "That's it!" I said to Carolyn as we both jumped toward the hatch.
On deck we could see that Moonshadow, in the grip of the current, was drifting rapidly down the river. Carolyn went to the bow and pulled on the anchor line; about fifteen feet of line reddened with bottom paint came freely aboard. The severed end was fused as if with a blow torch from the pressure it had born on the after edge of the keel before it had snapped. At least it had not been around the rudder or prop. I ran to the cockpit and started the engine.
While I kept the bow into the current Carolyn readied our second anchor and it's rode. For reasons I don't now understand I also asked her to turn on the masthead light. I held the boat in position off the public wharf, its solitary lamp cast a circle of comfort on the wave tossed fishing boats within. I briefly considered attempting to come alongside the pier but with the 2-3 ft chop in the harbor thought it too dangerous for boat and crew. With the wind and waves bouncing the boat against large rough pine pilings she wouldn't last long. We would have to anchor.
Carolyn lowered the Danforth into the swirling water and I tried to back down to set it but the wind shoved us one way and the current another. I tried taking the engine out of gear to let the current do the work but in a few moments the rode was starting to stream out astern again, the same as our plow had when it got fouled on the keel.
"It's no use", I shouted over the storm to Carolyn. "Haul it back up quick or we'll lose it too."
We could not anchor. We could not tie up. There was nothing left. The knot in my stomach threatened to engulf me and I stood there in the wind, spray, and cold momentarily paralyzed with fear.
"We'll have to go out" I hollered. Didn't the books say it was safer out to sea in a gale? Did we have any other choice? The decision made my stomach ease it's grip. I took one last look at the comforting light on the pier then turned the boat into the wind and headed us out toward darkness, out to sea.
The current helped Moonshadow fight the wind and waves as we made our way toward the blinking beacon on the shingle spit which marked the end of the river and the beginning of the inlet but as we neared the swells increased 'til we were pitching dramatically. Carolyn struggled into her foul weather gear but I stood in my flannel shirt and jeans unable to take hands from the wheel long enough to change.
Before long we were abeam of the spit, the engine now having some difficulty coping with the seas. The wind had soaked me with spray and I was beginning to get cold. All discomfort was forgotten though as I got a glimpse of the waves just beyond.
Stretched the entire way across the inlet was a wall of white breaking water. "Do you see anywhere that its not breaking?" I asked Carolyn hopefully. I had to shout against the noise of the wind and fear tinged my voice, but I didn't hear her reply, the current was sweeping us quickly toward the breakers and in a moment we were there.
Alan's pickup rattled its way onto the rough surface of the government wharf the spitting rain smeared to and fro by the steady beat of the windshield wipers. "Just another look at the boat, dear before we head to bed." he'd told his wife as he left the comfort of his home to the stormy night. Now on the exposed pier the old truck rocked and shuddered with each gust. Jim, also down to check his boat, came towards the truck his yellow slicker clad form hunched over for protection from the wind. "Must be about 60 knots" he said when Alan cracked opened his window, "But the boats are riding nicely." Alan peered out beyond the streetlight at the dark harbor. "Now where is that yacht?" he worried. Then, out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of a light down toward the shingle beach. "My God, Jim, they're adrift and headed out the inlet. They must be crazy! That bar will be breaking all across the harbor. Get inside, they'll be needing help and then some if they get pushed up on the rocks." "Jesus, don't that beat all" Jim exclaimed as he hopped in the front seat. Alan jammed the truck into gear and gravel flew from the wheels as he spun her around on the wharf.
The wall of water pushed Moonshadow's bow up into the air. We both hung on for our lives, the boat felt as if it would tip right over backwards.. Then with a crash the wave broke over the deck sending water rushing down over us both. The boat stopped and the bow started to fall off. I pushed the throttle full ahead and threw the helm hard over, getting broadside to the seas would be disastrous. The engine screamed briefly as the propeller came out of the water at the top of the wave but thankfully she kept her position heading straight into the breakers as her bow sank into the trough.
The roar of the ocean on the rocks below filled the night as Jim and Allen stood in slashing rain their hands shielding their eyes from the stinging drops as they searched the night for our boat. "There it is, out there" Jim shouted against the wind. Allen followed his gesture and located the masthead light swinging in large arcs as the boat breasted each wave. He could just make out the dim form of the hull below. "It looks like they've made it out beyond the bar", he replied. "They may just make it, by God! It's the tide what's done it for them. If they can make it to the buoy they'll probably be OK. Let's get us back to the truck, we'll wait 'til then." The moon briefly broke through a rent in the racing clouds as they trudged back. "Maybe they'll be lucky" Jim said to no one in particular.
Wave after wave assaulted us but only the first broke heavily on deck and our progress though tortured and barely perceptible was progress nonetheless. Visible occasionally as we topped a wave the harbor entrance buoy, well out to sea, blinked it's Morse A code. It became my focus as I stood soaked and shaking with the cold doing what I could to keep Moonshadow pointed toward it. Sometimes it seemed to be getting a little closer but usually just seemed to hover out of reach. Whatever movement we made was due to the outgoing tide. My efforts at the helm served to keep the bow into the waves, an essential task, but the sea was too much for the engine to surmount. Should the engine fail the rocks lurking beyond the wall of darkness which surrounded us would certainly and quickly claim us as their prize. It would be impossible for us or the boat to survive, but at the moment I thought not of the hard jagged shore just the tiny speck of light far out in the night urging me on with its long and short flash.
We did carry a lot of luck with us that night, not the least of which was that the storm was moving very rapidly and as we slowly made our way out to sea the wind was already veering around from dead ahead to slightly on our starboard bow. Working on a wildly plunging bow which put her alternately high in the air and then underwater Carolyn managed to hank on and raise our tiny storm jib. With this and our engine our progress improved somewhat. As we got further out the inlet the waves got higher but their period longer so the propeller was able to stay in the water and the boat was easier to guide through them. Their crests still gave us mighty slaps which sent sheets of spray flying over us but our little light began to get closer.
Eventually we achieved and passed the Port Hebert Entrance Buoy and bore off a little to head as far offshore as we could. I finally gave the helm to Carolyn and went below to get some dry clothes and foul weather gear plus harness; I was shivering badly and starting to lose my ability to steer and think well. The clouds began to break and the moon shone down on a scene that held its own wild beauty. Seas 10 to 15 feet bore down on us with breaking crests spilling down their face. Our fear was mixed with awe of this immensity of power. By steering carefully and luffing up as each crest passed we were able to minimize but not avoid the worst of the water on deck. Eventually we came to understand that conditions were not worsening. With this realization our fear and anxiety began to ease.
With the dawn we could see that we had managed to get a good ways offshore, land was nowhere in sight. The wind was down to 40 knots and we decided to lay ahull and get some much needed rest. After clearing a fouled storm jib halyard (a trial but lots worse could have happened) we were able to lower the sail and leave Moonshadow to her own devices. We clipped our harnesses to the pedestal in the cockpit, sat down on the sole and shared a candybar.
At first the wind steadied the boat without sail on but as the morning progressed and the wind eased her motion became more violent and we felt it was time to get underway. After setting the working jib we set our course due west to close the land. We had no clear idea where we were. With the wind down to 20 we made good progress but it was not until four in the afternoon that we sighted land and were able to fix our position as just off Liverpool some 20 miles north of Port Hebert. Amazingly, as we pulled into the harbor to anchor behind the breakwater the wind had disappeared completely: it was flat calm. We slept that night as the dead.
Though we went back to Port Hebert (and discovered the people there called it Por Le Bear), met those who were so ready to come to our aid that night and with their help recovered our anchor, the fates were not done with us that trip. As we approached the coast of Maine 36 hours out of Nova Scotia we heard that the remains of Hurricane Fredrick would soon be affecting us. We entered Penobscott Bay with the swells building quickly and our nerves in a sorry state. We called the Coast Guard and set up a half hourly schedule of communications. At one o'clock in the morning, in rain and rapidly increasing wind we dropped anchor in Rockland harbor and breathed a sigh of relief. Though it gusted to forty that night our anchors stayed put and Fredrick thankfully gave us only a glancing blow.
That trip marked the end of my sailing naiveté. Previously I had thought Moonshadow and her crew capable of anything. Hadn't everyone in the sailing books easily surmounted all obstacles, prevailed over any difficulty? How bad could the ocean be anyhow? That night at Port Hebert was an intimation of it's potential. In retrospect we made several mistakes but that is inevitable. Few boats and lives are lost because they are overwhelmed by the force of the sea; they succumb to combinations of poor judgment, error, and a bit of plain old bad luck. In the past our sailing decisions had been based on the expectation of "normal" summer conditions. I began to understand that the ocean and the elements have many moods and that force of will and good luck are not sufficient to overcome all the natural obstacles the sea can present.
I began to read the descriptions of storms, trials and adventure in voyaging books in a new light. These are not romance novels though many read them as such. Beneath the words describing storms, strandings, and less dramatic adventures I began to imagine the authors emotions of the moment, to understand the fear, to see the waves, to feel the violent motion. I began to see that many of these books describe individual encounters with the possibility of death.
It is impossible to live a full life if fearful of what is beyond tomorrow. Knowing this a sailor must come to grips with the fact that he may die on the ocean, that he may someday find himself in a situation over which he cannot prevail. We are presented with the possibility of death every day, as the sun rises we cannot be completely sure we'll see it set, but our daily environment is full of control. It is the beauty of voyaging that much of this control is missing.
So I thought about these things and began to understand what I really wanted from ocean sailing, what challenges I wanted to meet, how much of my ego was involved, and how much discomfort I was willing to endure. Slowly the shock of that night, the feeling that my surroundings had turned violently hostile - and could do so at anytime - faded and was put in perspective, but threads of the experience hang on and come back to nudge me with every cold front, thunderstorm, and tornado warning that comes along.
Like most good sea stories this adventure involved large errors in seamanship. Poor choice of anchorage, not understanding completely the options, and most importantly leaving a protected harbor. In retrospect it seems obvious that to have steamed around in the harbor would have been a much more comfortable and safer alternative to leaving. Why didn't it occur to me? I haven't a clue, possibly I was worried about fuel supply. But had I considered the situation BEFORE it started to deteriorate I would have been better prepared for events.