Lisa loved sailing. Not necessarily the remarkable power of the wind and the serene image of a bow slicing through waves, mostly it was the other-worldliness of the whole adventure. Just being on the water, floating around in a self-contained capsule, propelled by nature and cruising to a new destination every day is what she found so mesmerizing, and zen-like.
Each summer Lisa took a week and went sailing with her older sister, who with her husband and their two small girls, kept a sloop on the Chesapeake Bay. They would stock the boat with food, snacks and plenty of rum and beer and set sail for a variety of anchorages in small creeks, big rivers and popular water towns along the bay. It was a great time every summer, everyone looked forward to it, and none more than Lisa. They would all play in the sun, face the breeze while underway with their arms upraised on the foredeck as if they were part of the sails and rigging. They cooled their bodies in the clear, crisp water at the end of each day, and settled into the pleasant routine of cruising.
No one part of the day was more enjoyable than another. Maybe the morning was a bit jarring, when Captain Jimmy would not allow over-sleeping.
“Up and at ‘em, swabs!” He would bellow into the cabin. There was a routine on the boat; mornings were for a quick breakfast and transforming the boat from a hotel into a sailing craft. But, once the anchor was weighed and the sails filled with the fresh morning air, everyone settled into their favorite places. Lisa headed for the foredeck, where she laid out in the sun and resumed her interrupted sleep, the younger girls would be safely in the cockpit with games or maybe throw a line out, trying to get lucky.
Noon or so, brought the gallery mates to action, preparing lunch. Jimmy navigated and steered, the rest either prepped the food down below or readied the folding cockpit table for our meal. Unless the weather was rough, which it usually wasn’t during Chesapeake summers, everyone enjoyed their midday meal meal together. The topic of conversation was the day’s destination, or some alternate place due to a change in the wind, weather or sea conditions or the need to re-provision. Then, after cleanup, it was back to your favorite nook to enjoy sailing for the afternoon. Akela, a thirty-four foot Tartan sloop and a superb sailer, would cut a handsome line smoothly through the choppy green water of the Chesapeake. Reading, napping and cloud watching were popular afternoon activities.
Coming into an anchorage brought everyone to their stations. This was a practiced routine, that after a few days, was performed wordlessly, so adept became the crew. Once the anchor was down and set, the girls proceeded to reverse the morning exercise and make the boat over into a floating hotel once again. Hatches were opened, letting the breeze flow straight through the boat, screens on for later, during dusk, when the insects would come out, and erecting the windscoop over the forward hatch in order to keep maximum air flowing continuously throughout the cabin, like the tradewinds in the islands. Lisa would make the rum drinks and bring them up to the cockpit. Jimmy put the sail covers on and cleared the decks of all lines. The music was on now, cockpit speakers spreading the vibe and the rope ladder was attached to the toe rail and flipped overboard. A cool refreshing dip awaited and tropical drinks were at the ready, the only decision would be which would come first.
Along the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay there are many, many fine anchorages. From snug deep-water creeks with the calm and privacy they offer, to small picturesque water towns and villages worth exploring on foot, to bayside urban life complete with bars, restaurants, clubs and nightlife. These summer trips, planned by Captain Jimmy, favored the Eastern shore of Maryland, the more rural, natural side of the bay away from the hustle and bustle of big city life.
Some favorite anchorages were creeks off the Chester River and the Sassafras River with their natural beauty and nightly blanket of stars, to Rock Hall, a waterman’s town with an outstanding seafood reputation and St Michael’s, a fun place to explore after a tasty steamed blue crab dinner at one of the great harbor restaurants. On the Western Shore, the more populated side, there was big-city Baltimore with it’s Inner Harbor to experience and Annapolis, everyone’s favorite for sailboat races and the nightly pub crawl. The bigger places had water taxi service to and from your boat in the harbor directly into the middle of downtown action, and Lisa took full advantage to explore the bar scene until just before the taxis stopped running for the night.
As time went on, and her sister’s family grew up, the summer sailing weeks came to an end, but Lisa never forgot how much fun they were. During get-togethers and parties, if the subject of sailing came up, Lisa would smile and get that far-away look in her eyes. She thoroughly enjoyed herself and missed those times like a fond childhood memory.
A beautiful summer’s day was upon the cruising group, and wispy clouds floated overhead with a bright, but not uncomfortable, sun shining down warming all below. A favorable breeze had filled in during the late morning, forecasting an ideal day on the Chesapeake Bay.
Her sails were full and the sloop Akela was pulling her way up the Bay from Swan Creek in Rock Hall bound for Still Pond, a quiet, idyllic anchorage on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Captain Jimmy held her steady on a broad reach while the crew lounged about the cockpit and windward side decks. Akela’s motion was effortless, cutting through the small wavelets on the bay, in the timeless way sloops have plied these waters for centuries. Lisa was all smiles and her new husband was acclimating himself to the newness of being on the water.
“Who’s ready for lunch,” Lisa called back from the foredeck, her favorite sunbathing spot. Captain Jimmy looked at Ray, “You ready big guy?”
“You bet I am!” Ray was leaning back in the cockpit with his pipe, enjoying the feeling of moving over an uneven surface for the first time in his life, with only the sound an occasional hiss of the bow slicing through another swell. “Awesome, I could get used to this in a hurry, bro!”
Ray was a large man, over three hundred pounds and tall enough to carry the weight. To complete the image, he wore his hair long, in a pony tail, befitting a top disc jockey in the Philadelphia metro area; classic rock was his expertise. Ray filled his pipe again and watched his wife hop from the cabin top to the deck and smartly down into the cockpit.
“How about a cold beer and a sandwich?” Lisa was bubbling, she was so happy that Ray seemed to be adjusting nicely to her youth’s passion of sailing and the cruising lifestyle, just as she had hoped. She was thrilled when Captain Jimmy agreed to take them sailing for a weekend, as she had been bending Ray’s ear for a couple weeks about her sailing trips of her youth. Lisa turned and lowered herself down the companionway, three steps down the ladder to the galley sole, and the icebox to the right of the stove. “So cool, eh Ray?” She hollered up as she grabbed three iced beers.
Ray was getting mellower all the time. “Yeah, baby, very cool indeed.”
Akela made the last tack out towards the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on the Western Shore and laid a course for the opening into Still Pond on the eastern side. A glorious reach across the Bay.
Captain Jimmy called out to Lisa to help prepare for Akela’s approach. Ray was having a difficult time getting around the boat, his bulk and the sleek narrow lines of the sloop were not getting along. It was already determined he couldn’t go below, too painful to squeeze through the companionway, or navigate the ladder down into the main salon. Going forward to help with the anchor or to douse the sails was also out of the question. Captain Jimmy had sailed this thirty four foot classic Sparkman and Stephens designed vessel many time solo, so there were no worries. Just a little coordination was involved, a matter of a brief meeting to dole out responsibilities.
“Lisa, come take the wheel. I’ll go forward and prepare the ground tackle,” Captain Jimmy instructed. When Lisa was at his side, he said, “See that tall bluff in the distance, look at the point where it ends and drops down to sea level, see it?” He was pointing into the distance, “Aim for that, I’ll be back in a few minutes. Shout if you have any problems, just make small corrections, don’t turn the wheel over and you’ll be fine.” With that, he left the cockpit and bounded forward to the anchor locker.
“You okay, baby?” Ray asked.
“Sure. Isn’t this really cool, Ray, don’t you just love it?” She was so excited, the outing had gone perfectly to this point, disregarding Ray’s maneuverability problem. “As soon we get anchored, we’ll go for a swim, then have happy hour, then we’ll cook on the barbecue, lay out under the stars, listen to music and fade into sleep on a gently rocking berth. What could be better!” Lisa was just short of shouting, outlining the day’s remaining activities. These were all the things she loved about sailing and cruising, and she wanted Ray to love them just as deeply.
Having pulled the chain and rode from the anchor locker and calculated the scope, Captain Jimmy returned to the cockpit, “You handling her?” He said to Lisa.
“Si, no problemo, mon capitan,” she replied a with a grin.
Captain Jimmy began to furl the headsail, and reaching over to the steering pedestal, he pressed the starter button for the diesel engine, and it rumbled to life. “We’ll be in shortly,” he announced, and continued to furl the sail and then secure it.
The anchorage was open, with only a few boats lying inside. Akela headed towards Captain Jimmy’s favorite spot in a protected corner towards the southern side. The engine was out of gear and Akela glided slowly forward. Captain Jimmy walked briskly to the anchor, unhinged and dropped it precisely where he intended. He returned to the cockpit and put the engine into reverse, set the anchor securely and then cut the engine, the throaty diesel throbbed a couple times and quit. A quiet overtook them like a rolling fog, as the birds in the nearby woods and small lapping waves against the hull replaced the sounds of sailing. Akela settled into her new attitude, upright and facing into the wind.
Captain Jimmy went below to open all the hatches, install screens and kick on the jams. The Allman Brothers came to life through the inside salon and outside cockpit speakers and were properly setting the mood. Jimmy returned topsides and retrieved all the water toys from the cockpit lockers and tossed them over, and tethered them to various winches and cleats along the side decks. He then secured a rope ladder to the side of the boat, and let it slowly sink down into the pale green water.
“The pool is now open!” announced Captain Jimmy.
The sun was warm and the breezes light, and the water was wonderfully refreshing. Lisa alternated between rum drinks aboard and cooling splashes in the water, scrambling up the rope ladder after a few minutes to reunite with her drink. Ray was enjoying himself as well, reclining on the cockpit lazarette closest to the ladder so he could watch the activity, all the while sucking on his pipe. His eyes protected by dark sunglasses, his pony tail bobbing to the beat, big Ray was ultra comfortable.
“How’s the water, Lisa?” Ray asked leaning slightly to his left to see his wife.
“Oh Ray, it’s beyond words, it’s dreamy!” She said. “C’mon in!”
the captain perked up at this exchange, he had been calculating the effort needed to get back onboard and he wasn’t at all sure Ray was capable.
“Another option, Ray, is to go up on the foredeck, there’s a canvas bucket tied to the lifeline up there you can douse yourself with water. It’s nice, just drop it over, scoop and retrieve, then poor liquid sunshine over your head and body. The kids do it all the time. You might like it!” Captain Jimmy was trying to give Ray an out, he was very concerned he may have trouble with the rope ladder. Ray had a sit-down job and combined with his size and weight, physical fitness wasn’t in his bag of assets.
“That sounds nice, but I think I’ll join Lisa in a swim,” Ray announced, although he didn’t move his position. Lisa was hugging a float, tied to the stern of the boat so the current wouldn’t take her away. She had her drink with her, sipping rum and mango juice with a wedge of lime. She wasn’t concerned.
“Hey Ray, the rope ladder is a little tricky, think you can manage it?” Captain Jimmy asked with a hint of caution.
“No problemo, mon capitano!” Ray said evenly.
Oh well, whatever happens I’m sure we can work ourselves out of it, rationalized the captain. Other boats were coming in off the bay and maneuvering for anchorages along the wooded peninsula or further in toward the sandy spit, where some pitched umbrellas and spent the day sunbathing.
“Who needs a beer, or rum drink,” the captain hollered, making his way down below to get the fixings.
“Make two rums and hand ‘em overboard to us,” Lisa called back. Her and Ray were going in. Ok, it’s showtime, thought Captain Jimmy, here we go!
Lisa jumped in amidships using the mast shrouds for support, Ray steadied himself on the tiny side deck near the aft cockpit, where there were no mast stays to hold onto, nothing other than the knee-high lifelines, which were more a hazard than a help for the big man. He wobbled for an instant, then unceremoniously flopped overboard in a combination jump-fall-slip plunge; a twisting, lunging exit that rocked the boat considerably when he hit the surface, displacing some three hundred pounds of water with his multi-point, foot, arm, shoulder and back landing, producing a mini tsunami that traveled throughout the quiet anchorage, rattling drinks all across the cove.
Ray surfaced, spouted water remarkably like a large water mammal, and grinned ear to ear. He looked at Lisa and together they started to laugh. It was quite a sight. Captain Jimmy handed over the rum drinks, toasted with two hanging onto the tethered float, and went to turn up the music. The party was in full swing.
The lazy afternoon wore on, Lisa and Ray lounging in the water, Captain Jimmy stretched out in the cockpit, tunes filling the air with cool vibes and Akela played along, gently rocking to the beat.
“I’m getting out now, Lisa,” Captain Jimmy heard Ray say. This is the part that had the captain concerned. It’s not real easy climbing up a rope ladder. Especially one hung from a sailboat where the hull slides away at the waterline forming a hydrodynamic shape. The fist step is easy, it’s when you put pressure on that step and attempt to lift your body out of the water, the weight gain is impressive, and so is the drift the ladder takes to press against the hull, a few feet beyond and under the boat from your legs. If you’re in shape, have relatively strong legs or upper body strength, it’s not a problem but some women and a few men have been surprised by the effort required.
“What the hell…” Ray just discovered the nuances of climbing up a rope ladder. “What’s the trick here?”
“The first step is the hardest, Ray, then it’s easier from there.” Lisa was offering encouragement from the water, still sipping her rum drink, head resting on the float still attached to the stern cleat. Her body swaying with the passing current.
“I can’t do it.” Ray said flatly. “Ain’t gonna happen.” He was flailing in the water, falling back after raising up minimally out of the water with a great splash. “Is there another way?”
“Here, let me help.” Lisa swam over and positioned herself behind Ray who was grasping the sides of the rope ladder. Lisa, all one hundred pounds of her, had it in her mind to push Ray up the ladder. She figured Ray only needed a little boost to get him started. Afterall, she’s seen many people – men, women, kids – climb that very same ladder without help, and only an occasional complaint.
Captain Jimmy surveyed the situation. Not good, he concluded, no way Lisa pushes him up that ladder. And watching Ray, the captain was surprised by the lack of strength. He went over to get a closer look at the problem.
“Damn!” Lisa was gasping and spitting water. She was giving her all, but there was no progress getting Ray up the ladder. On every try, Ray would rise up a few inches, then throw himself back, over Lisa, sending her plunging down through the depths only the surface, cursing. She gave a mighty try each time, but Ray was helpless and fast running out of energy and patience.
“I can’t do it,” Ray said again only this time with defeat in his voice.
“Lisa, let’s try one more time. I’ll try to grab him from up here while you push, ok? Captain Jimmy moved over into position. “Ray, give it your best shot. Grab the boat hook with one hand, and I’ll pull. Ready?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” Ray said.
“Ready, Lisa?” The captain asked. “Let’s do it. Here we go: One, two, three!”
Ray came to the place were his body weight, coming out of the buoyant water, overcame his leg and arm strength, at the same time the bottom of the rope ladder drifted away and towards the receding hull underwater, putting even more pressure on his weakened muscles, he shook for an instant, spasmed, then his body one again fell back. Lisa was nearly drowned underneath, she surfaced shaking her head and moved wordlessly back to the float to rest.
“Ok, don’t panic, I have an idea.” Captain Jimmy was moving towards the mast and rigging. “Take a breather, Ray, I’ll put something together here to help us. No problem. You rest up, it’ll all be fine, big guy.”
The captain attached the topping lift to the aft end of the boom, then went forward to release the control lines. He swung the boom out over the water above the rope ladder. Then untied the main uphaul line from the mast cleat, fed it through the boom bale and clipped the shackle on the lifeline just above the ladder. He then went back to the cockpit, opened up the starboard lazarette and dug around until he found an old harness. It was made up of a few wide nylon straps, like a car seatbelts, that went around the body, chest level and attached to a center steel ring.
“Here, Ray, put this on,” Captain Jimmy tossed the harness overboard. “We are going to haul you out with this line running from the masthead. See it?” He waggled the line sending ripples all the way up some forty feet to the top. “The other end I’ll wrap around the main winch on the cabintop, right here.” He pointed to the big stainless steel spool mounted near the companionway, watching Ray’s eyes follow the captain’s demonstration.
“Got it? Ray, you following me? We will have you out of there in no time now.”
Captain Jimmy stood back and looked up at the mast and the rigging, sizing up the operation before starting. He didn’t like it. No, the topping lift wasn’t strong enough. He went forward and engaged the boom vang, which would hold the boom steady from below, and out over the water. Then he removed the topping left and secured it to the back stay, keeping it out of the way. Now, the downward force would be taken up entirely by the mast, designed to take massive amounts of stress from big sails filled full and stretched unbelievably with powerful winds.
The stout uphaul was unclipped from the lifelines and handed over to Lisa who attached it to the D ring on Ray’s harness, squarely in the center of his chest. Captain Jimmy moved to a position behind the main self-tailing winch and took three wraps. The winch handle was inserted in the top for maximum torque. One more glance over the whole rig, no lines tangled or fouled in equipment, and a fair lead directly from the masthead back to the power winch and likewise from the masthead through the end of the boom and attached to Ray. Operation Big Man Lift was about to proceed.
Captain Jimmy started cranking on the winch, the lines tightened and Ray felt the tug on his harness.
“You okay, big guy? The captain said while continuously cranking the winch, pulling Ray up out of the water inch by inch.
“It’s starting to pinch,” Ray yelped.
Captain Jimmy continued to crank. Ray was coming out of the water, he was about half way out when he started screaming.
“It hurts! It hurts! It’s pinching me! Stop! Stop! Stop!
The operation ground to a halt.
“Put me back, it hurts, damnit! Now!”
Captain Jimmy did a controlled slip of the uphaul line wrapped around the winch, slowly lowering the bulk of his cargo back into the water.
“Ray, we were almost there, man,” Captain Jimmy was talking in a soothing voice, like to a child that needed to be forced along for its own good. And foot or two and you could’ve swung a leg over the toe rail and been home free.”
“The pain was unbelievable, I couldn’t take it another minute. There must be another way.” Ray, back in the water, tension on the harness relieved, still had a pained expression his face. “Think of something else, ‘cause this ain’t working, Cap.”
Lisa was catching her breath back on the float. She was not having fun anymore. She was thinking the same thing as the captain was, Ray was cautioned not to go in, but to go forward where the canvas bucket was lashed to the lifelines, ready to deploy for a refreshing douse of cool bay water. But no, Ray had to go in, over the side, with no understanding of the rope ladder and it’s unique challenges in order get back onboard. He had been forewarned, and in hindsight, maybe a more direct approach would have been better. Although you can’t make a man’s decisions for him, and Ray clearly didn’t make the right one here, the broad hints offered by the captain surely would’ve detoured most people.
“Let me think a minute, Ray. We’ll get you ought of there, no problem.” Captain Jimmy refocused back to the problem at hand. He stood, looked overboard at Ray, then moved across the cockpit, opened the opposite lazarette and pulled out a bosun’s chair. This canvas chair is used to go up the mast, provide a working station with some comfort and pockets for tools, to make repairs aloft. It has two holes for your legs, a broad bottom, not unlike a child’s diaper. There was an attachment in front that pulled it all together. The captain threw it overboard at Ray.
“Put this on, Ray, it’s be much more comfortable. It rides a lot lower, instead of your back and shoulders taking the pressure, this will be your hips and butt.” Ray was twisting it around in his hands trying to understand how it goes on.
“Hold the attachment ring in front of you and insert a leg through each side, so that the material comes up and fits snugly under your bottom, Ray.” The captain watched as he fitted himself, with Lisa’s help, into the bosun’s chair.
The line was swung over from the boom and Ray clipped on.
“Ray, with this method, you’ll need to hold onto the uphaul line so that you don’t pivot over to the side, keep yourself upright. Got it?” Captain Jimmy surveyed the setup.
“Ok, here we go, man.” And Captain Jimmy started winching in the rope. The line tightened and Ray was once again being hauled up out of the water. When the critical point was reached, where Ray had half his body out of the water, and the weight on the rig was at its maximum, it all looked good. But only for a minute. Ray started to lean sideways, not having the strength in his upper body to hold himself upright. The worse case scenario was beginning to form, Ray would swivel all the way to one side and uncontrollably end up a hundred and eighty degrees around, with his legs up in the air and his head in the water.
“Hold on Ray!” Captain Jimmy started to swing the winch handle in furious circles pulling in rope as fast as he could. The trick was to get Ray up high enough to swing him onboard with the boom, above the lifelines and onto the sidedeck before he rotated and and put himself into a dangerous position.
“Ray, hold on, man! Keep your self upright! Just do it!” From his vantage point in the cockpit behind the main winch, Captain Jimmy could see that Ray was not going to reach the height needed to clear the lifelines before he let go of the rope. The captain jumped up and rushed to the boom and violently swung it towards the middle of the boat. Ray slammed into the hull, about level with the toerail.
“Ray, grab the lifelines, pull yourself on!” Captain Jimmy was pressing with all his weight against the boom in oder to keep Ray up against the boat and near enough to the lifelines where Ray could hopefully secure a hold and not plunge back overboard. All three were exhausted at this point.
Ray threw a leg over the toerail and onto the side deck, but couldn’t pull his body over. The captain grabbed Ray’s leg and pulled, then grabbed his hand and yanked hard enough for Ray to grip one of the lifeline stanchions. Captain Jimmy threw a clip onto Ray’s bosun’s chair and tied it off on a cleat, then quickly moved over to the boarding ladder and dropped the lifelines to the deck.
“Hang on, Ray, we’re almost there!” Captain Jimmy assembled a block and tackle onto the coachtop, secured one end to the mast base and the other to Ray. The control rope was led back to the winch where Captain Jimmy took several fast wraps and cranked like hell. Ray slapped onto the side deck with a loud anguished moan. His body red and scraped, bruised and spent.
Lisa scrambled up the rope ladder and rushed to Ray’s side. “You ok, baby?”
Ray was relieved but so tired he couldn’t speak. Captain Jimmy kept the securing ropes attached and firmed up so that Ray could not flop back into the bay. Ray was sore and his ego was hurting but he was safely onboard, the ordeal was over. Looking around, Captain Jimmy noticed several boats were positioned to watch the drama unfold. Cockpits were filled with people, drinks in hand, smiles on their faces. Embarrassing for Ray, but damn scary too, thought the captain, this could’ve easily turned ugly a couple times.
Ray laid on the sidedeck for about thirty minutes before he could move. He then crawled back to the cockpit and retook his horizontal position with a pillow and several soft cushions. He fell fast asleep with a word spoken.
Lisa went down below, the captain began to clean up the deck and stow the rescue equipment back into its various storage compartments. The lifelines were rest, the rope ladded pulled onboard and all the ropes coiled and stored.
“Need a rum drink, Cap?” Lisa’s face was peering out from the companionway, smiling like she knew the obvious answer to her question.
“Yeah, Lisa, that sounds about perfect right about now.”
“Figured as much, here you go.” Lisa handed up the drinks and came up from below. The two of them sipped their drinks and relaxed.
“Y’know, this little adventure may turn Ray off to boating, you think?” The captain was looking over at the large man, his chest was heaving, small breaths escaped his mouth with audible sighs. He was totally done in.
“Well, I hope he learned at least one lesson, to take advice of someone more knowledgable while onboard.” Lisa chuckled at her her own thoughts.
It was getting late in the afternoon, soon the grill would be lit, dinner cooked and enjoyed in the cockpit on a teak table, followed by an evening beverage or two listening to music and telling stories. It’s one of the best things about a day’s end out on the water.
Unfortunately, the newlyweds couldn’t spend the night together. Ray couldn’t fit through the companionway and had to sleep outside in the cockpit. Lisa went down below to her stateroom in the vee-berth alone. Captain Jimmy rigged an awning over the cockpit to keep the morning dew off and slipped under a light blanket on the cockpit bench opposite Ray, who barely spoke a dozen words since his rescue, and stretched out for the balance of the night.
This isn’t what Lisa had envisioned when she proposed this trip, but it could have turned out much worse. Captain Jimmy gained a story that has been told and retold to astonished guests onboard Akela many times since. And Ray, not one to be fooled again, has never, ever, set foot in a boat again.