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Stupid kid tricks

March 1st, 2007

wavecrestingBY TOBY TOMPKINS

Hurricane Carol hit Cape Cod at the end of August, 1954, when I was twelve. It was a bad storm, but our family’s big shingle-style house in Quissett had been built in the 1880s by my great-grandfather, using local carpenters who doubled as boatwrights and took bad weather as the norm. And unlike the last big one in 1938, people had enough warning to get ready. The house had wooden shutters for most of the windows, a pantry icebox supplementing the kitchen fridge, and a gas stove. The iceman who stocked the holds of the local fishing boats had delivered a block a day or so before. And a dug well with a hand-pump behind the house backed up town water. The place had been wired for electric light only in the 1930s, and my grandfather never trusted it, so we had an array of kerosene lanterns and candles in tall hurricane glasses.

The storm hit very early in the morning and did most of its damage before breakfast. Some shingles were ripped off the roof, the brick coping of one chimney was torn away, along with a side gutter, but no windows were broken and there were no leaks. The power did indeed fail, but the adults were calm, or acted that way, remarking on the novelty of eating breakfast by candlelight in the shuttered gloom of the dining room, as the enormous wind rocked and rolled around the house, making its timbers creak almost loud enough to drown out the conversation.

In the kitchen, where we kids ate, the Irish cook said jesusmaryandjoseph and crossed herself each time we heard the crack and crash as a big limb of one of the trees came down. We were kept inside, playing card games and Monopoly in the living room for most of the morning. The phone was out, but a World-War-II-surplus hand-cranked short wave radio was tuned to the Marine Forecast so the adults could keep track of the storm’s progress.

Carol moved fairly quickly across the Cape, and by around eleven she was no longer snatching chimney bricks or shingles, and she had already claimed the weaker branches from our trees. She was still an enormous presence, whipping the sky into dark-gray curds, flinging thick skeins of rain, but my mother told me not to worry. “It’s only the tail-end,” she said. The only thing that seemed to bother her and the rest of the groan-ups was that golf and tennis were cancelled, and so was the Quissett Yacht Club’s Ames Cup race, the last and most important one of the summer.

Too bad they mentioned the race, because it gave me a Big Idea.

If the big wind was only a “tail-end,” — of course it was actually the other side of Carol’s vast whorl, blowing in the opposite direction, but I didn’t know that, and neither did my mother — I wasn’t scared of it. I put on my bathing trunks, my sou’wester and slicker, and walked barefoot down the hill. Nobody noticed me. The rain was heavy but warm, and the wind didn’t seem nearly as bad as it was up at the house. The road was empty, and I crossed it and walked up my friend Freddy’s long driveway toward his house on the point that divides Quissett’s Outer and Inner Harbors. There was a huge elm down across the drive whose upper branches had narrowly missed the groundskeeper’s cottage. As I heaved myself over the massive trunk I started to have second thoughts about my idea. But his house looked fine. It was another shingle-style “cottage,” even bigger than ours but otherwise a replica, because my great-grandfather had built it, too, when his family got too big for the original.

Freddy was in the sunroom, exactly like ours but ampler. He’d opened the shutters and was looking at the Outer Harbor. All the Quissett summer sailors, warned of the storm, had stripped their boats to bare poles, slacked off their moorings in anticipation of a storm surge, and set supplemental anchors. I could see that a big cabin cruiser, a “stinkpot” that must have put into Quissett to ride out the storm, had dragged her anchor and been driven against the lee shore. But the little fleet of Herreshoff 12s seemed to be riding well.

That summer the Quissett Yacht Club’s sailing school had promoted Freddy and me from the beginners’ Beetle Cats to the 12s, and we’d been competing against one another in the Junior Races, I in my family’s Moonshine, Freddy in his Cutlass. But although we both loved sailing, we didn’t much like racing and preferred going out together just to smooth away an afternoon in Buzzard’s Bay, usually in Cutlass, because Freddy was the only sailor in his family, and I got to skipper Moonshine myself only when my father or one of my uncles wasn’t using her.

“Bit of weather, eh?” I said. “Yup,” he said. We admired the local fishermen, although they despised summer people, and we tried to talk like them, laconic and salty.

“No Ames Cup today. Nobody on the water. But it looks like Cutlass is doing decent,” I said.

Freddy grinned at me with a certain gleam in his eye. “Moonshine, too,” he said. “Yup,” I said, “but your boat is right off your dock.”

“Your parents know you’re here?”

“Nope. Where are yours?”

“Damn ’f I know.”

“What about Molly?” Molly was Freddy’s little sister, and she was a snoop and a tattletale.

“Under her bed with her teddybear, last I checked.”

“So are we old salts, or what?”

“Sea dogs!” Freddy said. He put on his foul weather gear and we ran to his dock.

The storm surge had lifted the floating dock almost to the tops of its pilings, and Freddy’s family dinghy on its reel-in line was already awash. There was no place to careen it and get the water out, so it was time for Plan B. We raced down to the little beach our families shared. My family’s rowboats had already been hauled out and turned bottom-up, painters tied to stakes, well above the scraggle of sea-wrack which marked the usual high tide line. But the surge had already claimed most of the beach, and the incoming water was licking around the dinghies. We hauled the dinghies higher and drier, except for the one I’d chosen. I went into the small boat-gear room in the bathhouse for the oars, the baling scoop, and the sailbag. The rowboat was the sturdiest one my family had, a clinker-built wooden skiff about seven feet long with a high freeboard, and I figured it would do better getting out to Moonshine’s mooring than the lighter dinghies made of the new fiberglass. But it was a heavy beast, and I was glad we didn’t have to do anything but turn it over, give it a push, hop in and start rowing.

I hadn’t really given the conditions in the harbor a serious look until I came out with the gear. Under the dirty, clotted sky the waves were capping up as big as any I’d seen out in Buzzard’s Bay, and the sailboats were bouncing around like corks on the ends of their doubled lines. The stinkpot — Freddy and I snobbishly despised motorcraft, except the workboats of the fishermen — was canted on her side against the rocks near the entrance to Gansett Harbor, being efficiently beaten to death. Even above the screech and moan of the wind I could hear the dull crunching as the rocks ate her hull. I turned to Freddy, intending to ask him if he didn’t think that after all perhaps maybe….

But he was already stooped, with his hands under the boat’s coaming. “Avast yer lollygagging, ye scurvy swab! Lay on, blast and damn ye!” We also liked talking like pirates. And the reason we were best friends was that although I generally came up with the Big Ideas, Freddy seized on them with manic enthusiasm and took over the follow-through. So I bent next to him and we heaved the boat over. We put the heavy sailbag in the bow, I took the center thwart, slotted the oarlocks into their holes, and mounted the oars. Freddy shoved the skiff into the chop and jumped into the stern seat. “Haul away, ye dog, god damn yer liver and lights! Break yer back, ye posey!” Well, if he wasn’t scared, I couldn’t be.

By then the wind was east-south-east, good because it wasn’t against us, bad because to get to Moonshine I had to row abeam to it. A wave rocked us hard and we took on water before I managed to turn the skiff to catch the waves on the starboard quarter, almost standing up from the thwart as I pulled, while Freddy worked frantically with the baling scoop. But I brought us upwind of Moonshine, laid off the oars and let the weather push us to her. We came down faster than I expected, but as we slid by I managed to grab the sloop’s coaming. We had to wait until the waves brought the skiff level with the sailboat, and we bonked up and down against Moonshine’s hull until we could finally scramble aboard, slinging the sailbag ahead of us. I had the skiff’s painter in a death grip, and when the rowboat was sucked away from the sloop by a troughing wave I almost went in after it. But Freddy grabbed my arm and pulled me back in. We clipped the painter to the steel traveler-bar, letting the skiff trail astern, and realized we were ankle-deep in water.

Nathaniel Herreshoff’s 12s were stout little gaff-riggers with flotation compartments sealed under their small forward decks, and in theory they were unsinkable. But they were open from the mast aft, and Carol had dumped in a lot of water. So we got the bilge pump from under the floorboards and took turns pumping the water overside. The wind and the waves whipped Moonshine up and down and from side to side like a rat in the jaws of a terrier, and the pump’s hose often blew back in, drenching us. But we were too busy to worry, and eventually we got Moonshine more or less dry.

Getting the sails up was interesting. We worked on the jib first. The sail was attached to the jib-boom with metal runners sliding on a track, and even though it wasn’t exactly like making sail in a gale aloft on a full-rigged ship, I almost fell overside trying to match the tracks to the runner as Moonshine pitched and yawed. But we got the jib set and raised it, and we started on the mainsail. The moment we got it out of the sailbag the larger canvas ballooned and almost blew overboard. We had to punch it flat and bundle its wet folds under our arms as we lay over the boom, threading its tracks to the runner and attaching its clips to the rings around the mast. We got the sail rigged to the gaff boom and caught our breath. Of course our slickers hadn’t kept us dry. And the rain didn’t feel warm any more.

But we were still sea dogs, dammit. “Toby, second set of reef-points?” “I guess. Jesus, it’s really blowing!”

We weren’t talking like pirates any more. The jib, sheets loosely cleated, was banging and flapping wildly, and we raised the mainsail about a quarter up until we found the higher set of cords sewed into it which could be wrapped around the furled lower part of the sail and tied around the boom to cut it down to half its usual size. But even with the reduced rig, Carol rattled the canvas hard and slammed the boom back and forth. After it nearly brained me once, I wondered again if this was such a cool idea.

But it was too late. Freddy had hauled the skiff forward, and he lay on the foredeck clipping the painter to the ring on the mooring float. But we were still fast to the supplementary Danforth anchor, so we hauled in until the anchor line ran straight down from the bow-chock and pulled it up hard. After a queasy moment the anchor’s flukes came free of the bottom and we hauled it aboard, coiled its line, and stowed it in the aft lazarette. Then we hauled up the “handkerchief” mainsail and cleated the halyards. I took the tiller and the main sheet, Freddy took the jib sheet, and we went sailing.

I set Moonshine off on the port tack, and I think the big wind’s direction was the only thing that spared us. Running directly before the wind seemed too dicey: the huge waves could easily come in over the stern and swamp us. And sailing close-hauled, I quickly discovered, wasn’t in the cards either. Almost as soon as we cleared the moored skiff, I had to head up and take in sheets to steer around a big moored Concordia yawl. Carol slapped Moonshine down so hard green water poured in over the lee rail. Ol’ Nat had planned for a bit of a breeze, to be sure: the 12s were so broad in the beam that when they heeled over dangerously, the windward side of the hull stole some wind from the belly of the mainsail and the boat would right itself. Of course he never imagined anyone would be dumb enough to go sailing even in the “tail-end” of a hurricane.

Freddy and I slacked off the sheets immediately, and we took up a medium reach, the wind coming in over Moonshine’s forward quarter. The 12s ran best on a medium-to-broad reach, engaging the waves at an angle, heeled slightly, their 2½ foot keels with 750 pounds of lead on the bottoms keeping them from slipping alee, and their mains and jibs working at maximum efficiency. And the reach was the only set we needed to get free of the tangle of moored boats and out to the open water of the channel, where at least we wouldn’t ram anything.

Even with the handkerchief main, Moonshine went like stink. The waves were working with us, and we roller-coastered faster than either of us had ever gone in a 12, which isn’t exactly built for speed. We’d kept the pump set up, and Freddy quickly cleared the water that had come in. He joined me on the windward of the two long benches, and we howled, terrified and ecstatic, as Moonshine surged along. We were already in the broadest section of the Outer Harbor, making for the channel, and the waves had changed from hard, choppy punches to immense combers, the curls of spume at their crests whipped into the sky as soon as they formed. The sloop climbed the muscular backs of the rollers, punched through the crests, and slid into the troughs, and I think at least one of us actually yelled “Wheee!”

But we’d already come close to the rocky mouth of Gansett Harbor to leeward, where the stinkpot was breaking up, and we had to tack to make the first channel buoy and avoid her fate. No more “wheee.” We had to come up into the wind and trust the boat’s forward momentum to keep her going and turning until the sails caught the wind on the other side. And my attempt was a disaster. Moonshine stopped flat, unable to complete the turn. Cancel the roller-coaster ride. We were in irons, as the term goes, suddenly Carol’s bathtub toy. The rudder was useless, and the same waves which had swooped us along were now trying to send us to join the stinkpot.

Suddenly the piratical sea dogs were two scared children in a foundering boat. Moonshine’s sails walloped and she pitched and rolled, taking on water, and we just sat there, frozen with terror. But I finally remembered something from sailing school. “Freddy,” I screamed,” back the jib!” “What?” “Back the goddam jib!”

He just goggled at me, and I remembered that he knew more old pirate terms than current ones, because he’d never paid a lot of attention to the indoor sessions on nomenclature, knots, navigation, and nautical orders. So I grabbed his arm. “Change places! Take the tiller! Keep us headed up, OK?”

“OK,” he yelled, moving to the helm, but he still looked stunned.

I lurched forward, spraddled over the little foredeck, and managed to catch the end of the jib boom. I pushed it hard to port, and the sail filled. Moonshine’s bow swung around slowly, and suddenly the mainsail opened with a crack. We weren’t Carol’s rubber ducky any more. The tack set us on a course straight for the bay, roaring along through the cans and nuns, the black and red buoys marking the channel, and I took over the tiller. Leaving harbor, you were supposed to leave the cans to starboard and the nuns to port, but with the storm surge on top of the normal high tide, even if I’d cut a buoy or two, the rocks were far below us. And I realized Moonshine was sailing herself. The medium reach put her in perfect equilibrium with the wind and waves, and she skimmed along with the wooden tiller thrumming in my hand. The metal stays hummed, the hull hissed, and it seemed that for a few long, glorious moments the heavy little 12 was planing like a surfboard. Freddy had regained his wolfish, piratical grin, and I could feel my own grin stretching my cheeks.

But too soon we spotted the light buoy at the harbor entrance. The tall iron structure was heaving up and down, exposing a good ten feet of its barnacled underbody on the upsurges and plunging down again halfway to its electric lantern in the troughs. And beyond it we saw what Carol was doing with Buzzard’s Bay. To starboard, moving hills were crashing into Tick Point, breaking right over the headland. And ahead, we were being driven into stark pandemonium. I couldn’t even tell where the towering, ragged wave tops left off and the spume and rain began. The wind seem to have doubled, and I could hear Moonshine’s windward side-stays pinging under the strain, and her mast groaning ominously in its stepping.

“Ready about! Oh, shit, shit, shit! Hard alee!” I screamed, and pushed the tiller hard to port. If the tack failed this time there wouldn’t be another one, and I pissed in my bathing trunks.

It went flawlessly. Moonshine came up, swung through, and suddenly we were surfing again. But the new tack put us on a square course for the line of exploding water marking the shoreline rocks on the other side of the channel, and I realized I had to let out the sheets and put us almost before the wind, to get back into the harbor. There was no other option.

And the new course was almost anticlimactic. Running with the wind at a slight angle abaft, we were pushed along, rocking and reeling a bit, but more or less under control. There were a few bad moments. One wave did come in over the stern, and the main boom swung up so far once I was afraid a contrary gust had backed the sail to send us into a gooseneck jibe, which probably would have broken the halyards and sent the canvas down on our heads. But the boom banged down again, and by then we were back in the shelter of the channel. We slid through the buoys, and a touch of our earlier delight returned. But the pouch of my trunks still felt warmer than seawater. And we still had to weave through the other boats and make our mooring.

It was the best mooring I’d ever made in my brief life. I came in hard and fast, closer astern of the skiff than normally because I knew we wouldn’t drift much against the wind and waves, and swung the tiller over, loosing the sheets. The sails rattled hard, but Moonshine slid to a stop right next to the rowboat. Freddy caught her painter and clipped it to the traveler. We downed our sails and stripped them off, stowing them in the bag. We hauled her forward by her mooring-line so we could toss the Danforth anchor ahead, give its flukes a chance to catch, and let the sloop slide aft until she was doubly secured, just as we’d found her.

Carol had begun to lose heart, and we got into the rowboat with no trouble. It hadn’t even taken on much water, which is why I knew that our epic voyage had only lasted about an hour (neither of us wore watches). I rowed us back to the beach, with the help of the waves this time, and we hauled the skiff out, dragged it up the beach to join the other dinghies, and overturned it. The storm surge was already ebbing with the tide, and a different beach, with half its sand gone and its underlying black muck exposed, was reappearing, so there was no reason to secure the rowboat’s painter to a stake, but we did it anyway.

Of course we expected that our adventure had been noticed. My great-aunt had a telescope she used to scan the harbor and the bay in all weathers, and her house was as close to the harbor as Freddy’s, and closer than mine. We expected that our parents would be waiting for us, backed up by the Coast Guard and the police. So we lingered a bit on the devastated beach, putting off the confrontation.

“Well, we did it, huh, Fred?” I said.

“Yup. I thought we were going to die.”

“Me too.” I paused a minute. “I pissed my pants,” I said.

Freddy looked at me with his piratical grin back on. “Arrh, ye posey, that ain’t nothing! I shit mine!” We howled.

And nothing happened. Nobody had noticed. Freddy’s parents were still gone when he got back to his house, and when I walked into mine the only person I met was one of my cousins, a year younger than me. He was in the sunroom playing backgammon against himself, and he wondered where I’d been.

“Oh, I went over to Freddy’s. We just poked around on the beach,” I said. “Boy, it’s a mess. Where are the groan-ups?”

“Who knows?” he said. “You wanna play backgammon?” •

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