Lost in the Fog

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It was to be Felix’s first visitor outside of myself and Meg, my wife. Felix was my 1980 Stur-Dee Cat catboat and the friend was a gentleman named Jason.  Our friendship has traversed a few crossroads over the course of 10 years, but we’ve always shared a mutual admiration for each other that brings our two, very different worlds together in an odd harmony. We had planned a day together a couple months back with a few activities, one of which included a sail on Felix, my 14-foot cat boat, out into Lewis Bay in Hyannis, Massachusetts. The day was upon us. The weather was, at best, manageable, in that a thin layer of fog was surrounding the harbor.

The small creek that leads to Felix’s mooring spot was dead calm. Typically, the creek is not a good measure of the conditions on the Bay, but this was eerily calm which made me fear a complete lack of breezes out on the bay. A low fog laid on the shore in all directions, but at the time did not seem like much of a threat. Felix is only 14 feet and would not be doing any blue water voyaging that would put us in the danger of being lost, so I put it out of my mind. The temperature was still fairly warm and the air was heavy with moisture.

Back at the house, we loaded up some libations into a small canvas cooler, gathered some light jackets and sunglasses and headed out to the pier to my trusty, old Zodiac inflatable dinghy.  It is bright orange with a rainbow of different stains from salt, sun, algae, and the damp basement floor. The old, frayed rope line that used to run continuously around the edge is now cut into two pieces that hang aimlessly in the water. A couple years prior, a series of holes on the bow forced the cutting of the line for yet another patch job which now resembled an old quilt. The wood slats on the floor are mostly broken and clearly show their many years of brackish exposure and foot traffic. The dinghy would need to get us about 300 yards out to Felix at her mooring, and for this task, it would suit us perfectly.

Jason likes to call himself a salt, but his knowledge is elsewhere. Friends of his family have a 42-foot sailing vessel that Jason frequents, but he often spends his time eating cheese, drinking red wine and discussing the memorable highlights of Wimbledon matches. He is indeed sailing at that point, but to call him a sailor would be like calling a bat-boy a ball player. He has a deep appreciation for the open water and an uncanny knack for finding meaningful purpose in other peoples’ interests. Today, he would be the first mate on my small catboat and his excitement was evident. I knew of his interest in the Kennedy family and my plans were to bring him to the Kennedy compound across the bay. In a good breeze, this was a 30 minute crossing, but today there was nothing good about the breezes.

The small electric motor bubbled quietly in the water as the old dinghy rounded the end of the Sweetheart Creek into the opening of Lewis Bay. Felix, about 20 yards out, seemed to spin around on her mooring pennant to greet us as we arrived. The rubber patches of the dinghy bumped up against her hull and Jason looked to me for advice on his next action.
“Jason this is Felix. Felix, Jason,” I formerly stated.
“Glad to meet you Felix,” Jason gestured with a hand on her gunwale. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Hop aboard,” I said as I prepared the dinghy to be left behind.

Jason sat down on the starboard bench and gazed around taking an assessment of the vessel that would carry him across the bay. His face carried a concern layered with levels of excitement. Felix was a far cry from the 42-footer he was accustomed to. I immediately started a Bob Dylan CD on a small portable player that I leave on board and the concern all but vanished. Another thing we had in common is our love for the classics.  I scurried around the boat making preparations to get underway and Jason sat humming along to Dylan tunes and occasionally offering to help.
“Fetch me a beer, limey!” I commanded.
“I’m on it sir,” he replied opening the canvas cooler.

I hoisted sail, tossed the mooring line and we were off. The breezes were light, but Felix’s giant sail area caught every puff and moved us slowly across the water away from the mooring and the old dinghy. It was going to be a slow voyage  Being on a sailboat leaves the sailor and his crew on the wind’s schedule and we were in no hurry. Our conversation, like the fog, seemed to slowly roll in and out with the changes in wind. Much had happened in both our lives since we had talked last and it had been too long since we were able to meld minds. His story is one of outright success in a career while still maintaining the introspect of adolescence. His constant, swelling desire for political aspirations and his drive for endless success provide a character that is frequently curious and always interesting to me. Our conversations travel from random and childlike to directed and intellectual and every stop between. My story is similar in some “intellectual” aspects, but involves more of a struggle and confusion surrounding career decisions. My direction is often fuzzy and in question. We help each other along in the areas we’re lacking, and often find ourselves exhausted after a lengthy conversation.

We made way toward the channel separating Lewis Bay and Hyannis Harbor; where the infamous Kennedy compound resides. Jason constantly quizzed about sailing techniques and terms all the while keeping up with Dylan’s rough melodies. His mind is like a sponge and I know, months from now while we’re all huddled around a fire in some ski lodge, he’ll make a joke about something from this day that had totally escaped my mind.

We crawled out of Lewis Bay, across the shipping channel, into Hyannis Harbor, and eventually to the Kennedy Compound. Jason’s eyes expectantly gazed at the shore, reviewing the old white house and grounds as if he were waiting for John Fitzgerald to appear on the porch and wave. The wind tapered and we sat becalmed out in front of the Kennedy beach, staring onto the shore. The giant mansion loomed in the fog like a castle in the clouds. Giant white columns adorned its entryway and an 8-foot steel fence separated the beach from the front yard. Three red, white, and blue pendants hung appropriately from the balcony above and large, eloquent, teak and holly sailboats rocked calmly at their moorings beside us.
“That’s pretty cool,” he said almost in a question.
“Yup, a lot of history in those walls.”
“Do you think Teddy is having a Scotch right now?” he joked.

We both chuckled and emerged from our trance to look over our shoulders at the voyage home. The fog that seemed so docile when we left two hours ago had followed us out of Lewis Bay and was looking to swallow us. I chose not to speak of its danger out loud. It was to be a new experience for me, but I was quite confident in both my sailing ability and my knowledge of the harbors and the channel. The channel out of Hyannis is home to about 5 large ships that travel frequently between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. These would be our bears in the woods posing, in my mind, the largest significant danger.

I pulled the tiller firmly and the big, barn-door rudder spun Felix around to face the low clouds. The fog brought with it a light breeze. Felix heeled over slightly and began to move. The water began to bubble around the rudder. In the absence of any navigation systems on board, the only way of determining Felix’s speed is by the sound of the gurgling water around the rudder. We crossed the middle of Hyannis Harbor which was now surrounded by a light fog on all sides, and a heavy, dense fog rolling out of Lewis Bay right for us. The visibility remained at about a quarter-mile which was more than enough room to get out of the way of a 200-foot boat, but not one that’s moving at 30 knots. I made a plan to travel parallel to the chanel until we got inside the no-wake zone where the boats move much slower, and then try to make a bee-line across the channel from there.

As we approached the edge of the channel, the fog thickened and visibility decreased to about 80 yards or about the distance between the green channel markers on the left side of the channel. We inched along the side of the channel making way from marker to marker. Eventually, we passed the small “No Wake” marker and I prepared to make a run for it. It would be an easy task with a stiff breeze, but the snail-pace in which we were moving would require a fair amount of time to cross. We were running with the wind with the sail off to port. The right turn through the channel would only require a couple yanks of the main sheet and a hard to starboard turn. I took the mainsheet in my hand and tightened my grip when we heard a long air horn blast uncomfortably close behind us. Like a wall emerging from the clouds, the bow of one of the barges appeared about 40 yards away. Jason glanced at the barge and spun his stare back at me hoping for traces of confidence in my expression.
“I guess we’ll wait,” I smiled.
“Yeah, good thinking,” Jason replied in a nervous humor.

The giant ship rumbled slowly past us followed by another ship of smaller size but equal clout. We crept along beside the monsters, moving at a slightly slower pace. I glanced between the barges in hopes of seeing a landmark. Visibility was now as poor as imaginable. I could see no landmarks, no channel guides and no Lewis Bay beyond the faint red buoys marking the far side of the channel. It would now be an instinctual game getting myself and my first mate back to the mooring. The second barge motored up beside us and I again gripped the mainsheet preparing to make my cross directly behind it. I glanced back and forth into the thick whiteness and Jason’s glances quickly followed mine trying to figure out my intentions. I rounded Felix and set a course for a marker on the exact opposite side of the channel.
“Here we go,” I said taking a deep breath.
“Crossing the channel here!” Jason yelled out into the fog partially thinking it would help and partially trying to make light of what could be a dangerous situation.
“C’mon wind,” I mumbled under my breath.

Felix seemed to know that we needed to get across quickly or else she could end up on the ocean floor.  She bucked over the wake of the barge and picked up a knot or two of headway. A long air horn blast came from the fog and we, our mild hysteria, could not figure out if it was coming from the barges that already passed or from some new approaching doom. Our eyes squinted in opposite directions and our lungs filled with air ready to call out any information we could see, but Felix forged on and glided us to the opposite side of the channel. Crossing the red marker on the far side of the channel was like breaching the surface of the water after staying under water a couple seconds too long. If we were the type of men that high-five each other, there would have been high-fives all around.

Jason and I looked at each other in relief and Jason’s hand rubbed the bench as if to thank Felix for a job well done. The wind in Lewis Bay was slightly better, but the fog was looming dense and heavy. We approached a large white buoy marking another no-wake zone. My familiarity of the bay gave me the location of the no-wake zone, but I in no way could remember this particular no-wake marker. Objects you see every day simply do not look familiar when they are taken out of context and it is the only thing you can see. We were unofficially lost. The geographical makeup of Lewis Bay and the channel gave me confidence that we would not be heading out to sea to become the night’s big story on the 7 o’clock news, but it was definitely going to be an interesting task getting back to my bright orange needle in the haystack.

I held my tack, all the while comforting Jason that as long as we follow the wind in the direction we’re going, we’ll eventually see land or moored boats and I’ll know where we are. I could see Jason mildly shivering. The fog had now eliminated the warmth of the sunlight and left a layer of dew on everything. I offered him another beer for lack of a blanket or foul weather gear. He graciously accepted.
“Jimmy would be proud,” he claimed raising his fresh beer into the air in reference to the Jimmy Buffet song now playing on the CD player.
“Take the tiller while I get myself a beer,” I said in some vague attempt at showing my first mate some captainly respect.

Aside from her original owner, Felix had never been in anyone else’s control. Jason looked at me with a look of disbelief like the boy in that old Coca-Cola commercial looking at Mean Joe Green after he throws his game shirt to him. A feeling of surprise overcame me when I realized what I had asked and the ease in which I asked it. It was as if I was offering up my girlfriend at a high school dance. Jason sat up on the bench, pulled the brim of his hat to his eyes, gripped the tiller, and looked to me for advice.
I opened my beer and calmly took a sip, while settling back against the damp coming on the other side of the tiller from Jason.  I glanced around and tried to get my wind, water, and land bearings.
“OK,” I started.  “The wind is coming from a direction and it is currently the only reference to direction we have. Keep her pointed just off the wind.”
“Aye aye,” he confirmed.
With one hand over the side of the boat gliding along the flat, cool water and the other wrapped lightly around my cold beer, I pushed the tiller away with my knee.
“See,” I instructed.  “If you point too close to the wind, the sail will luff.” The sail began to flap gently in the wind and the water beneath my hand stopped moving.
I slid my knee back and Jason pushed the tiller back toward me.  Felix caught the wind and began to heel over a bit more than before. My hand again began to glide through the water.
“Now if you steer off the wind too much you’ll feel her heel like that and you’ll know you’re slightly off your tack.”
Jason pulled the tiller back toward him and kept Felix properly trimmed. I glanced over to notice his shivering had stopped and a large smile covered his face.
“That’s amazing.  You can actually feel the boat and how it’s reacting to the wind.”
“Right,” I said.  “Now you’re sailing!”
“I can’t definitely see the appeal. I could…hey….is that a….a boat!” he barked pointing at a fuzzy gray form in the fog.
“Yes it is!  Okay…a boat,” I said hesitantly. “But where the hell are we?”

I took the tiller back and maneuvered Felix past the mysterious boat and into a mooring area with about 20 other boats. I knew it was a good indication that we were in Lewis Bay, but was unsure specifically where. Eventually, I recognized a beach that emerged from the fog off the port-bow and the wind was now off the starboard. By my estimation, this meant that we were directly upwind of our destination and it would require 3 to 4 large tacks into the unknown to get there. I pulled the tiller close spinning Felix to starboard and started the first tack. The comforting beach and boats in the mooring field disappeared behind us. I released the tiller and stood up to take a look around and Jason quickly took over like an experienced first mate. He knew what he was doing now and the power of the wind felt good to him. We sipped our beers and moved silently through the fog. The silence on the water was deafening since all the other boats had retired for the evening.  Jason and I sat quietly taking in the wonder of the experience. Jason and Felix were now friends. Jason called out tack commands like an old salt commanding his ship.
“Prepare to turn the boat!” He’d yell.
“Come about, Jay.”
“Right. Prepare to come about!”

Jason tacked us back and forth like a sailor, each time getting a bit more proficient in the maneuver. The wind was now keeping Felix’s rudder lightly bubbling in the water pushing us towards our destination. I looked hard in the direction I thought was the shore to see a small light waving around in the now nearly dark fog. I pulled my flashlight out of the toolbox and clicked it a few times in the direction of the light and my cell phone began to quietly ring. Jason and I looked at each other as though the ringing of the phone had zapped us back into reality and ended our voyage. The adventure was coming to an end for us both. I picked up the phone to answer.
“Is that you flashing your light?” said the quiet voice of my wife.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said
“Yay,” she cheerfully whispered while she hung up the phone. I could see the light of her flashlight rise up and fade away into the fog.
“Meg?” asked Jason.
“Yeah.”
“She’s a good woman,” said Jason seeing my disappointment in the journey’s end.
“Yeah. She is.”

Jason reluctantly handed the tiller back to the Captain and I made our final approach to the mooring. Felix coasted to a stop at the mooring whip.  Jason tied her off and I stepped forward to douse her sail. The fog covered us like a wet blanket and darkness was taking a stand, but Jason and I sat in the cockpit, sipping the last of our beers and listening to the final versus of the song on the CD player. “Grape fruit, bathing suit, chew a little juicy fruit, wash away the night.” We looked at each other and smiled and sang a verse.
“Thanks for that trip. I needed that.” said Jason as to break our melancholy silence
“Absolutely my pleasure Jay.”

It was a sail that I’ll remember always. It was not a rounding of Cape Horn or a trans-Atlantic voyage. It was a couple miles across two bays with a very challenging return home. It was a sail with an old friend and a meeting of two new friends in Felix and Jason. It was a one-of-a-kind joy that could only be put together by a fine vessel, two good people, and an overbearing natural obstacle. In retrospect, it occurred to me again that sailing is not a journey to a destination. Sailing is the destination.

One Response to Lost in the Fog

  1. Had many small adventure sailing trips on Elizabeth River, Lynnhaven River and Chesapeake Bay mostly in open sailboats.

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