It was almost the same trip we'd made the year before.
Then - as now - we had spruced up the boat, loaded her up with fuel and provisions, then left Down East Maine and sailed across Massachusetts Bay to the Cape Cod Canal, then out onto Buzzard's Bay and across Long Island Sound to Hell's Gate. Waiting for a good tide, we motored under a vast parade of jets landing at LaGuardia, and eventually slipped out onto the East River. I'd wanted to stop in New Jack City, but frankly, the place scared Ruth.
This year the trip was different. Too many memories. And I don't like to visit my past. There are too many dark corners in there.
Anyway, it had been a quick sail down the Jersey coast to Cape May; there Ruth and I ducked into C&D Canal and sailed on to the Chesapeake - eventually making our way to Annapolis; later, we sailed up the Potomac to D.C. It was just as we had imagined the trip would be. Full of so many places we had been to before, but now from such a radically different perspective. When you approach a place from the water, the world becomes a different place.
This year was - in some ways - no different, but then again, everything was different. Life on board was different now in so many ways that every routine felt odd - it was as if I felt out of place - like time was - now - somehow a foreign land, and I was trespassing. It wasn't the boat that felt different. It was my world. The one constant in my universe was gone.
It was my first trip without Ruth.
We'd made that first trip a year before, finally savoring the life we'd scrimped and saved for so many years to enjoy. To sail, to cruise, to explore - to keep learning.
It wasn't to be.
We were walking into Southwest Harbor from the boat one day in July, walking to stretch our legs. I heard her say 'oh', and that was it. She fell to the ground. The doctors told me she'd had a massive stroke.
One minute she was alive, holding my hand as a cool sea-breeze drifted across our sun-baked bodies; in an instant she was gone. No goodbyes. No tears. Just a lightning bolt, and she was gone. Gone. Unimaginatively gone.
When I left Maine that next September, she had been gone five weeks. I don't know, maybe I should have sold the boat, but it was our dream; I didn't want to turn my back on our dream. I didn't want to let her down.
It wasn't too hard to sail alone. If I stayed out to sea, I would have to make changes in the way I rested, would have to remain on guard for other ship traffic, so I decided to keep to the Intra-Coastal Waterway, to the rivers and canals that lead from Virginia to the Texas-Mexican border. The plan was simple: I would stop at night in dusky river channels and drop anchor, or pull into small town docks and tie up for the night. Maybe a marina from time to time, in order to do laundry or make a grocery run. Eventually, after the hurricane season ended, I would - if all went according to plan - slip across the Gulf Stream from South Florida and head into the Out Islands of the Bahamas. Maybe venture further south. Who knows what I'd do?
I sure didn't. And it surprised me to realize that I simply didn't give a damn.
I made my way from Norfolk, Virginia through the Great Dismal Swamp Canal and arrived in North Carolina just in time for the first cold front of the season. The temperature plummeted from the high 80s to - perhaps - 65 or thereabouts. B-r-r-r! Freezing! I tied up at the town dock in Elizabeth City and swore I'd just try and take it easy for a day or three.
I'd been moving down the coast so quickly. Why?
What was I running from? Why couldn't I enjoy myself, enjoy this precious time? What was the point of making this journey if all I did was fly by places in a blind rush, if I didn't get out and explore this new world? Would I spend the rest of my life in those dark corners I was so afraid of? Could I accept that their was a purpose in my life beyond that which had been given to us, to the time beyond what Ruth and I had, by mutual consent, shared?
It's hard to ask these questions when you tell yourself that the answers don't matter anymore.
There was a boat next to mine at the docks, and I heard a man and woman talking as I stood in the cockpit of my boat coiling lines and wiping down teak.
"Listen, I don't care anymore! I've had it with you, with you and this silly goddamned life of yours! I'm going to my sister's; you just do what you've always done . . . you just do what you goddamned well want to do!"
It sounded like a one-way conversation to me.
"Tell you what, Hank. I'll have my lawyer call your lawyer. Maybe then you'll say something!"
More rumbling from down below, then a suitcase flew up into the air and landed on their cockpit sole with a sobering thud; this was followed by footsteps and the emergence of a really dreadful looking woman.
"What the fuck are you looking at, asshole!"
I hadn't been aware I was looking at her. Usually I don't like to look at such profound ugliness, but by that time I noticed there were a few dozen people gathered round the docks looking at the commotion. I gave her a polite smile and looked away. She jumped down on the dock and the whole structure shook and thundered from the impact of her not inconsiderable girth. She wrestled her bag off the boat and walked toward the ramp.
I think I heard a collective sigh of relief as she walked up the ramp and disappeared from view.
I heard more sounds from the boat next to mine . . .
"Hallelujah and goddamn it all to hell! Free at last . . . free at last . . . God almighty, free at last!"
I heard dancing down there. I swear to God I did.
After a while a head popped up through the companionway hatch and looked around. It looked just like a turtle, but it had on eyeglasses. I stared at the apparition mutely for a moment, in shock really, as the turtle-man scanned the dock for signs of his recently departed - dare I say friend.
"I think she's gone," I finally said. "You can come out now."
Turtle-man turned around toward the sound of my voice. He blinked slowly, took in my form, working out in his mind I suppose if I was a threat or not.
"Fuck-an-A! Sorry, man. Sorry for that bullshit."
I shrugged my shoulders. "Ce la vie," I managed to say. Turtle-man blinked again.
The man walked out into the cockpit of his boat and stretched, then walked over to the lifelines and leaned over toward mine.
"Hi. Name's Hank Peterson. And thanks."
I stood, took his hand. "Hi, Hank. Nice to meet you."
"You gotta name?" he asked.
"Yes, Hank, I do." I smiled at him. He looked expectantly at me as I sat back down in shade of my awning. I picked up the tea I'd just fixed and took a sip.
"Man-o-man," Turtle-man said, "it's a little early in the day for scotch, isn't it?"
I turned my back to the guy, hoped he'd get the message and move on.
"Well, I gotta run into town and pick up some groceries. Need anything, just holler!"
"Will do, Hank. Have a nice time."
I slipped away a little later and walked out into town. There was a little museum, a couple of nice little knick-knack shops, but I just wasn't into it and walked over to what looked like a wine and cheese shop. Nice looking woman behind the counter. I picked up some Riesling and cheese and was walking the two blocks back to the docks when Turtle-man appeared from behind a row of buildings walking my way.
"Hey, slip-mate! Find the wine store?" He stopped, clearly expecting me to as well.
I walked right by him and never said a word. I heard him laugh as he walked off.
I got my stuff down below and into the refrigerator, then hopped into the shower. I couldn't remember when the last time I'd showered was. If I was slipping like that, maybe it was time to check-in at the funny farm. I looked at myself in the mirror, didn't like what I saw so put on fresh clothes and shaved and generally just got cleaned up, then moved to the galley and opened up the wine I'd just bought, and sliced some cheese. I set the stuff out in the cockpit and took a seat as afternoon gave way to evening, and sat there feeling kinda like 'all dressed up and no place to go' was playing on a jukebox somewhere.
"Hey partner! Man, you sure made some kinda impression on that lady at the cheese shop!"
I turned, looked at Turtle-man. His almost bald head really was kind of turtle-like, I saw, and the sudden impression was instantly hysterical. I choked on some wine and tried to regain myself as my eyes watered, but it was pointless, futile, and I broke out laughing.
"Hey, buddy, get a hold of yourself, wouldya?! I told her you were in the boat next to mine and she got all interested, asked if she could come down and meet you. I said 'why not'! She's going to be here in a half hour or so."
"You know something, asshole. You really should mind your own business!" Suddenly pissed off as I could be, I grabbed my bottle and cheese and ducked down below, then slammed the companionway hatch shut and slid the bold into place.
There! I was safe now! Just like a turtle slipping into his shell . . .
I woke the next morning and tidied up the boat, went into town to pick up some new charts and a newspaper then came back to the boat and fired up the diesel. As the engine warmed-up Turtle-man poked his head out the hatch and looked at me.
"You taking off?" he asked.
"Yes, Hank, I am. Sorry."
"You headed south?"
I grunted nonsensically while I cast off my lines and backed out of the slip, then moved off down the Elizabeth River. I looked back once to see Turtle-man working on his boat, and suddenly felt happy to be free of the guy.
Free at last, indeed.
The Waterway south of Elizabeth City crosses open sounds and traverses swamp and marsh land as it arcs south and west across the Carolinas. Rivers traverse the waterway, the rivers have to be constantly dredged to keep them from silting up, and storms can always be counted on to drop trees into the water. Just beneath the surface, where your basic, happy wanderer can run afoul of jutting stumps and limbs.
Which is exactly what I did about three hours after leaving the dock in Elizabeth City. I felt something bang up against the keel and corrected course back toward what I thought was the center of the channel, then heard the prop smacking something quite solid; as the boat shuddered from the impact I felt the keel knifing into nice thick ooze.
I had run aground. Right where my chartplotter showed a nice, solid nine foot depth, I was stuck in what had suddenly become less than five feet of chocolate-coffee colored water. Then, just to make things more interesting, the water alarm from the bilge pump went off, indicating that there was a leak down below.
I jumped below and whipped open the bilge inspection port and saw a nice healthy flow of that very same chocolate-coffee colored water now running into my boat. I ducked into the engine compartment and saw water running along the propeller shaft, and traced the flow back to the shaft packing gland; I slipped a wrench around it and tightened it up; the water slowed to a trickle, then stopped altogether.
Good. Problem one solved. Now on to number two.
I poled around the boat with a boat hook and felt solid mud from the middle of the boat forward, and open water behind me. Good news there, too. Now all I had to do was back out into the channel, assuming the propeller was still in good shape.
I restarted the engine and put the boat into reverse. Nothing happened. I retried the process, and once again the engine turned up - and nothing happened. Either the transmission was damaged, or the prop had come off the shaft. Knowing the waters around here were full of alligators - and truly foul snakes - I wasn't about to go in and take a look, so I inflated the Zodiac, mounted the outboard, and ran out with some line and began to pull on the boat - see if I could dislodge it from the mud.
It didn't budge. Not one bit.
And who should come along right then.
Yes. Turtle-man. The one and only. I was the one running, and here he came, slow and steady.
"Looks like you're having fun this morning," he said.
"Yes indeed, Hank. A fucking blast,"
"Need a hand?" No guile on his face, just a steady hand.
"It wouldn't hurt." Ah, the rabbit's gonna get his comeuppance, huh?
Hank dug around in a locker and pulled out a huge towing bridle and coiled it up.
"Here, come run this to your stern," he said as he stood up and moved to the rail. I motored over and picked up the bridle, then moved over to my boat and rigged it up.
"Alright!" I yelled across the water.
"You pull in that direction," he said as he pointed off to my right. "I'll pull in that direction," indicating my left side.
I motored over to the indicated angle and looked back at Turtle-man; it really was amazing, the guy looked just like a big brown turtle as he moved behind the wheel of his sailboat. He looked over to me as he drifted away from me, then . . .
"You ready!?" he shouted, and I gave him the 'thumbs up'. I twisted the throttle and felt the back of the inflatable dig into the water as the tow-line went taut, and I looked across the water to see Turtle-man's boat rumbling away. After a few moments I felt we were making headway, and sure enough my boat popped free of the mud, and I raced over to keep it from flying across the narrow channel and running aground on the other side. Turtle-man moved along side too and I tossed him a line. Soon we were rafted together, making way slowly down the channel.
"What happened," he yelled across to me - shouting to be heard over the sound of his motor.
"Hit a stump, ran aground. Something wrong with the prop!"
"What's it doing?!"
"Put it in gear, nothing happens!"
"Transmission linkage! Did you check that?!"
"Not yet! But I had a big leak from the stuffing box!"
"Go check the linkage; I'll hold us in the channel!"
I went below, squirmed my way into the engine compartment and with my flashlight in one hand felt the link with my other. Seemed intact to me, but I knew it would have to be checked under power. I backed out of the cramped space and went back up into the light.
"Seems tight!" I yelled, but then I noticed we were drifting quietly in mid channel. "Maybe I should try again."
"Don't bother. I can see your strut and shaft; the props gone. Got a spare?"
"Yeah, but Hank, these waters are full of big-bad monsters, if you know what I mean."
"Well, Belhaven ain't too far ahead; I can tow you there."
"You headed that way?"
"Yeah. Come on. Let's hook up the tow line to your bow. Maybe we can get there in time for someone to take a look at it . . ."
We did just that, too. It turned out the prop had indeed come off, something very rare indeed. Probably corrosion on the retaining nut, the mechanic said. We mounted my spare prop and checked the transmission linkage, and the mechanic adjusted that, too, after he tweaked the stuffing box again. We were back in the water by sunset.
Hank was already tied up in the little marina, and I motored over and tied up behind his boat. He had his charcoal grill set up on the stern rail of his boat and was grilling steak.
"Did they get it done?" he yelled out.
"Yes indeed. Thanks again, Hank. Couldn't have done it without you."
I looked at him for a second, realized I hadn't eaten all day and was indeed very hungry. The steak smelled good, too, goddamn it! "Sure."
"Well, I got two steaks on here, and a salad ready to go. Come on over."
"Yeah, well, thanks Hank. Let me wash up. Can I bring anything?"
"Got any more of that Scotch?"
"No. No Scotch. How 'bout some iced tea?"
"Well, if that's all you got . . ."
I laughed and went below and came up a few minutes later with a pitcher of tea and some ice.
"You got ice?!" he yelled when he saw my little ice bucket.
"Hell yes, Hank. There are some things you can live without. Ice ain't one of 'em!"
"You put away all that Scotch the other night?"
"It was tea. Sorry."
"Yeah? Well, like your steak about medium?"
We sat in his cockpit and put down a pitcher of tea with the steak and salad, talked about the days discoveries, and I thanked him again for lending a hand. We talked about his wife - he wanted to talk about her, as it turned out - and about the commotion she'd made. Then he asked about me . . .
"So, you traveling alone?"
"No." I could feel myself tightening up, bracing for the inevitable.
"Ah. When did she pass away?"
That question rattled me; not just the question itself, but the prescience behind it.
I looked away.
"So, I got some carrot cake at the grocery in Elizabeth City. Want some?"
I shook myself back into the present, looked around, remembered where I was. Hank was clearing dishes and walking down below. He came up a few minutes later with a bottle of Tequila and a couple of shot glasses, then poured a couple of stiff ones.
"Here. Try this," he said as he tossed back the glass. I looked at him and did the same. It burned, but it felt good, too. He poured another, and another. Pretty soon I couldn't feel my feet.
"So, what's your name?"
"Oh, yeah. We never got around to that, did we? Uh, Grant, Martin Grant." I held out my hand. "Pleased to meet you."
"Yeah. Likewise." We shook hands. Again. "So, when did your wife die?"
I guess I was drunk enough at that point to not give a damn. "About a month ago," I managed to get out, but with that admission the dam broke and I started crying. Hanks response was to pour another drink. He slid it over to me.
"Might as well get it out of your system tonight, Marty. It's like poison, it's killing you."
When I woke up the next morning, my head felt like a latrine. My eyes burned and my teeth hurt. God, Tequila is vile stuff.
I was in my boat, and didn't have the slightest idea how I got here. Son of a bitch!
I put on some coffee, moved off to take a shower, then went up into the cockpit to eat some fruit and look over the weather charts before the days run.
"Ah, It lives!" I heard Hank say from the dock beside me.
"What the hell did you give me last night?" I asked as he stood there in the sun. "Battery acid?"
"Nah, nothing so tame. Just some of Mr Cuervo's finest."
"Oh, God! Not Tequila! How much did I puke?!"
"I don't know, Marty," he said as he pointed at the side of my boat, "but I'll bet the fish around here got well fed!"
That wasn't an altogether happy thought. My stomach was still rumbling as I leaned over and looked at the garp all over the hull.
"So, where you headed today," he asked, obviously still amused with my performance last night.
"New Bern, I think. Want to hole up there while this weather blows through."
"What weather . . . you got a weatherfax in there, too?"
"Yeah. Tropical depression moving up the coast. Might strengthen."
"Shit. I was thinking of hanging here for a few days, but not if something like that's brewing. New Bern sounds like the best place for that. Mind if I tag along."
"Hell no, Hank. I'll buy you a steak tonight!"
I beat Hank there by an hour or so, and tied up at the huge marina that belonged to new, nice looking waterfront hotel. The marina was filling up with folks looking for a secure spot to ride out the approaching storm. While I was signing in, I asked the harbormaster if there was room for one more boat.
"How big?" he asked.
"I think it's an Island Packet 29."
"Yeah, right there by the pool. It'll be tight, but it'll be fine for a 29."