Spring Green Ch. 02byAdrian Leverkuhn©
(c)2009 Adrian Leverkuhn
We made our way to The Chart House for dinner after we'd tucked the boat in for the evening; going there with Uncle Chuck had become a tradition for us. It would be, I thought, neutral ground. Safe. He did his scotch and water thing and I had my usual Mai-Tai. I take that back; I had six. In about a first half hour. I was well on my way to full blown diabetes when Chuck told the cocktail waitress I'd had my limit for the evening. Oh! Did I mention that Madison was going to join us for dinner? The cousin I'd not known about until about two-thirty that afternoon?
Had the trap been perfectly set, or what?
She was, he told me, 'somewhat-kinda-sorta' bright. She was at Harvard finishing up her BS in biology – in three years, mind you – and going to medical school at Columbia in the Fall – at the age of 20. He was understandably quite proud of the girl, this daughter of his. He loved her, and after spending a half hour with her I understood why. She was just about the nicest human being one could ever hope to meet and, Chuck advised, one helluva sailor on top of that. She was smart as hell, sure, but she was nimble and quick-witted, as well. She had come prepared to do battle with me but visibly relaxed when she saw she'd only have to match wits that evening with a quite well-toasted blithering idiot. She came with her boyfriend, by the way – whom Chuck quite naturally disapproved of. The hapless kid had majored in philosophy and wanted to go into the Peace Corps. "Bad move, fella," I slurred, "better take up Mai-Tais!"
Yes, I was charming.
But Chuck had already told Madison about his idea of slogging across the Atlantic – together, the three of us. She was all for it, head over heels infatuated with the idea – as a matter of fact. Yes, a nice little trap had been set. And I'd walked right into it.
"So when," I tried to say as I picked at the salad that had somehow quite mysteriously appeared on the table before me, "do you plan on embarking on this little adventure?"
"That depends," Uncle said.
"On what, may I ask, does this depend?" By the way, I talk funny when I'm inebriated. Learned it from Dad. I took to it quite naturally, so I've been told.
"Me? Moi?" I launched into a grand soliloquy in my very best French, no accent, about how they were quite foolish to make this enterprise contingent upon myself; of course Madison came back in her very best French, no accent, that I couldn't possibly be so selfish as to deny our beloved Chuck the chance to make this once in a lifetime crossing – the chance to make his dream come true. 'True,' I said in defeat. She had marshaled her argument, was ready for me. Poor me, she said; I had come to the battlefield unarmed. Who knew a grown man could be so stupid?
"Moi? Stupide? Allez et laissez-moi en paix!"
"Oui, stupide, et vous sentez mal, aussi!"
Chuck, scotch in hand, watched the two of us going at it with his nicest, most benevolent smile just barely smothered. I had just met someone as stubborn and obstinate as myself. A good sailor, too.
The Bastard! He knew she had me, too.
I never had a chance. Not a prayer, even.
Which is how, three weeks later, I found myself sitting at the chart table starting our plot as we set a northeasterly course off the northern tip of Cape Cod. And here I need to digress.
Most people who make an eastward crossing of the Atlantic in small sailboats do so by heading for Bermuda, there stopping for fuel and a brief sanity check, and then, once there insanity has been confirmed, by heading on to the Azores and perhaps on to Portugal or the English Channel. Assuming of course they make it to the Azores in the first place.
Then there is another group, another type of sailor. Let's call members of this group the 'well-and-truly crazy' crowd. Mad as a balloon does nicely, too.
Those people whose insanity has never really been at issue, the 'well-and-truly-crazy' who walk among us, make their crossing by sailing along the western edge of the Gulf Stream north and east past Nova Scotia with an eye to skirting icebergs along a northern route that just misses Greenland and Iceland. Basically, the same track the Titanic took, only back-asswards. This route is cold, prone to sudden storms from both the north and south, and I'll not forget to remind you that in mid-May icebergs are still present in rather alarming numbers. By the way, this is the route that 'macho' sailors take, those that are racing or trying to beat some sort of record. Or just the plain crazy among us. Cruisers in small sailboats just don't take this route unless they absolutely, positively need to. As we weren't at the moment fleeing religious persecution I thought it safe to mention to Chuck that this necessity was in the instant case notably absent, that their decision to take the northern route was flawed and even dangerous.
I think my first hint that things were destined to be 'interesting' was when – on hearing the word 'dangerous' – Chuck and Madison smiled and nodded their heads vigorously.
C'est la vie. Il ya, mais pour la grace de Dieu je aller.
But the weather was glorious that first day. Even the first few days, as it turned out, and as I began to lay out our plot on charts, the fresh sea air and abundant sunshine all too apparent, I had the audacity to think that our crossing might just be uneventful and that we'd arrive in Ireland sometime in mid-June with deep suntans and grand memories to share over pints of Guinness.
Like I said; C'est la vie. Je peux etre assez stupide.
I think, looking back on it all, the third day out we should have taken stock of things and turned back. I would have, anyway, given the choice.
Sometime right after sunrise Madison and I were in the cockpit, the windvane was steering and I was feeling pretty good about the world when we heard an ungodly booming-smashing sound and the boat lurched sideways off a wave. Chuck was up the hatch a nanosecond later; in time, anyway, to see the nice bright blue and very nearly submerged shipping container that we had just slammed into. This metal colossus had just struck us a glancing blow and was now gurgling away in our wake, in seconds it disappeared completely from view. Our target had been one of those box-car size iron boxes they stack about ten-high on large "container ships"; while Madison and I shook in our seaboots Chuck told us that every year thousands of these things get washed off ships and float around like land-mines for years, hitting ships and submarines and occasionally sinking small yachts.
Oh gee what fun! If only I'd known!
And we were, I knew, lucky. Had we nailed the thing dead-on our bow instead of taking that grazing blow to the side we'd have, I think it safe to say, very probably gone down in less than a minute. The ocean felt very big those first few hours after impact and the boat very small indeed. That the hull was deeply gouged and had not fractured was testimony that Uncle had indeed chosen the very best quality boat he could have; I remembered the grateful old builder quite fondly from that moment on – and do to this day. You get what you pay for had never been proven more true.
For the next few days the weather remained fairly benign: cool and growing cooler by the hour, yes, but storms had so far passed well ahead of us or developed so far behind that they posed no threat.
In the middle of my watch on our sixth afternoon I was alone in the cockpit, scanning the horizon for ships or – yes, shipping containers! – when I saw our first iceberg. Humbling sight, really. I called out "Iceberg, Ho!" just like the lookouts on the Titanic, I assume, had, and Chuck and Maddie came dashing up, Nikons in hand and motor-drives firing away; then Uncle suggested we close on the berg and photograph her in earnest.
And so we did. Slowly, carefully, I might add, the way one circles a rattlesnake on a cold morning, not sure of the chilled creature's striking distance, we came within a quarter mile of the berg. It was huge, or so it felt, and the water around the base of it glowed with an ethereal silvery-blue-green sheen, radiantly so. Uncle decided to inflate the Zodiac and we lowered him away; he buzzed off and took photos of the boat next to the iceberg that still gives me the shivers to this day. But within a few hours icebergs were no longer a novelty and we altered course south a little to clear the floating packs that lined the northern route that year. An awe-inspiring sight, to see the moon rise over vast ranges of floating mountains adrift below endless stars.
And it got cold after that, and with May poised to become June. I'm not saying it was cool, not even chilly – it was cold, and interestingly enough I'd been living in equatorial Africa for almost twenty years. When it made just up into the forties one afternoon I grew a little panicked; when I sat my watch that night, when it fell well below freezing under those same eternal stars, I became stoically resolved that death was imminent. But the experience was so primal! It was immediately apparent out there that the boundary between atmosphere and space was immaterial; that we exist within this faint layer of gases between an unknowing earth and the vast infinity of our universe... that had never been more obvious to me and, again, I found the experience quite humbling. I felt small out there yet never had my life felt more precious to me.
Maybe that's what Uncle Chuck had been searching for... some sense of himself beyond the stony persona he'd cultivated all his life, some sense of place beyond the constructs of the 48th floor. I remember him out there under those stars bundled up in a bright yellow parka and with a musty old wool beanie pulled down smartly over his ears, looking up at the sky the way a kid looks up at a Christmas tree. There was hope in his huddled form, hope that life went on somehow, but I think more than that there was the simple aura of heartfelt gratitude blazing from his failing body.
Every voyage has its storm, just as each life comes face to face with events that define our strengths, and our weaknesses. Our voyage happened upon one doozy of a storm, but it found us well prepared and as ready as we could be emotionally. We had cleared Greenland and were in the gap between her vast mountains and Iceland, though both were still well north of our track, when a huge low-pressure system formed in the vast arctic north and barreled down on us. We had weatherfax on-board so had more than ample warning, yet sometimes warning induces more worry than is warranted. I can attest to that.
Grey clouds like mackerels' scales drifted down from the north that afternoon; there was a large halo around the sun before it disappeared behind towering walls of the storm that soon was charging down on us from the rear. Seas built slowly with each increasing gust and I waited and watched as each new fax came in, and as I plotted the center of the low on our chart I think I managed to force a sense of control over myself, over my fear. The center of the low seemed to be tracking a little north of us and it soon looked as though we might escape being in the dangerous northeast quadrant of the storm, but as always most things in life are relative. One man's ceiling is another man's floor and all that; what Chuck found exhilarating I found terrifying. While I was struggled to master my fear Maddie became short-tempered and withdrawn. No one ate a damn thing for two days, however, and I will never underestimate the nutritive powers of Gatorade ever again. It tastes just as bad coming up as it does going down, too.
But whatever nascent sense of control I fashioned soon came undone as the center of the low approached. We were running before the storm under bare poles – just the storm's momentum pushed us onward as we'd lowered all sail by that point – but mercifully the seas didn't become unmanageable and the temperature actually increased into the fifties and (gasp!) sixties. Waves of maybe twenty, twenty five feet, winds in the forties with an occasional gust in the high fifties; not a hurricane certainly but enough to get your adrenaline going. Mine, anyway.
And there was Chuck, tethered to the boat in his safety harness, smiling like the high school quarterback who'd just thrown that nifty touchdown in the fourth quarter to beat an old nemesis. He was in his element and happy as hell, happy to be alive and to be with two people he cherished. He never once felt like we were in any danger so I guess Maddie and I came to feel that way too. Chuck was the strength we tapped into, and his was a sustaining strength, a soul nourishing strength. If fear is contagious, so too can power be found in a smile. Thank you, Chuck, wherever you are. Thank you for that smile.
Waves towering, winds howling, then scattered, scudding clouds, gentle warmth in the air. Maddie down below making fresh bread and some kind of stew that tasted better than anything I'd had before – or since. The bloody miracle of seeing another shadow! The sun casts shadows, doesn't it? And what is that in the air? Earth? Tilled soil? Green hills on the horizon? I refine our position with fixes from all manner of bearings, and two days later we slipped into the Irish Sea. Time ebbed slowly now but soon the Isle of Man was ahead to port, Dublin two more days ahead. We could smell the Guinness from two hundred miles out and were intoxicated with the joy of our arrival.
We made good time; I had tentatively planned to leave Chuck and Maddie in Ireland and make my way to Africa via London but now the thought of leaving before making a final landfall in France seemed obscene. I called Washington. I twisted arms. I begged. I got two more weeks so had three to go before I had to be high-tailing it south. It would be just enough, we reasoned, so we re-provisioned and took to the sea together one more time.
And there was something else in the air now: this would be our last journey together. It was unspoken, but we all knew it.
Chuck's plan was to take the boat up the Seine to Paris then wander the French canals for as long as he could. It was his life's ambition, he'd told me once, to while away his last days on a slow boat as he drifted between limestone cliffs and vineyards bursting with life. Not a bad way to go, I remember thinking at the time.
We had another 700 or so miles to fetch Le Havre, where the mast would be un-stepped and stored, and time and a bit of luck permitting I'd stay with Chuck and Maddie all the way to Paris.
But the Irish Sea is a harsh mistress. She often has other plans.
Cold currents funnel down this stretch from deep beneath arctic seas; they collide with a weakening Gulf Stream as she deposits the last of her vast energy into the English Channel and North Sea. Cold air masses arc down over arctic waters and slam into warmer masses that have crossed the Atlantic with the Stream; when collisions occur between these air masses the results can be stupendous. The Fastnet Race is held in these waters; in 1979 such a storm formed with little notice. Of the 306 yachts that started the race more than 69 dropped out, 23 were lost or abandoned, fifteen men dead and gone when the reckoning was complete. Clearly the area is not chanced upon lightly; the prudent skipper keeps his eye on the weather. Like a hawk.
These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind as we motored between Land's End and The Isles of Scilly on a mirror flat sea; it was so calm and hot on our last leg of the journey that I'd have cheerfully gone naked had Maddie not been aboard. The deck broiled the bottoms of our feet and the refrigerator chose this most opportune time to give up the ghost. No storms threatened, the only thing standing in our way during this last passage was the heavy shipping that floods in and out of the Channel day and night, and while one does not cross this shipping lane without due care, radar reduces the stress of the exercise to modest levels.
So we made Le Havre with burned shoulders and blistered feet; checked into a decent hotel while the mast was removed and the balky fridge fixed, then after a few days standing under cool showers, we motored up the Seine. Calm this stretch of river is not; it comprises industrial wastelands punctuated by idyllic scenes of pastoral beauty, all underscored by heavy commercial barge traffic that roars by in a never-ending parade. But it was enchanting nevertheless. I could see why Chuck wanted to see this ancient beauty and make this a parting gift to us – and to himself.
We made Paris in a couple of days and found moorage in the marina by the Bastille, then in a remarkable act of symmetry we took rooms at the Crillon – where my parents went for tea, and Pernod, the day they met. We spent a good week together wandering Paris; neither Maddie nor Chuck had ever spent any real time in the city and both were fascinated as well as good students. We even managed to look over the shoulder of a rather talented young fellow painting hookers on the Boulevard de Clichy.
When I left a week later Maddie remained for a time, they spent the summer together wandering canals and following their noses, I'm sure, to each new bakery, into each new alluring vineyard.
I remember turning and looking at him as I left; he was alone in the cockpit tinkering with a disassembled winch when he looked up and saw me watching. He smiled, gave me a little salute, and a smiled back, waved before I turned away. It was the last time I ever saw him.
I took her call one day in April, almost a year later. He was gone, Maddie told me, after a last brief struggle with his own wayward cells. Those cells had, I think, imposed Change from within and Chuck simply wasn't going to have it. Rather than submit to their prevarications I imagined him just giving them the finger one more time and deciding it was time to move on and find something more productive to do with his time. What was Death to a man like him?
I thought about Uncle off and on during the flight from Nairobi to France. I thought about sailing to Bermuda and crossing the Atlantic even as Africa rolled by miles below, and the thought hit me: were all those journeys little more than metaphors? What did they represent to Chuck? To me?
And what of me? I'd been working at State for twenty plus years. I could retire soon. I was young enough to start a second career yet old enough to realize that for me that was out of the question. I had at heart so much of my father's impulsive wanderlust thrown in with Uncle's resolute curiosity, all my father's antipathy for corporate nonsense and absolutely none of Chuck's will to dominate that world; and any business sense I had was from monitoring economic developments in faltering banana republics. So what? That and a dime, right? I could remain at State simply by giving in to inertia; my life would pass comfortably and predictably into – what? Memory? Whose memory? In truth I had no one beside Maddie now; mother was falling into a fierce dementia and was beyond my physical ability to care for – she hardly knew what planet she was on half the time. I had no wife, no children, no prospects at all along those lines. And I was tired. Tired of an encroaching sense of pointlessness that lurked behind everything I thought I might try to do to Change my life, and yet I had failed to understand the one basic element of Change. Change all too often is spontaneous, messy, combustive and unplanned for. It happens. Shit happens. When you least expect it perhaps, and whether you want it to or not, Change – like a leopard – finds you unawares and springs for your throat. You don't plan on that, do you?
My thoroughly worn out and confused throat arrived at Paris/Orly in the middle of a hazy afternoon in April and I made my way pensively into the city. Maddie and her current beau met me at the Crillon; we raised a quiet toast to Uncle, wished him a 'bon voyage' at dinner later that evening, but in the end we were not sad.