© REESE PALLEY
She was a little sloop with no name. I had bought her on a whim, all 22 feet of her in total deshabille. She was vintage fiberglass, well found as most early glass boats were, but rusty and gored in places and rotten down below.Her beauty had been obscured by dirt and disuse.
I bought her by accident, the way good things happen. I was answering an ad for a modern 24 footer but I became confused over the address. I pulled into the wrong front yard and there was the wrong boat, waiting for me. The right underbody, the right age, the right rig, the right size and, upon a little inspection, truth in building.
Her owner was as confused as I. He had not advertised her for sale and I kept insisting that he had. He would like to be rid of her but she was "too much trouble to sell'. He viewed the boat as a total liability and me as a total loony, but when I was able to convince him that, although confused, I was serious, he said "How about $3000?" I heard the question mark and I knew I had my boat. In the best haggling tradition I offered $1500 and quickly settled for $1800 because eighteen is a lucky number.
I hauled my nameless waif to my own backyard and, contrary to all advice I have ever given or received, I did my survey after I bought her. I had got what I had got and I was resolved to love her. She had a cast iron keel (rare these days) and lovingly laid fiberglass put in with a heavy hand. She had yards of varnished mahogany below, an outboard rudder of heroic dimensions and 27 feet of elegantly extruded aluminum mast. She had been built in France a decade and a half earlier. The name of her class was Golif.
Her companionway hatch and frame were rotted away and she had great holes torn in her fiberglass deck where she had stove herself, unattended, in some now forgotten storm. She had a leaky, rusty iron water tank and electrics that Tom Edison would have rejected. She was a disaster. She was exactly right. I was infected with the virus of renovation.
Since this is the tale of how my boat was named I will resist a recital of reconstruction. But total reconstruction it was. From keel to masthead, from pulpit to pushpit, every thing I could think of doing, or redoing, was done, including, for reasons obscure even to myself at the moment, replacing an old but usable 6 hp outboard with a new and unecessarily powerful 9hp model equipped with a large, slow turning, three bladed prop. And well I had. But more of this later.
I rebuilt her on Long Island. Her maiden passage was planned as a leisurly, easy sail down the East River and along the familiar coast of New Jersey to Atlantic City, my hailing port. My son Gil, a good sailor (high praise from a salty father) and a friend of his, Jesse, were to crew with me. A newly rebuilt boat, plenty of strong young crew and an picnic jaunt down a short stretch of coast to which I was no stranger. Piece of cake.
Before departing Long Island I did some things right and a number of things very wrong. In the right column was the fortuitous purchase of the new outboard. In the wrong column was retaining the roller furling gear that came with the boat. I had long relegated roller furling to that long list of refuses to which old sailors cling, mostly out of suspicion, at that time, of newness. Anything so convenient as pulling a line to furl a sail had to have in it the seeds of disaster.
I have also held battens in disrespect. I was soon to be to be educated in an entirely unanticipated danger from the use of battens.
Most reprehensible was my failure to attend to weather forcasts. I had checked a three day forcast and it had seemed congenial. I had lazily ignored the fact that the closer to land the more dangerous short term weather can be. I should have checked local weather every three hours, not three days.
We sailed off into the Sound on Sunday morning for the two day downhill run to home. It was a hot and humid day dominated by a wind from the south, always a harbinger of unsettled weather. We caught the tide and were squirted down the East River and whipped through Hell's Gate, hairy for a 22 footer, but a ride I strongly recommend.
We were flung out into the Upper Bay in the late afternoon. The wind had eased and the chances of rounding Sandy Hook before dark faded with the fading breeze. Just as we slipped under the Verazanno Bridge the sun set and a bank of fog dropped on us like a curtain. I later learned that the fog had been predicted and that small craft warnings, unheard by me, were broadcast.
In all the world, bar the Red Sea, we were at the worst place. It was night and we were in a dense fog in the middle of the Ambrose Light big boat channel. Nothing is more frightening to a small boat sailor than the bow of a black freighter looming uncaringly out of a fog. Except perhaps hearing them close at hand and not being able to see them at all. Several barely missed us as we heard them slip past in the fog. They could not see us and and as for hearing us, our 'peep peep' was no contest to their 'vroom vroom'.
I headed at what I hoped was 90 degrees across the channel and as we had not had time to rig the depthfinder (wrong!) and as visibility still extended only to the mast, I asked my son to throw the lead. Depth, I thought, was the only hint I would have of propinquity to Staten Island. At that moment, eerily, a bonfire loomed out of the murk. Some youngsters were having a beach party and their bonfire was a welcome, if illegal, beacon. We were barely a boat's length off shore, in just a foot over our draw. I dropped the hook and breathed for the first time since we hit the fog. That breath was to be my last one full of relief for a while still.
The anchorage was uncomfortable. There was a bad chop and heavy swells from passing freighters. The anchor held but I had had no chance to test its grip as the shore had come up too quickly. It was time to rapidly down all sail. The roller jib furled neatly but as we let the main halyard go the main refused to come down. It stayed stubbornly and firmly up the mast, held by a jammed shackle. The main had been cut a whisker too long allowing the halyard shackle to jam into the sheave at masthead.
"No problem", said I, "let go the outhaul, pull the foot off the boom and furl the main around the mast". However there was a problem, more precisely, four of them. The battens, out of our reach from the cockpit, were acting as little booms, holding the sail into the wind and making it unfurlable. My son had to go up the mast to free the shackle. He managed, but just barely. Beware of battens. Without them we could have easily furled the main to the mast. With them we could just as easily have joined the party on the beach.
The next morning, still ignorant of the terrors ahead, we rounded Sandy Hook and sailed into a gentle breeze on our nose. This wind from and unexpected direction required our outboard and reduced our fuel supply. Somewhere down the coast we would need more fuel. The charts showed Shark River Inlet just within range of our remaining fuel.
All was going well when the Universe suddenly changed the scenery. The sky ahead turned a ragged, angry black that speaks of unpleasant winds. The darkening clouds were low and staccato with lightening. It was so unexpected, so fast and so complete a change that it was as if we had been sailing two separate passages, one unrelated to the other.
I have been through my share of squalls and have taken my measure of them and they of me. I don't underestimate them. Woe to the sailor who does. But this one harbored a nastiness I had never seen, my crew had little experience with lightening and to make matters worse shore, which could easily become lee, was only a mile off.
Lightening, I reassured my crew, rarely strikes small boats. They were unimpressed and hastened to remove all sail. The main came down smartly this time and the jib properly wound itself around its roller wire. However, as the wind had come up a sudden howler, the roller jib tightened around the headstay and we ran out of control line before the entire jib was furled. A small triangle remained, usually no problem except that in minutes the winds screamed up to 60 knots in that first squall and the 'little triangle' became a serious threat to the safety of the boat. This first squall was the most vicious of all my years of sailing and the next three were worse.
As the wind struck us I watched, with horror, as the little triangle quickly enlarged itself as the increasing force of the wind continued to 'windowshade' the jib around the forestay. Suddenly there was more sail aloft than the little boat could handle. We were overpowered and the wind continued to rise. We were unable to hold a course, and that little triangle of canvass, even with loosed sheets, laid our boat out on its beam ends. We were in trouble.
It was impossible to get onto the fordeck to bring the jib down. All I could do was to pray that the rebuilding had been sound and that the wind and the flogging sail would find no faults.
The first squall lasted half an hour. We had no time to worry about the lightening that danced about us since the task of staying aboard our out of control boat used up all our energies. We were at the mercy of the wind and that damned roller unfurling jib. The jib finally tore along a seam, easing the pressure a bit, and, at the same moment, the wind halted, literally to a screeching stop, as quickly as it had appeared.
The lightening had not let up and as we looked to the south there was an even blacker squall about to roll over us. In the short lull we got the demon triangle down and trimmed the boat a bit just as the wind leaped again to fury. To further test our love of sailing, the second storm dumped endless sheets of blinding rain on us. The rain was so dense that visibility hardly extended beyond an outstretched arm.
Acutely aware of shore less than a mile to the west, I was able to put the bow to the southeast and held her there with the blessed new outboard for the half hour of the second storm. But the following two storms were of such fury that our course and our heading became totally out of our control.
As visibility returned after the second storm we saw the third bearing down upon us. It began to seem as if they would never let up and my fears for my untested boat grew with each blow. I had never been more frightened in all my time at sea. The third storm seemed interminable. It lasted for an hour and it was all we could do to keep the seas out of the boat. Time and again we lost our sense of direction and found ourselves headed in toward the looming shore. The winds exceeded 60 knots (later confirmed by the weather bureau) and came at us from all directions at once. I started to consider the possible need to beach the boat. The winds built and the rain blinded us. The lightening was incessant and the strikes so close to the boat that we were repeatedly bathed by blasts of hot air. At times we breathed the pure ozone manufactured by lightening, an erie but curiously exhilirating experience.
As the third storm waned, and visibility returned, we found ourselves, miraculously and accidentally, within ten yards of the bouy for Shark River Inlet just half a mile to the west. I gratefully turned the little boat toward the safe harbour, now so visible and so near, when the ultimate storm, numerically and in intensity, broke upon us. It was too much. We were so close. This was the fourth squall of the proccession in whose path we lay. Its winds were 80 knots (later confirmed) and spun us so violently that the compass, when we could see it through the sheets of rain, had no chance to even damp itself. The boat assumed its beam ends, without the assist of a 'little triangle'.
This tale is not about the rebuilding of a sailboat nor is it about the survival of that vessel in terrible weather. It is about how my little boat got its name. It happened during the fourth of the four squalls and had there not been three of us aboard, and if all three had not agreed down to the smallest detail of what we saw, I would not ask the reader to strain credulity. We saw what we saw, and for whatever it is worth, I share it with you.
The fourth storm had closed down on us when we were within tasting distance of the entrance to Shark River. We immediately lost our bearings again and, as it sometimes happens in storms such as this, the wind dropped and the sky momentarily opened in the east. There, in the sky, painted in sure and solid black strokes of cloud against the lighter clouds beyond, appeared a face. The face was about 30 degrees above the horizon and about 10 degrees in diameter. All three of us saw a large round visage with round dark eyes surely and evenly drawn under a broad, clear forhead. Below a small nose, was a long downward sweeping mustache which blended into a huge white beard. It was the classic image associated with the old testament God of the Hebrews.
And a God who, at this moment, was wearing a fierce and accusing frown.
None of the three of us are particularly religious or are we even particularly superstitious. But as the winds returned and tore at the face, it changed from its original frown of fierce disapproval, just before it disappeared back into the black storm, to a wide, warm and reassuring smile. At that moment, we all knew that everything was going to be OK.
Irrational?.... Sure. A bit of communal delerium?.... Perhaps. An accident of cloud and wind?.... You betchya. Call it what you will, but we saw what we saw.
Later, safe and warm at dinner, a little drunk, with wives and friends around us to hear the tale of our small adventure, I reminded the table that our craft had no name. There was silence for a long, long moment as we all became aware that the brave little boat deserved a worthy name.
The silence stretched out, and then someone, I still don't know who, whispered.........."Godsmile"
And our little waif had her name.