As Idle as a Painted Ship…Until the Storm

The wind dwindled and Whistler drifted, leaving a ripple of wake behind on the smooth water, a faint trail that marked sluggish progress. Now and then, I felt a hint of breeze wander across the deck from the rear quarter and barely fill the large white, gold and blue-trimmed, spinnaker, so that it gently ballooned out in front of the boat. No one on Whistler moved or spoke. Quiet across the water.

Seeking shelter from the afternoon heat of the summer sun, I huddled amidships in a small area of shade from the sails and surveyed several dozen sailboats scattered about, all with limp sails and faint trails. Billy, the bowman, stretched out on the foredeck. Vic’s wife, Gabriele, and my wife, Elly, sat in the cockpit, apparently hypnotized by the lifeless scene. Salty sweat stung my eyes. I looked at Vic on the helm. Sweat dripped from his face, reddened from the heat and the glare of the sun bouncing off the mirror-like water. Vic must be fighting to maintain his focus. “Vic, I need a cold one, how about you?”

“Good,” he replied, as he swept sweat from his forehead with the forefinger of his free hand, “but move easy.”

Careful to not rock the boat and shake the weak wind out of the sails, I stepped softly below into the cabin and retrieved the iced drinks. Vic accepted a chilled can without breaking his concentration. He sipped the contents, and in a little while, a blatant belch broadcasted his satisfaction. “Vic!” Gabriele exclaimed in mock disgust.

Back in my patch of shade, I began to recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as I had done before in similar circumstances:  “All in a hot and copper sky, the bloody sun at noon…”

“Don’t!” Elly demanded, as she shot me a disapproving glance.

I could have persisted, but no one asked me to continue, and I was outnumbered if things turned violent.

Silence. Simmering, sun-bleached silence.

We drifted past Eagle Bluff, continued to our rounding of Horseshoe Island, across Nicolet Bay from Peninsula State Park, and headed west-northwest toward the Upper Michigan shore, still moving, but barely. As I repositioned to relieve the discomfort of the hard deck, I noticed large clouds with gray smudges in the sky overhead. Back over Door County, the sky was still blue, with a few scattered white puffs. Most of the racing fleet still struggled to round Horseshoe because the feeble wind could not power their sails. I looked ahead and saw storm clouds that blended with the waters of Green Bay and the distant Michigan shoreline in blotchy shades of gray to near black. I felt a queasy pang and tightness in the pit of my stomach. I alerted my shipmates:  “Hey, look what’s coming.” They turned their attention to the storm cell that threatened boats ahead of us.

Gabriele moaned, “Oh, no.”

“Be ready for a sail change, we’ll need the storm jib,” Vic said.

Wrinkles appeared on the smooth water, then whiffs of wind became a steady breeze that awakened Whistler and challenged her to perform. Choppy waves slapped the boat. The chop grew and threw spray over the bow as Whistler accelerated. As the wind continued to build, the sound of the boat’s wake grew from a muffled gurgle to a steady, swishing, growl, and the heel increased.

Boats ahead yanked down their large headsails and hoisted much smaller storm jibs. The squall hit them, and they disappeared, engulfed in a thick gray haze. A dark line on the water that marked the advancing edge of wind and rain sped toward us. We hastily donned foul-weather gear and lifejackets, then obeyed Vic’s commands as he shouted over the growing wind noise:  “Genny down, storm jib up!”

Standing at the mast, I lowered the foresail halyard. Billy released the tack of the genoa on the bow and stuffed the sail down the forward hatch. Gabriele handed the storm jib up through the hatch. Billy attached the tack while I tied in the sheets and then raised the storm jib.

“Jib’s up!”

From Gabriele:  “Forward hatch secured, drop boards in, companionway secured.”

Seconds later, the squall slammed into Whistler and rain so filled the air that I could see only a few feet. The boat heeled to an uncomfortable degree. Billy and I scrambled up the inclined deck to the windward rail and sat with our legs through the lifelines and over the side. To make myself heard over the roar of the wind, I shouted at Billy, sitting right next to me, “Whatdaya think, 25 or 30?”

“Over 30,” replied Billy. “Isn’t it great!”

Oh, to be young again. I peered through the downpour to check on Elly, and was glad to see her in the relative safety of the cockpit, hugging a winch, a few strands of wet red hair protruding from underneath her bright yellow rain cap and plastered against her face.

Like a soggy hobbyhorse, Whistler rose to punch through wave crests, and plunged into troughs. Moving walls of water broke over the bow and ran their course along the deck to the cockpit, drenching everything along the way. Chilling water crept under my foul-weather jacket and overalls and with it a shiver and twinge of fear. The boat was badly over powered and several hundred yards remained to the buoy where we would turn and head downwind. We needed to reduce sail…Shouldn’t we reef the main?

Vic thundered through the turbulence, “Should’a reefed, too late…hang on. We’ll be OK.”

Yeah, if we can breath underwater.

A few more roller coaster peaks and valleys, then the rain let up, the oppressive cover of semi-darkness fragmented to admit shafts of light, and the wind decreased from a screeching howl to a buffeting rumble. Billy sang, “Here comes the sun; “the crew’s frowns turned to smiles; and my fear twinge drained away.

We reached and rounded the buoy, headed dead downwind, southwest along the Michigan Upper Peninsula shoreline, and raised the spinnaker. No longer chilled, we shed the clammy foul-weather gear. Racing before the wind for the next several hours to the finish was exhilarating. Caught by following seas, the boat surged periodically as it rode wave crests. Several times, gusts of wind violently rolled Whistler, but with teamwork, we regained control, overcoming forces greater than our individual strengths.

The wind moderated as the glowing disc of the sun sank in red-orange splendor, its surface laced with gray slivers of scattered storm cloud remnants on the horizon.

Dusk, then darkness. White stem lights ahead, and red and green bow lights behind Whistler formed a parade of glittering dots. Clouds cleared, and moonbeams sparkled on waves topped by a faint shimmer of white foam. The sound of the boat rushing through the water gave a sense of progress and a gentle side-to-side roll created a pleasant rhythm. The lights of Marinette-Menominee, where the race began and would end, appeared on land ahead. It had been ten hours since we started. I was weary.

“Will that finish line look good, or what?” asked Vic.

We all answered, “Yes!”

I was a good kind of weary.

We finished, dropped the sails, motored to a boat slip, secured the boat and had a few drinks with a late dinner in the M&M Yacht Club.

I told Vic, “Fine crew that got you home.”

“Damned fine crew,” replied Vic.

“Damned fine scared-out-of-their wits crew,” Elly added.

“And damned fine helmsman,” Billy said. “Lets drink to that.”

We drained our glasses, retired to motel rooms, tumbled into bed and slept the deep sleep of exhaustion, having enjoyed the challenge of sailboat racing the Hundred Miler on Green Bay.

Maynard Poland is a retired physician who lives in Sister Bay during the summer. He and his wife sailed out of Milwaukee and on Green Bay for over 25 years.