The small sailing boat’s bow raised high into the air, hanging silent against the gray sky, before dropping into the bottom of the swell. The fall caused the timber to give a loud crack as if the vessel were coming apart plank by plank.
Greg shouted at me, “Grab tight!”
As quick as he shouted, I gripped the metal cable along the side of the boat that made up part of the railing. Then for the uncounted time the sail boat rose high against the dark waves and crashed down the backside.
Time and again, I found myself coughing up the salt water that entered my nose and mouth, only to find myself taking in more as the waves roared over the deck. I turned my head away of from the rushing water but the cold liquid always managed to push its way into my nostrils and between my lips.
Greg, the Captain, was at the tiller fighting to keep the vessel into the waves. He knew that if he allowed the wooden craft to drift sideways we’d be swept from the deck and would soon die in the icy Pacific Ocean.
He shivered but held tight to the handle of the only thing keeping the boat on course. Not even our wet suits were keeping us warm or dry.
The older man was leaned his entire body against the stick as the boat rose upward yet again. I wanted to go help Greg with the steering but knew Greg had me in the bow of the craft for a reason.
Numbing cold and the constant spray slowly caused a feeling of exhaustion. It had been hours since I had slept and my mind wandered from the danger I was in, to a point before we left the safety of Crescent City’s harbor.
Looking for extra work, as my reservist pay was not enough, I had been down to the docks. I needed the extra side job to fill that gap that threatened to leave me both homeless and hungry.
My most recent deployment had been a three-week jaunt half a world away and I had missed the sailing of the crab fleet by three days. I’d been promised a spot on board vessel but as it turned out, the Captain could not wait for my return as there was too much money at stake to wait even a few hours before putting out to sea.
Standing by the dock offices, I watched the horizon, hoping to see a returning boat and possibly getting a chance to help off load some newly captured cargo. At the bottom of ramp, two slips to my right was a man laboring with a sanding block along the deck of a wooden sail boat named, “Anita.”
I watched as the man aboard the 40 foot vessel pressed the sanding block back and forth. It occurred to me that I should offer to help him for some cash and then I could say that at least I had been working.
“Need any day labor?” I asked.
The man continued to sand the area as he looked up. At first he didn’t say anything, he jus’ kept working. A minute or so later he stopped and looked at me standing on the dock.
“I could use a hand getting her ready,” the man finally answered.
Then he said, “I want to be underway by this Sunday.”
Then he tossed the piece of wood with the gritty sand paper wrapped around it to me. I clamored aboard the craft as the man, who called himself Greg, instructed me on what he needed done.
“It needs to be sanded down hard especially along the joints and seams,” Greg instructed, “As soon as that’s done and the dust is cleaned away, it has to be varnished.”
Greg told me that as the sanding was being done, he’d start behind me with the varnish. This would make the job go faster.
He offered me three hundred dollars if I’d stay and get the job done. I agreed to the terms.
The next four days we worked in tandem in order to get the deck sanded down and resealed in a thick coat of varnish. On Saturday the new sails were delivered and hosted into place.
This was work I wasn’t used to doing. It was both a learning situation and adventurous and we worked late that last day.
Finally the sanding and vanishing was completed and Greg, being true to his word handed me three one-hundred dollar bills. After shaking hands, I pushed the bills into my jean pocket.
I stepped off the Anita and started for the gang way that led to the dock office, feeling both a sense of pride and loss as I started on my walk home.
The gulls were crying even though it was dark and I also heard the pay phone which was bolted to the dock offices outside wall, ringing. I hurried to answer it, knowing many of the fishermen used it to get messages and talk to family members from time to time.
The voice on the other end of the phone was very serious as he asked for Greg by name calling him Captain. I shouted for the older man.
“Phone for you Greg,” I hollered.
Greg stopped what he was doing and hurried up the pay phone. I noticed that he had a worried look on his face, the wrinkles appearing deep in his forehead.
I handed the phone over and stepped back, but was slow to turn and walk away, being curious about the call and the conversation.
“Hey Tommy,” Greg shouted.
Turning around, I saw Greg walking towards me. I waited, not answering him.
“Are you interested in making a hundred bucks a day?” Greg asked.
“Sure,” I answered with some hesitation.
Then Greg explained that the boat’s owner had decided not to come up to Crescent City to help sail the vessel back to Newport Beach. Greg needed a deck hand and offered the job to me.
Both the idea of a voyage and the money appealed to me and I said yes to the offer. We agreed to meet at the boat by 4:30 the next morning.
The forty foot vessel, which had felt large at one point, now seemed like a speck as it was knocked about by the waves. I felt both trapped and scared by the churning seas.
The craft lifted quickly as a swell passed beneath us, then dropped violently as we crested the huge wave. Still Greg kept his body pressed against the handle of the tiller.
Without warning the boat lifted nearly straight up, the bow pointing towards the cloudy skies. I was unprepared for the sudden vertical lift and my hands slipped from the railing.
Immediately, I found myself tumbling downward through the rigging, slamming into the main sail’s pole. I bounced off the mast as I attempted to grab a hold of it, but jus’ then the boat changed position and heaved to its right and dropping as sudden as it rose.
The unexpected movement caused me to twist around the mast and slip downward. I found myself airborne for less than a second, then crashing hard, head first through the top hatch to the cabin below deck.
The waves rushed in and over my body. I smashed into the table breaking it from its stand. Items like books and a pile of papers spread around the cabin creating an even further confusing mess as I struggled to figure out up from down.
Meanwhile Greg held tight to the tiller. He had managed to lash himself to the left side of the boats railing using a small piece of rope he had secured to the stern of the vessel for jus’ such an event.
Within seconds the vessel righted itself and I found my way to the stairs and climbed out of the galley. I tried to smile at Greg, as if to say I wasn’t worried, but it didn’t work.
The older man could see my fear and shouted, “While you were down there, did you make some coffee?”
The question caught me off guard and I found myself laughing along with Greg at the joke. It broke the tension for the moment and helped set aside the thought that I could have been swept over board and into the frigid ocean waters.
With each wave, water poured into the below deck. It was now up to me to repair the hard plastic hatch I had fallen through in order to protect the “Anita”, from taking on too much water.
Quickly as possible, I scrambled back down into the cabin and found the tool box which remained in place because it had been bolted down. I grabbed the hammer and a box of nails and hurried back up topside.
While Greg steered into the waves and bow pitched upward then fell down the mountainous swells, I went to work making emergency repairs.
First, I pulled open the back-up sail hold and yanked on the off-white canvas. It unfurled easier than I thought it would which caused me to stumble and fall back onto my butt.
However, I didn’t slow down, instead I rolled over and laid my body on the large piece of cloth and pulling my knife from my pocket, began cutting a large square from the now useless sail. I didn’t have time to measure the piece; instead I cut out an area larger than I thought I’d need.
Rolling over, I turned off my alarm. I laid there for a moment and thought about the sail boat and the voyage that was jus’ ahead of me, realizing I had done a number of things before but this was one thing I had no idea about.
Getting out of bed, I quickly dressed, jeans, tee-shirt, sweat shirt and a pair of tennis shoes. Then I went out and made a cup of instant coffee and stood by the kitchen sink drinking it.
Within half an hour I was walking down the street towards the docks. My path took me by the Catholic Church and the St. Joe’s parochial school, which I had attended at one time.
Knowing that I had long since fallen away from the church, I paused and dropped to my knees anyway. I bowed my head.
“God I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into here, but please keep me safe and let me come home alive,” I said in a little prayer.
I got back to my feet and continued on my way to the boat dock and the “Anita.”
Greg was already there and he looked at his wrist watch, “I was afraid you had bailed on me.”
“So where do we start?” I asked feeling a little pained by Greg’s remark.
There were a couple of boxes and a large bag on the dock. Greg pointed at the boxes and told me to take them down below and stow the items inside the boxes in the cupboards.
Meanwhile Greg hauled the large bag onto the deck and unzipped it. It was filled with sailing canvass and he started placing it in a three-by-two box behind the hatch cover which I was going in and out of with food from the boxes.
As soon as the little boat was loaded, Greg called for me to untie lines that held the vessel in the slip. As I undid the ropes, the small engine coughed to life and the boat pulled smartly from between the docks and started for the harbor mouth.
It would be about three days before either of us would set foot on dry land.
The weather service reported a low pressure area was moving in along the coast but it was farther south. Greg said it would be on shore before we reached it and it would cause little concern for us and the sail craft.
The deck raised the fell beneath me as I began hammering the stubby nails into place. I wanted to cover the shattered opening with the heavy canvas and prevent water from filling the cabin as much as possible.
My hands were numb from the chill of the wind, and the sting of the rain and sea water. This made it hard to hold onto the hammer and furthermore, every time I struck the head of the hammer against the tack driving it into the outer edge of the hatch, it would sting.
Still I pushed myself to complete the job.
It had taken nearly three hours and I was feeling exhausted and every bone and muscle in my right hand ached from the bitter cold. I looked at Greg again and again seeing that he too was getting exhausted.
At last, I tucked the hammer into me belt and crawled over to Greg. I moved clumsily into the padded seat to the right of the tiller and placed my hands on the stick, helping to take some of the strain off of Greg.
The weight of the rudder pressed into my body as Greg gave in to the help. It had been more than 40 hours since the storm first braced us and the sail boat.
I looked at the expressionless face of Greg, “Thought you said this was going to be an easy job?”
Greg failed to see the humor in my comment, so I decided to remain quiet.
The waves continued to heave and drop beneath the craft. But the two of us remained side by side on the tiller waiting for the storm to let up.
Another twenty hours passed before the skies showed a decrease in clouds and rain. Even the wind died down making the swells less treacherous. We had literally weathered the worse of the storm and knew it when a patch of blue skies showed itself jus’ above the horizon.
Shaking Captain Greg’s hand, I prepared to board the bus home. It would be a 10- hour ride back up the coast to Crescent City, but I was looking forward to the rest as my muscles were sore from the two-day storm we encountered aboard the “Anita.”
The boat’s owner paid me a bonus for the trouble, doubling my original fee. The extra cash would come in handy and help pay my rent for the coming month.
It was good to be back on solid land and I couldn’t wait to get home. I knew I’d soon have orders to head overseas again and I was certain that they would have very little to do with storms at sea, but it would involve a storm jus’ of a different sort.