No room for error

By Nat Goodale | Mar 05, 2010
Nat Goodale.

The mission is a meeting at the boatyard on the island. My goal is to negotiate the bay. It is wicked cold.

I worry about taking the boat across the water, with the ice and sea smoke. I am unfamiliar with the vessel, its quirks and feel, and I'm concerned about signals I may misinterpret. I am comforted somewhat because the ferry is running and I can raise them on the VHF if there is trouble.

I am qualified. I know boats and how to run them, single screw or twin engine. Docking won't be a problem. I'll come in slow, upwind, and drift to the float.

I've been instructed about the complexities of running in such cold weather. There are precautions to take with the engine. The saltwater intake cannot freeze and starve it of cooling fluid. There is ice and wood drifting in the bay that could pierce the hull.

Rowing out to the boat on the mooring I'm careful to dip the oars into the water, not onto the ice patches. The water-ways on the 31 foot crew boat are covered with accumulated ice. I am careful of my footing as I board, so as not to slip into the water.

The key is in the ignition. That means that the engine has not been laid up and the through-hull intake valve is open. I go below and check, to make sure. It is open.

The engine starts hard, and the alarm beeps intermittently as the engine warms up. I watch the temperature gauge and wait for the needle to register some warmth. Now I squeeze along the outside of the pilothouse and pull the punt to the bow.

I struggle to untie the frozen pennant from the forward cleat. I thread the punt's rope into the pennant and tie a bowline and toss the whole mess off the bow and we drift away.

The boat pushes ice chunks as I approach the dock, which is covered in packed snow and has a skirt of frozen seawater.

I concentrate on all the little things, and work the controls slowly with deliberate forethought.

My passenger comes down the incline. The tide is almost low and the incline is steep and slippery. He grabs each rail and holds on, making a slow descent. He comes aboard and I back off the dock and spin around and head toward Islesboro.

February is a private time to boat in Maine. The summer riff raff is months gone, and months to come, and only we serious boaters are on the water -- the boatyard boats and the occasional scallop dragger. The prevailing wind is from the north and the skies and sea are slate gray, and the water is rough and cold enough to kill you in five minutes. If anything goes horribly wrong on this three mile stretch of water, and the boat sinks, there is no hope for rescue.

This is serious business. There is no room for error. The toss of the waves and the drone of the engine lull you, but you fight that and watch for clear water off the bow. The boat is like an arrow head cleaving the waves and laying down a carpet of wake.

I pick up the other two passengers on the Islesboro side and we all huddle in the warming pilothouse as I maneuver through the mooring balls and out into open water, around Spruce Island and into Cradle Cove.

The northerly wind has driven ice around the front pier and the floats and it has frozen into a solid sheet. I slow the boat. The fiberglass pierces the ice crust and we crunch a path to the dock at the boatyard. It sounds like a can opening.

My mind is not on the meeting. We talk about grant money that may be available for capital improvements, but I am concerned that the breeze has freshened and this may complicate the return across the bay. If only I could diminish the winds.

We leave the island and the bow hits the chop and raises spray that freezes on the windshield and reduces my visibility. I work the wiper toggle switch and wash some of the ice to the side. I can see through the bottom quarter of the windshield.

My passengers speak to me about the meeting, but I pay no attention. I am focused on the landing. I plot my technique to catch the mooring's tall buoy.

I drop the passengers off at the float and when I'm finally secured to the mooring and the rowboat is tied to the stern, I exhale. I lay up the engine. I close the intake value, drain the hose, then restart the engine and pour two gallons of antifreeze into the strainer. I shut down the engine.

As I row back to the dock, I realize I worry too much.

 

Nat Goodale has flown planes from Belfast, raised sheep in Montville, and run commercial picnics from Searsport, and now sells Norwegian boats in Lincolnville. He is working on his third book.

 

 

 

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