Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Rescue at Sea

This is a true story (I think that (dis)claimer should be a red flag that this is a narrative embellishment of something that actually happened, filtered through the lense of many retellings such that it has begun to follow the logic of narrative construction as much as the logic of, so called, reality). In it will be revealed the reason for my sitting on my glorious (pseudo-is it?)scientific discovery for so long. Unconscionably long, you might say.

That reason is simply that I lack the talents as writer which are part and parcel of demonstrating the validity of what it is that I, supposedly, discovered. I wish it were simply a matter of mathematical demonstration. Alas, what I require is close to that misconstruct - talent. And even if I were to display a kind of talent, I still more clearly lack - call it - diligence? Whatever is the opposite to dilettantishness. Discipline! That's it. I am a hacker.

The first problem is that "sea" is a misconstruing of the actual body of water, the very very prosaic Lake Erie. And "rescue" stretches the case for what might have actually been more humorous than dramatic. But the basic outlines are, I swear it, true, by the ordinary usage of that term. (I take the radical definition, which would have truth a measure of conformity to some standard, the iconic demonstration of which would be straightness or level against a carpenter's tool).

As background, you should understand that I still own a somewhat nondescript and very old wooden sailboat. This is not the boat which would grace the pages of dreamy publications for the wooden sailboating cognoscenti. For me, though, it does have that certain Tim Russert kind of love core, which trumps the airbrushed eye-candy attention-grabbing of objects beyond my means. (I am here clearly boasting of my moral superiority to "you" who lusts only after the chimerical product of godlike talent - well except that the outpouring for Russert, witnessed only the other day at the 4th of July festivities in Buffalo, betray a more pure core than I grant you . . . )

My sailboat, P'eng Lai (more on that elsewhere), now languishes beside my outback hermitage, largely because its 1939 gasoline engine has gone beyond the rusty pale, cooled and saturated by raw sea water most of its life. More accurately, because my own internal gumption has long gone the way of all flesh.

But, in the event - I cannot tell nor recall the date, but it must have been around 8 years ago - the engine was already being quite problematical. Still shy of complete diagnosis, I'd simply assumed, based on plenty of evidence from having the engine apart, that the basic issue was water in the combustion chamber. The head bolt seats were rotted away, and multiply heli-coiled. The cylinder walls were approximately paper-thin. The symptom was a kind of epoxy-like black ooze which cemented the valves stuck open after putting out of the harbor into open water. Kerosene, I'd foolishly discovered, would dissolve the ooze enough to start back in, but I didn't always have the opportunity to attempt the fix, which made the re-docking part of outings a kind-of comical exercise.

To digress a bit more, because it's fun, and because I find metaphor in just about everything, I'd sail homeward around the old and vaguely proud lee of grain elevators, subject, variously, to proposals for conversions to condos or restaurants or museums because Buffalo just can't let go. No. I lie. It was the lee of the trees covering the spit on which the Coast Guard station sits. But there's truth to the grain elevator story.

Anyhow, there would be an impossible lull every time. Since the reason for my engine not being resuscitated in the first place was generally that there was too much wind, there would be a kind of depositing from the storm, followed by a forcefull back draft pushing me straight into the dock. I never did develop the kind of sailing skill exhibited by comperes better looking than me. But I always did manage to get back to the dock.

On the day in question, I was out, typically, alone. I remember sailing over my familiar initial nervousness - somewhere closer to panic - since the exit from the harbor is always dead upwind through a narrow channel, and as the swells build the engine's continued running becomes less likely. My mind is often full of images of blowing smash up against the Coast Guard wall, anchor hopelessly tangled below, sails fouled in partial way along their tracks, with consequences worse than death. At least as bad as dirty underwear in the ambulance.

Getting underway is always a panic with the tiller lashed over in estimation of how the sail will catch, for a dash forward to hoist the main, generally first, without losing the trailer-trashy winch handle. Then back to release some ties so that the heel won't overreach the carburetor's likelihood of keeping in the gas, then again forward for trim, and back and below to shut off the gascock, and then the engine, and so forth.

Once underway, as on this particular day, I find first a sort of calm up against the peculiarly daunting Lake Erie swells (the bottom is so close it reflects their energy, and causes them to run so close together that "bounding" is a perfect description). If, as I think was the case this day, I have to follow the escape from the harbor with the challenge of hand tying all the furling lines (about a million), my calm is also a physical breath catching.

And then somehow I find an unwarranted though perfect confidence in the integrity of hull and rig and make my inward passage to a kind of euphoria, always measured though it is against the time when I have to brave the way back to the dock.

I remember being spooked by what seemed the hallucination of children screaming after sailing quite a ways out and away from any other boating fools this really really windy day. As in the car with the windows open and the radio blaring the sounds of trouble still make their way through, I was alerted. I craned all around while inwardly imagining a foolish family, out perhaps for their first trip in a new outboard, now turned turtle, terrified in the water.

This was not purely the conjuring of my overactive imagination, since most of the boating mishaps I've seen have been just such come-uppances to pride and joy. My imagination did probably add the bathos of relative poverty and reach for something a little beyond one's station, though this too is a common enough tragedy in the environs of Buffalo.

In any case, my thoughts immediately went to the state of my engine along with my single-handed incapacity to rescue an entire family, and I felt the adrenaline rush while repeatedly scanning my surroundings.

Eventually I decided that I'd heard some stray seagulls (so called - I think they're almost always Lake Terns) and settled back in to my by now somewhat disturbed bounding joy.

Until I heard it again, and more certainly not a seagull. I lashed over the tiller, which doesn't give me a lot of time against the sharpness of these waves, and clambered (the perfect word in this usage) as far up the mast as I could get until, standing atop the primitive halyard winch I scoured the water as efficiently as I could and still came up with nothing to explain the now ghostlike cries.

Finally, in reflex response to an especially clear shout, I catapulted myself atop the cabin house while topping a wave and did actually see a man, seeming half out of the water, with arms outstretched and yelling to save his life. He must have seen my sail before I could have seen him and performed a minor miracle of aquatics to pull himself so high above the waves.

Ordinarily, in such situations, the skipper (me) stations a pointer to keep tabs on the overboard victim, so I knew to keep my eyes and head focused on the exact spot while I maneuvered awkwardly about for an interception.

I remember scampering below while dead upwind to open the gas, switch on the battery and crank the engine, since still in my adrenalin saturated brain that seemed the most likely way to effect a rescue. There was a small chance, quickly abandoned, and so above again I rehearsed in my head the precise maneuver I would need to come about directly on top of the swimmer, to drift into rather than away from him without too much pressure of wind and put him on the low side in position to be hauled aboard.

In the event, I maneuvered perfectly (never when the dock sirens are around) and found the same superhuman strength he'd used to hoist himself above the waves to clasp his arm and yank him onto the normally too high deck, one hand on the hauled in boom. It was a good thing, since he was spent and only managed the absurd formality of "thank you sir" over and over and over.

I did have a small handheld marine radio, by which I hailed my imagined nemesi (??) the Coast Guard, since I knew I was in rather over my head with this one, and then heard his simple story about how he'd been out jumping the waves with his buddy on the back of his jet-ski. Innocent in the telling, clearly, of the contempt such stories might raise among the likes of real salts (my only claim to being considered among that group is the contempt seemingly ingrained in me for jet-skis).

He'd hurt his back on one of the more spectacular jumps, and when he landed in the water on another, he needed a short break. The eager friend asked him to wait right there while he solo'd a few more, in my mind clearly frustrated by the dead weight which was limiting his spectacular flights.

My contempt confirmed (you can't relocate a spot in the water, certainly in proportion to the wave action) we headed back in toward the breakwater which defines the outer limits of the Buffalo harbor, and there patrolling its seaward side was the distraught buddy, skimming back and forth (looking for bodies!!???).

We had a rendezvous scheduled with the Coast Guard, and sailed about the leeward southernmost entry into the calm water within the wall. The Coast Guard inflatable soon pulled alongside and sternly claimed jurisdiction of my pirate's find. I was inwardly more than a little relieved that, in apparent deference to my salty appearance if not fact, they never trumpeted any request to lower my sail and start the engine. I was moving steadily and it was easy for them to match my speed to effect the transfer.

By now it was dark, and the water was calm enough that I could go below to fire up the engine. I was taken aback to find the (ancient 6 volt) battery terminals entirely melted away amid the smell of spilled gasoline. And, to cap off the day, just as I was coming up against the back wind swirl which always made docking such a treat, along came the same orange inflatable, in time to catch me without running lights in the now pitch dark, and then, so I feared, to board me to the smell of spilled gasoline to boot.

But instead, they saluted, or so I imagined, with a loud signal from their air horn as they flew past up the Buffalo River, perhaps in pursuit of some other waterborne renegade. And I docked and lived to tell the story, certain that another life was also saved by my ill advised venture out where, that day for sure, there was not a single other boat. And I was far from shore. Of that I'm almost certain.

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