Skeptical of seafarers' tall tales, he was led to safety in a storm by a mysterious green light.
May 27, 2014
Something about the sea can drive men mad. How else to explain all those stories of alluring mermaids, terrifying sea monsters and ghost ships? Like the legend of the Flying Dutchman, forever floating above the waves, its long-dead crew delivering dire warnings to the spooked sailors of passing vessels.
As a writer and sailor, I find these stories fascinating, but the name of my 35-foot sailboat reflects how I feel about them–Tall Tales.
My buddy Tristan was like me, which is why I thought he was pulling my leg when he revealed his own unlikely tale. He had been on a long solo voyage in his small sailboat, and was sleeping belowdecks with the boat on autopilot.
Something awakened him in his bunk, and thinking he’d hit rough seas, he ran up on deck. “I swear to you,” Tristan told me, “at the helm was a guy dressed like a seventeenth-century sailor.”
“Come on.” I rolled my eyes.
“The guy yelled at me,” Tristan insisted, “in Spanish: ‘I can’t do everything... you have to do the rest.’” The mysterious sailor gestured ahead. A supertanker was bearing down on Tristan’s boat.
Tristan pushed the man aside and grabbed the tiller, turning the boat hard to starboard, narrowly avoiding a collision. The tanker’s bow wave heaved his boat over, and when it righted itself, the upper spreader and the boom were seriously damaged. “I was lucky to be alive,” Tristan said. “The tanker crew never even saw me.”
“And the seventeenth-century Spanish dude?” I asked.
“Gone.” Of course he was.
I thought about Tristan’s story while I got Tall Tales ready for my annual winter migration from New York City to Florida. Ted, the marina’s dockmaster, warned me that a nor’easter was churning toward the coast.
I wasn’t worried. My first stop was Manasquan, New Jersey, only 40 miles south. The predicted storm wouldn’t arrive until late that night–long after I would be safely tucked in. I’d spend a few days visiting friends and wait for a weather window for my next jump offshore.
Tall Tales tugged at her lines as the first eddies of the ebb rippled the water. That tide would become a torrent flushing us down the East River, through New York Harbor, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and out to sea. “You sure you’re comfortable with this, Stu?” Ted asked again.
“Sure. I’ll be in with time to spare. I’ll see you in the spring.” I gave a cheerful wave as I cast off.
New York was far astern when Tall Tales lifted to a steep sea, slid into a trough, then accelerated upward, climbing yet another white-capped wave. The seas were choppy but the wind was aft and that meant I’d arrive ahead of schedule.
Sure enough, shortly after noon I spotted Manasquan’s sea buoy and began angling in toward shore. The waves had become steep, sharp ridges, tops blown into spume by a howling wind.
Dark clouds hung overhead. The storm had outrun the forecaster’s prediction. I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God I made it here in time.
A wave rocked the boat. I steadied myself and looked ahead. Instead of welcoming jetties lining a calm inlet, a column of roiling breakers smashed into the seawalls. The inlet’s entrance churned and spun like a washing machine. No way could I get in.
The sea morphed into a maelstrom–spray, crashing waves, the screams of a full-fledged gale. I had no choice. Forget Manasquan and run south, ahead of the storm–the only direction possible–to find safe harbor.
Just as I changed my heading, Tall Tales slammed into a trough. My electronics flickered out. No radar, no GPS, no running lights. Tall Tales was tossed about in the gathering darkness by the rage of a full-blown nor’easter.
I hoped to reach the Atlantic City Inlet, 50 miles–some 10 hours–south, but without instrumentation, an entrance would be impossible. If I turned shoreward at the wrong point, waves would smash me into the Brigantine shoals, a line of reefs far off the Jersey shore that for centuries has snared unwary ships.
I needed to hang on, steer downwind–and stay alert. I couldn’t let the boat broach and sink. If the storm didn’t blow itself out, I’d eventually be propelled onto the reefs surrounding Cape Hatteras, known as the graveyard of the Atlantic.
Night fell. The last light drained from the sky. Grimly I hung onto the wheel, fighting to keep my course in the dark. By midnight, I’d been 16 hours at the helm and the storm showed no signs of abating. Tall Tales catapulted over another wave. The flash of a red beacon pierced the night.
The buoy marking the Brigantine shoals. Those accursed shoals. I edged Tall Tales further offshore, just seaward of the reef line. But I was losing it.
I would drift off to sleep, then snap awake as the boat slipped off course. Silently praying, I tried to stay awake. If I could just hang on till dawn. The light would help me navigate.
Something was ahead of me. A massive hulk, a darker gray than the surrounding gloom. Another ship? It was there and then it wasn’t. Like a ghostly vision. I rubbed my eyes. There! The glow of a green light appeared out of the mist. Then...nothing.
If it was a ship and that was his starboard running light, then he was crossing my course, heading west. How could he be going west? He would crash into the shoals. Unless he was going into the Delaware ship channel off Delaware Bay. Was I that far south? I had no idea.
That can’t be a ship, I thought. No one else would be out in this. I was so tired, I was hallucinating. Reason said I should keep heading south. But something more powerful, more persuasive than reason grabbed me.
I gave in to a strange, outlandish impulse. I twisted the wheel to starboard. Tall Tales careened onto her new course–westward. I was going to follow that light, hallucination or not.
I kept expecting the sickening crunch of a vessel running aground. Instead, the wind and seas began to subside. I had no sense of time, space; all was blackness and rain, driving sheets of rain. I blinked hard to clear it out of my eyes. I was in protected water! Land to the north and south. Delaware Bay.
I slowly steered north, into shallower waters. In a trance, I kicked the anchor overboard. The chain rattled out, then stopped. I went below, collapsed onto my bunk, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
“Hello? Hey, anybody aboard?”
I opened my eyes. Sunlight slatted through the cabin. Dazed, I staggered on deck into a beautiful, calm day.
A fisherman in a small skiff was alongside. “Is there a problem? Why are you anchored here?”
“I’m okay. A bit tired. I came in late last night and just dropped the hook.”
“You came in last night? In that gale? No way.”
I nodded. “I lucked out. I’d still be out there–or on the bottom–if I hadn’t followed a ship in.” I recounted my adventure.
The fisherman shook his head. “That can’t be right. The Coasties closed the channel yesterday. A tug lost his tow and there’s a half-dozen barges floating around out there. No ship could come in or out. Don’t know how you managed to.”
I looked around. The fisherman was right. Barges blocked the channel. No ship looked like the one I’d followed in. “But I saw his light, and took the same course, found my way in,” I insisted.
The fisherman rolled his eyes. “Of course you did.”
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