The Squall

 

The sloop turns slow. She luffs up and glides. The man at the tiller shields his face with his hand in the cool, wan light of late November. On the water he can read the signs of danger. The white caps curl sharply over and their faces change color as the clouds grow thick and gray like steel. The chop breaks across the bow and the first flash of lightning comes before the thunder. He pulls the mainsail taught with the winch-handle. He lets the jib fly loose. The tiny sloop slides toward the big rock the old timers call Execution. The man fights the water. The tiller shudders and he can now see the squall-line racing up behind him, where the bright rain meets the dark water. The big rock looms up on his right. The beacon pulses red and the warning bell tolls erratic. ThereÕs no safe passage in the lee of Execution. He must break for open water. The light sloop cannot hold her own in the face of the squall and she scuds back toward the sandbars between the rock and the beach. He has no choice now but to spread more canvas at the risk of tearing out the sailÕs grommets or even the mast itself. He ties off the tiller and reaches for the jib sheet that lashes wildly over the bow. The rain comes thick as grape-shot and green spray washes out whatÕs left of the sun. There is darkness now. Cold water. The mad rapping of sailcloth. The clatter of the winch-handle thrown free. He catches the jib sheet and pulls it up fast just as the mainsail spills all of its wind. The sloop spins in place and now the rock looms up like a breaching whale. There is but one chance for the man and his vessel. The tide is high and the sloopÕs keel retractable. He pushes the rudder hard over and steers for the straight where a narrow channel of black water rushes between the rock and the beach. He must time the keel maneuver just right or heÕll be thrown sidelong into the rock before he can break through. The sloop races before the wind. He cannot hold the course straight, but he must, the boat must pass through clean. He stands now in the cockpit with the tiller resting in the palm of his hand. He times the move. One, two, three - and he pulls the keel up so hard that it breaks the locking pin that holds it in place and he falls back into the cockpit as the sloop passes through so close that he can see the blue sheen on the backs of mussels clinging to the big rock. The sloop rumbles and scrapes across the sandbar. The rudder breaks off with a loud pop. But heÕs through. The boat makes it over the sandbar and drifts toward the beach. Behind him the waves break over the rock where, during the American Revolution, the British tied traitors to a piling to be drowned. He was a fool to go out without a radio, on such a day, in such a wind. Now heÕll have to wait out the squall on the beach. The sloop slides in and skims neatly onto the shore. It settles then tips. The man kneels in the sand. He watches the waves crash over the jagged outline of the rock where the bay meets the sea. Dark water and light. He watches the squall cross that line

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