Deepwater Anxiety

We motor-sailed on to Galveston, another easy run, no wind to speak of.  At the mouth of Port Bolivar, where the giant freight ships came into the Houston Ship Channel, there was anchorage in a deepwater pocket well out of traffic.  It was not well protected from any direction, but the weather was fair, predicted to stay that way until tomorrow.  We would anchor in Port Bolivar for a few hours, eat a good meal, rest up, and then head out.  I figured to go in open water as the sun went down that evening.

While Betsy made lunch, I reviewed the charts for a run offshore to Sabine Pass, a distance of less than a hundred miles.  I had the navigation worked out and plotted with the waypoints and estimated running times.  Each calculation, all simple arithmetic, had been checked and rechecked.

I had planned a series of short hops along the coast to New Orleans, then east, through Mississippi Sound, to Mobile, Alabama.  By then Betsy would have a good idea what it was to go offshore and stay long enough to get somewhere. We would sail at dusk, go all night, and fetch the sea buoy at Sabine Pass about daylight. We had plenty of time for a sandwich and a nap.

Betsy fed us and then went on deck, spread out in a pair of short shorts and a halter top, taking the sun.  I stayed below making alterations to a life harness for her to wear in deepwater.  I took it topside and had her try it on again.  It needed more tailoring to fit just right.  I ducked below with new measurements.

I sat down to work with a sailmaker’s palm and needle, using wax thread to make the harness right.  I was thinking that my time would be better spent taking a nap, but I was too excited to shut my eyes, and I had been meaning to do this alteration for Betsy and hadn’t gotten around to it.  The harness was essential.  In a few hours we would be in open water.
She called down the main hatch,  “Hey Bo, the Coast Guard’s watching us.”

I looked out and saw them idling on a gunboat harbor cruiser two or three hundred yards astern.

“What do they want?” Betsy said.

“They’re just looking.  Don’t wave to them.”

“I already did.”

I could see the lookouts watching us through binoculars.  Any attempt to be friendly made them suspicious.  Mysterion was the only pleasure craft in the anchorage.  I had long hair.  Betsy could have passed for the trophy wife of millionaire heart surgeon or a GQ drug smuggler, take your pick.  Here they came. Their bull horn crackled; a voice ordered us to stand fast and prepare to be boarded.

Two of them with pistols waited at the bow, their captain came alongside.  There was a deckhand stationed at the machine gun mounted on the bow.  The boarding party skipped over Mysterion’s lifelines, young men on a mission, trying hard to ignore Betsy in short shorts.

She asked if they would care for some sweet iced tea?

They declined.

They were authorized to search if they pleased, mandated to check us for safety gear.

One of the guardsman and I went down below, the other and Betsy stayed on deck.

Below, everything was in order, the ship’s papers and so forth.  I showed the guardsman life jackets, signal apparatus, fire extinguishers, all properly mounted, as was the life raft on deck.  The guardsman had a clipboard with a checklist of questions.  Just as he started, I asked if could sit down and keep working on the life harness while answering his questions.  He said that would be all right.  He watched my hands.  I wondered if the sailmaker’s needle I was sewing with made him nervous.  He asked if I firearms on the boat?

I admitted the pistol, a stainless steel revolver.

The tall big-boned guardsman wanted to know if it were loaded?  I answered, no, that it was stowed in a cubby hole under the main companionway unloaded.  Oddly, he didn’t ask to see it.  He sat down across from me, and went ahead checking off questions: where was I headed? why was I going there? and so forth.

At the end of the list, he said, “You’re in good shape, Captain.  Most blow boat skippers we see have deficiencies.”

“It’s a new vessel,” I said.  “Stop me again in six months and I’ll probably be missing something.”

He smiled and said he doubted that, that I seemed like I knew what I was about.  I told him I hadn’t been offshore in a long time.  I asked what it was like between here and Sabine Pass.  He shrugged and said, “Nothing special,” told me to check Notices to Mariners; he hadn’t heard of any markers that were out.

He gave me a copy of the inspection report.  He was getting ready to leave.

I said, “If I get in trouble, you’ll come and get me won’t you?”

“Yes sir, that’s the job.”

“Damn right, and I’m a taxpayer.”

The guardsman laughed.  He was a big kid, maybe 24, wearing a uniform, a loaded gun, and more authority than he was comfortable carrying.

I told him to be safe, and he told me the same.  We did not shake hands.

The boarding party skipped back to their gunboat.  The Coast Guard left us alone.

We still had plenty of time to get offshore.

I gave Betsy the life harness to wear that would keep her tethered to the boat.  It fitted her almost like a bra, with shoulder straps two inches wide, cinched  below her diaphragm, with a stainless D-ring, off of which hung tethers with big stainless snap hooks for the lifelines.  One of the tethers was long enough to let her range on deck.  That one would be made fast to a pad eye in the cockpit.  If she and the baby fell overboard, they would be dragged for as long as it took me to haul them back up.

She watched me adjust the two-inch webbing straps of the harness, making sure she was comfortable to breathe.  Then it was fixed, and she was sitting on the coach roof of the boat, looking out at the ocean.  She was a big girl, weighed 140 and change, and she was strong in the shoulders.  If she got overboard and wasn’t knocked out, she could help pull herself up.  Working together, we could probably get her up without a bosons chair.

I thought about tying some knots in the long tether for hand-holds, and decided that was a good idea.

It was then around five o’clock, with plenty of daylight to get clear of the sea buoy before dark.

I thought of all the things that could happen between now and tomorrow morning.  The ocean was a lake with a wrinkling breeze; the horizon clear.  There were dolphin rising in the channel.  The deepwater swell from the Gulf of Mexico lifted the boat and let her down easy.  The heavy ridges of water came at regular intervals, like a big hand rocking the cradle.

I could not shake the doubts I had of myself.  I had to face that I was scared.  I could not talk about it with Betsy, and I could not let Betsy know.  If she could hear the conversation I was having with myself, she would be a fool to go offshore with me.  I would be a fool to go there myself, let alone take her and the baby, unless I could stop talking to myself this way.
I did the right thing and called it off, with no explanation, just that it was getting late, and I didn’t want to rush it.

That night the cargo ships, big ones, one after another, at regular intervals, paraded into Port Bolivar, up the Houston Ship Channel.

I heard the first one not long after we turned in.  It woke me up from a deep sleep.  The sound of a ship’s propeller, at first a distant throb, began to resonate and penetrate the hull of Mysterion.  A small boat sailor learns to recognize that sound, because the source of it, if you are close enough to detect it, is much closer than you’d like to be.

Offshore the greatest danger you have is being run over by a cargo ship.  The sound of one is like the rapid footsteps of some impossible creature coming to swallow you whole.  The first of it you hear is distantly gigantic, indicative of the size of the “screws”, the propellers that move the ship and issue the vibrations.  The throbbing is sinister music, a relentless succession of bass notes growing closer, louder, deeper, and more frequent, with increasing effect on the hull of your boat and your eardrums.

The sound causes small items lying loose around the boat to tinkle and buzz.  The throbbing penetrates your body cavity, stomach, lungs, heart, traveling between your ears with escalating effects, the penetration of your skull becoming painful.
I stood in the main hatch, watching the ships, long as two or three city blocks, complete with the buildings and all the lights, gliding north up the channel, violently irritated with the Coast Guard for not advising me to move my ass before the parade started.

I could see the next ship, its forward and rear mast lights coming up on the horizon, maybe half an hour out.  Soon as one was around the bend, you could hear the next one.

The parade went on all night.  Somehow Betsy slept.  I wouldn’t lie down with her for fear of waking her up.  Her body was bound to be as effected by the sound waves same as mine was.   To my ear, the vibrations; grew more high-pitched as the night wore on, and wondered about their effect on the baby.

I sat on the padded bench berth in the main saloon, across from the dining table, bracing my feet against the opposite settee, so that as the sailboat rolled in the wake of each passing ship, I did not have to compensate for the motion.  I tried plugging my ears with my fingers, which effected some diminution of volume perhaps, while the throbbing never let up, and I couldn’t sleep.

I entered a state somewhere between dreaming and consciousness.  It was as if I were floating in Betsy’s womb, me and the embryo equally penetrated.  I was sick with concern, and the guilt cowardice brings on, for not swallowing my fear and going offshore as I had planned.

I started to wake Betsy, pull anchor, and get anywhere but here.

By then, the night was three quarters gone.

The parade ended before daylight.

Over bowls of oatmeal, I asked Betsy how she had slept?  The ships’ parade was news to her.  I said nothing about it, but I imagined the baby could have been permanently effected, might be deformed.

Of course, I said nothing.

I turned on the weather radio.

A cold front would be on us late that afternoon.  I knew it was coming.  Had I decided to make for Sabine Pass ahead of it, we would have been dropping anchor in Sabine this morning.  We could have avoided the parade, and been laid up in Sabine while the cold front rolled on to New Orleans.

I would not have this guilt for a cowardly decision.  The embryo’s integrity would not be in question.

I would have to carry my concern all the way, and I could feel it growing.

I didn’t know what to do.