Gwaihir, my 16-foot Soling was a doughty sloop. Built of fiberglass, aluminum and a bit of teak for deck, rails and hatch, she lived in my basement through the off-season. I lovingly painted her hull and lavished layers of varnish on her bright work.
I co-owned the little boat with a moody guy who lived on a shallow canal on the south shore. A Soling is easily launched from a trailer, but it was convenient to keep her in the water. If the tide was with us we could sail. Sometimes, even with the board up and the draft a mere 16-inches, there wasn’t enough water at low tide. We waited.
My husband had grown up on the water, had his own sailboat from childhood. He lacked fear where the ocean was concerned. Bad weather, good weather, it didn’t matter. He loved sailing and whenever he wasn’t working, ahoy, make way for Gwaihir!
A drawbridge spanned Sloop Channel. To get the bridge opened, you had to make an appointment with the bridge opening guy … and you had better be on time. If you had a sailboat and hadn’t lowered your mast, you could not sail under the bridge. Although our little boat’s mast was just 27 feet, it was nonetheless a foot and a half too high for the bridge.
There are strong tides in Sloop Channel. It can be hard to navigate, especially under sail. Moreover, a 16-foot centerboarder is not ocean-worthy. Maybe if the ocean is flat, it’s “doable,” but never a good idea. Every time my husband insisted we sail out into the Atlantic, I spent the voyage with my heart pounding hoping we didn’t become a statistic, a cautionary tale of poor judgment on the sea.
Did I mention that my son, a toddler, was with us? Did that deter my husband, his father? It did not. His father had sailed the family boat through the eye of Hurricane Carol with he and his sister aboard. He was not about to be deterred. By anything.
This day, we planned to drop the main and use the outboard to power us under the drawbridge. We hadn’t made an appointment, so the bridge wasn’t going up. Too bad. That was my favorite moment, when they stopped all the traffic in two directions so our little sailboat could pass underneath.
This day was beautiful with a brisk following breeze, the tide with us. We skimmed smartly wing-a-wing over the water towards the bridge.
“Uh, Jeff? Shouldn’t we drop the main? The bridge is coming up awfully fast … really … look … it’s right there.”
By the time the words were out of my mouth, Jeffrey bellowed the immortal words every sailor wants to hear:
“PREPARE TO REPEL BRIDGE!”
Suddenly, the bridge was on us. I was on the foredeck fending it off with a fiberglass boat hook, while Captain Bligh tried to start the outboard and simultaneously drop the main before it snapped. Fortunately, he dropped the main first and started the engine next. We got a little banged up, hitting the cement pylons as we bounced under the bridge. No problem. We still had a mast. Eventually, the engine came to life and we had power, sort of.
I had successfully repelled the bridge. On this day, the ocean rollers held no terror for me. I had fended off a bridge. I had no more adrenaline with which to be afraid. It was just another sunny day on the Atlantic Ocean.