Stocking Island, Georgetown, Exuma 1976
Some time after ten o’clock, Bruce woke up. Light streamed through a porthole next to his bunk, and a tiny voice reminded him he should get around to polishing its bronze bezel before it took on too much more of a greenish patina. He stared for a minute at the wood grain of the teak ceiling adjacent to his bunk, set his empty wine bottle back upright, and sampled a corn chip from an open bag to confirm his unarticulated suspicion that it and its siblings had gone stale during the night. He stretched, and then clasped the tiny remainder of last night’s joint in a pair of toenail clippers so he could finish it off without burning his lips. The annoying bronze-polishing voice forgot to nag him again.
He stumbled to the head, performed his morning ablutions, and grabbed fists full of breakfast from a box of dry corn flakes.
Climbing the companionway ladder, he stopped half way up, put his elbows on the bridge deck and looked around at the anchorage.
Cool trimaran over there; cute girl on board, too.
He felt a pang of boredom, but then reminded himself he was the professional captain of the Né Plus Ultra, charged with great responsibility and paid—modestly perhaps, but still paid—to live on a yacht in exotic, tropical locales. Bruce cultivated his moment of self-importance, and then, feeling he should do something definitively nautical and responsible to validate his sense of duty and importance, continued his climb to the cockpit, now with slightly more swagger to his movements. He started the engine.
Né Plus Ultra was a yawl of 1920s vintage that had been lovingly and expensively restored and modernized. She glowed with twelve coats of fine spar varnish on her wooden hull, and her sitka spruce masts and booms sported the same high-gloss finish with their tips painted white in the traditional fashion. Ratlines neatly tied to the lower shrouds made a rope-runged ladder up to the point where a topmast was affixed to the main mast, enhancing her classic appearance. The stern narrowed almost to a point where a tiny, varnished transom had room only for the vessel’s initials, rendered in gold leaf as a Victorian “NPE” monogram that might have graced an antique pocket watch case. A cream-colored sheer stripe accented the vessel’s feminine curves and provided a background for her full name to be emblazoned, again in gold leaf, just aft of the foredeck on each side of the bow. A maroon drop shadow accented the gold typography, and a long, varnished bowsprit, enshrouded with black chains provided a perch for a traditional fisherman’s anchor. A patch or two of reddish-brown tanbark sail canvas peeked from beneath her cream sail covers.
No doubt, she was a beauty, and Bruce, standing in her cockpit in a pair of cutoff denim shorts with hands behind his head, listened to the water splashing from the engine’s cooling exhaust and surveyed his kingdom. The engine came to temperature and Bruce reduced the idle speed slightly. Today would be a good day to do captain-like activities, though thoughts of polishing bronze or varnishing the dinette table offered little reinforcement to his sense of authority. It dawned on him there was only a very modest wind, and a show of casually moving the boat to the other side of the anchorage would not be an inappropriate exercise of his right and privilege as the vessel’s master.
Bruce stuffed another handful of corn flakes into his mouth, scattering a few on the cockpit sole, and strode up to the foredeck.
The anchor lines were wrapped around each other several times as he’d sat here at Stocking island through three northers with the wind clocking around each time. Fortunately, the breeze was now such that one line was slack while the Ultra hung on the other. Pulling the last fifty feet of line through one of the hawse pipes in the foredeck, he coiled up the line, uncleated the slack rode and, placing his feet on the bowsprit shrouds, made his way out past the spare anchor to where the lines came over the bronze rollers and twisted together under the bobstay.
For a moment, Bruce fumbled around with the lines and then, momentarily losing his balance, grabbed for the bowsprit as he dropped the coil of line into the water.
He looked around. Nobody watching. Good.
The dropped line was still looped around the taught line, so it would certainly be easy enough to retrieve it. He began to make his way back to the deck where there was a boathook tied to the forward shrouds, but then he looked at the line coiled loosely on the sea bottom and thought it would be easier to jump in and pull the slack line over the taught one from down in the water.
The water was refreshing. Bruce floated for a moment, wishing he’d remembered to bring some salt water soap. He had, of course, also neglected to lower the boarding ladder, but after untwisting the line, he swam aft to where a prim, white lapstraked dinghy was tied next to the cockpit, it’s varnished interior glowing with the warmth of antique wood and shimmering with the reflections of the Bahamian sky. Struggling into it, he incurred only minor scrapes to his belly, and introduced only twenty gallons or so of sea water into its interior.
Let that wood soak a bit. The salt water is good for it.
Leaving the dinghy with the water in its bilges, he made his way back forward along the port side to the foredeck, retracing his steps once after neglecting to run the end of the anchor line he was carrying outside the shrouds. He tied the line off at its bitter end, let the slack coils of line settle to the sandy bottom, and then began pulling in the remaining anchor from which hung the Né Plus Ultra.
After a minute, he tired and cleated off the line. He’d be damned if he knew where the windlass handle had gone off to. There was just enough breeze to make hauling the vessel against it a chore, and now that he’d lost his momentum, he’d have to start again. He stood on the deck catching his breath with his hands on his knees, a posture that accentuated the beer and junk food-induced extra thirty pounds on his stomach.
“Check out this guy over there,” said Hanns. “Everything he touches turns to shit.”
Yvonne chuckled and positioned herself in Chaos’s cockpit at such an angle that it wouldn’t be obvious she was watching the spectacle aboard the Né Plus Ultra a hundred feet way.
Spying his audience despite their efforts to be discreet, Bruce waved at his neighbors, and resolved to put on a show of competent and capable boat handling commensurate with the appearance and quality of the vessel in his charge.
It occurred to him the engine was already running, and that at low speed, it might provide a gentle push that would make a simple matter of bringing the boat to the windward anchor. Returning to the cockpit, he put the engine in gear and then stationed himself on the bow where, as the boat idled forward, he was able to comfortably reel in the line at a speed that allowed him to coil it neatly on deck as he went. The chain followed, and Bruce heaped it in the center of the coil before cleating it off and allowing the momentum of the boat to break loose the forty pound plough anchor that, with some strain, he was able to haul up to the bowsprit.
Breathing hard from exertion, he paused for a moment to celebrate his success and catch his breath once more.
The engine stopped with a “clunk.”
The leeward anchor line now became taught and arrested the vessel’s forward motion. His ship sat facing the wind for a moment, as if undecided about what to do next, and then slowly turned sideways and began to fall back downwind.
Yvonne looked at Hanns. “That anchor line’s wrapped around his propeller isn’t it?”
“Sure as shit. Do you think he’ll have the sense to toss that anchor back after he just worked so hard to wrestle it up?”
Bruce leaped awkwardly aft to the cockpit, put the engine in neutral, started the diesel again, and popped it into gear.
It died with an immediate mechanical sound that resonated through the Ultra’s wooden topsides.
Hanns stood up in the cockpit. “I’m betting he’s about to do the unthinkable.”
Bruce returned the engine to neutral, restarted it and pushed the throttle all the way forward. A cloud of smoke issued from the exhaust just under the transom and the scream of the tortured machine fractured the tranquility of the clear morning.
With a posture full of resolve and panic, he took the gear shift handle in his fist and slammed it forward.
The roar of the engine transitioned to silence with a pounding, and impactful percussion, made oddly musical by the wooden hull from which it emanated, as if a missile had struck a marimba factory. Smoke now rose gently through the companionway from inside the cabin of the Né Plus Ultra, and Bruce leaned against the binnacle in the cockpit, defeated.
“Yvonne, if you’ll let out an extra seventy-five feet or so of line on that starboard anchor, we can give our drifting neighbor over there a little passing room. I’ll buzz over in the dinghy and see if I can’t help prevent him from doing anything else that might aspire to seamanship.”
The Né Plus Ultra drifted sideways over her remaining submerged anchor to the edge of the harbor where she settled stern-to the wind, hanging from her propeller a mere thirty feet from the beach.