Anne left the dock in the morning chill of December 9, 2013, without ceremony. We were going to sea at last, but first we had to make it down 26 meandering miles of the tannic tea-brown Cape Fear. Saint steered us away from the marina and past the twinkling lights of the city of Wilmington, still wreathed in a misty morning fog. Everything looked dreamlike, surreal, haunted. I thought it would be the last time I’d see my city for a while. I was wrong.
South of the city, the mammoth outline of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge loomed like a red-eyed specter above the river. We could see car lights traveling from Leland in the early morning, and hear the low rumble of wheels on steel. We motored underneath, riding the falling tide toward the ocean.
“This fog is only getting worse,” said Captain, peering out ahead of us into the mist. He squinted at his paper chart, rendered useless without visible landmarks to navigate by. “Slow down,” he said to Saint at the helm. “I can barely see the bow of the boat.” As we motored further down river, nearing the state port, the fog grew thicker. We were flying through the misty heart of a cloud. Everything felt damp. The throb of our engine became weirdly muffled by the suspended vapor.
“Those are the lights for the port,” I said, while pointing off to the left at a row of dull halos suspended in the mist. “There’s a big concrete dock over there we don’t want to hit.”
Saint altered course a little to starboard, and soon the lights faded. Engulfed entirely by fog, we were left senseless in a white dream. We were lost, gliding blindly along an unfamiliar river shore. I felt defaulting to the GPS on my cellphone would be a concession to modernity too early in the game. We had no depth sounder either to warn us of shallow water; instead, we had a lead line, which lay buried in its locker in the pilothouse. We crept along, carried by the tide, until we felt a long, sliding bump underneath the deck. The schooner suddenly stopped bobbing and was still.
Captain cursed, leaped over the Saint and grabbed the wheel. He spun it hard, shifted the motor into reverse and gave it maximum throttle. The engine howled from the sudden load, but churned against the current with the power of 120 horses. White smoke belched out of the exhaust. The schooner remained motionless. We were aground. The full weight of the falling river was on our stern, pushing us further into the soft river mud. Try as it might, our diesel could no longer overpower the forces of nature. We weren’t going anywhere.
“Well, there’s nothing to do now but wait for the tide to switch and float us back off again,” Captain said as he throttled down the engine. “Let’s have some breakfast. Then we’ll tidy up the deck.”
The Artist went below to make oatmeal and more coffee. The Saint and I went over the deck with the Captain, and tended to details we overlooked in our frenzied rush to get going. The schooner listed further and further to starboard as she fell with the tide; the muddy riverbed impaled on her 10-foot-deep keel. As we worked we walked across the slanted deck like mountain goats. The sun shone through the fog as if through a lens, but the cloud that enveloped us refused to dissipate.
“Well, this day didn’t go as we planned, but it was still productive,” Captain said between mouthfuls of rice at lunch. “We got a lot tidied up on deck. Once we get unstuck, we’ll turn around and dock at the marina for the night, and leave again tomorrow morning.”
As the afternoon passed, the schooner slowly returned upright, buoyed by the rising tide. At 2 o’clock we goosed the engine into reverse and were able to float free again. I turned the bow back toward the city we had left, and steered lazily past the afternoon bustle of Market Street.
Soon our dock was in sight.
“Let’s dock starboard to,” Captain said.
We began to prepare our lines accordingly. The Saint was in the bow, Sinbad was in the stern, and I was amidships with the Artist. The Passenger was still below, asleep in his bunk. We saw the burly figure of Bear on the end dock, who awaited the lines we threw to him. As we drew closer, I saw his face go pale and his eyes widen.
“Turn around!” he shouted—his arms waving. “The tide’s behind you! You can’t dock that way! You’ll crash!”
Captain suddenly realized the river was driving us toward the dock. We were approaching too quickly for a landing; with this much momentum, we wouldn’t be able to stop when we arrived. Captain would have to maneuver the big ship around so her bow pointed into the current. Space and time were running out. Sinbad, unsure of what to do, threw his dock line prematurely. It landed in the water with a splash, threatening to foul our propeller.
“Get that line out of the water!” Captain shouted. “I’m bringing her around!”
For the second time that day, he spun the wheel hard over and revved the engine. I ran astern to assist Sinbad. He stood motionless and stared at the other massive concrete bridge, the northern twin of the pair that bookended Wilmington. It lurked just beyond our dock, immovable and dangerous. “We’re not going to make it!” Sinbad wailed, as he pointed at the boiling water around the bridge’s base.
“The current’s too strong!”
“Shut up!” I said. “Help me pull this line in!”
As Anne began her slow, wide turn (for there can be no quick maneuvers on a 60-ton schooner), I realized he might be right. The bridge grew larger as the unstoppable momentum of the tide carried us directly toward it. I watched its slow approach in silent horror. The engine screamed.
Captain made his best and only available move. There was nothing to do but wait and see if it had been enough. The die was cast, the cards had been played. Time slowed down.
The Artist and I will die, I thought. All because of my selfish, naïve lust for adventure.
Closer it came. Closer still. Then, miraculously, our arc tightened. Concrete oblivion slid past the stern so closely I could have touched it. Death passed us by, for now.
We tied up the boat, and laughed nervously with Bear to avoid thinking about what could have happened. I looked at Captain. Silently gripping the wheel, he looked lost in thought—perhaps prayer.
“When you prepare to go out onto the sea,” he told me before we left, “you must first accept the fact you might die out there. You must be totally committed to your survival on the ocean. Every decision you make is the most important one.”
For the first time on our voyage, I saw what he meant.
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.