Yesterday we motored almost all the way down the Cape Fear River. There was no fog this time. Six miles north of Southport the tide switched, so we dropped anchor near the eastern shore for the night. The sunset was magnificent; God threw every color in his arsenal at the dying western sky. This morning we woke up ready to go to sea.
When the last of our oatmeal disappeared, Captain said, “OK, let’s go. The tide is about to switch, and it’s going to take us a minute to get the anchor up. Artist, set the dishes in the sink for now; we can do them once we get underway. Then, come out on deck. Saint, Writer, let’s go up to the foredeck and get ready.”
Saint and I followed Captain forward, where our thick anchor line, or rode, disappeared over the bow roller. “With all three of us pulling, we shouldn’t have to use the electric winch,” Captain said. “Ah, good, there’s Artist.”
She had climbed out of the galley hatch and now stood in the cockpit, hands in her pockets, unsure of her role. Captain walked back to her. “You’ll drive the boat,” he said. “We’ll be pulling up the anchor in the bow. Watch my hands for the direction to steer. Remember: She responds slowly to the helm; she’s a big, heavy boat.”
“Alright,” Artist said, her pretty green eyes wide. “Are you sure someone else can’t do that? It’s just … I’ve never driven a boat before.”
“No, we need the guys to pull—it’s a 200-pound anchor. You’ll do fine. I wouldn’t let you do it if I didn’t think you could.”
Saint and I stomped our feet on the foredeck, trying to ignore the icy wind that whipped down the river from the northeast. It cut through our jackets and froze the backs of our hands. Captain returned and untied the anchor rode from the big wooden cleat.
“Grab the line,” he commanded. “OK, Artist! Slow ahead!” She complied, and the schooner crept forward. “We all pull together on three. Ready? One-two-three, one-two-three…”
Slowly, the line lifted. The cold water stung our hands and river mud dripped on our pants. As we hauled, we felt the anchor break its communion with the riverbed; it became dead weight hanging beneath us.
“Not much more to go!” Captain crowed. “One-two-three…”
With a final gasp of chain the anchor heaved up over the bow roller and wedged itself into its nook on the pulpit. “OK, that’s good,” Captain said. “Writer, since you know this river, head back to the cockpit and help Artist navigate. Saint and I will stay here and tidy up the line.”
“Aye aye, Captain!” I said with a grin and bounded back to the cockpit. The Artist stood terrified, wheel in hand.
“Am I doing this right?” she asked.
“Relax, you’re doing fine,” I replied. “Fall off a little more to starboard, though; aim for the other side of that green buoy.”
“I bet you loved saying that,” she quipped. “‘Fall off to Starboard.’ Sounds so official.”
“Hush. I’m trying to be authentic.”
“With the wind behind us like it is,” Captain said upon returning to the cockpit with Saint, “I think we can raise the foresail while we’re still in the river. Artist, keep us on course. You’re doing a great job. Writer, Saint and—where’s Sinbad?” Sinbad vanished below after breakfast after hearing we would be working. Captain called for him, and he emerged glumly on deck.
“Are we leaving for real this time?” A bald head poked up from the companionway. It was the Passenger, finally, awake from his slumber. “You know, Captain, I only took off four vacation days for this trip.”
“Er, come sit up in the cockpit and help the Artist keep a lookout,” Captain said. “We’re about to raise sail.”
“About time,” Passenger said.
He camped himself on the cockpit table beside the helm.
The rest of us went amidships to raise the foresail between the two masts. Like the big mainsail in the back, its shape was a skewed parallelogram with the leading edge vertical. At the top and bottom were two heavy wooden spars, the gaff above and the boom below, it kept the sail’s shape.
“Now, when we raise the sail, we have to be sure to keep the gaff at a good angle, like this,” Captain demonstrated. He held his arm up like he was defending an attack. “We’ll have to watch each other and the gaff. Sinbad, Writer, you’ll be on the throat halyard; the Saint and I will work the peak. Ready?”
“Yes,” we all said.
“One-two-three! One-two-three!” called the Captain.
The gaff slowly rose up off the boom. The sail began to fill with wind and flapped like an albatross taking flight. “On the old ships they used to sing as they worked to keep everyone in rhythm, not count,” Sinbad said. “That’s how we always used to do it when I spent that semester at sea.”
“Watch the gaff, dude!” I said. “You’re pulling too fast. We have to keep it at a good angle.”
Sinbad scoffed. “I know how to do it.”
“Then why aren’t you doing it right?” I asked. Sinbad scowled and adjusted his pull.
The lowest curve of the Cape Fear is a giant “S” leading toward the sea. With our first sail up and trimmed, we bounded down the river past Southport, the wind at our backs, and steered toward the inlet. The cream-beige rippling dunes beneath the abandoned Bald Head lighthouse slid past. Gulls flew above our heads, their laughing cries filling the air. The water sparkled beneath us like uncut emerald.
We crossed the invisible line that separates the humble river from the vast and majestic ocean. Captain cut the engine. Everything was quiet except the gentle surge of our hull through the water and sound of our canvas that fluttered in the wind. We raised the other three sails (main, stay and jib), and Artist pointed us at the open horizon, due south by the compass in its faded binnacle mounted in front of the wheel.
“Look!” Passenger shouted, and pointed a slender finger toward the bow. A pod of spotted dolphin appeared, and played in our surging bow wave, as if welcoming us into their realm. Their exhalations created cascading rainbows in the air. Saint, Artist, and I ran forward, hanging off the bow pulpit, and watched as they darted ecstatically in front of us, then fell away to our side and jubilantly charged ahead again. In the small pod, there was even a dolphin calf, half as long as the adults—the most enthusiastic and joyful of them all. We each looked at one other, as if saying, Is this a dream?
In front of us danced the vast Atlantic. The small brown smudge of the American continent receded into the distance of our wake. We would not see it again for a while.
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.