|Confronting the Cat
by Tom Lochhaas
being published in Points East magazine, summer/fall 2001
We left Northeast Harbor on a sparkling clear day full of sun and wind, headed downeast, and soon enough that downeast fog rolled in and stole our view of Frenchman’s Bay and Cadillac Mountain behind us. The wind dropped and our old, full-keeled Albin Vega poked along in the swells. It was thin fog but it obscured everything, anyway, allowing the pleasant fantasy that we were halfway across the Atlantic and all alone with the water.
Feeling you’re all alone with the ocean is one of the nicer things about fog. Not being all alone in the fog is one of the scarier things about fog. Particularly on a small sailboat too old-fashioned to even think of carrying radar. The fog was thin enough to let us watch two minke whales a hundred yards to starboard until they swam away into the gloom.
The GPS confirmed our dead reckoning as we slowly sailed up on Schoodic Island. About a mile off, we heard a low rumbling roar somewhere out to sea. One of the wonderful things about sailing in the fog is the quiet that lets you hear things far off. One of the terrible things about sailing in the fog is that you hear scary things coming at you from out there in the white.
We listened a minute. The roar grew louder and was throbbing and huge. We studied the chart and, yes, we were exactly where a large motorized vessel en route from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to Bar Harbor would round Schoodic and turn northwest up Frenchman’s Bay. Exactly at that point.
Nothing could roar as loud as that, we knew, except the Cat–that humongous catamaran ferry advertized to cruise at 55 mph. It made a hellacious throbbing roar out there in the fog and was coming right at us.
My 9-year-old daughter rushed up from the cabin with terror in her eyes, yelling, “What’s that?”
I keep out of arguments about the Cat–whether it goes too fast, whether it’s as safe as it could be, whether it’s necessary or even pleasant to rush tourists to Nova Scotia at such speeds by sea. (Isn’t that what airplanes were invented for?) Like most sailors downeast I’d heard that the Cat had a little tussle with a fisherman that resulted in the man’s boat sinking and him dying, but I’m not one to prejudge on the basis of hearsay. I’ll wait for the court’s opinion. I’ve also heard that the Cat has the best radar and other systems to ensure avoidance of small craft in its path, and of course nautical regulations require any ship to be able to stop within its visibility range. (At 55 mph and a visibility of 40 feet, what does that mean?) Anyway, not being an expert in such matters, I’ll keep my peace and trust the judgment of the authorities....
Still, hearing that roar coming at you in the fog like some mythical beast is– “What do you think it sounds like?” I asked my daughter.
Eyes wide, she stared into the fog. “It sounds like the grim reaper,” she said. –is exactly like the sound of your own death coming, I’d been thinking, and realized my daughter had just had the same thought.
To my speechless wife I muttered some inanity like, “I’m sure they’ve got us on radar.” I pointed at our radar reflector hanging from the spreaders. That little globe of aluminum a foot in diameter suddenly seemed rather inadequate, ludicrous actually, the tiniest of gnats buzzing around the fiery eyes of a grim reaper hundreds of feet long rushing at us with teeth bared and scythe swinging.
Wife and daughter stared at the tiny thing and then at me, and daughter rolled her eyes and made a face as if to say this was the last straw for the adult world: she’d given us a chance to prove our rationality and we’d blown it, and we really should listen to what she said from now on and stay in port where hot dog buns were toasted and the ice cream stayed frozen.
Still the roar got louder, becoming deafening, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the fog to starboard. Any minute a great beast would burst through the curtain so fast we wouldn’t have time for even a fraction of our lives to flash before our eyes.
At magic times on sailboats the crew attains a harmonious state where you can practically read each other’s minds. It’s a rare phenomenon, of course–most of the time you’re yelling and screaming about which side to take that rock ahead or the exact moment to drop the anchor. But at this moment of sheer terror our minds met as we locked eyes. A big sword would be a lot better than that little reflector, thought my daughter, imagining the Cat-as-Grim-Reaper as a sort of dragon we might slay. To which my wife thought back, Words are mightier than the sword, and dashed below to the VHF.
I could barely make out her yelling voice over the roar of my approaching death, whose throbbing had now set the rigging humming. “Calling the large motorized vessel passing west of Schoodic Island,” she yelled. (Even as my death approached, I was proud how thoughtful she was not to assume publicly, with all the world listening on Channel 16, that it was actually the Cat. After all, it could have been a Russian aircraft carrier or the winner of the Jonesport lobster boat race.) “This is the sailing vessel Allegro, and we seem to be dead in your path. We have no radar.” I winced at “dead” but thought it shrewd to acknowledge we only heard them and couldn’t see them. That sentence, I thought, would sound good if quoted in court.
I couldn’t hear their reply, the roar was now so loud. It reverberated all over the ocean. I expected sea gulls and cormorants to fall from the air, and covered my head. I looked for dead fish floating up to the surface. I was surprised, given a few seconds to think about it, that some Third World country had not already launched a nuclear weapon after hearing this roar across the ocean and thinking they were being attacked.
What thoughts go through your mind at such a time? Obviously I have lived to tell the tale, so I’m not giving anything away to say I thought about that for a long time afterwards–even though at the time my mind may actually have gone blank. I remember thinking, perhaps, that I’d rather be pitchpoled by a 70- foot wave. I remembered thinking this agony was worse even than being made to sit through The Perfect Storm a dozen times. I even remember musing philosophically that an era will have died if the sailing life becomes associated with experiences like this horrendous sound in the fog.
Will my nine-year-old grow up with the same reverence for ocean sailing as I had? I remembered wondering.
But all this lasted only a few seconds, of course, for at 55 mph the world spins very fast and electrons fly off from the nucleus of your thoughts, and in only a twinkling my wife was back up in the cockpit saying, “They’ve got us on radar and say they’ll pass a mile behind us.”
A mile? Could the grim reaper be that loud a mile off?
Just then the Cat burst into view, well off our stern, yes, but less than a quarter mile. The fog had thinned enough to see that far, a distance we verified a minute later with the GPS and a waypoint day marker at the edge of visibility. It raced up the bay and disappeared back into the fog a few seconds later.
I suppose a dragon’s fiery breath can’t get you from a quarter mile. And I’m sure they did have us on radar the whole time. But why claim to miss us by a mile? That raised a credibility issue, and anyone who is three-quarters of a mile off on the radar screen might also be capable of blinking at 55 mph and not see you at all.
But those thoughts were to come later. This day, as the rumble and roar and grim reaper’s throb moved off to terrorize other boats up the bay, we were relieved to find the sound of our own death was after all just a faint echo from a hopefully distant future. As the fog thinned more and we saw waves breaking on Schoodic, the minke whales reappeared to starboard out in open water like a sunny morning after a nightmare.
My wife and I were sweating, but our daughter was excited and happy. I realized that in some odd way the experience had been, if not enjoyable, perhaps at least instructive–and a damn sight better than pitchpoling. It’s made me aware of how often in life you spot the grim reaper some distance away and you hope he’s got his radar on and doesn’t get you by mistake. Until it’s your time, of course. Until then, there’s a lot of sailing to be done.
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