And The Show Goes On

By Bernadette Bernon
September 22, 2000
Newport, Rhode Island
N 41 29.179 W 71 19.235

There’s a high commandment of the theater world mandating that, no matter what personal calamities may befall the actors, the show must go on. Onset of pneumonia? "Just please take as many antihistamines as you need," I heard a director say once, "and let's get on with it here, all right people?"

A broken bone in your foot? " Here," said an actor to a fellow dancer. "Wrap this ace bandage on tight, take some aspirin, and try not to limp."

Your mother's dying? "Out of state?" a stage manager actually said to an actor friend of mine. "That's such a bummer. But, we're sold out all weekend. Can she hold off till Monday, when the theater's dark? Or maybe you can just consider saying your goodbyes over the phone?"

Theater is a passion of mine outside of work — I was a company member of The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater and the Second Story Theater for years — and I’ve actually witnessed these scenarios. Actually, I've been involved in one or two myself. Once, I made it to the stage opening night after having had heart surgery (unplanned) the week before. (What can I say? I had a lead role — Beverly in "The Shadow Box" — and after several weeks of rehearsals, nothing would have kept me away.)

I suspect parenthood and certain athletic competitions draw on the same bottomless well of reserves, as do many performance aspects of our professional lives. Most definitely, cruising is like that. No matter what happens, we must rise to the occasion, step out into the footlights, and perform, pulling up strengths we didn't know we had. Later on, when the curtain falls, and the last of the audience shuffles out, we collapse. We relax. We let our guard down. This can be a dangerously vulnerable time for a sailor, as Douglas and I learned this week.

Photo of a lobster boat off the coast of Monhegan Island A lobster boat working in the fog, off the coast of Monhegan Island.

With topped off water and fuel tanks, fresh oil, and new fuel and oil filters, we set out early a few days ago from Rockland, Maine, in the thickest of fogs, reluctantly heading Ithaka's bow back toward the Cape Cod Canal that separates the Gulf of Maine from Buzzard's Bay. We were hoping to ride the back of a high-pressure system that had swept the state the day before, planning on taking advantage of the northwest winds that usually follow such a pattern. As we carefully felt our way along the coast under sail, always with one eye on the radar, we listened for the bleating buoys and lighthouses that were hidden behind the white shroud. Suddenly, just as we were clearing the coast at Monhegan Island, the fog dramatically lifted and evaporated within seconds, leaving us with one long last look at the granite shore and thick green firs that we'd come to love during our month and a half in Maine.

Photo of Ithaka at sunset toward the Cape Cod Canal Ithaka ghosts along at sunset toward the Cape Cod Canal.

It turned out to be a tranquil overnight passage of 150 miles from Rockland to the canal, and we motor sailed much of the way in light-to-nonexistent winds on a dead flat sea. As darkness settled in, Douglas and I began to take turns on watch — two hours on, two hours off — until morning, which we celebrated with a spectacular frittata for breakfast. Ithaka arrived at the canal at 1:30 in the afternoon. We doused our sails, and motored in to join the powerful ebb tide. The boat flew through the canal at a thrilling 10 knots over the ground, according to the GPS — that's our own 5 knots, plus another 5 of current — and for the first time we saw the banks and bridges of the waterway. Going the other way, on the outward leg of our journey, two months ago, it had been too foggy to see anything.

Inevitably, the conversation during our homeward leg often drifted back to the highlights of our days in Maine — the pretty anchorages that were our favorites; the amazing tidal flow we'd learned to account for; the phenomenal number of lobster pots we'd dodged; the challenges that had faced us and that we'd overcome; how much we'd pushed ourselves and the boat, and all we'd learned from it. Nothing major had gone wrong, to our relief and surprise, and those little things that had gone wrong had all been due to what we now call "O.E." (operator error), and we'd dealt with them. We were proud, and finally said so to one another. Probably, in retrospect, that was the exact moment when our attention wandered and we opened ourselves to trouble.

Photo of favorite anchorage was in the Skillings River One of our favorite anchorages was in the Skillings River.

Emerging from the canal into Buzzard's Bay, we raised the sails again, and headed Ithaka toward Newport on a lively beam reach in a steady 15 knots of breeze. The challenges and dramatic beauty of Maine were behind us now; we were in our home waters once again. No monumental tides here. No fog. Not many lobster pots to speak of. Easy navigation. We relaxed. The plan was to stop in Newport for a few days to see our family, pick up some spares, sell our car, and do some last-minute errands before heading south.

Up until the canal, indeed every day for the past two months, we'd navigated religiously, always double-checking our position on the chart with the GPS, and always, always hand-steering. In Maine, with the number of lobster pots that lie in your path, there really is no other choice but to keep a close eye on your course and snake around the pots. But after the canal, like actors after a Sunday-night performance, we let down our guard a bit, and didn't set a proper course.

Photo of jellyfish in Maine Even the jellyfish are more dramatic in Maine.

Anxious to get better with our new Monitor self-steering gear, after being prevented from doing so by the pots, we decided to play with it in the open expanse of the bay on the way home. We popped on the vane's wind blade, aimed it into the wind, centered the vane’s rudder, steered a course we liked, engaged the steering lines to the wheel, locked it in, lowered the vane's rudder into the water, and off we went. It was simple and so elegant.

Next we tried to change course with the gear, and this is where we got into trouble. The Monitor only requires the slightest adjustment to change course, but at first we pulled the steering lines too far to one side, with the result being Ithaka swinging widely to starboard. Each time, we pulled the steering lines the other way, and she headed back up. Gradually we got the hang of it.

At the same time, we weren't paying attention to our bearing, thinking we were well off the coast. But in reality, every time we'd altered the windvane's course to starboard, we sailed closer to shore, and then we didn't compensate enough when we returned to port. Suddenly, I noticed the depth meter. Where I expected to see about 47 feet, I saw only 15 under the keel, then 3. "Douglas, what the ..."


Just like that, we were aground, with all three sails up and pulling. Immediately we released the sheets, turned on the engine, and tried to back her out. No go. We tried going forward, hard to port. Nothing. We doused the staysail, rolled in the Yankee, and Douglas jumped below to establish our position on the chart with a quick GPS fix. He discovered that we'd sailed right into a clearly marked shoal area — a careless mistake. From the chart, it was clear that the safest choice was to back her out and try to leave the shoal the way we'd come in, which is what we did. Douglas took the helm, and gunned the engine in reverse, while I jumped below to check the bilge, which was fine. Ithaka thudded a few times, a sickening sound to which I hope to never become accustomed. Then she was free.

We got out of there as fast as we could, watching the depth meter climb to 10, 29, 35, 54. We were lucky. That night, we anchored in Cuttyhunk Harbor, rechecked everything on the boat to make sure she was OK, which she was. She's make of far stronger stuff than we. Next we made two stiff drinks, knocked them back, and crashed.

Maine had been so new to us in every way, and had posed so many tests, that we'd stayed on medium alert almost all the time. When we'd come back into our home waters, it was just like those quiet Mondays in the theater. There was no show to perform, so we'd eased our vigilance. It was a lesson learned the hard way, as usual, but fortunately the only thing damaged was our pride.

"Well, let's look on the bright side," said Douglas before we fell asleep that night at Cuttyhunk. "These days, we really know we're alive."