Tranquility can be deceiving. It’s probably happened to all of us. Just when everything is going perfectly, the unexpected happens and suddenly you are a victim of circumstances beyond your control. Once idyllic conditions become threatening. You can’t believe what is happening. You do your utmost to turn things around and, as happened Wednesday to a couple, no matter what you do, the situation becomes worse.
I didn’t expect to hear such a story when I looked out on a glassy Bay early Thursday. The sky was brightening and the rays of the sun reached upward, rose above the horizon. The distant Conimicut Point looked different, as if some structure had been built on the sands over night. Its form was indistinguishable and my first thought was that a “camel,” a giant wooden block used by freighters and large ocean-going vessels as fenders, had washed ashore.
I figured I would find out on my morning row.
With the tide ebbing, I was soon gliding along the point. Several logs were arranged in a half-circle around the charcoal remnants of a beach fire above the high water line. This is not what I had seen; it was much too small. The rest of the point, stretching finger-like into the Bay, was occupied by seagulls and a few geese that looked ready to take flight if I came any closer. I continued.
Being so low to the water, I couldn’t see over the beach until it gradually sloped into the bay. It was then that the hillock of Rocky Point, Patience and Prudence Islands and the pencil thin etching of Jamestown Bridge, about 10 miles to the south, came into view. The water was flat and silvery.
I considered letting the retreating tide carry me over the sandbar and paddling into Mill Cove when what I had seen from a distance suddenly made sense. Here was my camel.
A sailboat failed to stay clear of the shoal that reaches out another quarter mile toward Conimicut Light. Over the years, I’ve seen lots of boats caught on the sands, but none like this. The 30-foot sloop wasn’t in more than two feet of water. She was lying on her starboard, its keel exposed and the drive shaft and propeller out of the water. For a boat to be that far aground, she would have had to be driven by wind and waves, but there hadn’t been a storm.
I rowed out to get a closer look.
The vessel was shipshape. A blue sail cover was pulled tight across the boom. An anchor was in her bow chalks. Halyards were taut. This was no scow set adrift. Had she slipped her mooring and been carried by the tide?
I rowed around her and, when I reached the stern, I could see the companionway boards had been removed, even though the sliding hatch was pulled closed.
“Anybody aboard?” I shouted.
I heard rustling and a man’s head appeared in the companionway. He looked tired and frustrated.
“Looks like I’ve got to wait for the tide,” he said dejectedly. “That should be about two this afternoon.”
There was a woman’s voice from inside the boat, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
The man turned and ducked inside the cabin.
“Some guy in a rowboat,” I heard him saying. “No, he can’t do anything.”
That was for sure. A rowing scull was no use to a 30-foot sailboat on Conimicut shoals. There was no way the boat would be moving until there was another three feet of water.
The man re-appeared and his saga unfolded.
The boat was new and this was the second voyage for him and his wife. He had checked the charts and believed there was plenty of water to slip between the lighthouse and the point. He was watching the depth sounder readings and he saw no reason to be alarmed when it went from 16 to 10 feet, but in a matter of seconds it went to four feet and froze. It was too late. They were aground. He gave the engine full throttle and brought in the sails, seeking to heel the boat and reduce the draft. Instead of skating free, the boat shifted around, imbedding the keel deeper into the sand. The ebbing tide was merciless. No one came to his rescue. They would be spending the night on the boat. At high tide he tried to free the boat again to no avail. Finally he went below to sleep. There would be no gentle rocking, just the lapping of waves on a cabin turned on its side.
It wasn’t entirely hopeless, but it would entail an expense he had not planned on. He arranged for a boat to come pull him free on the afternoon tide. The charge was going to be $400 an hour.
I offered to see if anyone else might help. He seemed resigned to his fate.
I wished him good luck and pulled on the oars.
With a daft of only inches, I knew running aground wouldn’t be a problem. And then I recalled the time when, without a care, I rowed into a floating island of seaweed. I thought nothing of it until my starboard oar was locked in the soggy mass. In an instant, I was off balance and the boat flipped over.
It helps to know where you are going even when everything is gliding along perfectly.