Black Rock


Conditions aren't ideal for motoring out of the marina in Halifax, but waiting longer isn't an option. Weather already has us behind schedule, and Bob has sort of a deadline for getting back to New York. He's earned his right to retirement by now, probably a couple times over. But he likes his job, and he's not giving it up yet. They're expecting him back soon.

Wind's against us, so once we can put the sails up and kill the motor we'll have to zigzag, tacking back and forth upwind. It's foggy, but we're used to Nova Scotia's frequent low visibility by this point in our round-trip passage. Relying on the iPad screen instead of my eyes to stay in the channel and not crash was unsettling at first, but Navionics feels fine now. It's like a video game but the controller is a tiller.

My red-orange foul weather gear keeps most of me dry through the chilly rain and occasional wave into the cockpit, but it's only an hour and a half in and my hands are already cold prunes.

Open water now. Time to put up the sails. Grabbing the dripping lines* feels weird, like an abrasive numbness that gets a nails on chalkboard quality as I pull to unfurl the headsail. Bob trims in on the other line, and the madly flapping sail cinches into place. We do the same for the mainsail and staysail.
* lines, AKA ropes, but sailors don't use that word.

Bob kills the engine and I push on the tiller with my eyes darting back and forth between the sails and Navionics. I work the tiller and lines to find the right balance between speed, direction, and wind in the sails.

Still raining. With the work done, Bob's making us a snack down below. The boat is dialed in now, locked on course with the auto-steering windvane. Even though the heading isn't exactly parallel with the coast, it's the best we can do with this wind.

Navionics has stopped automatically following the boat on the map, but I'm feeling too lazy to get up and fix it. Anyway, we're in open water now so it shouldn't matter.

“You sure about that?” My own thought grabs me and sends a jolt down my spine. It's easy to get complacent, hypnotized by the waves and the fog, but that's no excuse. The pooled-up water drips off my jacket and pants as I stand up to move forward and update the map.

My eyes widen when I scroll ahead.

Bob's Australian accent breaks in. “Alright Matt, you can come below to dry off your hands if you want.”

“Not yet Bob” I tilt the screen toward him “because we have to turn this boat now.”

We both look up from the huge field of rocks on the screen and see them emerging from the fog, sweeping out in front of us.

Scrambling back into the cockpit, we take our positions. I frantically disengage auto-steering as Bob loads the headsail lines on their winches. The rocks are getting close enough for me to see the waves crashing on them.

“Ready to tack?!” I call out the usual question, but with unusual urgency.

“Ready!” Bob's got the lines in his hands.

“Helm's a-lee!”

I push the tiller hard over, starting the turn. As the sails start to flap, Bob pops the now-slack lines off their winches. Rocks dead ahead now, boat still turning, he and I dance around each other to switch sides. Will we run aground? The danger floods my mind, but knowing that we're doing all we can calms me a little. Bob winches in the lines on the port side, and I straighten the tiller.

We both silently stare at the rocks as they slowly pass by.

My eyes drift over to the iPad as the danger recedes, and I silently curse it for getting us into this mess. Then I stop myself. Navionics isn't to blame. I am. It's easy and tempting to rely on technology that feels like a simple video game when it's foggy and cold. But my mistake was to trust it too much and to assume that nearly two hours underway meant that we were in open water. We weren't, and I would have known that if I had double-checked and didn't just rely on Navionics to think for me.

Suddenly I feel my cold, wet hands again. I press my thumb and pointer finger together and the deep, wrinkly ridges feel unpleasantly hard.

“Alright Bob, I think I'll go down below for a few minutes.”