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(The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.)


Swimming

OUTSIDE the harbor the wind blew twice as strong, and the swells rose high into the air. The hull planed. Jacob sat on the rail and adjusted the jib sheet, while his father sat on the transom so that he could see over the bow. When they rose to the top of a swell, they could see out to sea as if from the top of a mountain. The bow sliced up one side of a wave and the stern coasted down the other side, just as his grandfather had designed them to do, and Jacob was immensely proud in that moment, thinking of his grandfather's mind and hands creating such an efficient and worthy craft. More than that: the Sassanoa was a work of art, perfectly balanced between the wind and the ocean, that at her mooring in the morning sat as calm as a sleeping dove.

Jacob looked back at his father, who grinned like a child, his open mouth and bright wide eyes pointed up at the blood-red sail as if the very idea of the wind's moving a boat over water at such a speed were a discovery he had just made for the world.

As they coasted down a swell, Jacob leaned over and placed his hand on the side of the hull. He did not think of turning around even as they passed Damirscove Island. He could see in through the windows of the old Coast Guard station there; at a certain height he could see in one window and out another. Europeans had settled on the treeless island, he knew, before Plymouth or Jamestown. They had fished there, and lived in cold shacks. Several hundred years later the Coast Guard had come, and now it was gone too, and the island was empty except for the terns, gulls, herons, and snowy egrets that swarmed over the grass.

After Damirscove there were no other landmarks for gauging distance over water, and Jacob did not look back except to check his father's eyes darting from the sails to the ocean in perfect concentration. Jacob didn't care how far they sailed, as long as his father continued to smile.

Jacob looked up at the sail and noticed how the pressure of the wind moved from one side to the other as his father shifted the lines and the tiller. Some of the wind spilled out the side of the sail, swirled around to the other side, and caused a luff. With a slight adjustment they were back on track. Then Jacob noticed that the rear stay was frayed. Three or four of the metal threads that twisted around each other had snapped, which left two or three at the most to hold all the weight of the sail and the wind. Any number of bad things would happen, Jacob thought, if the rear stay broke. The mast would snap immediately, and might drag the boat over in this strong a wind. The weight of the keel would probably keep them upright. Even so, without the sail they had only a paddle. No motor. Jacob promised himself he would check all the rigging the next day.

"Dad, look." Jacob pointed up at the stay, and as he pointed, he knew he was also pointing a finger at his father for not keeping the boat up to his grandfather's standards. His father glanced up and saw the fray but did not seem concerned.

"It'll hold."

The wind vanished, not immediately, as often happened, but gradually, to Jacob's relief, until his father didn't need to concentrate so hard on their heading. Jacob could tell that his father's mind was on some other worry, probably something to do with work.

"We should head in," Jacob said. He hadn't even looked back for some time. He wanted his father to be the first one.

His father did look, and raised his eyebrows, not in shock but in surprise, so Jacob looked back too. They were a good distance from shore. The wind usually switched in the evening, after a lull. This was that lull. They would just have to wait for the switch. With any luck it would be a south or a west wind. In any case, the water around the Sassanoa, for as far as they could see in all directions, was smooth and dull gray-green.

JACOB never noticed the cold when the sails were full, when they were moving, but now, in the stillness, he rubbed the goosebumps on his arms.

His father pulled the collar of his sports coat up around his neck and looked down. "Damn!" he yelled, and yanked his briefcase off the floor. He brushed the water off the leather surface. "I don't think any water got inside." At first Jacob thought he was talking about the Sassanoa.

The sails were swaying now, like curtains, in the dim light. The horizon had just turned orange. The night was going to be clear, though fog might roll in from offshore. For the first time, Jacob noticed that his sneakers were soaked. That's why he was so cold. Under way, he seemed to lose all sensation, but now he could see that his feet rested in water that hadn't been there while the boat was heeling. Their bow had dipped, riding the swells, but Jacob hadn't seen any water coming over.

His father let go of the tiller and the mainsheet. With no wind they couldn't control the Sassanoa's direction. Jacob looked at the back of his father's hands, resting on top of the briefcase. With the dried sea salt on the tanned skin, Jacob thought his father looked like a man who had been out to sea a very long time, though the briefcase and sports jacket suggested that he was on the way to his office. Jacob understood that the Sassanoa was leaking through the bilge, probably where the keel was bolted to the hull. When they had thudded against the rock in New Wagon Harbor, they must have loosened the joint.

"I think we're taking on," Jacob said.

"I know," his father said, not looking up. "I'm thinking."

Jacob was silent. He decided he had better think too. As a matter of pride, his grandfather had never kept a motor on board. The hand-pump bailer was on the island, with the life jackets and flares, in the boat bag. His father went under the foredeck and rummaged around. He came out a moment later holding the anchor, a twenty-pound aluminum hook attached to a length of chain and rope. The water had risen two inches above the floorboards and was still rising. Jacob wondered how far they were from shore -- maybe a mile, maybe more. More. A lobster boat motored by on its way home a little to the west, but neither Jacob nor his father thought to wave. The boatman would not have seen them anyway.

His father held a paddle in one hand and the anchor in the other. Suddenly he stood up on the deck and waved the paddle in the direction of the lobster boat. "Hey! Hey!" They could see the man in yellow waders behind the wheel, looking forward, not back.

Jacob had never in his life seen his father or grandfather call for help while on the water. His heart pounded, and he was no longer cold or tired. He had been thinking about his mother's shepherd's pie, but now he saw what he should have seen before.

"What are we going to do?"

His father sat down. "We'll be fine. Let's see what the problem is down there." He lifted the floor hatch and stared down through the water to the bottom of the bilge. The compartment narrowed to a V, where Jacob could see the keel bolts protruding. His father removed his jacket, folded it carefully on top of his briefcase, and reached his hand down into the bilge.

"I can feel the water flowing in around one of the bolts. I think." He lifted his arm out. All the rollers had vanished now, and the water was flat for as far as they could see. His father removed his shirt. Jacob was startled by the white skin and curly black hairs. He recognized the future shape of his own body, but had trouble imagining himself covered with so much hair. His father ripped the shirt on a cleat, tore it into strips, and leaned back into the bilge. The water was so deep now that he had to crane his neck to keep his face from going underwater. He gave up trying and plunged both his arms and his head under the water. Jacob watched numbly as his father's back muscles bulged and strained against the skin. He popped out a moment later, dripping and gulping for air.

"I wrapped the cloth around the bolt. Hand me the anchor and I'll pound it down. That should wedge the cloth in and stop the leak."

Jacob handed the anchor to his father, who went back underwater. Jacob heard the thud of the metal anchor against the top of the bolt, and occasionally the sound of his father missing and hitting the wooden spine. His father came up for air and went back down. Finally he rested, and set the anchor down. "That should do it."

Jacob nodded. His father was shivering violently. "Put on your jacket, Dad."

"Yeah." After wrapping himself in the jacket for a moment and rubbing his arms, his father looked intently at Jacob. "We shouldn't have tried the trickiest bit."

"We'll fix it when we get back. We should probably replace those bolts anyway."

"You're right about that. Those bolts must be twenty-five years old. This is an old boat, you know. Let's get this water out of here. You start, will you? You'll have to use what's left of my shirt to sop it up, and I'll start paddling."

Jacob picked up the shirt and soaked it in the water, but quickly realized that his father was not thinking right. Instead of using the shirt, he took off his sneakers and started to scoop out the water. "The tide's going out," he said.

"I know."

Continued...

The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.


Jason Brown teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His first collection of stories, Driving the Heart and Other Stories, will be published this month.

Illustration by R. Kenton Nelson

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Afternoon of the Sassanoa; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 84-96.

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