Afternoon of the Sassanoa

Jacob had never in his life seen his father or grandfather call for help while on the water. He had been thinking of his mother's shepherd's pie, but now he saw what he should have seen before

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JACOB'S father had business in the city that afternoon and the next morning. "Go with him," Jacob's mother said. "You two can spend the night, and you can sign up for pre-season soccer tomorrow morning. It will save me having to give you a ride down."

Jacob agreed to go, even though it would take him away from the island and would involve a trip across to the mainland in the skiff and a seemingly endless hour's drive on the highway. Not bothering to grab a change of clothes, he jumped off the back porch and followed his father down to the island dock.

The fetch between Heron Island and the mainland darkened as Jacob's father, in the stern, thumbed tobacco into his pipe. After a few attempts he gave up trying to light the pipe in the wind, and as if this failure tumbled him toward another, he pushed away from the dock and started to row. Jacob was in the oarsman's seat, and his father, rowing this way, had difficulty keeping the leathers from popping out of the locks. The bags under his father's eyes looked even heavier than usual, and a thin line of blood traced across his freshly shaved neck. His shoulders bunched as he reached forward, his round face growing red and puffy after only a few strokes.

"You take it." His father pushed the oar handles toward Jacob. Even though it was not far to the dock on the mainland, they would blow downwind, toward Robinhood Cove, unless Jacob pulled as hard as he could. As a way of not looking at his father's face, he gazed through the Townsend Gut, the narrowest point between the island and the main, where the water funneled in and the wind whipped between the columns of tall pines, kicking up rows of chop.

"It's the best day for sailing we've had yet," his father said. Jacob shot a glance at the Sassanoa, riding high on her white hull above the water. Her nose pointed into the wind, and she jumped up like a thoroughbred against her mooring tether.

"Let's go for a short sail, just once across the bay, and then I'll still have time to get to town."

"I thought you had to be there by four. We might not even make it if we start now."

"By five, five-thirty. I just have to meet a guy so he can sign some papers and then have someone take them over to the courthouse before it closes."

Jacob didn't say anything. He had already said enough to his mother about not wanting to go to town. He wanted to play soccer, but he hated anything that took him away from the island. Also, he and his father would be alone for the night, and then Jacob would have to hang around the house on Woodmont Street the next day, waiting for his father to finish work so they could drive back to the island.

He wondered if it was a good idea for his father to leave so little time to get his client to sign the papers, and he knew that when his father rushed, he always drove too fast, and sometimes got a ticket in the speed trap where Route One met the main highway. That would put him in a foul mood for the whole week. Jacob didn't want to say anything about not sailing, didn't want to screw up his chances of taking the boat out alone the next year, while his father was at work, when he could sail by himself down the Maine coast to Five Islands. The tourists there, eating lobsters and clams, would look at him as though he had stepped into their lives from a past century. The year before, his father had said he could take the boat out when he was twelve, the same age at which Jacob's grandfather had let his father go out alone, but this year his father had changed the age to thirteen. Jacob wasn't sure he would ever be old enough at this rate.

"We'll just go across the bay and back," his father said, and nodded in the direction of the Sassanoa. Jacob pushed harder on the port oar and swung them around. The day was indeed good for sailing. The pines swayed; the breeze was southerly but cool. Jacob started to row for the island dock. His father's hand shot forward and wrapped around the starboard oar, shoving it into Jacob's chest so hard that it knocked the breath out of him.

"What about the boat bag?" Jacob asked.

"We're just going across the bay once."

His father looked away, apparently realizing that he had accidentally been too rough. Jacob wasn't going to argue about the boat bag. Even his grandfather had gone without it on short sails -- just to spite the yacht-club guys and their overprecautions, he would say. Jacob's father opened his briefcase for the cell phone, unfolded the mouthpiece, and pushed POWER, bringing the clear buttons to life with yellow light. He dialed and held the phone to his head, reaching out with the other hand to grab the Sassanoa. Frustrated, he handed the phone to Jacob.

"When your mother picks up, tell her we're just going across the bay and back before we head into town."

Jacob took the phone. His father rested his briefcase on the deck of the Sassanoa, balanced himself precariously on the seat of the skiff, and pulled himself up. Both Jacob and his mother hated having cell phones on the island, where they came to escape such things, and his mother was already upset about his father's rushing to the city three days into his late-August vacation for an emergency meeting.

"You don't have your windbreaker," his mother said, after Jacob told her what they were doing.

"It's warm out."

"Tell her we're not going to be out long."

Jacob's mother heard her husband. "So call me from town tonight," she said. Jacob didn't know what to say. He said good-bye, his mother said good-bye, and he put the phone in the briefcase.

JACOB couldn't remember a time when they had not come to the island in the summer. Now that his grandmother was too old to stay on the island, Jacob came with just his mother and father. Jacob often helped his mother to scrub clothes against the washboard behind the cottage, using water they caught from the sky and stored in a large tank. Jacob's grandfather had been the pilot of Portland Harbor and his grandparents had lived on the island year-round, without insulation and many other things the cabin still didn't have -- things that Jacob wished their house in Portland didn't have either. Sometimes in the fall, after returning to Portland, Jacob refused to use the phone, lights, or running water, as a way of pretending he was still on the island.

As if they were trying to escape, or as if the rush that Jacob expected on the highway had already begun, his father tugged frantically at the sail ties, pulling out the boom crutch and tossing it carelessly under the foredeck, whereas Jacob had been taught to lash it forward to keep it from banging around once they were under way.

Things were done in a certain way on the island, not only because they had been done that way for sixty years but also because it was the right way. Jacob had learned everything about the island from his grandfather. Now that his grandfather was gone, Jacob sometimes wondered if his father was forgetting things. The previous fall Jacob had had to remind him to spread wood chips beneath the Sassanoa in the boathouse, to absorb moisture through the winter. The fifty-year-old oak planks, cut from trees on the island, would get dry rot in one season without the wood chips, and he worried that his father did not think of it.

"Just tie the skiff up now," his father yelled. They had always tied the skiff to the stern until the Sassanoa was ready to sail. Otherwise the two boats would rub. Jacob moored the skiff to the buoy, as he had been told, and of course his father had not raised the main by then, so he had to sit on the deck and separate the two boats with his legs. His father tugged on the halyard, but it was stuck.

"Damn," his father grumbled. "Jacob, help me for a second." Jacob was reluctant to let the two boats rub, but his father was frustrated, so Jacob pushed the skiff off as far from the sailboat's hull as he could and rushed back to hold the halyard while his father jiggled the runner free. The sail rose easily then, snapping at the air, and Jacob hurried to the bow to find the rail of the skiff rubbing against the Sassanoa's white hull. He swore to himself, pushed the skiff away, and leaned over to see what damage had been done. He saw a scratch three inches long. It hadn't penetrated to the wood, but the skiff had gouged out several layers of white paint and left a green smudge. It would allow moisture closer to the wood. He should fix the scratch right away, as his grandfather had taught him to do, though the only way to really take a scratch out was to haul the Sassanoa and repaint the entire hull. Jacob was trying not to think about it, but he knew they shouldn't sail now. Not with a scratch in the hull.

"Cast off," his father yelled. The sail was up, but the tiller was still lashed. Jacob untied the bow line but did not let go of the mooring buoy until his father had freed the tiller. Then they drifted back with the wind until the sail scooped the air and leaned them to port. It was a perfect breeze. With the jib up they would move along nicely. The Sassanoa never moved very fast. She was nineteen feet on the waterline, but otherwise very much like a Herreshof Bullseye, with a full keel and a wide beam; Jacob's grandfather had designed her to transport his family and their supplies to and from shore.

Jacob raised the jib and tied down the sheet. His father held the tiller and the mainsheet, so Jacob had nothing to do except watch the skiff at the mooring become smaller as they tacked back and forth in the narrow space between the island and the mainland. As they came through the gut and faced the bay, the sails braced against the wind coming in off the ocean. His father loosened the main, leaned back, and eyed the telltales. The telltales had been his father's addition, after his grandfather's death, and Jacob knew they weren't right. He never looked at them when he sailed, but felt the boat's movement under him to find the wind. If the breeze was stiff but he felt no tension on the tiller and little heel, he was off the wind. His grandfather had taught him to rely as little as possible on sight. Eyes were no good in fog or darkness.

"I bet we can make Knubble Head in one tack," his father said. Jacob tried to gauge how the wind and tide would take them over the three quarters of a nautical mile. The wind was shifting around to the southwest, so they could head farther out, but Jacob wondered how long they'd need to get back. If the wind stayed southerly, or even if it moved completely westerly, they would have no problem ploughing straight across the bay. Jacob looked around for the Coast Guard, but the bay was empty except for a few lobster boats and a trawler. They had often sailed across the bay without the boat bag -- the Sassanoa could handle any kind of rough weather that might come up unexpectedly. But the Coast Guard had fined them twice for not having life jackets; his father had tried to argue himself out of the ticket each time.

Jacob looked back at the granite face of Heron Island, jutting south like the prow of a ship. His mother was working beside the house on the island, taking laundry in off the line. Inside the cabin Jacob's dead grandfather stared down with cold eyes at the dining-room table from a framed photo on the wall. Jacob assumed that the circumstances of his time had made him hard. Jacob remembered when he had rowed over to the island with his grandfather in the winter to cut down a Christmas tree; steam had risen from the water in white patches like ghosts and blown with the wind across the bay. The scene had seemed medieval; the cracked brown knuckles of his grandfather's hands moved toward him and away, rowing. Jacob had removed his glove and dipped his hand in the water, which felt warm, like a bath, compared with the air.

Even now, Jacob thought, the year could have been 1878 on the island -- nothing about the kerosene lamps or cast-iron pots suggested that people elsewhere had ever seen electricity, and in the weeks they spent on the island each summer, Jacob forgot the appliances of their house in Portland, where his father rose and dressed in a suit each morning before driving off to a twelve-story glass building. From his office Jacob's father could see the bridge and the bay where his own father had guided ships, and the ocean beyond, where his grandfather had fished the Grand Banks.

"Haul in the jib," his father snapped, and Jacob obeyed, even though he knew the jib would not come in any farther without spilling air and losing some of what his father wanted, which was to point higher so that they could reach Knubble in one tack. His father pulled in the mainsheet, running the line down around the cleat. The Sassanoa heeled over in response. Rollers from a storm that had never reached shore pitched them up. Jacob did not worry. He and his grandfather had been out in fifty-knot winds. The ribs and planks creaked, but nothing gave, not even the old hand-sewn sails. But the boat was weaker now, since his grandfather's death.

AS they approached the Knubble lighthouse, Jacob

saw tourists standing on the rocks raise binoculars to examine them. The Sassanoa was an unusual sight, with its mahogany brightwork on deck, its white hull and blood-red sails, the spars themselves varnished spruce, cut from a forest on the mainland less than a mile from the island. Jacob saw a boy about his age borrow binoculars from his father and look out, and Jacob envied the boy for seeing the boat, though he would rather be where he was, sailing her. She sailed very nicely, not fast like the new fiberglass boats built with long fin keels and flat bottoms. Those were good for speed, but not for rollers and sudden winds. Jacob would take the Sassanoa in any bad weather over one of those ugly boats. The Sassanoa rolled over the swells and did not slap spray back into the cockpit. A powerful, curling swell could punch a hole in the side of a fiberglass hull, but the Sassanoa, with its thick oak planks, absorbed each blow like a prizefighter sizing up his opponent's strength.

"Let's sail over to Mauldin," his father said. "From there it'll be a straight shot back in."

Jacob looked down at his watch. "I don't know if you'll have time to make it into town if we don't head back now."

"It won't make much difference," his father said, looking up at the sail. "We can't miss a wind like this."

"I don't think we'll have enough time," Jacob said again, staring at the floorboards.

Instead of getting angry, as Jacob expected, his father smiled, looking up at the sail. "A wind like this will take us anywhere." Jacob looked at his father and saw his crooked yellow teeth and bumpy nose, the swell of fat girdling his jaw. For the first time, he saw his father as he imagined a woman might see him, in the clear, unforgiving sunlight.

Jacob glanced up toward the southwestern sky, at a line of thick dark clouds moving toward them with the freshening wind. Already his father had to ease off on the mainsheet to accommodate the extra force. Thunderheads. "Head for shore when you see those," his grandfather had said.

After a long tack they came up on the high granite side of Mauldin Island. Some people in a house above sat on their porch looking in the direction of the thunderheads, probably discussing whether they should secure the shutters. The weather was unpredictable, even when one could see it coming, but finally Jacob mentioned it.

"What about those thunderheads?"

"Those are thunderheads," his father said matter-of-factly. No smile this time. Suddenly, as a small cloud shaded the sun, his father looked down into the green water at the small ripples curling into the windward side of the hull. He seemed to be concentrating on a difficult decision.

The bow of the Sassanoa ploughed through the water toward the rocks. The shallows dropped off immediately, but they were closing fast, fifteen yards, twelve, and still his father looked over the windward side. Jacob determined not to say anything and found himself almost hoping the boat would crash into the granite. He shook his head at the thought. Five yards away his father casually swung the tiller across and brought them about. Jacob unhitched the jib and cleated it on the port side. He readied himself to let the sail out for heading downwind, but his father kept them headed out of the bay, straight for New Wagon Harbor.

"I thought we were going to head in," Jacob said, trying not to sound anxious.

"I thought we would head out and sail through the 'trickiest bit of sailing in the East,'" his father said, quoting Jacob's grandfather. His father gave a quick nod in the direction they were heading, and Jacob saw the corner of his mouth rise as he leaned down to pull in the mainsheet.

"What about your client and signing those papers?"

"Fuck it. Just fuck it."

Jacob waited for him to say more, but his father studied the luff in the canvas where the main joined the mast. "Winds like this don't come around every day." He narrowed his eyes, pulling in on the sheet and carefully adjusting the tiller. Jacob had never seen him look so determined. "We can make New Wagon Harbor in one tack."

Jacob wondered about his father's work -- if people would be left waiting in town and if they would be angry. Over the past months Jacob had heard conversations between his parents about his father's practice, and Jacob was not sure that everything was going well.

NEW Wagon Harbor, on the southern tip of a peninsula, was formed by three small, burly islands nestled close to shore. They sailed within ten yards of the mainland on the port side, trying to edge into the harbor without tacking again. Jacob could see the pale, sharp rocks below the tidal line, and the red keel that edged up toward the surface as they heeled over.

"How much room we got?" his father asked.

"You got it," Jacob answered.

"One tack."

They were inside the harbor, the mainland and dock to their left, the three islands to their right, and Jacob felt relieved. As if a hand had released its pressure on the mast, they tilted upright as the wind diminished behind the islands.

That wasn't the trickiest bit of sailing either. Now they were going to sail between the northern and eastern islands, where unmarked rocks spiked up from the bottom. Jacob thought the tide was too low, which was the only thing that had made his grandfather describe this reef as tricky. They simply needed to know where the rocks were and to go at the right tide.

"Our momentum will carry us until we can catch the wind again," his father said. "And I'll steer us around the rocks."

Jacob nodded, though he was doubtful. They couldn't see the rocks beneath the surface, but his father had sailed this many times before, with his own father and alone. Jacob didn't know how shallow it would be. The rollers crashed into the windward side of the islands, but the water in the harbor was calm.

"Pull the jib in,"his father said. Some wind would come around and they would heel, so they would draw less. That would help.

Jacob uncleated the jib and recleated it, but the maneuver was pointless -- the jib had been lashed too tight to begin with.

"Good." His father pulled in on the mainsheet, preparing for the wind. The tide was moving out, lowering every minute now. Several families were eating lunch on the pier outside the Lobster Shack. They stopped cracking their lobsters for a moment to stare at the red sails of the Sassanoa, gliding by from sheer momentum on the flat water. One of the youngest children leaped up when she saw the sails and raced toward the end of the pier. Her mother ran after, yelling the girl's name. The girl could have run off the end of the pier. She stopped at the last minute, though, and pointed at the red sails.

Jacob could see, twelve, ten yards ahead, a line of blue water marking the wind. As they drew closer, the wind receded and the shallow rocks appeared, yellow and white beneath the surface. Jacob watched the blue patch of wind on the water draw back like a snake into its hole and vanish. Now they were drifting straight onto the rocks, with no wind coming between the islands to make them heel. His father knew and had only a few seconds to decide what they would do. He could gradually steer them to port, but without any wind there was no point in throwing the tiller over. They would still drift forward. Before either could act or speak, Jacob saw just behind his father's head a patch of dark-blue water, a stiff gust, advancing from the north. Jacob barely had time to release the jib, though he realized later that it was the wrong thing to do. The wind caught inside the loose jib and lurched them straight forward at no heel. His father dropped his jaw and put his hands out to the side, as if some enormous creature had lifted him off the ground and were preparing to swallow him whole. Jacob waited for the sound of the rocks, but halfway through the passage none had come, and he thought maybe they would make it all the way through. Then came a thud that seemed distant, lurching the Sassanoa's bow down and her stern into the air. The wind caught the trimmed mainsail and pulled them sideways off the rock. When they were broadside to the wind and going over, Jacob finally unleashed the mainsail and let the boom fly. The wind spilled out; they were off the rock. His father leaned over the side of the boat to check for damage.

"No harm done,"he said, and grabbed the tiller. There had been only a thud, Jacob thought. His father steered them toward the channel. Jacob trimmed the jib, and they sped along with the wind and rocks behind them. The collision seemed never to have happened, and Jacob knew they would not talk about it -- as if it were a secret they would have to keep from his dead grandfather.

teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His first collection of stories, will be published this month.

Illustration by R. Kenton Nelson

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Afternoon of the Sassanoa; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 84-96.

teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His first collection of stories, will be published this month.

Illustration by R. Kenton Nelson

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Afternoon of the Sassanoa; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 84-96.