Listening to the Wind*

crossing the Bay, Oct. 2000; photo by Katherine Brown

The wind’s a wild one tonight.  It whistles and roars. The halyards rattle and clang against the mast.  The boat rolls and rocks.  It’s not especially comforting, the sound of that wind rising and rising and rising.  The boat seems very small to be afloat in such a huge and solemn sound.

We are anchored in Reed Creek — ‘A bit tricky to get into that following breeze,’ Paul had said as we bounced up the Chester River.  Breeze indeed.  It was bona fide wind by my definition, blowing us along at seven knots — even with two reefs in the main — and whipping the river into a foamy chop.  The girls, five and two, had started the sail in the cockpit with us, but then the wind rose and the temperature dropped sharply, and they retreated below.  Elizabeth unpacked coloring books and crayons for them both.  Paul and I took turns going below to put on more clothes, layering on everything we’d packed against the windy, bright cold.  After a while, the girls gave up coloring and rolled themselves in their sleeping bags, foot to foot on the wide settee, half-dozing, half-enduring the wild ride up the river. 

Now, anchored in the creek, we’ve all retreated from the cold cockpit.  The computer voice on the VHF weather channel says it may dip below 40, frost warnings inland.  We are crammed into the tiny cabin; tumbling over each other as I prepare dinner.

‘This is the best part,’ Elizabeth says, ‘all close together eating dinner on the boat.’

After dinner, Paul reads the girls a story.  In the middle of it, Margaret rolls off his lap, curled up like a little hedgehog and, surprisingly, soundly asleep.  Elizabeth is awake and helpful as we maneuver Margaret into a fresh Pamper and sleeper and bed.  I look at my big girl and smile and say how glad I am to have an adventure with her.  She looks at me and smiles back but doesn’t reply.  She seems slightly puzzled at the thought.  I wonder if this actually is an adventure to her.  She brings the same casual intensity to this boat, the real one, as she does to her pretend cruises at home, sailing the coffee table on the bounding rug, wearing a real life jacket and chatting with imaginary friends from books.  Burt Dow and the Giggling Gull are right there with her as she sets out in the Tidley Idley to rescue Little Tim and the Old Sea Captain. Those are her adventures, not these real outings on the Bay.  What she likes about the real boat, I think, is the intimacy, not the adventure.  She has the people she loves the best in the world right to hand, literally.

In the marina last night, we saw a boy trailing his dad back toward their boat, talking nonstop all the while.  ‘I like the boat, Dad.  I mean, it’s not like home.  There’s a lot of different things to do at home,’ the boy had paused, considered.  ‘And, well, actually, there is nothing to do on the boat.  But you and me and Mom, we are doing it all together.’

Still the boat rolls.  The low banks of the creek are not much protection from the wind.  It rises and roars, and the boat quivers accordingly.  The girls are asleep.  Paul and I are awake listening.  My eyes are dry and tired:  too much sun, too much wind.  But I am awake because of the wind’s ceaselessness and because of the girls’ trusting sleep.

Paul goes on deck again to make sure the anchor is holding, and that the rode isn’t chafing.  All is safe, despite the sound.  I go to close the open hatch against the cold and, glancing up, am caught instead by the sight of the round white moon shining through the moving, broken clouds.  I am held by its brightness and by their motion.  Paul comes below again.

‘Did you see —’

‘The moon,’ he says.

The stricter discipline of small-boat living creates a wider quiet in my mind.  It is not a deliberate refocusing but the natural result of embracing a more immediate responsibility and a closer connection to the world around.  I plumb more deeply where I am, what this is.

Rising wind.  Flying cloud.  High white moon.

I am surrounded by the water.  Together with my husband and my daughters right to hand.  Rocking on the water, listening to the wind.

*essay originally published in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, Jan. 2003; cruise taken Oct. 2000. The emotions associated with being on a small boat on a wide water in a wild wind are not limited to that literal circumstance — which is why I chose this essay to blog now.

Running Blind

Preparation for fall teaching — multiple classes, institutions, and online platforms — is keeping me from writing weekly posts. Rather than let this blog go entirely dark, I thought I’d republish essays originally printed elsewhere.

This originally appeared in the Sept. 2004 issue of Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

Fog off the Miles River; 2017; photo by Katherine Brown

I am crouched in the bow of the boat, shivering in the chilly damp, peering out into a surrounding blanket of white, trying to find our mark.  Stop thinking metaphorically — this is a literal fog. Keep your eyes open; keep looking.  As hard as I work to keep my attention focused, though, a part of my mind clicks separately.  So, this is what it is to be wandering blind.

We had waked to pearly gray fog obscuring the shores of the small cove where we’d anchored.  The trees on the nearest bank were barely visible; those opposite were totally hidden.  We waited out the morning, pleasantly idle at anchor.  The first white spot of sun showed around ten; it took another hour to burn through the fog and warm the cradle of our cove.  We lifted anchor around 11 and motored slowly out of the creek.

The sun shone hazy white and warm on the smooth ripples of the South River.  We went slowly, in no rush.  We were headed to the West River — barely a morning’s ride away.  As we approached the mouth of the river, just past Selby Bay, I went below to get lunch.  I came back up a few minutes later to find that the fog had rolled back in.  Blown in from the open Bay, perhaps.  We had just come up on a mark, and even as I watched, the fog started to spread shreds of white between it and us.  Paul quite matter-of-factly said, ‘Hold her here while I go below and check my compass course to the next mark.’  We have no GPS or radar, so he works with compass and parallel rule and paper charts.

So here we are in the fog again, deprived of the sun’s warmth.  Paul is back at the wheel, I’m at the bow, staring into the thick nothingness.  Eight-year-old Elizabeth stands in the cockpit to see over the cabin; she calls out crab pots in our way.  Five-year-old Margaret looks behind; she calls out crabpots in our wake.  We pick our way slowly forward.  The fog is thick gray-white.  The water is gray with odd black gleams.  All we can see is this circle of soft fog, this circle of strange water glinting like fish skin.  Another boat motors slowly toward us out of the fog then passes away into it again.

Paul heads for where the mark should be.  He has plotted a course between the marks which are closest together rather than those which are linked most directly to our destination.  We hit the first few marks dead on.  The wind is light, and Paul’s course is true.  One lays more to starboard than it should have, but close enough to spot.  Paul shifts course slightly and keeps going slowly forward.  The girls call out in excited voices.

And I, crouched and cold, look at the strange sea.  My mind beyond attentive eyes wanders still to simile and metaphor. Remembering an older woman who once told me, ‘It’s not knowing the answers.  It’s learning to live with the questions.’  So this is what it is.  This steady procession from mark to mark to mark even as we study the surrounding shining for signs and a wider view.

The circle of fog does not surround us evenly — sometimes it draws close on one side and seems broader on the other.  I look not only for the marks but also to try and hold this unearthly sight.  To try and hold this weird sense of being surrounded, suspended and separate, outside all normal space and time.  We have no view of the farther shore.  We can see only fifty yards to one side, a hundred toward the other.

I wonder whether I am starting to perceive an intimation of blue above.  But we are headed toward the sun, and the fog is thickest and most dazzling white at this angle.  Impossible to see anything ahead.  To the right?  No … Yes!  Definitely a line of shore somewhere between the fog and the water.  A reddish-sandy shore at the base of a cliff. The water still glinting sharkskin and the fog soft white, yet between them, the welcome sight of Dutchman Point and its sheltering, white-winged building.  The autumn-rich tones of the grass and trees and the overlaying vagueness of the fog look like a painting by an old master.

As the fog burns off further, we can see above it towering cumulus clouds, white on white, lit with just enough blue to be blinding.  The next mark is for the Rhode River, and the next after that for the West.  The fog is mostly lifted, here, though we can see a hint of white, still, behind us toward the Bay.  I go back to the cockpit.  Paul and I look at each other with unvoiced relief.  The sun is warm.  The view is lovely, shore and houses and boats together.  The rest of the trip is easy.  Soon we are back in the slip, unloading and cleaning up for the drive home.  All the normal chores.

Still, though, I can close my eyes and see that fog.  The thinking shining white, the weird glinting water.  Still, in my mind I hold that since of blindness made visible as we traveled strange water toward home.