Clench - by Mason Marsh

By Captain Mason Marsh 

So there we were...motoring into a stiff autumn blow from the Southwest, spray slinging its way over our bluff bow and  through the myriad lines, all the way aft to find my chapped cheeks high on the quarterdeck. We had made slow work of chewing up mileage out of Westport bound for Sausalito. We were late leaving Aberdeen. We were always late leaving Aberdeen. The sun had left weeks before, presumably to warm our path south. Winter weather was knocking on the door, and we hoped to sneak out and make that blessed southbound turn for warmer climes before the shit got deep. 

Halfway into my watch and the shit was piling up. The sea was confused, pyramids of chop slapped the hull with half-assed indifference as the wind did its best to shove us backward to Cape Flattery. The old Jimmy was spinning the prop with everything it had and when the wheel was in the water we clawed our way south. My hourly GPS plots began to cluster on the chart like ants around a crumb. Try as we might, we were treading water. California was no closer than it was four hours ago. The air we exhaled at the start of our watch was now shaking branches on trees 100 miles behind us. 

Captain Jake poked his head up at midnight to see what all the to and fro was about. I showed him our plots and he looked aloft to the whipping flags and whining lines. It was time to turn tail and ride it out. He gave the order to head north and run with the weather. I shut down the tired engine and let the bow fall off the wind. The next watch slid quietly onto the quarter deck with mugs of coffee and tea in clenched hands. The three of us laid below to dry off, warm up and enjoy the smooth ride of a brig under bare poles sailing north in October at 11 knots. 

I slept hard. I always did after a cold watch. My bunk was aft above the grinding engine, so the silent sailing had me snug in slumber. Six hours later I was jarred awake by the main coming tolife. In those days, before the overhaul, the ancient Jimmy would protest, turn and rumble for an eternity before it settled into anything close to a soothing rhythm. Jake was talking with the mate about the weather and charts in the cramped nav. station feet from my rack. We had been pushed pretty far north and it was time to head for home before we ended up off Vancouver Island. 

Sleep reclaimed me for a time. I was deeply cocooned in my blissful Bonine haze when I awoke to a cabin filled with smoke. Or was it steam? All I knew was the engine was on one second, and silent the next. I shot from my bunk and grabbed an extinguisher. In the aft cabin those days, you could jump down a hatch and enter the engine room from shaft level. I crawled down and scampered forward through the steam to find the engine roasting. Some sort of joint had failed, redlining the exhaust temperature and forcing the abrupt shutdown. We were suddenly residents of a sail-only vessel somewhere off the Washington coast. 

The mate rushed to plot a course for Gray’s Harbor. The course looked good for sailing, a bit down wind... a nice starboard tack right to the GH buoy. Things like that always look better on the chart than they do up on deck. With foulies on I climbed from the steamy darkness of the aft cabin to the cold slosh of the quarterdeck. Jake wanted to set a sail, and with the brig at the mercy of the chaotic seas, several of us agreed to head up the foremast to deep reef the foretops’l. Normally, the watch leader would set the ship head to the seas so those aloft could work on a pendulum that swings fore and aft. With no engine the brig wallowed like a cork. We clawed up the shrouds. While the boat rolled I raced to the canted top platform shrouds only to lose my footing and cling for dear life as the roll took me past horizontal. I reached the yard already shaking from the strain. My arm muscles screamed while my legs did their best to sewing machine me right off the foot rope. Will was to my right as we laid out on the starboard side. I had the bunt, which gave me one foothold on the mast step and the greasy topmast to brace my port hip against. Rick was on the yardarm cursing the earring when Will yelled to me over the wind, “I can’t find my ‘biner!”  He was clutching the jackstay with one hand and groping his harness for his leash. It was either wrapped around him or in his foulies. Either way, it was out of reach and Will was untethered to the bucking brig. I used my second leash to clip into his harness so if he fell, he’d strip me off the yard but we’d be fast to the jackstay, We feverishly worked the reef points as the yard slid sickeningly side to side with the merciless roll. At one point I looked down the yard to see Rick whipping the earring to the cleat. What would have normally been a horizontal yard was at least 45 degrees off the axis. The brig was rolling halfway to over and we were riding the end of the whip. All of us on the yard were grown men. All of us were crying. All of us were cursing and clenching and clawing at the reef points. In calm conditions we’d have had that sail reefed, set, braced, and half a cup of tea drunk in the time it took us to wrestle that bitch that day. 

We scampered alow once the job was done. Each of us hit the deck with arms dangling and knees knocking. Jake came down to see to us and I looked him in the eyes and said, “I’m sure some day I’ll tell this story like it was no big thing, but fuck me running, I never ever want to do that again!” 

We made it home to Gray’s Harbor that day. It wasn’t an easy run. The current swept us north as we braced hard for a starboard tack. When we crossed the bar we did it under full sail, not for show but for drive. We barely made the north jetty with the rig braced so hard we looked like a schooner. The brig made 100 feet forward for every 50 feet to port. We snuck in over the bar on luck and desperation. The Coast Guard came out
to watch us break up on the jetty. We were thrilled to disappoint them. We dropped the hook off Ocean Shores and took a nap on deck. A cormorant lit the taffrail and stayed there for hours. 

Two days later we slipped out of Westport with a fixed engine and full diesel tanks. We made Sausalito in record time with a following wind and smooth seas.

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