TUESDAY: Line Squall


Copyright is held by the author. In this excerpt from David’s novel, Windward Legs, Alice, a relatively inexperienced sailor, finds herself in charge of Jackdaw, an “old money” classic racing yacht. They’re out racing and a storm is coming.

A FLICK of lightning lanced down in the middle distance. Here we go, Alice said to herself. She felt a clutch in her stomach. No use wishing they were safely tied to the dock. This thing was coming for them and would arrive long before they could make harbour.

“You all saw that, right?” she said. “We’re only a couple of minutes from the windward mark and then we’ll be heading back towards the shore anyway. I suggest we keep racing, but if anyone wants to turn around right now, just say, and we will. No discussion.” So strongly did she believe this that she didn’t even consider asking Mr .Opitz.

They turned to him anyway. He stared right back.

“Your skipper asked you a question, why are you looking at me?”

Thanks Mr. O, she thought, much appreciated.

“I’m good,” said Marcus.

“I’m good,” said Derek.

“Go for it, we’re good here,” called Joss, from the rail. Teenagers: immortal, naturally.

She had one last question. “If it gets crazy, which sail do we drop first on these boats?”

“The jib for sure.” answered Mr. O, as they arrived at the windward mark.

Once around it, Jackdaw was sailing downwind with the mainsail out to one side as far as it would go, the wind pushing them from behind.

The storm swept in fast, really fast. Spooky-looking skeins of pale cloud rolled in beneath the darkening overcast. A draft of chilled air felt like somebody opening a fridge door. Lightning strobed in the clouds, making deep booms Alice could feel in her chest. So far the wind was manageable, gusts showing up to 30 knots on the display. You’d have to be crazy to even think about hoisting the spinnaker.

Back at the mark, Tomahawk rounded with Fang right behind. Tomahawk was trying to reef his mainsail, a tough go with the boom way out to the side. The crew were screaming at each other and the sail flapped like crazy. Then the wind exploded it with a crack like gunfire, leaving shards of sailcloth fluttering from the mast.

“He should’a done it when we did, you were right!” shouted Derek over the roaring wind and rush of water past the hull.

The tiller was kicking and pulling in Alice’s hand as Jackdaw careered along, rolling from side to side and barely under control. It was hard work, like driving a car without power steering.

“Chas, can you come down?” she called, “I need a hand on the helm here.” She wasn’t sure why she’d chosen him, could be the smiley face and the mop of straw-coloured curls. It was tight quarters in her little steerer’s cockpit and he had to squeeze in next to her. She noticed the heft and warmth of his hard young man’s body.

“Just follow my movements, okay?” He gave a nod and a thumbs up and in seconds they had it together. They were side-by-side, he had an arm around her waist to brace them, and the other hand on the tiller next to hers. They weren’t fighting each other for control and it felt as if he knew her movements before she made them. She turned to gaze into his earnest young face. “You’ve sailed with a tiller before, right? I can tell.”

“A few times, yeh.”

Good boy, more than a few, she thought.

A dazzling flash struck the water close aboard with a wallop and the rotting-fish stink of ozone. Shit, that was close! Behind them, Fang hadn’t tried reefing after he saw what happened to Tomahawk, and with more sail up he was closing on them. Then he decided to turn towards the other side of the course and nearly wiped out as the sail whipped across the boat with a crash that could be heard on Jackdaw above the racket of Mother Nature taking her best shot.

Or maybe just her second-best shot. A band of white mist, low to the water, came sliding in from astern. What could it be?

Mr. O had spotted it too. “Line squall coming, skipper,” he called out, and his voice carried an urgency Alice hadn’t heard before.

Oh, so that was what it was.

“Let’s get that jib down right now,” Alice yelled, “quick as you can! And remember, one hand for the ship and one for yourself. Nobody goes swimming!”

Had she just barked out those orders? Was this her speaking? Hardly the moment for introspection, focus on survival. Thank Christ she’d had a warm-up lesson yesterday on Classy. Keep the rolling under control at all costs.

The crew barely managed to drag the jib down and stow it before the line squall hit. In a film, Alice thought, this was where the director’d go to slow motion, play “Ride of the Valkyries.”

In a fascinated, almost hypnotized state, she noticed things she’d never seen before. The tops were being blasted off the waves and that was the white mist she’d seen. The wind was screaming, no really, screaming, through the rigging. She didn’t know it could actually do that. Clips from the movies, happening right here in front of her, real.

Freezing cold raindrops, the size of marbles, came flying sideways. It was good to have Chas keeping her warm. The two of them were in the moment, going with the flow, and all the other truisms that didn’t come close to capturing what this felt like. They were braced together, their bodies moved in unison, and Alice felt a sensual sway and a rhythm: boat rolls left, steer left, boat rolls right, steer right. Let Jackdaw heel over too far and they could wipe out, fill with water, and sink.

Another movie image popped up: the girl in Whale Rider. That was Chas and herself piloting nine tons of over-powered yacht down the faces of the following seas.

With each roll she felt Chas’s thighs flex against hers, and his arm around her waist gripped extra tight each time a blast hit and Jackdaw bucketed ahead. Alice was consumed by the ferocity and physicality of it all. Chas was squinting into the rain with a half-snarl on his face like a gorgeous young panther on the lookout for prey, and Alice wanted to snarl back and bite his neck.

Derek and Marcus were hanging on tight-lipped, faces grim. Mr. O too, his yellow foul-weather jacket dripping wet, but he showed a trace of that grin as well. His eyes met Alice’s, and for that one second they shared the exhilaration and fuck-you defiance of keeping it together in the jaws of the line squall.

Sixty knots flashed on the wind speed display. And what was amazing to Alice was that she felt no fear despite the shrieking wind, hammering thunderclaps, and water flying. Instead, she felt something close to joy.

Quick as it came, the squall passed through. Now It was just crazy windy instead of life-threatening. Surely the Race Committee would have cancelled by now? The rulebook said it was up to each skipper to decide whether it was safe to keep racing, but under these conditions?

“Marcus, what are those flags on the RC boat?” Alice called. The rate they were going they’d be there anytime.

He screwed up his eyes to see through the rain and spray.

“The On Station flag is still up, and there’s a blue square on white. That’s Shorten Course, right?”

“When did they hoist that?” shouted Derek. “Is there another lap to go or is this the finish right here?” Nobody knew; they’d been too busy staying alive.

“Skipper,” said Chas in her ear, “I would cross the finish line anyway. If we get a finish gun, great. If it’s not the finish, too bad. We’ll be heading in anyway, I’m guessing?” Damn straight. Was Jackdaw still in the lead? Alice didn’t dare think it. Be cool, she told herself.

They were bearing down on the potential finish line when, to their right, a white hull materialized out of the rain. Fang again, and Jackdaw was again on a collision course with another boat.

“Miss Alice, keep going, you’re doing well,” shouted Mr. O, “he’s the give-way boat.”

She wasn’t reassured. Derek yelled “Starboard!” but no way would Fang’s skipper hear it. He kept boring in, too much sail up and on the ragged edge of control, aiming to cut across in front of Jackdaw and beat them to the line.

Alice didn’t like this. He wasn’t going to make it, Jackdaw was going to get T-boned and there was nowhere to dodge. Fang’s skipper could see it too and he froze. Alice willed Mr. Hotshot-Tack-In-Your-Face to get it together. Even from here she could see the deer in the headlights look in his eyes.

The wind gods helped her out for once. Another blast of air laid Fang over into a wipeout. They missed Jackdaw’s stern by a couple of feet and their masthead clipped the backstay. That was a foul, but this was no time to worry about hoisting a protest flag.

The Race Committee boat’s end of the line was coming up fast. Was this really the finish? A guy in a yellow slicker crouched at the stern with a clipboard, watching them.

“I think this may be it, skipper,” muttered Chas. He got a sharp elbow in the ribs.

“Shut up, don’t you say a word.” They waited, not breathing. They waited some more. Surely their bow was over the line by now? It wasn’t the finish after all?

BANG, loud, in Alice’s left ear this time.

Whooping and hollering erupted. Could it really be? Jackdaw, owner Martin Opitz, skippered by novice Alice Cooper, had won this mind-blowing, epic race, and with it the Eight Metre Class. Alice’s Cinderella dream was real. She screamed, grabbed Chas and gave him a quick hard kiss on the lips. His hands took a firm grip on her waist. She wanted the kiss to go on, but realized she’d better pay attention to steering, and that put an end to that.

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  1. I guess you have to be a sailor to enjoy this story.

  2. Until you mentioned 8 metre I thought you might be racing a CS 27, the largest tiller boat I have ever steered. A gripping episode indeed. A line squall going from five to sixty knots in seconds is as scary as it gets on water. Even on land it rips up trees and shreds roofs. We used to get one or two a year when we lived on the shore of Amherst Island, off Kingston. Scary, even on land. Well told, David. Most realistic.

  3. Great action! I am a winsurfer so I have some appreciation but this took me into the keel boat world at its chaotic best.

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