Driving up Route 28 headed to the home of some family friends that lived on an asterisk of land called Scraggy Point (on Scraggy Point Road, no less), we would pass a sign that pointed to the Barnstable Correctional Facility near Pocasset and my father would say “It’s right down there, son. It’s waiting for you.” He would emit a basso note that he used for a laugh, and I would look at the back of his head from my place behind him in the car and stick my tongue out. Of course, my sister, a year and a half older would immediately rat me out.
“Bob’s sticking his tongue out at you, Daddy.” the little fink-ess would say. I would feel my ears get hot and say nothing, but stare daggers at my sister and wonder what slimy form of sea life I could smuggle into her bed. It was a family tradition, this little scene playing out each time we took a summer trip to visit our friends. One year, after my sister would tattle on me, my dad slammed on the brakes and made a U-turn and diverted up Connery Avenue towards the Otis Air Guard station and the Barnstable facility. He pulled into the jail parking lot and told me to get out of the car, keeping up the ruse until my tears and my mother’s threats of chilly night to come caused him to relent. It was on this particular trip that I decided I would “show my dad.”
Our friends had a Lightning. That’s a single masted sailboat with a centerboard made by Sparkman and Stephens. It was 20 feet in length and pretty simple to sail. A lot of people kept them because they were easily trailerable and so easy to operate, even for the uninitiated. Our friends had one, and kept it moored in Hospital Cove during the summers. Our friends had a little rubber raft they used to paddle out to it when they wanted to take it for a spin. Growing up with different sailboats of my own –or available to me, I was a pretty decent sailor, at least for day trips.
We arrived at our friend’s home around 11:30 in the morning, and as we ate lunch together I was offered the use of the lightning because I didn’t really feel like going with the adults on their Henry Lures Sea Skiff inboard. Even though it could easily tow a skier, I knew that they’d just cruise around the coves and inlets of which there were many, drinking beer and telling us kids to stop interrupting. “Children are to be seen and not heard,” was a common expression of the times. I would rather feed myself to an octopus as go along on a boring cruise. Plus that, using the Lightning meant I wouldn’t have to take my back stabbing sister, she preferring the stocks to spending an afternoon in a boat I controlled. So she went with the grownups and I huffed and puffed and blew up the rubber raft, and with it under one arm and a bag with a life jacket, a canteen of water, a knife and a few other items I hoofed it over to the beach and paddled out to the boat.
There was a good breeze, maybe running fifteen knots, pretty much perfect for sailing a small craft. My father had told me to stay in the bight, the area with Hospital Cove at the bottom, Hen Cove at the top, and blocked from deep water by an island I forget the name of. For all practical purposes, it seemed the size of a playpen to me, perhaps a mile high and a half mile wide. Naturally I blew off the restriction and set course for Buzzards Bay. I set Wood’s Hole as my own demarkation line, the Rorschach-like Massachusetts coastline forming the rest of my borders. That gave me a lot of space to sail in, even if it did host collections of all kinds of boat traffic, pleasure to fishing.
I had the little boat heeled over, the water sweeping past the gunwale on the port side, and the centerboard down and locked, but flying just above the surface of the water. I’d wedged myself on the high side, keeping the Lightning from capsizing as I made way at a speed slightly greater than the wind. It was glorious, the boat’s bow broke the light chop of the bay sending a cool mist into the air that hit me face on, the rigging singing as it cut its way through the sunny summer air. A big Bertram cabin cruiser and I were on a collision course, set to cross one another’s path ahead. But the Bertram was on plane, gracefully cutting through the green water about ten knots faster than I. My bow was pointed at Nasketucket Bay, a large cove off of Buzzards Bay. I had thought it too small to be called a bay from the first time I learned its name, but it’s not like anyone would listen to a kid suggesting the renaming of a coastal feature that was there when the Indians still held title to the property. The Bertram was headed almost directly south and overtook me handily, leaving me to cross its wake about 50 yards behind it.
It was at the very last moment I realized that the wake from the big boat was rolling a 5 foot wave at me, and I crossed it at about a 45 degree angle that sent my bow skyward before it swapped directions and felt like it was pointing straight down to Davy Jone’s Locker. The bow slipped under water, and then porpoised upward and I shipped about 500 gallons of sea water over the low side gunwale. The Lightning wallowed for a few seconds and then heeled over, her mainsail slapping flat against the water’s surface. The boat lay on its side with me about 30 feet away from it where I’d been tossed. I swam back to the boat and managed to climb up on the hull. The people on the Bertram had seen me go over and swung around in a smooth curve, backing off the throttles. She coasted to a position about 60 feet away, no doubt making sure he didn’t wrap a loose line around his prop shaft. They told me to stay with the boat and that they were calling for help.
I sat there on the hull in the afternoon sun, feeling like a dork and wondering how I was going to explain this to my parent’s and the friends who allowed me the use of their sailboat. I had to wait almost an hour, but then a 7 man, 45 foot Coast Guard cutter, the Point Glass, motored up and took me aboard. A couple of the Coasties took to the water and swam over to the Lightning, and surprised me by righting it. They both put their feet on the centerboard and leaned way back, and then slowly, the tip of the mast began to rise and the water over the sail began a lazy flow, allowing the boat to slowly roll upright. The little cutter moved in tight and threw a huge diameter hose to the Coasties in the water, and in seconds had the boat pumped out. Although I swore to aqll of the gods of sea that I could take it from there, they merely looked amused and asked me where I lived. I explained my situation and then was told to take a seat while they towed the Lightning back to Hospital Cove. I’d left around noon for a couple hours worth of sailing and it was now going on five-thirty.
Our arrival hardly went unnoticed. My parents and their friends were standing on the beach watching the cutter crew hook the boat to the mooring bouy I’d pointed out. My sister was running back and forth on the beach in front of my waiting party yelling “You’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it” in a sing-song voice. I didn’t know which of us I wanted dead more, she or me. The cutter put a Whaler they had for a launch in the water and transported me and the little rubber raft to my waiting doom on the beach. I was commanded to sit up at the tide line, where drying seaweed and kelp marked the last high tide mark. The adults, and my sister, stood in a tight circle and spoke in low voices. Occasionally one of them would look or indicate my way, and each time I felt the heat in my ears and cheeks. Finally the adults shook hands all around and the Coasties climbed into their Whaler and moved back out to the Point Glass. The smile on my sister’s face was excruciating. Where was a sea monster with a taste for little girls when you needed one?
A few hours later after an outdoor barbecue of hamburgers and hot dogs, we piled into the car for the drive back home. As soon as we got out on to Route 28, my dad accelerated and then slowed. As we came abreast of the sign that announced the correctional facility, my dad stopped the Packard he adored so much. “Get out.” he said.