Knitting Through the Waves
The glacier blue yarn slipped smoothly through Ruthy’s fingers – knit, purl, yarn over, slip, slip, knit together. She methodically picked the yarn into one stitch and then another. Suddenly, the sailboat shuddered and dropped into a steep trough. Ruthy’s stomach and hands jerked upwards. A loop of yarn slipped and fell from her knitting needle.
Outside the cabin, the wind was playing with the sea. It built towers of gray green water then knocked them down into piles of white capped foam. The chubby, 21-foot S/V Sculpin fought against the romping wind. Her bow smashed into one wave and then another. Walls of water collided with the sailboat’s small front window, sending a dribble of salt water through the seals. Ruthy dropped her knitting, grabbed her red and white paisley bandana, and shoved it between the bottom of the window and the shelf just below. Here in the middle of Port Wells, Alaska, it was over 2000 feet to the lightless ocean floor and beyond a mile to any shore, but in the nine-by-five-foot space of the Sculpin’s cabin, Ruthy wanted it dry. She hated it when water got in the cabin, especially when it trickled down onto the pile of army surplus wool blankets piled on the narrow end of the berth. Nothing was worse than crawling into bed and sticking her feet into a dank mass of sodden felt.
The sun had been so bright this morning and it had been so calm. The sky had been that bright color of blue that only appears on clear summer days. It reminded Ruthy of her favorite crayon color, cornflower: a light blue that carries golden sunshine within it. The sun had warmed her face, and she wondered if the young humpback whale they had seen rising then diving back down to feed had also enjoyed the moments of warmth on its slick, glistening skin. Now that same golden sunshine was fueling the wind.
She had tried to explain it to her parents. Sunshine creates heat, heat creates rising air, rising air creates wind, wind creates choppy seas, and choppy seas toss small sailboats about like a toddler in a bathtub. It was like driving down a road with deep ravines hollowed out at regular intervals. They nodded as if they understood, but they couldn’t. Midwestern gravel roads do not come with blasts of cold, stinging seawater in your face. And roads do not move. You can stop your truck and consider your options. Waves move and they stop for no one.
When the wind had started to blow the waves across the bow, Ruthy had taken refuge in the cabin. There she hid from the harsh glare of reflected sunlight and the constant pelting of sea spray. That also meant she had no horizon to watch, and her stomach churned in confusion as the Sculpin pitched. The one thing sailors and stage performers share is an understanding that your stomach is the first organ to tell you if danger lies ahead. It’s not always accurate, but it is vocal.
Ruthy crawled back across the berth, then worked her way to the galley and the adjacent cabin door, gripping anything that was tied down to steady herself against the rolling of the boat. The traverse was only six feet, but each time a wave broke across the bow, or the sailboat dove into another trough, she had to stop and brace herself.
Next time they were getting a bigger boat, she decided. Larger sailboats have a deep cabin that you walk down into from the deck. Deep cabins allow enough headroom that even in rough seas Ruthy would be able to stand upright without fear of smacking her head on the ceiling. The Sculpin had no such cabin. Yes, it allowed her to move straight back from the berth to the cockpit without having to navigate stairs, but she also couldn’t sit on the bed without cracking her head against the ceiling beam. She had done just that at least three times so far this morning. A boat that would allow them to make better time in rough water like this would be a welcome change, too.
They used to joke that their boat’s cabin was like a VW van for the ocean. Then they had gotten a real VW van and realized how much bigger the van was. All that open space in the van’s rectangular form had made it feel like a palace compared to the low, tapered shape of the Sculpin.
Ruthy dropped onto the narrow bench. The small cabin door was open between the galley and the cockpit. From here she could reach out and touch Erik if she didn’t need to stay so firmly planted on her bench. More importantly, she could breathe in the fresh air and look to the horizon. Her stomach settled. No need to worry.
Ruthy reached across the narrow space and held the small titanium kettle against the faucet. It was hard to use the foot pump for the sink and hold the kettle while also staying seated. It reminded her of that children’s game where you rub your belly and pat your head. Kids should try that game while being bounced on a trampoline. It would prepare them for sunny days at sea.
“Do you want a cup of tea?”
Erik nudged the long wooden tiller back and forth angling into the larger waves to make the passage as smooth as he could. He was tall with muscular forearms and brown eyes that changed shades depending on how he was feeling. They could be dark like Ruthy’s morning Earl Grey tea or as light as an oak plank. Even after more than 20 years of marriage, she still loved to be near him. He was one of the most capable men she knew. Ruthy liked capable men, especially when they were battling big waves and hours from any help. Without his hand firmly on the tiller this could all be much worse. These same waves directly hitting the side of the sailboat could roll it. There was little comfort in knowing that eventually the boat would probably right itself. Probably.
“Ruthy, how are you feeling? We’ve still got several hours to go before we make town. Can you make it?”
“I’m ok. I was trying to focus on my knitting, but I kept dropping stitches. I feel better sitting here.”
Erik looked directly at her. His eyes were the color of soft calfskin today. Seawater dripped down his cheeks and clung to his two-day old beard. “I’m really glad you came out with me this weekend. It’s been too long. Watch out. Here comes a big one.” Erik turned the boat into the oncoming wave, but instead of the expected dipping and splashing, the boat jerked up and to the side. The engine bucked upwards. The screech of bending metal cut through the constant whoosh of wind.
The engine had died.
Erik struggled to reorient the boat back into the waves instead of being broadsided by them but without the engine it was hopeless. The first wave pushed the sailboat’s nose around, and the next tipped the boat steeply on its side. The rolling ocean rushed into the cockpit.
Erik was gone.
“Erik!” Ruthy gripped the frame of the cabin door. Without someone at the tiller, the sailboat was at the mercy of the waves. Wave after wave smashed into the Sculpin’s side. Sheets of stinging seawater flooded into the cockpit. A rogue wave tipped the Sculpin even higher onto her side. The steep angle threw Ruthy off the galley bench. Her knees collided with the hard oak boards of the deck and her shoulder smashed into the sink cabinet. She would have skidded across the floor except the space was too small. This was one time when the smallness of the boat was an advantage. Ruthy braced herself against the galley walls and pulled the orange float coat out from under the bench.
“Dammit!” She could not let go of the door frame long enough to put the coat on. Ruthy sat up and pushed her knees against the galley walls. She shoved her arms into the coat’s heavy sleeves, gripped the zipper’s tiny tab and pulled upwards. It didn’t work. Every time the boat jerked against a wave, her fingers were ripped away. She would deal with the zipper later. The common and legal practice of only wearing a life jacket outside the cabin was bunk.
“Erik!” The empty tether was swaying and clanging against the side of the cockpit. Erik should have been using it. If he had used the tether, he would still be attached to the boat. Now he was gone. How could he be gone? Ruthy grabbed the unused carabiner at the end of the tether and clipped it to the heavy rings on her jacket. She might be knocked down, but she would not be thrown overboard. Several inches of water sloshed across the cockpit as the boat slanted steeply against the larger waves. Ruthy stepped into the cockpit and clung to the bucking boat using the tiller and the handrail on the cabin deck.
“Erik! Oh, Lord, please help me find him. Think. Think.” The engine sat quietly in its well. It was still attached and appeared ok. “Start the engine, Ruthy. You can do this. You used to do this. Come on.”
Before she had met Erik, Ruthy had run flat bottom riverboats on the broad Mississippi River, maneuvered jet-powered boats through fast, shallow rivers in remote northern Alaska, and had even spent a few years navigating almost invisible channels in the lagoons of the Alaska Peninsula. When had she stopped learning and practicing those skills? It seemed like an age ago.
Ruthy shoved the gear shift into neutral, reset the throttle, braced her feet in a wide stance, and pulled the starter cord hard.
Twice. A putter.
Ruthy adjusted the throttle to give it more gas.
One more pull. The engine started with a roar.
“Erik, I’m coming!” Ruthy tugged the engine into gear and pushed the tiller away from the waves. The engine hummed, but nothing happened. She twisted the throttle to full power and the engine howled. Still, the boat did not turn.
“Come on! Why aren’t you turning?” Ruthy shut the engine off and yanked it forward. Two of the four screws holding the propeller to the engine were gone. They had been sheared off. The engine was useless.
Ruthy clung to the swinging tiller. Waves topped with diamond glitter rolled by. It was beautiful. And that beauty was hiding and killing Erik.
Ruthy focused on the boat. “Ok. Sails. I can do this.” The jib’s location at the very front of the Sculpin made it particularly helpful for steering and its steeply triangular shape kept it from catching too much wind. It was always their first and often the only sail they used.
Ruthy had used it on her own the last time they were out. It had been another sunny day, but in the lee of Perry Island, the wind had been gentle. Erik had gone inside the cabin to nap and Ruthy had pulled the jib sheet and turned off the engine. The gentle whistle in the sail along with the rhythmic lapping of the water against the Sculpin’s sides had been soothing. She had enjoyed having no destination in mind, just lolling along with the water and breeze. She had been proud of herself. It had been her first time to use the sail without Erik there to guide her. It had seemed so easy.
The Sculpin dropped into another trough and Ruthy stubbed her toe against the narrow oak planks on the floor of the cockpit. “Ouch!” The sharp pain brought immediate tears to her eyes. Or were those tears already there amidst the lines of dripping sea spray? Ruthy didn’t know. She didn’t have time to consider. She looked quickly at her feet to be sure nothing was too amiss. Her bare feet were white against the darkened boards. Good, no blood. There had been no time to put on her heavy waterproof boots.
Ruthy released the handhold long enough to loosen the furl that held the jib tightly wound into a roll, then she grasped the starboard jib sheet. Why ropes attached to sails were called sheets was beyond her. This was just another reason motorboats were better. All the weird words. All the extra skills you needed to get anywhere. She just wanted to get the boat turned around. If she could angle downwind, that should send her back the way they had come. Ruthy wrapped the thick polyester jib sheet around her hand and pulled firmly. Nothing happened. The rope was stuck.
“Blast it. Come on!” Precious moments ticked by. Erik would be losing feeling in his arms and legs by now. Ruthy wrapped the sheet around both her hands, bent her legs, and yanked back. Another rogue wave hit the bow just as the jib unfurled. Ruthy fell back and landed face down over the gunwale. The churning surface of the ocean was inches away. The musty, briny smell of kelp infused water splashed into her nose. The tether held. She was ok. She was still in the cockpit.
“I can do this. I can do this.”
They had bought the sailboat shortly after she and Erik had married. He had looked like a little boy who had seen his first puppy. On every walk they would stop and look at it. The for-sale sign came down a week later. It had been Erik’s love ever since. Ruthy liked the spruce wood mast, deep burgundy tanbark sails, and classic lines of the Sculpin. She liked to go out and since the sailboat was what Erik loved, that’s what they used. She usually napped or read while Erik puttered with the engine and sails. She liked the boat like Erik liked to cook. He could make a decent bean soup, but he wasn’t going to cook anyone a feast.
Ruthy righted herself and secured the jib sheet. The sail grabbed the wind and the Sculpin rose in response. The tiller grew firm against the movement through the water. She was on her way. But to where?
“Erik!” The waves could have pushed him anywhere and the waves had definitely pushed the sailboat off course. She didn’t know how far. She wasn’t even sure how much time had passed.
Ruthy cried Erik’s name over and over. In every man overboard drill she and Erik had practiced, they always circled back first. That’s what she should do. Ruthy pushed the tiller over. As the boat came around, the jib luffed and then collapsed completely. She pulled the opposite jib sheet to capture the wind from the other side, but nothing happened. The jib continued to ripple in the headwind. She had not been going fast enough to make the turn. She should have been going faster. It was just like a bicycle. You cannot steer a bike that is moving too slow.
Ruthy closed her eyes and sucked in her breath. If she was a real sailor, she would know how to get the boat moving. She would have known to get up more speed before trying to turn. Now she was floundering.
Ruthy turned her face away as another wave smashed against the hull. The cold ocean water pulled at her hair and glued strands to her cheeks. The salt was tangy on her tongue. Ruthy wiped the water from her face. She couldn’t just sit here and be pounded by wave after wave. A floundering boat was sitting prey to any oncoming ship, and more importantly, she was also being pushed away from Erik. Every wave took them farther apart.
Ruthy looked at the luffing jib. She needed more power. The jib had not been enough. She needed the mainsail. The mainsail was easily three times the size of the jib and it would make the wind into a powerful force. Ruthy remembered the first time they had used it. A hard gust had come down from Pillar Mountain, pushed into the billowing fabric, and heeled the Sculpin steeply onto her side. It had taken Erik, herself, and their good friend all pulling together to release the sail. When it was over, they realized the force of the wind against the sail and its stays had cracked the deck. The spider web of lines in the fiberglass was still visible.
There was nothing but sparkling sun specks, the distant green and white of the mountains still topped with snow, and the unstoppable train of waves as far as the eye could see. No other boats were in sight. The mainsail lay across the cabin roof in flapping folds and the halyard line slapped against the starboard gunwale. Erik had prepared for its use when they had set out this morning, then he had decided the wind was too strong and in the wrong direction.
Ruthy wiped her eyes and pinched her nose. Her knuckles bled. She must have cut herself on the roughened lines. She couldn’t see the rest of her skin beneath all these layers, but she could feel the stiffness setting in. If she lived through this, she was sure there would be bruises. The sea spray that had struck her face ran down her neck. She was soaked inside and out. The cold of the ocean seeped into her body. She wiped her hands across her jacket, but she just left streaks of dark red across the bright orange fabric. There was nothing for it. The mainsail was her only hope. She shook one hand and then the other to warm them.
Ruthy lurched forward and grabbed the halyard line before the next wave filled the cockpit with fresh foam. The halyard was a complex set of block and tackles that would help her hoist the mainsail. The rough, seldom used sheet tore at Ruthy’s already bloody hands. Ruthy held the tiller between her knees and pulled hand over hand. The halyard was barely above her head when the wind caught the yards of folded fabric and billowed them into a solid tanbark wall the wind shoved hard against. The tiller slammed against her knee as the boat angled sharply downwind, knocking Ruthy off balance. The wind was in control.
“No, you don’t!” Ruthy bent her legs and pushed back against the tiller. The Sculpin picked up speed. She could feel the movement of water through the vibration of the tiller. She heaved again. It was as if she had lassoed a 1000-pound sea lion by the flipper, but the Sculpin was moving in a direction that Ruthy was choosing. The Sculpin heeled steeply to the side and cut through the waves. She would have to trust the boat to not roll over. In her head, she knew the three off set keels and a half ton of lead ballast built into the bottom of the boat would stabilize it even in the roughest weather. Her stomach told her a different story. She chose to ignore it.
The Sculpin and Ruthy settled into a rough rhythm: down into a trough, then up and crash into a wave. Dip, crash, dip, crash. The halyard and jib snapped in the wind. Wave after wave broke over the bow. Ruthy couldn’t feel her feet anymore. She had stopped bothering to wipe her face. She would be lucky if Erik would be able to respond to her. If she ever found him. If she could get close to him. If. There were so many ifs.
“Erik! Erik!” Ruthy heard her own voice crack. There were so many waves. There was so much ocean.
Then amidst the glittering a steady blinking caught her eye. There. A tiny light flashed steadily from a yellow float. It had to be Erik’s inflatable vest with its tiny water-activated light. It had done what it was supposed to do. It had to be him.
A pale hand rose slowly into the air. It was him, and he was alive. Thank heaven above.
Ruthy shoved the tiller hard, but as the nose turned, the mainsail and jib began to luff. Ruthy quickly readjusted to maintain her speed. She couldn’t afford to flounder now.
She would not be able to sail directly to him. She might as well have tried to climb a cliff with the sailboat dangling along behind. This had always been the big joke about having a sailboat. Sailboats were hard for goal-oriented people. Sailing forces you to work with the wind, often traveling in the opposite direction of your goal. Her frustration didn’t matter. The wind didn’t care. To get to Erik, she had to tack back and forth.
Every time she was forced to tack in the opposite direction, Ruthy cursed at the wind, and the boat, and her husband for getting a sailboat and for falling overboard. When she was able to turn towards Erik, she focused all her attention on him.
In her heart, she whispered. “Please hold on. I can’t do this without you.”
Erik’s head fell backward onto his vest. “Erik! No! Don’t you dare! You get yourself up. I cannot get you into the boat by myself.”
He slowly looked up. His eyes were now the color of crumpled winter leaves. She was losing him. Cold water kills by slowing your body’s functions until you can no longer live. Death from hypothermia is a quiet death, like falling asleep, but it takes a while. In Alaska, they say you aren’t dead until you are warm and dead. If you can get a person warmed before the last of their body shuts down, the body can sometimes be restarted. For Erik, time was running out.
She was on her last approach. “Erik! I’m coming. Get ready!” She needed to slow down. At her current speed, she wouldn’t have time to grab him. She aimed the sailboat, yanked the halyard line free, and let the mass of mainsail canvas drop in a pile. Twenty yards. Fifteen yards. Ten yards. Five.
“No!” The boat had lost too much momentum. The waves shoved the Sculpin’s nose to the side and away from Erik. She wasn’t going to reach him. He was close, but not close enough, and it would take her too long to get back.
A rope. There had to be a spare line in the hold. Ruthy ripped the floorboard of the cockpit up. Yes, there it was. Long, thin, and orange. It was the extra line for the shrimp pots. Ruthy let the sailboat flounder in the waves while she pulled the long line from the hold and tied a loop around the end. Erik’s head had begun to fall back again.
“Erik, wake up! I’m going to throw this to you. You have to put it around yourself.” Ruthy threw the rope and it fell within feet of the boat. It was too light. The distance between her and Erik grew every moment as the wind continued to push her away from him. Ruthy grabbed a small float from the hold and looped it in to give the rope some weight. She swung the loop around her head a few times like an old-time cowboy and let the weight of the float carry the rope across the distance. The loop landed within arm’s length of Erik. The bright orange line floated on the surface of the ocean bumping into Erik’s still body. He didn’t move to grab the line.
“No! Erik! Erik! You’ve got to take the rope!”
Erik’s neck slowly straightened. His eyes were partially closed, but he was awake. Thank the good God. He was awake. His brow was furrowed. “You sailed?” Ruthy wanted to laugh and then shake him.
“Yes! Grab the rope!” Slowly, Erik reached out and grabbed for the rope with stiff fingers. The waves moved Erik and the rope like two teenagers at their first dance. Back and forth and out of sync. He had to reach several times before he was able to pull the rope to him.
“Erik, put the rope around your shoulders.” Erik looked blankly at her. “Do it!” She knew he was too cold, but he had to do this. She couldn’t do it for him.
“You’ve got to do this for me.” Erik shook his head and slowly lifted his hand to put the rope over his head. Ruthy waited until it had settled back on the water and tugged sharply. She had him. The sailboat continued to buck with the waves, but Ruthy could dance with the Sculpin now.
“That’s right. Just lay back. I’ve got you.” The line slipped smoothly through her fingers. Slip, slip, knit together.