Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Squall

One fine day in the summer of 1964, my parents and I went sailing on the Great South Bay along the South Shore of Long Island.  The weather was beautiful—blue sky, sunshine, a few altocumulus clouds, and a gentle breeze from the southwest.  The family sailboat was a small wooden knockabout of the Cape Cod class.  It measured eighteen feet in length, drew one foot of water with the centerboard up, and had a foredeck but no cabin.  Designed for fair weather recreational sailing, it offered minimal shelter from and little resistance to strong winds and high seas.  But it was fully seaworthy, handled gracefully, and served the family’s purposes well on an enclosed and shallow body of water.

As a sign of his devotion to my mother, my father named this boat Justine.  He rented dock space for the Justine in a bulkheaded canal called Karras Creek in Massapequa.  This was named after Peter Karras, the proprietor of the Riviera, an adjacent restaurant and banquet hall situated on a point of land which overlooked an alcove on the north side of the bay.  Peter Karras owned this property and operated the dining facilities.  As a sideline, he leased the dock space to my father and several other folks.  A small man with a big temper, he also complained loudly, viciously, and unceasingly about all the taxes he had to pay.  Every time we saw him he was throwing a tantrum about his taxes.  I think my father listened to these tirades for amusement.

The taxes notwithstanding, our family spent many enjoyable and peaceful afternoons sailing on the Great South Bay aboard the Justine.  Usually there were four of us, my parents and my brother and myself, but sometimes my grandparents came with us, too.  We only went sailing in good weather, and it was always a lot of fun.  But then one day the weather suddenly changed.

My mother and father and I were sailing just south of the Nassau Shores neighborhood of Massapequa, where the Great South Bay and the South Oyster Bay come together.  The weather had been perfect for such sailing all day.  Toward the late afternoon, though, dark clouds appeared in the distance to the southwest.  As the wind freshened and the air cooled and the dark clouds came closer, it became clear that a squall line was approaching.  My parents decided to return immediately to Karras Creek.  They brought the Justine about and started to sail northward up the channel.  With the increasing wind, they expected to reach port quickly.

The Justine moved right along with the wind on her port quarter, but the squall line approached faster than expected and caught up with the little boat.  The sky became overcast with ominous looking cumulonimbus clouds; the wind speed increased exponentially; the surface of the bay turned choppy; and heavy rain poured down on the bay, drenching the Justine and her crew.  Unable to hold her northbound course in the channel leading to Karras Creek, the little boat was blown eastward across the flats toward the opposite shore of the alcove.  With her shallow draft, the Justine made it safely through the flats without grounding.  In deeper water again, she approached a residential neighborhood with a bulkheaded shoreline between Carman Creek and Narrraskatuck Creek near Amityville.

As the Justine was blown closer to the shore, it became apparent that she would land alongside the large backyard of a white house.  Seeing our little boat arriving, a middle-aged couple came outside to assist with docking.  In the howling wind and pouring rain, they helped secure the Justine to their dock, and then they insisted that we come inside their house to warm up and dry off.  

These kind people were Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro, a Jewish couple with grown children. They proved to be very gracious and compassionate hosts.  They explained that they had seen what trouble we were in, and they wanted to help us if they could.   When it became obvious where we would land, they were ready for us.  With no hesitation, they took the three of us, complete strangers, into their home.  They gave us towels so we could dry off, made hot tea for my parents, and fixed a light supper for me.  Some time afterwards, when the rain and the wind abated, Mr. Shapiro returned outside with my father and me.  He helped us check over the boat and bail out the accumulated rain water.

With the squall moving eastward out of the area, the rain ceased and the sky once again became clear.  My parents decided that it would now be safe to resume our voyage and return to Karras Creek.  The three of us thanked Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro for their kindness and hospitality and bade them farewell.  Embarking once more aboard the Justine, we made the short sail westward in the twilight and across the flats to Karras Creek.  We arrived there without incident.  We tied up the boat, furled the sails, stowed all the gear, and then drove home.

My parents spoke often of this little adventure in subsequent years.  They appreciated the kindness of the Shapiros, and they remembered this couple fondly.  Like the Good Samaritan of the New Testament, Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro tended to the needs of strangers caught in an emergency.  They were indeed a credit to the great Jewish faith.

As for me, I was six years old when this took place.  Despite the intensity of the weather, I was not frightened.  I felt safe through everything because I knew that my parents would take care of me.  My mother, in particular, had had extensive experience with sailboats on the Great South Bay when she was younger.  She and my father knew what they were doing.  So I had no reason to be frightened.

Many years later aboard larger vessels on more violent bodies of water, I encountered storms of vastly different proportions.  With stronger winds and larger waves, and covering a much greater surface area, these storms were not simply local squalls but formed substantial parts of the global weather system.  They raged not just for hours but for days and sometimes for a week and more. Even long afterwards, they remain memorable: aboard the Rigel and the Waccamaw in the Mediterranean, on the Mercury in the Caribbean, the State of Maine and the Victoria in the North Atlantic, the Comet in the North Pacific, and the most violent voyage of all, aboard the Wilkes in the far North Atlantic.

While each of these is a good case in point, the rough ride on the Wilkes north of Scotland is perhaps the most illustrative.  With wind speeds of 75 knots and more—hurricane force—and wave heights ranging from 25 to 40 feet, the ship pitched and rolled without letup.  Waves crashed over the foredeck continuously.  Walls of spray threw themselves over the entire superstructure.  As soon as the ship emerged from one wave with water hurriedly draining over the side, the next one would hit and drench the vessel again.  The repeated onrush of water coupled with the constant and extreme pitching, rolling, and yawing motions of the ship made for a memorable but exhausting voyage.  A scan of the horizon through binoculars from the bridge revealed an angry ocean with waves so mountainous that their crests collapsed under themselves and turned to masses of blowing and bubbling foam on the wave tops.  Endless rows of such waves marched inexorably toward the Wilkes, and as they arrived they lifted the little ship high up on their crests and then plunged her down into their troughs and covered her with a rush of violently churning water.  Occasionally waves would break over the Wilkes’ bow, and the descending pile of water crashing down onto the foredeck would cause the entire hull to shudder and lurch and twist  under the enormous weight.  But then the bow, being lighter than the water, would leap upwards again.  As the torrents of seawater then poured overboard, the next wave would strike and the cycle would be repeated.  This continued day after day and night after night until the passing time became a blur.

By comparison, the squall that blew the Justine off course on the Great South Bay was not so bad.  Put in perspective, the wave trains that assaulted the Wilkes would completely obliterate the low-lying and sandy South Shore of Long Island.  But just as the squall that caught the Justine did not give cause for fright, neither did the storms that caught the larger vessels in subsequent years.

When I was a little boy aboard the Justine, I relied on my parents to take care of me, and they did.  As an adult aboard the Wilkes and other ships, I was more self-reliant and better educated in the ways of ships and the sea.  A knowledge of meteorology, oceanography, shipboard stability, and heavy weather shiphandling forms an important part of the Merchant Marine license exams.  These are subjects which every Master and mate must know.  I had studied them in preparation for the exams, and I used them daily aboard ship.  Understanding how the weather works, how the ocean works, and how a ship reacts to the weather and water enables one to take the elements in stride and realize that rough voyages are normal.  Furthermore, the Wilkes and her fleet mates were well maintained vessels.  All the ships of our fleet were structurally sound with positive stability and full watertight integrity.  Despite the occasional grumbling of the practitioners at sea for the administrators ashore, our fleet was well run and properly maintained.  So again, I had no reason to be frightened.    

As an old proverb holds, knowledge is indeed the key to understanding, and understanding frees one from fear.  As a child aboard the Justine, I knew that my parents would take care of me no matter what happened.  I understood their love and concern for me, and so I knew I was safe.  Aboard the Wilkes and other vessels in rough weather, I knew how the forces of nature operated and why the sea and the ships upon it behaved as they did.  I understood the laws of physics, and so I knew I was safe.

But there remains one more factor.  Because I have studied the scriptures, I have learned the fullness of the Gospel.  I know that I am a child of a Heavenly Father who loves me, cares about me, and wants me to return to him after my earthly voyages are complete.  I understand that I entered this life at his bidding, and that I will enter the next life at his bidding, too.  I further understand that no matter how extreme the storms of this life become, God will take care of me, both here and in the hereafter.  I can trust his infinite wisdom and love, which supersede both natural parental love and the laws of physics, and so I have no reason to be frightened.

The awestruck and perhaps frightened psalmist prayed, “Thou rulest the raging of the sea” (Ps. 89:9), but I think the Lord’s angel said it best:  “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy…” (Luke 2:10).

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