Midnight on the water

[note: Midnight on the water is the name of a fiddle tune, a waltz by Luke Thomasson.]

Ela (a friend from college) turned 32 this last weekend, and to celebrate she invited a bunch of folks to camp out on an island in Squam Lake, about an hour from where I live. Alexis was at the hospital and couldn’t make it, and I had a bunch of things to take care of on Sunday, but the weather looked good so I decided to join them for the day on Saturday. There were ten other people, and everyone else was canoeing, but the forecast was for a nice breeze, so I took the sixteen foot lapstrake dory that Joshua and I built some years ago. When I arrived at the put-in there was a ripping northerly breeze with whitecaps on the lake. There’s a nice little boat ramp and a canoe/kayak rental concession at the Squam Lakes Association, with a shallow inlet that opens out into the south shore of the lake near the west end. We loaded some firewood and food in the dory, and I rowed out to the opening, dropped in the rudder, and raised the sail. Since I was single-handing, I sailed her with just the main, so she had a bit more weather helm than usual, but nothing ridiculous. The canoes followed me out, and together we headed upwind for the far side of the lake. I tacked and jibed in among the other boats in the lighter breeze as we worked our way towards the island, about two miles distant, then we headed out across a short stretch of open water to the lake. At one point I passed a line to one of the canoes and pulled them for part of the downwind run, and then I fell behind as the wind slackened in a slot between the island and its neighbor.

The island was perhaps 10 acres with three or four campsites on it, and everyone pitched camp; then we basked in the sun for a while. The wind was still good, so I took three others out for a sail around a neighboring island; with the jib raised we moved along nicely, pounding through the whitecaps on the upwind leg and driving powerfully on a broad reach. On towards sunset the wind was abating and I knew the moon would be bright, so I stuck around for dinner, cider, and conversation. At some point I realized that everyone around the fire was married – one of those moments when the vague mental finger pointing at the timeline of life shifts noticeably to the right. Ela was the person who lent me a spare fiddle, five or six years ago when I was first interested in learning, and we both brought instruments, so we scraped out some jigs, reels, and waltzes together by the campfire, another occasion to realize how far things have come.

The moon rose, and the fire died down a bit, and it was time to go, so I studied the lake chart, packed up my fiddle, and bid farewell. I raised the sail and lashed it up to the mast with the mainsheet, and rowed out northward, through the gap between the islands, and back into the wind, which had come a bit westerly and moderated to a comfortable level. Campfires flickered on the islands, the moon sparkled on the lake surface, and Chocorua rose up to the northwest. Once clear of the islands I pointed upwind, unshipped the oars, and loosed the sail, paying off briefly on the port tack. I had picked out landmarks at dusk; a headland on the south shore and a hill just west of the landing point, and I could make out the hill but not the headland. With the moon I could make out the direction of the ripples on the water, and with that and the wind on my cheek I kept her full and tried to sense the speed of the boat by the sound and the bubbles passing over the stern. As soon as I had my way I came about and headed eastward, aided by a buoy with a strobe about a mile distant. The wind was cool and the stars made it seem cooler, but the challenge of sailing in the dark kept me warm enough. A few puffs had me up on the windward rail, but nothing that made me doubt my sanity or think of slacking the sheet. After some time on the starboard tack I could make out the loom of the headland – I could see that I would not make it on that tack, which meant the wind had shifted further westerly. I was about even with the strobe by then, so I took a board out into the middle of the lake toward the light, and soon I could make out the small island that it marked. Another couple of tacks took me further along the shore, with the island and the light well astern. The wind which had held nicely to that point fell away to the point where it was difficult to tell if I was pinching, and it was after eleven, so rather than beat around in the dying breeze I bound up the main again with the help of my headlamp, unshipped the rudder and raised the board, and rowed toward the gap in the trees that marked the inlet.

The wind died away to nothing, and I ghosted in between the rocks into flat water. The lily pads guided me along the channel to the ramp, where I winched the dory back onto the trailer and headed for home, arriving a bit after 1 AM. The day could not have been more perfect, with friends, food, music, and an incredible moonlight sail – one of those times that bring the thrill of life close up in the chest.

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One Response to “Midnight on the water”

  1. pingswept » Blog Archive » Extracting files from a directory tree Says:

    […] busy with preparations for the arrival of the Hard Times to spend time busting the myths spread by a sailor in the dark, but a recent problem I ran into at work gave me pause. The first version of our corporate wiki, a […]

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