Light Air

Sultry is not the usual term used for days on the coast. The realtors, tourist industry, and boat brokers want you to think about cooling breezes, glorious summer sunsets on the beach, and romantic dinners at outside venues. None of these folks have spent a windless, sun raked day sanding varnish at a boatyard. Now that’s sultry.

Hot, dry, and no wind. Perfect for the varnisher. I had just finished the Barnaby boat, so Peggy, the yard varnisher, could start. She was very particular, so I took a break in the shade of a sloop hull while she double and triple checked my work. I was low man at Spinney’s boatyard and not quite trusted yet. At last, she gave the nod, and off I was to my next assignment. Another great job; applying bottom paint to another sloop.

Spinney decided that the bottom could wait and called me over. “Wes, can you take Miss Talbot and her friend out on Prism? Her dad’s thinking of buying it, and it’ll be her boat. Let her see how it sails.”

“Sure, boss, but there is barely light air out there. I’m not sure it’ll be much of a sail.” Now, light air is a sailor’s term for air movement of roughly one and a half to three miles per hour. You can’t call it wind, and it’s not even breeze. At best, you ghost along. If it’s not too hot, it can be relaxing.

Spinney, not wanting me to lose him a sale, told me to get going and sail. So it was down to the float to collect Miss Talbot, her friend, and Prism.

Prism was an old one design sloop of about sixteen feet. In the twenties and thirties, dozens of these designs had gotten popped out like toast from a toaster. They had been purchased in the thousands by boating and yacht clubs all over the coast for racing. Many were built, but few remained. Prism was the last of her type around here, making it impossible to sail as part of a class of similar boats. A long string of owners had neglected her, delegating her to entertaining bored “Summer Complaint” teens. In a few years, Prism would be lovingly restored by newly appreciative owners, and have a featured article in one of the boating magazines. But for now, she was a tired old boat that Spinney was trying to dump.

At the float, Miss Talbot was waiting with her friend. I showed them aboard and got ready to shove off the float while assessing their boating knowledge, meager. Taking advantage of the light air to teach them the rudiments of sailing, I soon had one on the tiller and mainsheet, and the other handling the jib sheet. It was “flat” sailing, no heeling, no rush of water beneath the hull, and no wind rushing in your hair. It was just what was ordered to sell the boat. Or so I thought. Mis Talbot grew bored. “Can’t we get this thing to go faster?”

I was interested in going faster as well. Off to the northwest, I could see thunderheads developing, and had no desire to be caught on the water in a sudden blow. I began to teach them light air sailing tricks: dowsing the mainsail with water to create a bit of a belly for catching the wind, and repositioning crew to create a bit of a heel. None of it worked.

All of a sudden, the wind picked up, and I hurried to take advantage of it to get us back to Spinney’s. Not in a panic, yet, but I expected that anytime soon, the wind would back and veer rapidly ( suddenly shift directions), and then we’d be caught in the storm. By now, Prism was sailing as close to the wind as I could get her, and the little sloop was heeled over almost so much that green water was sloshing aboard. All pretension of teaching was now gone as I raced against the storm. Then I noticed that Miss Talbot and friend were shrieking in excitement – “Faster – Faster!” The rain started about a hundred yards off the float, and it was not long before we were all soaked to our skins. I could see Spinney getting the launch prepared to go get us should we capsize. Coming up on the float I killed Prism’s momentum and tossed the mooring line to Spinney. Flopping down onto the boat, I was exhausted. The two excited young women were standing there, shouting, ” Let’s go out again!” Spinney looked me and made a gesture of thumb and fingers of his right hand rubbing together. Sale made. ” Good work Wes, but that was close. Don’t hot dog out there that much next time.”

Some father was going to regret his decision to set these two loose on the Harbor; very soon.

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