The Distant Drum

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Feb 272015

Warning: the pipe in my brain through which writing flows has been clogged for a year. With the help of The Distant Drum, I’ve finally pulled the hair wad out. Untangling it was not possible, so I simply glued it to my word processor as it was…

I remember thinking over and over– and marveling over the thought– that I wasn’t nervous. I watched through the hatch as Andy, the guy who sold us the boat, pointed out the water pressure switch to Garth. I realized that I’d soon be living on a sailboat and life would be unpredictable and difficult. I’m not nervous, I mused, smiling inwardly, maybe outwardly. When we bought Gonzo, when we drove from New Orleans to Maryland to get him, I was nervous as hell.

I’m tired. The kind of tired where I think I can sing along with Fiona Apple and I scream with glee through the scratches in the clear center panel of the closed hatch because the little white heater on the galley counter is blowing out hot air. Hot air! I’ve been so cold for the past four days that all the shaking and shivering has worn my muscles down to beef jerky. They are tender to the touch and I get cramps in my legs at night that cause me to jump out of bed and flail around and scream. But now it’s warm in here, inside the cabin of The Distant Drum. That’s her name. The boat. Sailboat. I sang her a song to keep myself awake this morning as I motored her against the current through a narrow channel with comfy southern houses hidden behind oaks curtained with Spanish moss. I sang it to keep myself awake. We didn’t get much sleep last night. That fucking bridge.

The Wapoo bridge. We make it to within thirty minutes of our destination and we come up to this bridge. It’s 4:30. The bridge doesn’t open again until 6:30. God forbid we impede rush hour traffic. So we tie up to the end of this dock right below the bridge. The Drum’s side is against the end of the dock. It’s like a saucer balancing on the end of a stick. At first, it’s okay. I’m glad to be there. With a dock to walk on, it’s much easier to take the 60-pound, awkwardly shaped, precariously balanced outboard engine off The Drum’s stern rails and put it back on the dinghy.

At 6 a.m., Garth will need to be able to dinghy himself to shore from our intended anchorage on the Stono River. He is supposed to work. That’s the reason we hurried right to Charleston even though Andy had paid through Saturday at the Hazzard Marina in Georgetown.

If we had waited until after we got through the Wapoo bridge and anchored, we would’ve had to somehow move the outboard engine in the dark, between boat and dinghy, which would’ve been so awkward I can’t even describe it. Let it suffice to say that the engine would have likely ended up at the bottom of the Stono River. And we wouldn’t have been able to afford a new one, which means we would have had to row, like back in the Gonzo days. Only I think this inflatable would be harder to row than our infamous plague of a yellow kayak was.

So the forced two-hour wait at the Wapoo Bridge dock gave us the perfect platform for the engine transfer. Relieved to have that done with, we go down below to escape the freezing wind and rain. I make dinner. Pinto beans with vegetable medley, viennna sausage, mayo and red pepper powder. The stove burners warm up the cabin until it sweats. Our windows leak. Drips fall on the beige lazarette cushions. I stick a French Press under one of the drips. Soon the water is an inch deep. I’m glad to be warm. I do the dishes while Garth attempts to use our 4G T-Mobile internet connection, which only leads to a lot of screaming and yelling. These days my brain has a mute button that automatically engages when Garth starts yelling about internet. Or about anything.

I use the foot pedal in the cupboard to pump seawater into the sink for washing dishes. This is so much more convenient, and so much warmer, than going out on deck to lower a bucket into the river like we used to aboard Gonzo. Washing dishes with seawater conserves fresh water for cooking and drinking. Getting it without going outside makes me happy.

Before six thirty, darkness falls. The channel that leads to the Stono River from the bay surrounding Charleston is narrow and winding and the markers are not lit. Also, the rain has turned into a full force thunder and lightning storm which has blotted out everything on shore. There is no way we are getting to our destination tonight without getting hypothermia and sinking The Drum. We decide to remain at the dock by the stupid bridge with the stupid rush hour traffic. I am always waiting for cars to go by. Half my life has been spent doing exactly that. I hate traffic. I hate cars. I hate them. Truly. In the purest and most genuine sense of the word and for every possible reason.

Heating pinto beans and the Drum's salon with our butane stove.

Heating pinto beans and the Drum’s salon with our butane stove.

The problem with this dock is that the tide is about to change. Our warm little evening staring at the blue butane flames from our stove and drinking chillable red Franzia is interrupted by a terrible grinding groan. It’s coming from the Drum’s Hull. Garth goes outside.

“What’s happening out there is exactly what I knew would happen but didn’t think would actually happen,” he says, coming back in looking like a cat that’s been drowned and then stuck in a light socket.

The current has pushed The Drum forward so that the sharp corner of the dock jabs right into the rounded side of her hull.

Out on deck, the cold rattles me like a puppet hanging off the end of an epileptic fit. When I speak, the words shake and jerk, single syllables splitting in twos and threes. There is no loosening and tightening docking lines. The boat is too heavy. If Gonzo was a wiffle ball, The Drum is a cannonball. You can’t just push her around. Especially when a fierce tidal current is raging around her. If we lose our grip on a line, she’ll swing away from the dock and into the rocks. Or into the bridge, de-masting us. Adventure over.

I can’t think. I feel like a hologram made of that clear goo you find in cans of Spam. Earlier in the afternoon, before we even got to the stupid bridge, I fell asleep sitting up. We’ve had The Drum for… how many days? I don’t know. Less than the number of fingers I’ll still have on my hand if we try to adjust our docking lines… and this is not our first ruckus. The adrenaline of owning a new boat, being adrift again after a year of stability, and the constant shivering have drained me. Garth is a better problem solver than me, but sometimes, the presence of another person makes it hard for his brain to function. I go down below and shiver and drip on the wood floor, hoping he’ll find a solution to our problem.

Suddenly, the lights outside swivel. I pull back the hatch and stick my head on deck. Garth has loosed us from the dock. We’re circling madly around in the dark, in the rain, in the wind, in the wild current. We’ll have to anchor. There are electrical cables or some such dangerous nonsense on the bottom of the river and we can barely see. I throw the anchor. It doesn’t hold. Andy only left about 30 feet of anchor line aboard. Without intricate explanations, you’ll have to trust me when I say that’s not enough to hold a boat to the bottom in rough waters deeper than 5 feet, no matter how great the anchor. Slowly, pulling hand over hand as my knee cap grinds against the cold, wet fiberglass deck, I drag it back in. I impress myself with my own strength. This always seemed so hard aboard Gonzo.

Garth moves us down river. I drop the huge hook again. I sit still and wait. I watch a silhouette pass across the golden-warm windows of a house on shore. I pick out the horse head shape in a big black tree. I stare hard, trying to tell if they’re moving. We’ve stuck, but neither of us trusts it. Too many bad anchor-dragging experiences on Gonzo. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Garth yells as we climb down below. Each of us rubs the sweat off a window and stares out, trying to tell if we’re dragging.

“We should keep watches,” I say. “We won’t be able to sleep anyway.”

I think of yesterday. Or maybe the day before. We were motoring along, down the intra-coastal, where we’ve been before, where the low-lying golden grass and swamp that stretches flat for miles makes you wonder about voodoo, and we all of a sudden decided to put up a sail. There are so many lines and halyards on The Drum that Gonzo didn’t have. She’s made for racing. We untangle everything and haul the sail up, which requires the use of a winch. There is no pulling the halyard with your hands. This sail is too big for that. Even in a small wind, the pressure is hard to fight.

Once the sail is up, The Drum leans. That lean. Sailboats lean when you catch the wind at just the right angle and you suddenly feel like you’ve swallowed the sun and everything’s turned to gold, and the clouds blast apart like an orgasm. That lean makes you feel like you’re getting somewhere and no one can get to you. And that was with just the mainsail. Our jib is stuffed in a bag down below. Excitement rose through my body as I imagined what it will be like when we finally bend both sails on and really sail The Drum.

As Garth is pressing his nose to his cold, wet, dark window on the port side, as he’s swearing profusely, I think about the lean. I think about how we have our own space to be in. After enough years of living outside, where there are cops and rules and laws– after years of living in other people’s spaces, where, no matter how much they like you and no matter how welcome you know you are, you still feel like you’re interrupting someone’s life– the thing you want most is your own space to be in. But for Garth and me, that space has to be mobile. It has to be. A sailboat, no matter how difficult, is our only option. What about RV’s? They don’t travel on free wind power. And cops can walk up to the windows at night and knock on them with flashlights and tell you you’re not allowed to park there. No one can walk on water. If Jesus wants to knock on my window with a flashlight, that’s fine. It’ll be kind of like an alien ship landing. Who would object to that?

Garth sets an anchor alarm. Yes, there is an app for that. We hang our wet clothes and climb in bed. Our v-berth hatch drips. A puddle of standing water has collected on our sleeping bag. But we have layers and layers of sleeping bags and the water hasn’t soaked all the way through. It’s warm underneath. I’ve slept so well in there the past three nights. I wake in the middle of the night with a cramp in my shin-ankle-calf, that feels like it’s going to split my bones before it lets up. I bolt upright in bed, twist around and shove my foot flat against the wall. I push so hard I’m worried I’ll break the wall before the muscle releases. After it finally does, I sit and pant and massage it and feel bad that I woke Garth.

It’s still dark when we wake up to our anchor alarm. Garth rushes up on deck in his long johns. By the time I’m up on deck, he’s hauled in the anchor. “We were about to hit the bridge!” he yells, circling The Drum around to face that stupid dock again. It’s our only option.

I frantically run forward, fumble with a docking line, fingers frozen. I barely have time to twist it around a cleat on deck before I have to jump off the boat and knot the other end around a cleat on that dumb dock. As I tie it off, The Drum’s stern drifts away in the current. I drop my line and jump back onto the bow. As I dodge shrouds and 5-gallon diesel cartons, trying to make my way to the stern to get a line, the bow drifts away from the dock. I’ve given it too much slack and the line hangs down in the black water. Garth can’t see it. He thinks I haven’t tied it off. He panics. He screams and yells. I run forward again and grab the deck end of the line and pull us back to the dock while Garth jumps of the stern and ties it down.

We’re sitting on the lazarette below, his arm around me, when I realize how effective that mute button in my brain has become. Back in the Gonzo days, Garth’s yelling and screaming cut right to my bone marrow. I barely knew him then. I laugh. I say, “I don’t even care when you yell and scream anymore.”

Over the past six years, I’ve realized a few things. 1) I can do pretty much anything if I really want to or if I have no choice, 2) Garth doesn’t trust anyone but himself, and 3) when Garth yells and curses, he’s yelling and cursing at situations, not people. Number one has led to a great confidence in my own abilities. Number two means that even if god himself were Garth’s co-pilot, Garth would not trust him to do anything right (hence one should never take his screaming personally). Number three means that once the situation is over, Garth will make it clear that he thinks you are the most fantastic person in the universe. All these things, when combined, mean that no matter how frustrating or challenging the situation, we can both handle it in our own ways.

“If you decide to run away,” he says. “Run away with the boat. It’s only been two days and I’ve already had enough of the shit.”

“If I run away,” I say, “I’ll run away from the boat with you. That worked pretty well last time.”

We didn’t go back to bed. It was four in the morning. Instead, I put our tea kettle on our butane stove. I spooned Folgers instant coffee into two little white coffee cups. Garth got out his leatherman, his tools, his gloves, and put on clean clothes. “You’ll have to get the boat to that marina on the Stono River by yourself,” he said.

“Does that mean you’re going to work after all?”

Last night he’d called yellow cab to arrange a ride from that stupid dock to the place where he’d meet his employer. Last night, he’d growled and yelled, “There is no way I’m working a regular job and living on a boat! I can’t think about both at once! Fuck that!” But that shit storm that had wrecked our night and our nerves had blown us straight back to the dock where his taxi would meet him. “I might as well go since I’m here,” Garth said.

When we first got Gonzo, I had to moor him single-handed. Mooring is a serious black belt ninja move, and I didn’t even know how to work the engine. I was so nervous I thought the sky was gonna crack open and turn into bats and swarm me until I suffocated to death. We’ve only had The Distant Drum for three days. Here I am in the same situation. Only with a bigger, heavier boat that will cause a bigger, more destructive catastrophe if I lose control of it. And I’m not nervous.

“We’ve done so much in the past six years,” I say to Garth.

“We’ve lived like ten years to everyone’s else’s one year,” he agrees.

“Except for last year,” I say. “It will disappear into the void. It barely exists compared to our other years.”

As fucked up as last night was, it satisfied some kind of weird, cavernously hungry need I have in me that claws away at the core of my life force if things are too easy. I need to feel like I’m boxing to the death with one of those bright blue many-armed Hindu deities. Anyway, I have surprised myself so many times in the past six years…getting The Drum off this stupid dock, under that stupid bridge and into a slip at that marina seems like something I can accomplish if I pay attention and take it one step at a time.

I don’t know where I am in this story. I don’t even know what tense I’m writing in. But I’m in my slip at St. John’s Yacht Harbor on the Stono River. I slid up to the diesel dock with such grace you’d think I’d been sailing The Drum for years. Getting into the slip after I filled her up with diesel was a ruckus. The steering went out just before I nosed into the slip. Three guys caught my lines and shifted The Drum around until she was tied down safe. One of them, Will, invited me to breakfast. Thing number four that I learned in the past six years: you never refuse breakfast.

Will is retirement age. He’s originally from San Diego. He built his adorable boat himself, beginning with just a bare hull. He lives on it and paints landscapes. He wants his time to belong to him. “It’s the only valuable thing,” he says. Sailors all seem to know this, and, like the others we met while living aboard Gonzo, Will wishes he’d stared young like Garth and me. I’m so glad to be around people who know again. People who know that your own time is the only thing worth owning. I am penniless and nearly everything I’ve done aboard The Drum in the past few days has been a big pain in the ass, but I feel every second of it. There is no fazing out. There is no life passing by. I feel a profound sense of accomplishment in brushing my teeth, in boiling pinto beans. Every second that I am awake, my thoughts and actions are dictated by me, not by clocks or bosses. I need this.

Garth is at work. I have a jug of peanuts. The docks are big enough for me to hoop dance on. The bathrooms are clean and luxurious and they smell good and the hot water in the shower lasts decades. It’s going to be 75 degrees in a few days. “Everything will be okay,” Garth said, before he walked up the dock, headed for his taxi.

At 5 p.m., I hear a knock on the hull. I poke my head out the hatch and Garth is standing there smiling. “You did a really good job docking the boat,” he says. “You made it here.” I tell him all about my morning, how everything went smoothly, and how the steering went out just as I was scooting into the slip, giving us an excuse to choose this lovely marina as a place to rest and spend time fixing up The Drum.

“We’ve had so much dumb luck since we got this boat,” he marvels.

“Everything we’ve done has been dumb luck,” I agree.

We didn’t expect to get a boat that would be almost exactly what we wanted for $2550. We didn’t expect Ron and Clara to offer to pay for it (for which we are infinitely grateful). We didn’t expect Ron to drive us to South Carolina, saving us travel fare. We didn’t expect that it would be easy for Garth to find work. We definitely didn’t expect that, after all the bad noise of getting to Charleston so he could take the job, the storm we thought had thwarted us would actually help us by putting Garth back on that dock so he could make it to his first day. We didn’t expect to end up at a marina with everything we need, including the use of a car.

“We had dumb luck aboard Gonzo too,” Garth says. “Apparently we were meant to live on boats.”

Garth’s job was reasonable. His employers were rational, and because he’s working as an electrician, he doesn’t have to deal with the “consumers” that nearly drove him crazy at Basha’s all last year. I can pay a month’s rent at this marina with my freelance writing, so all of his paychecks will go into boat improvements, and of course, more cryptocurrency. We have a few thousand dollars to start with, which longtime readers will know is a very substantial amount for us. Everything is working out in that really strange, nerve-jangling way that things always seem to work out for us when we choose to plunge headlong into whatever seems good for us at the moment.

  4 Responses to “The Distant Drum”

  1. Hope you are enjoying Distant Drum

  2. Hello,

    I am very happy to read that both you have returned to the one life that offers freedom. Continue to live life.

  3. Sarah,

    You are a master at turning life experiences into memoir–good job here!

    My man also gets leg spasms so severe that he has to jump out if bed in the middle of the night and put his hands on his knees while bending forward. He says ambient warmth of 78 degrees is important to prevent them as well as to avoid overexertion.

    Take care and read this:

    I am a huge psychology buff and just love articles like this.


  4. I have never done as you are doing though Great Grandfather Captain Knape was a Swedish pirate. The story goes like this . . . Sailing around the Ivory Coast of deepest, darkest Africa, Captain and crew went ashore to chase some skirts and ended up with some watermelons. They got back to the boat and cut the ends off and thought they had been ripped off because they couldn’t figure out how to eat the stuff inside. They went back ashore and wiped out the village. My daddy is dead so I can’t ask if he was testing my gullibility. I think now, reflecting back in time, he probably was.

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