Sinking The Green Light

Titanic disasters and perfect storms aside, it’s actually pretty hard to sink a boat.

This was a pleasant surprise for my brother Sean and I when a strong gust of wind blew down our mast so violently that the metal beam punctured a hole through the bottom of our sailboat one afternoon in the summer of 2013. Although the cockpit filled with water, soaking our Sperrys and drowning out that James Taylor song I was playing on my voice recorder, it seemed no amount of baywater overwashing the gunwales could founder us.

That day Sean and I unwisely sailed into a deepwater channel that leads from Fleet’s Bay into the Chesapeake Bay near Whitestone, Virginia. Since we wanted to be alone together, we left all means of contact at home. As more water poured into the boat, it looked like we would be forced to swim for it, nearly a mile toward the Dymer Mansion, where it was rumored the inventor of the styrofoam Dixie Cup occasionally summered.

We should have known this was going to happen; the boat had never been reliable. At the beginning of the summer, we bought her, a blue 12-foot dinghy with a sloop rig for $100 from our neighbor Randy-down-the-road. Both the jib and the mainsail were ripped. The hull also needed patching. Randy accidentally pierced it when he backed into her with a different boat trailer.

If Randy were a suburbanite like us Rowan boys, he would have given up and taken this obvious wreck down to the dump. Actually, that’s too generous. If he were a suburbanite, he would have just called someone else to figure it out for him while he checked his ETrade account or fiddled with the Nespresso machine in his kitchen.

But Randy was a Michigander—the guy who once convinced the Rowans that Fireball is considered a delicacy on the Great Lakes—so he knew how to sell himself out of a crappy boat.

“I’ll drag it down the street for you if you buy it,” he told us. “I’ll even build you a ramp.”

With a deal like that, we had to, of course. Sean and I split the cost 50/50.

Splitting the cost was about the last thing Sean and I did together to care for the boat. Everything else was my work. I sanded all the nasty royal blue paint off. I patched the sails with tape. I re-fiberglassed the hull. I even re-named it—painting emerald over that ugly word Kolibri (German for hummingbird)—calling it The Green Light, which now seems like a cringeworthy reference to me: why did my boat have to be against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past? Even Baz Luhrmann did better with the source material.

When I wanted to put The Green Light in the water, I hitched it to my family’s lawnmower and dragged it over to our neighbor’s concrete skiff ramp (the one Randy built us turned out to be as crappy as his boat). Since Sean was not around, I enlisted the help of the help of my brother Colman. But Colman was too young to be useful. While he tried to catch crabs with a chicken neck, I put the boat in the water myself.

A word on why Sean wasn’t helping me with any of this: Sean had a job. He had my old job. He was a sailing instructor.

In hindsight, none of this makes sense. But the summer of 2013 was a strange time for me and for my family. This was the summer familial hierarchy collapsed, and almost nightly we all found ourselves around a bonfire, drinking Rolling Rock and smoking those aluminum-wrapped cigars from Food Lion. The old Irish manic tendency took control of the Rowan family’s home life, and we were riding high on the crest of its wave, knowing well it would crash down on all of us very soon. And when the surf spat my brother and I out onto our own separate shores, I thought I was alone for good.

That summer I sometimes I hit golf balls into the bay and listened to The National. Other times I biked down to Washington, D.C. from my home in McLean. Once, I broke into a Korean church in Georgetown and took their food and some Sam Adams Summer Ale. The beer was good, the food repulsive.

Behaving this way becomes tiresome very quickly. Thank God for Sean.

Sean is eighteen months younger than I, my Irish half twin. Until I came to Hillsdale, we shared the same room. We re-enacted scenes from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in there together. We discovered new music there together. We even formed a club called The Brotherhood to exclude our younger brothers from our closeness. At night we would banter back and forth until one of passed out. It was all very Sheldon Vanauken; even if we weren’t talking, we breathed the same air while sleeping.    

Buying a boat in the summer of 2013 seemed like just another thing we would do together. But of course, that summer prevented our closeness from becoming an immediate reality. Sean was working. I was moping. We were too isolated, too self-focused to notice our mutual shortcomings: an egoist quickly becoming anti-social wreck and his younger brother neglecting to care for him in any way, despite fourteen years of friendship.

These things happen to everyone. We were not in the middle of an earth-shattering crisis—like opioids or divorce—but we were damaged by the little things. My arrogance. Several developing nicotine habits. That time when a friendly game of pool turned into a violent intergenerational verbal altercation between me, my parents, and Sean. These things happen.

And our sailing accident was just another thing that happened. Nothing monumental, but unlike the other things, it was a brief moment of communion. I think it was shortly after the Fourth of July. Sean and I put on our Sperrys, rigged up the paper-thin sail, and set out for the bay in The Green Light.

If you’re thinking navigating a sailboat into the open water is as simple as that scene in “Moonrise Kingdom” when Suzy and Sam whizz away from the Boy Scout Jamboree, you have been misled. Nothing is ever as cute or as easy as a Wes Anderson movie. Besides, my house is set in an awkward relation to the actual bay. Sean and I threaded our way through sandbars, beating back and forth across Dymer Creek, until we reached Fleet’s Bay, which is the ante-bay for the Chesapeake. Once we reached Fleet’s Bay, we tackled the channel, which is not that hard, but it requires staying out of the way of larger power boats, catamarans, and the occasional chartered fishing boat.

I was manning the tiller and Sean was in charge of the sheets. We weren’t talking to each other; we were listening to music and commenting on the waves.

The day was temperate and nearly cloudless. Not especially gusty either. The emerald paint on our boat matched the murky green of the bay.

When the wind blew the mast out of its socket and drove it through the hull, neither Sean nor I reacted, except with the mildest expletives. When my voice recorder stopped working and the pierced hull started filling with water, Sean opened a bag of peanuts. There was not much we could do except wait for the boat to go down. That’s something we tell our students at sailing schools. Never leave the boat. Be prepared to lose everything. So we untied our shoes. And waited.

It was the most peaceful time I can remember.

About twenty minutes later—when The Green Light sat low in the water—my dad showed up in one of the family’s powerboats, and we were saved. We wouldn’t have to swim for it; he had been watching the whole episode from the shore. He hitched the wreck to the stern of the powerboat and towed us in. When we reached the dock, he gave us a towel to share.

“We’ll figure out how to fix this tomorrow,” he said.

We never got around to fixing it. Instead, my dad gave me an axe and Sean a kayak paddle. He told Sean to drag the boat out into the middle of the creek with a kayak. I stood in the boat with the axe. Once we reached deep water, my dad instructed me to hack at the hull until the boat was rapidly filling with water.

No matter how many times I whacked at the boat, the insulation stuffed in the sideboards kept it afloat. It filled with water, but would not submerge fully. My dad called us in to shore. Sean rowed the carnage back to the dock. He dipped the broadside of his paddle into the water, slowing himself and letting the tow rope sag behind him. The forward motion of the wreck pulled me beside him.

I offered him my axe blade first. He grasped it and pulled me closer.


Nic Rowan is a junior studying history. 


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