Tall Timbers takes it name from the proud pines that line its road and shade its homes. It is a warm, slow, friendly town on the Maryland side of the Potomac 70 miles south of Washington, ideal for summer weekends.
The marina, being the first snug haven above the mouth of the river, is big but it doesn't bustle. Like the rest of the town it is sleepy, down-home, laid-back, and must be the only marina whose bartender is a retired federal judge.
Bill was the organizer of a group of us who rented a home with a private dock at Tall Timbers, and with his friend Chris also bought an 18-foot daysailer. It was second hand but seemed sound and strong enough for river sailing.
Bill, Chris and I were the only sailors in the bunch and spend hours enjoying the wind, sun and sails. There were thrills as we tested the boat, lots of heeling over and hiking out. The little craft set our spirits free. Bill pronounced it seaworthy. It might take on a lot of water, but it wouldn't sink.
One Saturday we set out expecting to have our usually enjoyable if not particularly challenging sail. The day had dawned crystal-clear, sunny and warm. Bubbles broke the water where schools of shriners were being chased by bluefish. The wind was fair.
We didn't get down to the dock until two in the afternoon, but once there quickly rigged the boat. We had the process almost down to a science, working well together with few words. Unfurl the jib. Set the tiller. Rig the mainsail. Steady the boom. Secure the centerboard. Stow the beer aft. Get the life jackets on board. But four jackets had disappeared; no one expected that the two that were left might not be enough.
By 2:30 we were tacking toward the harbor mouth, eager for the open river's uninterrupted wind. At Tall Timbers the Potomac is four miles wide, and away from shore there were far fewer stinging jellyfish, so we could swim off the boat. The sun shone brightly, the water sparkled, and the wind was just right. We sailed toward the Virginia shore. By the time we were a mile and a half out Bill was asleep. It was relaxing and glistening and a fine place to be.
But it was becoming slightly cloudy. Bill woke. "Ah," he nearly purred, "I like it better when the sun doesn't beat down."
Then Chris looked north. "Look at that storm out there," he said, pointing upriver to a gray mass. "We'd better head for shore."
We came about, but Chris has an outdoorsman's eye and was still worried.
Look how fast that storm is moving!" Bill looked. I looked. I couldn't tell how fast the storm was coming, but I put on a life jacket.
Suddenly it fell calm. No wind for the sails to take us ashore in time. Rain began to fall, just a few drops at first. All at once there was wind again, too much of it.
Chris was at the tiller. "Bill!" he shouted. "Get the mainsail down! Get the mainsail down! Diane! Let out the jib!"
We tried, but it was hard to balance and it was too late. One of those infamous Potomac River summer squalls was about to hit. Each wave was an undulating monster, and the wind kept rising. We began to heel heavily to starboard in wind we guessed was gusting around 55 miles an hour.
Unable to take in sail, we took on water. Braced with the tiller in both hands, hiking out as best he could, CHris shouted, "I can't control the tiller! We're going over!"
But the wind let up. The boat stopped taking on water, but it was only a reprieve. "We're going to be hit by another gust," Chris said, even as Bill struggled with the mainsail halyard. We could work or keep our balance, but not both. The gust came, with fury enough to rip out the boom rigging. The mainsail raged. With the boom out starboard I could finally reach the jib. It seemed hours rather than minutes since Chris's command. The boom menaced us, a free-flying 15-foot tube of heavy aluminum trying to sweep us overboard.
"All right," Chris cautioned, "we're going to be hit by another gust." The boat rocked violently. Bill hadn't been able to get the mainsail down, and the wind was worse. Its incredible energy and violence snapped the heavy anchor screws of the mast like matchsticks. The mast teetered for a moment and came crashing down, but we were so quick with fear everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. We had time to calculate and judge; six hands caught the 25-foot aluminum shaft and laid it down.
We looked at each other in disbelief. Despite our fear, we laughed. This couldn't really be happening! But it was, and all we could do was concentrate on saving ourselves and the boat.
The mainsail hung over the gunwales and trailed in the water. The jib floated near the starboard bow. Ironically, it was the toppling of the mast, allowing the mainsail to drag like a sea anchor, that kept us from capsizing and perhaps saved our lives.
After this last maneuver there was little we could do but brace ourselves and settle down for the duration. Chris gallantly gave Bill the second life jacket, which Bill made no pretense of declining. The wind nearly got it away from him.
Look at the waves!" I shouted. "They're so high!" A pause. "I'm scared."
Face the other way," they said, almost in unison. It was all they could offer. I laughed.
Chris and I sat holding the mast against the drag of the mainsail. The wind was driving the rain so furiously that it felt like thousands of pinpricks on our faces and arms, and was particularly bad for the jacketless Chris. I began to shiver. To keep my teeth from chattering I clenched my jaw. Bill's feet were turning blue.
"We're in the vanguard," Bill said. As if to reassure me he continued, "In another 15 seconds it will pass." Fifteen seconds. It was an understatement, but comforting.
A 20-foot motorboat came by. "Are you all right?" the man called, barely audible in the wind. "Yes!" Chris shouted.
All right, I thought. He said we were all right. Incredulous, I turned to Chris, and half imploring, half commanding, said "Ask him to tow us in." But Chris would have none of it. "Waht do you mean we're all right?" I insisted. "We have no mast and no sails. What do you mean we're all right?" But it was too late. The boat was gone.
After we had done all we could do to save the boat and ourselves, I began to be aware of the overwhelming, mysterious, awesome beauty of it all. The sky was every shade of gray, the water gray and green. It was a luminist painting come to life. I suddenly realized that for all my fear there was nowhere else I would rather be. I was thrilled to be in the middle of such a powerful phenomenon and to be acutely aware of my feelings and my surroundings. It was exhilarating. Given the choice, I might not have chosen to be there, but I was glad then to be there. It is a richly beautiful scene, indelibly imprinted in my memory.
Soon things calmed down enough for us to pull in and store the mainsail. When the wind and rain let up, we got out the canoe paddle we kept on board, pointed the bow downwind and towards shore, and Chris paddled us in.
We beached the boat a mile down from our house and trudged home through a soybean field and down an unpaved road now muddy from the rain. We passed the local store and procurred on credit a bottle of schnapps which, in all our comradery, we gallantly swigged as we began to almost glide home. The once ominous sky was peaceful, lightly streaked with red. The moment was ours. We had made it.