The Light at the End of the Delaware

by Gilles Tanguay

I am trying to get used to the harness tangled around my Mustang while keeping the ship on its course. It is cold, rainy, the wind is fierce. A little while back we followed the treacherous-looking rocky bulwark of Egg Island, and its Point light is now slowly fading behind us. Ahead is darkness, except for a light pulsing two seconds on, two seconds off. During the next few hours I will grow very fond of this four-second rhythm.


It was in May, and we had just bought our first boat. Although I had my initial taste of sailing five years earlier on Lake Texoma, I had really learned to sail only the previous summer, but in the best possible way: on small centerboard sailboats where, whenever you make a mistake, you taste the water.
But now it was time for the real thing, bringing Peace Maker from her current home on the Chesapeake to her new harbor on the mighty St-Lawrence River, across from Montréal. She's a beautiful Bayfield 30-32, with the lines of a pirate ship, cutter rigged and with plenty of teak.
For this first trip, we had hired a captain who had double duty: get us to Montréal, and make sure that by the end of the trip my wife and I could handle the ship by ourselves. We did make it to Montréal, and we certainly could handle the ship by ourselves long before we got there, so mission accomplished, I guess.
"Captain Nemo" was a very nice guy, an excellent sailor, but a poor communicator, and therefore a mediocre teacher. He would have made the perfect first mate, but a captain, he shouldn't be. The key role of a captain is to decide what to do based on all the data he has, such as the weather, the seaworthiness of the ship and the experience of the crew. Oh, we were never in real danger, even though things shook a good deal. But with a beginner crew (my wife had done only a few hours of sailing), we simply should not have been in a gale, dealing with harnesses at night on a sailboat whose motor tended to go south on us... But that is another story.
Since Peace Maker had spent the last three of its twenty-five-year career doing a whole lot of nothing, we had to spend the first week on the Chesapeake doing a whole lot of refitting. During this journey we would, among other things, take apart and put back together all the pumps aboard. All of them. Service pumps, engine water pump, bilge pump, fuel pumps, head pump. And there were those two small fires from the leaky alcohol stove, but who's counting? Later on during this trip, however, we did go through a New-Jersey safety inspection - which we passed with flying colors!
We finally left Knapps Narrows and spent a night in Annapolis, and from there we moved on to Chesapeake City halfway down the Chesapeake-Delaware canal. A beautiful sunset over the bridge was the perfect backdrop to the wonderful meal fixed by Cookie, usually known as Julie, my wife. The Canadian geese singing on the shore seemed like a good omen for this Canadian-made boat going back home.


In the morning, the forecast had called for 25 knot winds on the Delaware, with four to six foot waves. For a Laser guy like me, it was a bit difficult to judge the meaning of this for a 30 foot ship, but I had worried some about it, since all the sailors I talked to in Knapps Narrows seemed to be incapable of mentioning the Delaware without cursing or scowling. From what I had heard, if you see a sailboat on the Delaware at all, it is just passing through. But I had failed to get some reference point such as under what conditions one should avoid crossing the Delaware.
The odds were good that the winds would be on the nose, with good-sized waves; but the captain said let's go, so we went. When we entered the bay, we came upon the recovery operation for a tugboat that had sunk there a day or two before. Maybe this should have been a sign. We moved on.
At first this was fun, encountering the first real waves with our new ship, testing her steadfastness, and getting a good heel. This was getting to be as sporty as a Laser. But as the day went on, the conditions worsened. Julie soon gave up the title of Cookie for the day, and could not even be bothered to come up to see the dolphins we encountered. I guess her green color had something to do with it.
It became evident that the weather would do what the forecasters had announced, and then some. Our reaching Cape May in daytime was compromised since we had to tack so often.
Now, as night has come, the wind has picked up some more. The waves are short and choppy, just as the scowling Knapps Narrows sailors implied. Peace Maker is not peaceful at all. It's time to reef again and get the harnesses out. This has had a certain effect on this green crew (I am using the term green as in rookie, not as in Cookie).
I have stayed at the helm while our captain goes forward to do the reefing. It is now that I see the Light. My first reaction is one of relief - I see the Cape May lighthouse, therefore we are almost there.
I am of course very wrong. Oh, it's the Cape May lighthouse all right, but it will take me all night to remember all the lessons one learns when reading sailors' story. The lesson that distances at night are misleading is certainly important.
But the one that will touch me much deeper, that I will understand to my core and not only in my mind, is the love, the almost religious fervor that sailors have for the lighthouse in the night.
For hours on end, this will be the only reassuring point in the dark. Other lights come and go. A cargo crosses our path - never really close to us or a threat to our ship, but a potential danger, a drifter, an unknown character.
Even stranger is a motor boat bouncing on the waves at full speed with its three-million-candle front spotlight madly bobbing right and left with its bow. I cannot understand how the crew aboard could possibly hang on. This guy must be duct taped to his wheel. Since it doesn't seem to go in a straight line, and with its spot probably blinding him in the rain, it is certainly a worry. A bit like a drunken man running in the street with a knife in his hands is more likely to hurt himself than anyone else, unless you are too close...
But the Light is there. Patient, unshakeable. Just like your parents' home when everything around is dark and uncertain. You know that if you make it there, there will be a good meal, someone will listen to you, and you will have a safe place to spend the night. The Light becomes the only certain indication in the night. She calls you toward calmer water, guiding you to her baby lights, her green and red lights spread at her feet like a tiny yellow brick road. Two seconds on, two seconds off, two seconds on, two seconds off.
I now know why, for centuries, sailors have had an almost mystical relationship with those man-made gleams of hope on the horizon.

Two seconds on, two seconds off...