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Anchored on a Wild Island

OUTSIDE the pale gray clouds grow darker, denser: Rain pelts the heavy glass of our old farmhouse windows. The harbor now is mostly a blur, although in brief lulls I can make out the six or seven boats still anchored there. One of them is my sister's. This is her home in Maine, but she has gone south to take her daughters back to their father's house. The rhythms of early September are upon us: School starts this week in Pennsylvania, and my nieces must be there. My wife Lesley and I stay behind, the temporary caretakers for this outpost. From across the room I hear the tinfoil voice of the announcer on the National Weather Service radio. Most coastal households in Maine have at least one radio tuned only to weather forecasts, and this house is not different. Lesley and I listen: The news is not good. This is a full-scale nor'easter. Rains will increase tonight as the tide rises. Winds will reach gale force.

A gust rattles the clapboards, sending a sweet shiver through the house. We smile wary smiles. ``This wouldn't be bad at all,'' Lesley says, ``if it weren't for the boat.''

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After debating whether to hoist her creaky and venerable old day sailer onto shore for the winter, my sister decided to leave it at anchor for at least a few more weeks. ``Keep an eye on 'er if a storm comes through,'' she said while climbing into her creaky and venerable Volvo. ``What do you mean, `keep an eye on 'er'?'' I said. ``Should we do something, or what?'' ``Use your head,'' she said.

At the time I thought of this as yet another of our typically inconclusive sibling conversations. Now, like the sky, it takes on a more ominous cast. I put on one of the bright-yellow rain slickers that seem to hang everywhere in the house, grab my binoculars, and go outside. A gust of rain snatches at my breath. Water coats the binoculars almost instantly, turning my view of the harbor into a kaleidoscopic fantasy. Nevertheless I can glimpse what I've already guessed: My sister's sloop is sinking. The stern lies low in the water, almost invisible in the swells. Exposed to the open sky, the cockpit takes whatever rain and surf happens to slop in; for all I know, the cuddy cabin is also flooded. We will have to row out, bail it, and get a tarp over the boom to keep the cockpit from flooding again.

With our pump, a few old cutaway milk cartons, and life preservers, Lesley and I arrange ourselves in my sister's eight-foot dinghy. The swells rise above our gunwales. Larger ones break across our bow, spraying us with freezing water, or slide along the beam, rolling us perilously close to capsize and snapping the oars suddenly sideways. We lose our bearings, fall off into a trough between swells, fight to spin ourselves around before we slip beam-first into a wave. I can't keep my sister's sloop in sight; sometimes it lies dead ahead, sometimes it seems to have wandered up the harbor.

As I row, Lesley bails our own fragile craft, yelling at me over the voice of the storm: ``Pull left! You're falling off! I can't see it! Wait - there it is!'' Going back seems pointless, no less risky than going forward. The more we row, the more we wobble and roll, the more determined we become: We have a rescue to perform.

The sloop is nearly awash as we approach. As it falls a little below our gunwale, Lesley makes the leap of faith: In a second she's aboard, almost knee-deep in water, while I wrestle with the dinghy to keep it from smashing into the sloop's hull. In the driving rain we bail the sloop, slipping and falling in the sea of the cockpit. A long time passes. The tarp slaps at us, almost knocking us overboard, but we lash it down over the boom, then take our chances with the dinghy. Soaked and shivering, we pull onto the pebbly beach, dragging the dinghy up to a high safe place.

But we have made a conquest of sorts, and this keeps us vigorous and alert through the long dark time: We stay up well into the night, walking around the house and looking out the windows at nothing, knowing that at least one ship in the harbor rides out the wild storm. We stayed behind here, as the season turned and the island emptied of its summer guests, and we half-expected to see that old tail end of summer life: the too-elaborate quiet, the unfocused days, the loneliness lingering in the stands of spruce, in the waves along the shore, in the abandoned pebbles of the coastal sea.

Alone with ourselves, we were a little afraid of that larger loneliness. Now, as the storm surges around the house, we listen and hold each other and pull away, separate and together, alert to the deeper resonances of the night. Though we are merely passing through, destined to leave in a few days, we can feel our lives anchoring themselves on this wild island: We have taken care here, and have found no fear.

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