Issue: February 2001
Standing Watch

The night my dad stood watch started hot. When you're a kid, you don't seem to notice so much that the Bay is frequently steamier than a cooked jimmy's insides, but I know it was hot because nighttime brought on thunderstorms that seemed to crack open the world. We were anchored in Turner Creek off the Sassafras River, and I was deep in that numbed sleep of kids and old dogs when Dad woke me gently.

"Put your boat shoes on," he said quietly, "and move into this bunk." He always told us to put our boat shoes on when there was lightning. To this day I'm paranoid about it, convinced that if I don't wear rubber-soled shoes, a bolt will make a perfect ground out of me and skewer me to the deck like a crisp shish kebab. The bunk where I had been sleeping was right next to the keel-stepped mast, and Dad didn't want my body near the big lightning rod. Mostly still asleep, I crawled into another bunk and gazed out the companionway.

I've traveled a little in my life, seen some awesome weather, but very little can match the Bay when she's got her knickers in a twist, perhaps because she's so demure most of the time. The sheer fury and drama that night was like a Wagner opera in the sky, and it seemed to last just as long, too. Lightning kindled the clouds, backlighting them like garish, tortured cathedrals. The dark bass of thunder was almost a relief. My dad used to say, when we heard thunder, that God was up in his bowling alley. On this night, he was bowling nothing but three hundreds.

But I was a kid who'd been on the Bay all day, which meant I could sleep through Armageddon. So I dozed off. Every now and then I would wake just enough to open my eyes and see my dad standing there watching, his tall figure dark and calm against the tormented sky, his fleecy pipe smoke hovering like a soft, soothing blanket. He was so still. He'd stood countless black watches on liberty ships in the Merchant Marine during World War II, and I imagined him like this, quiet amid the tumult. He stood there in the companionway for hours. I'm sure he was watching to make sure we or our neighbors didn't drag anchor, but mostly I expect he simply couldn't turn away, awed by the fearful beauty of it all.

And there's something else, too, something I didn't know about until my husband and I bought our own boat last summer. I realized it one night when we were anchored out, and some little noise woke me. I crawled from the quarterberth and grumbled into the cockpit, ornery as usual that everyone else seemed to be able to sleep through a small hurricane, but a flea sneezing could bolt my eyes open. On deck, the faintest nighttime breeze brushed by me like a ghost. The boat swung gently on her anchor. Stars besotted the sky.

I looked below and in the dim gold lamplight saw my young son and daughter, deep in that numbed sleep of kids and old dogs. It seemed entirely possible to breathe in peace, as I stood a quiet watch over them. And, I imagine, while Dad stood watch over me.