Like a Bat out of Hell
16 June 2012
Like a Bat Out Of Hell
By Jim Hawkins and Ellie Adams
A version of this document was published in Good Old Boat, Sept./Oct., 2006.
We were a few days into the first leg of a three-season passage to the Canadian Maritimes from our home port of Bayfield, Wisconsin in the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior. We anchored overnight on the beach outside a small harbor-of-refuge named Big Bay. The Lake was unusually placid. The holding was not great—sand over rock—but good enough to throttle a light off-shore breeze. We slept well.
Uneventfully, we departed Big Bay motor-sailing southeast over a lightly riffled sea toward Marquette, Michigan. A couple hours into it Ellie went below for a nap. Gilly the cat, leapt softly onto her belly. Dreamily, I stayed at the tiller. The Huron Mountains, hills really, lay a mile or two to starboard while the azure expanse of cold Lake Superior stretched out to port.
Maybe once each summer out on the Big Lake a very tired, disoriented bird or bat comes on board after a too-long and very cold flight. And so today, when two bats came flitting about the rigging, I thought little of it. And when they darted below, I debated with myself whether to roust Ellie. To say that bats are not among her favorite animals is to understate her feeling by quite a lot, but then she was napping so perfectly. Of course, there was the remote possibility that the cat would stir herself and chase them out of the cabin. I say remote because the cat was napping also and did not notice, or was pretending not to notice, the arrival of the bats. So I put it all out of my mind and fell once again into reverie, half dozing myself. Only one patch of rocks along the route warranted notice, but with perfect visibility, they posed no problem even to a half-awake skipper.
I noticed a few gray clouds slipping over and around the small mountains to the west of us. Out of curiosity more than anything else or perhaps to break the tedium, I flicked on the weather channel. Perfect Paul’s disembodied voice droned a forecast utterly compatible with the serene scene surrounding us. I thought to myself, “No wind today.”
Suddenly, the Coast Guard blurted out a “Suh-cur-uh-tay”. Having slipped back into my stupor once again, I was startled, to say the least, by the news that a severe thunderstorm was imminent. Only then did I turn to look behind us. It took only a moment to conclude that the Coast Guard warning was, if anything, a bit on the late side. A black cloud spreading across the horizon was roiling toward us marking the outflow boundary of the shaft of falling air collapsing under the storm. This roll cloud nestled itself, if that is the word, in a putrid, olive green sky of the kind that stirs all Midwesterners to seriously contemplate a rapid descent into the nearest basement. This was going to be a bad one. And it was coming after us like a bat out of hell.
I yelled for Ellie to wake up. She feverishly began to stow loose gear below while I yanked the sails down and threw on a rain jacket. The black cloud inaugurated an instantaneous gale as it skimmed our masthead, a blinding rain arrived simultaneously. As Ellie closed the main hatch it dawned on me that maybe I should mention the bats. I hollered, “Ellie, I forgot to tell you, there are two bats down there with you.” But as any of you know who have experienced even half a gale she would not, could not hear my tardy warning over the maelstrom already screeching in the rigging.
In the cockpit, the downpour obliterated the view beyond the bow of the boat. I struggled to keep the boat perched on the closely spaced six foot rollers that erupted almost immediately, alternately straining at the helm when she slewed off of them. Then it came to me in a moment of terror: I am less than certain that we have already passed the aforementioned rocks. So now I’m screaming again to Ellie to “Get the radar on and the GPS and get us a fix!”
Meanwhile, inside the cabin, Ellie reported that matters had gone from bad to worse: “We had to yell to be heard five feet apart,” she recalled. “The boat was pitching and rolling and we were charging full speed ahead with no sails! Jim was yelling (Even though he had to, it still felt like yelling.): Turn on the radar, turn on the GPS, turn on the widgets, plot the course. I‘m not remembering how to do any of it.”
“The cat wants to abandon ship. Each time another pillow flies off the settee on top of her, she bawls in holy terror. THEN I realize I am shut up down below with two bats flopping all around. And—believe it—they’re landing in my hair! Now I am also quite ready to abandon ship and I understand the cat’s primordial panic intimately. Not my finest moment. The gratitude was that I was not in Jim’s spot.”
OK, you’ve got the picture, right?—Bats in her hair, a desperate cat, stuff flying everywhere. On top of all this, the crazed man in the cockpit is asking the impossible and yelling besides. The scene is almost as chaotic as a birthday party for a dozen four-year olds. Well, she did it! Somehow she got the “widgets” on. She verified that the rocks were behind us and we were angling offshore. She double-checked our position with the GPS and the chart. We had only to ride it out for twenty minutes or so and the storm would be past us. We did not broach and made very fast progress more or less in the direction we wanted to go. And then, as quickly as it had begun, all was quiet, the bats departed, the cat at rest, the sea calm.
That could be the anticlimactic end of the story except that sea stories characterized by shock, terror, distress, and a train of errors that brought it all on, don’t end that way. Instead, they unfailingly concoct a moral or two. The hope is that the advice given will garner a modicum of redemption for one’s reputation. The script calls for the author to note well the lessons learned and to recite some strenuously considered “You-know-it’ll-happen-someday-so-plan-ahead” admonition that would better prepare the prudent mariner. In other words, “Don’t do as I did, do as I wish I had done.” This story, the reader has no doubt already discerned, is one of those very same sea stories. Here then in keeping with time honored tradition is the achieved wisdom, earnestly and humbly proffered.
It’s the bats, stupid! Get the damn things out of the cabin. Do not wonder, do not hesitate, do not doubt. Just get them out--now!