Excerpt: Last Shower on the Rock Bass

Chapter 10 of The Rock in the Water

Last Shower on the Rock Bass

IN COUNTRIES WHERE AVAILABILITY of water is not at issue and standards of hygiene are high, most showers pass unnoticed except by those personally involved. The Grace Hardcastle shower of Tuesday, July 6th was something else again. It began at approximately 2:07 p.m. and ended in rather spectacular fashion some four minutes later.

Grace Hardcastle lived on board the vessel Rock Bass, an ageing 27 foot affair whose single mast had not seen canvas since 1971 when Grace’s husband Malcolm, once again confusing starboard with port, tried to tack into Heriot Bay Harbour in the dark and came within forty yards of making it. When the Rock Bass came out of dry dock, Malcolm fully intended to re-rig her, but Grace would have nothing to do with it. “Muffy” she said, “you can’t sail worth beaver poop and I’ll be dang if we’re gonna waste good money on something we ain’t gonna use. If we can’t get where we’re goin’ with the dang engine, we don’t need to be goin’ there!”

And that was the end of that. For over two decades theRock Bass rode at anchor in Heriot Bay, rising and falling with the tide, pitching in the winds of winter, now and then silhouetted by the full moon rising over the mountains of Desolation Sound. Grace and Muffy lit with coal oil, cooked and heated with propane, and drew their fresh water from Jack Murphy’s well, hauling it aboard in the dinghy fifteen gallons at a time.

Facilities aboard the Rock Bass were rudimentary, but adequate to most purposes. The galley was snug, the head just large enough to contain a commode at the level of the galley floor and a shower nozzle at the top of the facing wall. A cloudy plastic shower curtain with a faded pattern of tropical fish supplied nominal privacy for commode use and protected the watertight integrity of the galley on the few occasions when the shower was inuse. There was no water heater aboard the Rock Bass. The cold-water shower had been installed by the original owners for the purpose of rinsing salt water off younger bodies after hours of diving from the bow and swimming ‘round to scramble up the stern ladder and do it all over again. In the absence of hot water, young people found other ways to warm themselves following a brisk swim.

In the off-season, Muffy and Grace made a weekly pilgrimage to the pay showers in the basement of the Heriot Bay Inn. For the period from the Victoria Day weekend at the end of May to the LabourDay weekend in early September, the campground beside the hotel filled with tents, trailers and motor homes. Satellite dishes grrrnnnnnked the sky in search of soaps and sitcoms, screaming city brats ran in and out between the shower room and the adjacent laundromat. During this annual time of chaos, Grace and Muffy limited their ablutions to more or less twice a month aboard the Rock Bass, and they managed it in this way:

Along about 1981 on one ofhis beachcombing expeditions at the south end of Rebecca Spit, Malcolm had scavenged a pair of ten-gallon fibreglass water containers. A large crack in the top of one in no way affected its adaptation to the purpose he had in mind. He mounted both on the deck of the Rock Bass in a wooden enclosure about three feet high, drilled two 3/4˝ holes through the mahogany decking and ran a piece of PVC pipe from each tank to the shower head, sealing the joints with black caulking. On shower days they made an extra trip in the dinghy to haul water. First, the coldwatertank was filled, then began the process of heating fifteen gallons of water in Grace’s cast iron soup pot on the two-burner stove. Three pots filled one of the plastic five-gallon pails, which was kept wrapped in a blanket while two other buckets were topped up. Muffy went up on the deck; Grace passed him the buckets and began the first shower.

What with heating the water and the extra trip to the well and all, the whole procedure took a minimum of two hours and sometimes as long as three or four, depending on what was available in the way of refreshments. Muffy had been introduced to Root Beer Schnapps in the Campbell River hospital while recuperating from a broken ankle suffered when he slipped on a rock at low tide. His old friend Cat Munson had brought a bottle and two coffee mugs to the bedside. Cat was of the opinion that, once a bottle of anything was open, it would very quickly go sour. With the two of them working on it, however, there was absolutely no danger of rancid schnapps. The floor nurse thought they were drinking black coffee, and by the time she discovered her error, it was too late to do anything other than call Security to strap Muffy to the bed and coax Cat in from the window ledge.

It was just past two p.m. when Grace passed the final bucket of hot water up through the hatchway and got into the shower. Muffy poured the first pail of hot water into the shower tank, and then studiously drained the last of the Root Beer Schnapps into his own tank. As he poured the second bucket, Grace’s scrawny frame was already lathered top to bottom and she began work on her long gray hair.

Grace and Malcolm had twocats, Barfly and Chivaree, both of whom had lived all their lives aboard the Rock Bass. Barfly was senior by about three years, but his seniority didn’t cut much ice with Chivaree, one of those perpetually curious critters whose drive to understand outweighed nearly all other considerations. Chivaree liked to know what was going on, all the time and everywhere. Even in a twenty-seven foot sailboat, keeping up to date occupied most of her waking hours. Having seen Grace disappear into the place where all the water came from, she now scrambled topside to keep an eye on Muffy from a position behind him on the deck. With her superior hearing and a brain untroubled by schnapps, she could hear Grace singing in the shower below. She also was the first to catch the throaty roar of the twinVolvo-Penta diesels on the 70 foot yacht Gopher Broke.

The Gopher Broke had departed Seattle, Washingtonon July 5th, those on board having watched the fireworks from the water the previous evening in company with thirty or so other yachts bound for Desolation Sound. What began as friendly across-the-water chatter had developed into abragging contest, the result of which was a wager among nine of the captains that would pay a handsome dividend in cash and prestige for the first boat to enter Heriot Bay harbour. When the red rim of sun crested the Cascade mountains to the east, they lined up their craft abreast and toasted the contest in champagne. Blue water boiled as nine throttles were firewalled simultaneously, causing a flock of cormorants in the harbour to become airborne and head south as quickly as their little black wingswould carry them. The first race for the Desolation Sound Cup was underway.

The details of the race are not important to this story. It is enough to know that the Gopher Broke rounded Rebecca Spit and entered Heriot Bay at thirty-three knots, just ahead of the sprightly Cat Sass, a forty-five footer out of Portland, Oregon.

When the Gopher Broke skipper throttled back his engines, the large craft settled in the water like a buffalo in a wallow, and in doing so, created a wash almost five feet high which rolled across the harbour like a tidal wave directly broadside to the Rock Bass.

With the hot tank nearly empty, Muffy had just hoisted the second bucket to its highest point and was beginning to pour. The wake from the Gopher Broke pitched the Rock Bass a full twenty degrees to port, nearly tossing him into the drink. He was able to regain his balance by stepping back with his right foot, which unfortunately came to rest on the tail of the curious Chivaree. The cat screamed, Muffy jumped, losing his grip on the bucket which poured its five gallons of hot water on him and the cat, toppling them both into the cool green waters of the bay. Muffy did not swim.

In the shower, Grace was battered about when the wave hit. Next, with the hot water tank now empty and the cold still half full, the shower turned frigid. She yelped and blinded by shampoo in her eyes, thrashed her way out of the shower enclosure bringing the fish patterned curtain down around her head. Things were heating up.

Muffy, meanwhile, had not drowned, but had caught hold of a rope and hauled himself back aboard. He heard Grace yelling but was in no way distracted from his immediate purpose, which was to find and sink the damnYankee who had tried to kill him. He climbed dripping to the wheel, fired up the outboard and started in pursuit, intending to ram the Gopher Broke. It would have been better had he taken a moment to raise his anchor.

The bow anchor was attached by a length of ageing 1˝ chain which should have parted at the first indication of stress. It did not. Mechanical stress, as you know, will continue until something gives. In the case of the Rock Bass, long past her prime and only spottily maintained, the winner was the old chain and the loser was the even older boat.With a snap like the crack of an enormous bullwhip, fifty or more of the half-century old nails popped loose. The waters of the Strait of Georgia raced into the opening like puppies through a break in the fence, and the Rock Bass began to sink quickly by the bow. Muffy Hardcastle stood at the wheel, slowly shaking his head back and forth as the water began to slosh about his ankles.

The captain of the Gopher Broke had not noticed the dramatic effect of his entrance into the harbour, and continued to steam toward the dock with what he assumed was the solemn majesty befitting a winner. He saw the crowd rushing to the shore but could not hear their yells over the gentle rumble of the diesels. He assumed quite naturally that they were heralding his fine feat of seamanship in winning the first ever DesolationSound Cup. This mis-assumption was corrected before rope ever touched dock cleat, and his face went pale as he turned to see the Rock Bass settling on the bottom

The Cat Sass was in perfect position to witness the whole incident. Having finished second in the race, the captain determined to redeem his day by making an heroic rescue at sea. He thrust his throttles forward and raced toward the Rock Bass already preparing his ‘aw shucks’ modesty speech for the local and national media.

Grace meanwhile, sensing that the new angle of the deck was not a temporary situation, scrambled on her hands and knees upthe ladder to the deck. When she burst through the hatch, stark naked and soapy from head tofoot, blinded still by shampoo and trailing the tattered remnants of the fish patterned shower curtain, she looked like the sort of apparition parents conjure upto frighten small children. Having been a small child once himself, the skipper of Cat Sass was stunned by the appearance of this demonic creature rising from the depths. As his mind struggled to achieve perspective, the yacht continued bearing down exactly at the centre of the Rock Bass at a hefty twenty-three knots. A split second before impact, the captain regained his composure, realized his situation and spun the wheel hard to starboard, almost missing the sinking sailboat. The prow of his boat cut through the stern of the Rock Bass like a hot knife through lime sherbet. Under its own authority, the skipper’s mind determined that if it continued to absorb terrifying data at the present rate, it would very quickly fry. So it shut off. With a virtual zombie in command, the Cat Sass screamed north across the harbour at full speed.

Bystanders on the shore swore that the remainder of the event took place inTwilight Zone slow motion. Several described the progress of the Cat Sass in amazingly vivid detail, including speed, trajectory, sound effects, wave motion, and the image of three white seagulls wafting above the scene like falling apple blossoms on a still spring afternoon.

The narrow draft of the boat allowed the twin props to continue providing propulsion right up to the moment when the dented prow scraped the first pebbles of the beach. Inertia took over from there, hurling theCat Sass up on the sand of the shore and across a series of logs that ove rthe years had escaped from mill-bound booms. Contact with these rigid old timers lifted the bow, and the entire craft was airborne at an altitude of about four and a half feet when it crashed through the huge plate glass front window of Arnold Tisdale’s seaside retirement cottage. The sound of the impact was compared to a fighter aircraft breaking Mach I as eighty-four square feet of glass exploded into fragments no larger than a sliver of toenail.

No one died, nor did anyone drown, an ending happier than many other maritime disasters. Barfly and Chivaree were found afloat on a fragment of the cabin roof and rescued. As is often the case, the instigator of the cataclysm, the Gopher Broke was unscathed, while Cat Sass was now suitable for nothing more than an enormous lawn ornament. The hands of its skipper were eventually pried loose from their death grip on the wheel as he babbled for almost an hour following his forced entry into Tisdale’s parlour. Eventually his eyes regained the ability to focus. By the time he was loaded into the ambulance to be examined in the Campbell River hospital, his speech had returned to nearly normal.

The Rock Bass, of course, was history, a navigation hazard, down by the bow and the stern in six feet of water at low tide. Muffy looked like a seal pup as he sank, bounded off the bottom, sank and bounded his way to land. Grace, who could swim abit, was greeted at the shore, wrapped in a gray wool blanket and taken to the Heriot Bay Inn where she was given a series of hot rum toddies that did much to calm her nerves.

The incident was witnessed by a Campbell River lawyer, whose wife was a real estate agent on Quadra. He volunteered to take the case on a contingency basis, and suit was filed against the captain of the Cat Sass claiming loss of income, mental cruelty, dangerous driving and damages to the Rock Bass, resulting in a speedy settlement on the order of some two hundred thousand full size American dollars. The lawyer’s wife scouted the area for something suitable, and Grace and Muffy left the sea for a cozy one bedroom cabin on the shore which seemed a palace to them after twenty-six years of living aboard the tiny Rock Bass. Grace’s main complaint was that Muffy was now available day or night to Dave Bassett, Cat Munson and the other‘Disreputables’, as she called them. That inconvenience was more than made up for by the presence of indoor plumbing, including a proper shower and hot water heater. Not to mention the fact that Muffy, always a canny survivor, quickly perfected the art of creating the most wonderful hot rum toddies as a means of assisting the continuation of domestic harmony.

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One response to “Excerpt: Last Shower on the Rock Bass”

  1. suzanne1953 says :

    I love sailing stories. Like my friend Patty once said, “Whenever you go sailing, something always happens.” Aint it the truth!

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