Listen for the machine gun fire

Published on March 31st, 2021

Avoiding collision requires visibility which is hard in the fog, and once was a whole lot harder before pinpoint navigation tools. But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and provides good stories… here’s one of them:

From Jeff Tyrrel:
Years ago, sometime last century, I was onboard Dad’s boat for The Annual Corinthian Cruise. Corinthian tradition would see their fleets descend on the downeast coast every third year, and back in the day, The Corinthians was proliferated with many very skilled, even great sailors. Their membership directory reading like a who’s who of sailing.

The draw was the beauty of Maine, particularly splendor the farther east you trek. Waking every morning in a small, seldom explored anchorage to the strong smell of pine and freshly perked coffee, these scents and the sounds of wilderness would waft on the dew ladened morning zephyrs. The peacefulness would only occasionally be broken by the sounds of a lobsterman tending traps off in the distance or church bells ringing in a nearby village.

Those unfamiliar with how The Corinthians conduct their annual cruise, it is or was more a race week disguised as a cruise. The daily racing would commence after a long parade of little ships around the anchorage from the evening before. The Master (essentially the Commodore) would lead that parade with a grand Corinthian flag flying from her main spar.

They were a site to behold with upwards of 35 or 40 boats in single file, particularly when that parade was down a narrow winding river or pass.

By 1000 hours the race committee would be on station, the fleet delivered by The Master and boat crews scrambling as the RC begins the sequence. When foggy, a small number of boats might decline to race awaiting the fog to lift, but generally the fleet would charge off into the fog at speed.

Each evening, after a large raft-up for cocktail hour would see a gathering ashore with a lobster dinner or clam bake or similar, generally cooked on open flame fire pit. There’d be kegs of cold beer at the ready and a table where each boat would BYOB for their fellow sailors to enjoy. As the evening wore down, folks would return to their boats for a good night’s rest before the entire process would begin again.

Most evenings certain boats attracted a small gathering for a nightcap. My Father’s boat was one such that a late evening gam would commence over a glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream. Often the conversation would turn to the events of the day and on particularly foggy days, tales would be told.

One evening I remember well the conversation was steered towards techniques employed to deal with dense fog. Tricks and tells would be shared. This one evening was fairly serious discussion. Offerings of the rumble of surf, the smell of freshly cut grass, trains whistles, barking dogs and waves lapping the coast were all offered up as good indicators of just how tight you could get to that beach.

One of the memorable characters was Colonel Foster Tallman. Foster was a colorful individual who always had a youthful, longhaired (it was the 70s) crew that he referred to as The Indians. Anyhow, as the conversation drew on, with his booming voice becoming of an Army Officer, offers up and with a straight face, “Machine gun fire.”

Delivered stoically and devoid of emotion, he caught everyone’s attention. He continued that if one hears machine gun fire, it is a strong indicator that it is time to tack and head back offshore. On that note we retired to our own boats and bunks to see what tomorrow would bring.

Another beautiful day in Maine unfolded, much like the day before and the day before that. The parade again saw us delivered to a waiting race committee who dutifully started us off into the fog. A short while after the start, on starboard with no real idea where our competition was, we were making our way upwind to the first mark in a light breeze.

But suddenly out of the fog, the sound of machine gun fire, loud and threatening, resonated through the thick, moist air. After a very long burst, my Father looks at me and suggests we tack.

After the racing, the raft up ensued. We are alongside Trumbull and my Father asks Foster what the hay was with the machine gun fire (language more colorful though). Col. Tallman tells us the story. He was in Greenwich Village and popped into Manny’s Music Shop and is going through the bins of used records that could be had for a song when he comes across a 45 with a simple handwritten label that says, “15 minutes of uninterrupted machine gun fire.” He had to have it!

The next day the whole process is repeated, fog still thick. Some conversations amongst the boats on VHF as to whether or not we would actually get to see Maine on this cruise. Someone broadcasts a rhetorical question asking when the darn fog will finally lift. A lobsterman who had been listening in quickly responds, “Sometime ’round late Octobah, eh-yup.”

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