Available Fall 2015

In August of 1981 after eight years working as a deckhand and a St. Paul harbor pilot aboard river towboats in the powerful currents and shifting channels of the mighty Mississippi River I thought I had met all sorts of water-borne critters but I never met anyone quite like the Pope.

The first time I met the Pope he had just pulled up to the house of a mutual acquaintance named Tim Carlson in Northeast Minneapolis. When the Pope opened the door of his ramshackle Mazda mini-pickup truck a small maritime museum spilled out onto the street. Before he introduced himself to me I offered to help him shove navigation charts, and several wooden blocks and a coil of braided rope back into the cab. Absolutely stuffed into the bed of the truck under a topper I could see sleeping bags, sail bags, toolboxes and assorted odd-looking pieces of wood varnished and rough. It was all stuffed in so tightly that it looked as though a sharp blow would cause the whole rig to explode.

Geoff Pope himself looked a lot like the overstuffed truck. He was rail thin, average height and topped with a shock of white hair over a toothy grin surrounded by a few days growth of whiskers. His chambray shirt was worn through at both elbows and the breast pockets were overflowing with bits of papers and pencils. He didn’t look much like the yacht club image of a sailor. He looked more like a carpenter. I would soon learn that he was both and much more. Nothing in his appearance hinted at his adventurous spirit except for the twinkle in his eyes.

Head Over Heels

That night I woke up to sounds of raucous laughter. I dropped from my bunk across from the now silent diesel engine and had to steady myself because the ship was heeled over and fairly bouncing over the waves. At the open hatchway to the cockpit I looked up at a night blacker than I had ever seen; full of stars twinkling like the proverbial diamonds.

I clambered up the stairs and found myself standing in front of Val and Laurie steering the boat under full sail. The Mizzen sail was billowed out behind them and they were laughing gaily. The Sheila Yeates was galloping through the night like a runaway horse. I looked up again and nearly bumped my head on a star. Never had I been so far away from civilization that the stars seemed inches away from my face. Unconsciously I reached up to try and touch one or brush them aside. I laughed a bit myself.

Back in the corner of the cockpit I stretched out and let my eyes adjust to the dark. Off to the port side I soon could make out the darker shape of land that made up the south side of Georgian Bay. There were some navigation lights flashing in slow rhythm miles ahead and behind us.

With my head resting on my clasped hands I sat back and looked at the night sky again. “This sure beats hell outta towboatin’. It’s nice and quiet. No criss-crossing searchlights looking for buoys, cut-banks and trees floating’ down the middle of the channel. And no stinking diesel smoke! Yup a guy could get used to this.” I said to myself. Against the star-jammed indigo night the motion of the boat swishing through the dark water gave the sensation of traveling through space itself.

This was the beginning of a fascination with the relationship between wind and sail trim. I was more than a little in awe of the power with which those large pieces of cloth could pull that thirty-ton boat through the water. I have never gotten complacent in my appreciation for the way a boat can shoulder through the waves and pull herself forward by harnessing the air moving past.

Pretty soon Geoff woke up to the ruckus and came up on deck. The ladies had been the only ones on watch. Geoff had set the sails and turned in along with the previous watch. The winds had freshened and the boat heeled over quite a bit more. He hurried around in his briefs and T-shirt adjusting sail easing the sheets. He smiled at us and took one last look around before going back to bed.

After seven or eight seasons on the river pushing barges at an almost imperceptible pace, diesels belching black thick smoke, the constant whine of turbochargers assaulting your hearing causing stress to hearing and sanity, this silent power was majestic.