The summer that “Jaws” came out, I was sailing very poorly on a tiny wooden platform called a Sailfish off the coast of South Chatham on Cape Cod.
Mind you, I had never sailed before.
We were rigged with a larger than normal sail, which under normal circumstances would have made for easy gliding on a sultry summer day.
There was little sultry about it when we cast off from our home beach. The wind blew away from shore and sent our tipsy craft far from the comforts of dry land. My then-wife was the seasoned sailor. This was to be my first lesson in seamanship.
Every time I tried to maneuver the boat closer to land it would yaw and pitch wildly and nearly send us into the drink.
I think I was supposed to be practicing the dark art of “coming about” which, if I recall, can decapitate inattentive passengers on larger boats. The boom on ours was so thin and light, you might get a black eye or a chipped tooth if it swung into you.
As in golf, the first rule of “coming about” is to shout “Duck!” just as you initiate the procedure. This strikes instant terror in the hearts of your passenges and shows you are truly the commander of your ship.
I was feeling none of that. This little craft was clearly in charge. I was hanging on for dear life.
Resigned to our fate, I prayed for the wind to abate and scanned the horizon for rocks, or submarines, or … un-oh …
Up ahead, I watched as a large fin lazily crossed our path from right to left, as if heading toward shore.
I’m no expert on fins, but this one seemed awfully tall, if that is the right term for fins. Even from a distance. The fin then made a slow arc toward our stern, passing between us and the beach.
As it glided by, as much of the shark as I could see beneath the surface was easily several feet longer than our entire boat. It felt like a cruise ship was passing us in the opposite direction.
I was no longer thinking of our dingy dingy as a boat but a foolishly helpless piece of plywood at sea with no cannon, no spears, no swords, and no kegs of dynamite aboard. Not even a pocket knife.
Who the hell goes out to sea without the proper provisions?
Never again! If there was to ever be an “again.”
I just looked it up. The plywood Sailfish was 11 feet 7 inches or 13 feet 7 inches, stem to stern. It didn’t even have a cockpit to hide in should it tip over — a very likely scenario with me at the helm.
The fin was now locked onto the tiny trailing wake of the boat, hanging about 20 feet back.
I imagined the shark picking up steam and swallowing us whole, stern first, and using that skinny little mast as a toothpick.
Our boat kept shrinking in my imagination until it felt no bigger than a postage stamp. The fish was growing into a Moby Dick-class threat.
To my sailor-wife, sunning herself a foot away on what sailor’s jokingly call “the bow,” I whispered as calmly as possible, “Don’t panic, but there is a shark following us.”
She screamed, of course.
Her fingers locked on to my arm so tightly I could barely handle the tipsy little craft and I dared not do such insane things as “come about” or “tack.” I dared not even in the most sharkless of times.
So the wind kept pushing us into deeper and deeper water. His hunting grounds.
I’d seen the movie posters. At any moment, I was sure the beast would dive, in order to make that deep-sea vertical launch which would splinter our boat and bodies into pieces.
I scanned the horizon for a savior.
A nearby fishing boat answered my distress signal. That is: Crazy man, madly waving both arms in the air.
As the boat pulled alongside, my bikini-clad wife literally dove head-first into theirs like a landed tuna. It was quite a feat, as the distance from our deck to their rail would have daunted an Olympic high-jumper.
You should have seen their faces.
She kept saying “Shark! A shark tried to eat us!”
The fishermen scanned the waters around the boat — three of the four had already seen “Jaws” — but of course, our Moby Jaws was long gone.
I clambered aboard and tried to act like it was no big deal.
But only after I’d clambered aboard.
The guys towed us close enough to shore for me to sail triumphantly into the beach — where our family and friends lay calmly basting in the summer sun — and claim victory over the real Jaws.
I retold the details of our narrow escape over and over, occasionally glancing out to sea, nervously scanning the horizon.
There was still the matter of sailing the dingy back down the coast to our home beach. I was pretty sure Moby Jaws was out there looking for a second shot at dinner.
The winds had shifted and my more-seasoned brother-in-law volunteered to help me sail her back home. This time we brought provisions — a six-pack of beer. With the wind at our backs, we made great time. And no sharks in sight.
Word had spread that quickly.
As we hit the beach, my dear father-in-law came running down the road with a steak knife in his hand, ready to — I’m not sure — leap into the sea, swim out to us to do battle with a Great White, and rescue his daughter from the jaws of death? I loved that guy. (She’d hitched a ride home in something more land-based and roomy, like a Plymouth Valiant.)
I did not see “Jaws” that summer. It may have been a decade or so before I did. We spent too many summers on Cape Cod and lived too close to the Atlantic in Rhode Island to sour my taste for open waters with some Hollywood horror flick.
Four years after the Great Duel with Moby Jaws, I was working as the editor of a coastal newspaper in Rhode Island. Word came from the docks at Point Judith that a young man was provisioning a sailboat for a trip around the world.
By then, I was assigning to myself every sailboat story that popped up.
As the sun began to sink behind us, we sat at the end of a pier and talked about the pluses and perils of a solo sail around the world.
The topic of sharks came up.
“Dude,” he said, growing animated, “a funny story. Let me tell you about my brother who lives in Chatham and this crazy woman on a sailboat who was being chased by a shark and jumped head-first into his fishing boat …”