Listen to the LakeAug 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Mary W. Myers
Mary Myers was eighty-eight years old in August 2008 when we first published her reminiscence of sailing Keuka Lake in the 1940s with her husband of sixty-nine years. Robert died in 2009 and Mary followed him in 2018 at age ninety-seven, but her words still cast a spell we’re proud to share with you again.
You’ve probably heard the legend that on certain days in certain summers the air above our five Finger Lakes vibrates as if to the sound of a great distant drum. I read about it in a book long ago. I think it was written by Carl Carmer, who lyrically maintained that the elusive thrumming comes from the lakes themselves. And if you’re lucky, you’ll hear it. Or judging from his masterful description, maybe you’ll feel it more than you hear it, like the jiggle in your belly when the bass drummers beat by, close past you, in Wellsboro’s Laurel Parade. You may be aware of the voice of the lakes only once in a summer or once in a lifetime, but I know you would remember it.
Perhaps that rare resonance in this geographically unique region has something to do with the unusually large number of residents whose deep thinking, early on, stirred deeper thoughts among our society in general. Joseph Smith and his religious revelations and Elizabeth Stanton and her political convictions come to mind most readily.
It’s evident that the fingers of the five lakes are holding an energized and fertile handful of North America. No wonder the lakes might choose to remind us every now and then of their mystery and depth, their beauty and power. I have never heard their song. Even back in the days before noise pollution became a major interference, if the lakes woke and spoke, I never heard them. But I listened. And I would have been acutely receptive in the summer of 1940, when I was twenty and first sailed on Lake Keuka, one of the fabled five.
The boat we sailed was the Caprice, an aging A-scow, authentically built of wood—de rigueur at that time and a treasure in these days of fiberglass craft—and designed to the precise dimensions of her class. She was much less ethereal than her name would suggest, and nearly as long at thirty-seven and-a-half feet as her thirty-eight-and-a-half-foot mast was high. Her beam was eight feet four inches, and she weighed an impressive 1,850 pounds. But big as she was, she had her whimsical ways. It was best to learn them quickly yet still expect the unexpected. Sailing is always a challenge, I was told happily. Otherwise, why sail?
The Caprice was one of the three boats of her class on the lake that year, the three largest on the water. With unflagging zest and optimism, the crews of the three raced each other almost every summer weekend and as often as possible in between. Since most of the Caprice’s crew lived in the Corning area or farther afield, for several years they had rented a cottage on the lake to be close at hand for the next hot regatta. Their residence was known as the Men’s Cottage. Accordingly, the crew’s assorted fiancés, sisters, and girlfriends rented a cottage for the summer, too. Wherever they found one, they announced that it then housed the Auxiliary. I was hospitably included, and we were all welcomed aboard the Caprice any time the wind and the anchor were about to come up.
As we tacked into the morning breeze, vacationing elderlies gave us friendly waves from their Adirondack chairs. I was sure they were envying us. I would have envied us if I were in an Adirondack chair watching as we zigzagged up the lake or whooshed past, running flat out before the wind. If one of the girls ventured out to stand with her back against the mast, with no further effort on her part, she became beautiful, the personification of summer itself, but most often I modestly manned the pump. Lacking a mast for a prop, I spent a lot of time bailing out the bilge with an old coffee can. I needed a mission, and the Caprice obligingly leaked.
Ah, but sometimes when the wind was strong and steady, the skipper heeled the boat down until her high side leeboard angled out of the water. Some of us clambered out onto the board and rode it, clinging to the gunwales. If either of those heavy steel plates, the leeboards, still exist somewhere, the toenail marks on them are mine.
On the thwarts as more sensible passengers, we ducked when the boat came about, hard alee, as the great boom swung over, with luck missing our heads. When we heard the command, “Jibe-O!” some of us stopped chatting and looked up at the tall creaking mast. What an almighty tree it must have been, I thought. Very likely a white pine like those so ruthlessly harvested from the steep flanks of our Pennsylvania Grand Canyon in the 1800s, some for the same purpose, back in the era of tall ships. We were aware of the mast’s age and empathized as it protested the strain of jibing. “Steady as she goes!” was a far more reassuring command, and I have since repeated it often to myself in times of small family crises. I’ve found that, unless one is in the dentist’s chair or in labor, it usually helps.
The Caprice depended solely on the wind and on what the people aboard her did about it. She had no engine. Boats that did, the motorboats cleaving derisive wakes around us, we referred to as Smudge Pots—or worse. Nevermind that the breeze had dropped, as Keuka’s breezes could do without warning, and we were sitting dead in the water, watching the massive collapsed sails for the slightest stirring while assuming nonchalance. And if nobody had an appointment or a full bladder, it really didn’t matter.
On race day, however, everything was important. Females were banned from the boat. From their own ranks, the males judiciously selected those thought to have the least debilitating headaches from the beach party that usually broke out as we gathered from all points on Friday night for the big weekend, and they took charge.
The Caprice could be sailed by four people, or, at a bare minimum, three very busy ones. But on race day, five, six, or more of our team swarmed resolutely aboard. The number depended on the strength of the wind and past performance. We in the cheerleading section waved high signs. And out on the lake, the three scows began their beautiful circling dance, so crucial to the timing of the starting gun.
The racecourse was rarely clearly defined, sometimes not even to the crew. (My Bob and our daughter Jane once wandered on Chesapeake Bay in our little sailboat and came in seventh in someone else’s six-boat race.) To watchers on Keuka’s shores, the event appeared even less coordinated. If the wind was light, many left their Adirondack chairs and went in for a nap, knowing the contest could take all day. They also were pretty sure that the Privateer, the glossy new scow with the spanking white sails, would win again. And they were pretty often right. But there was always another day, another possible fluke of the wind.
We in the Auxiliary posted observers in the dinghy. Did the guys get a good spinnaker set when they cleared the first buoy? They did clear the first buoy, didn’t they? And then we hurried in to tidy up our own cottage before trying a discrete bit of the same for the absent men. Otherwise, we knew, they would use the helmsman’s old sailing pants as a tea towel for another week.
We convened at Derb Young’s Keuka Hotel at Keuka Landing. The finish line was always conveniently nearby. We filled the big, pleasant lounge with ebullience and thirst. We knew that we made Derb a little nervous, so many of us from other boats and beaches all crowding in, all re-sailing races and mishaps, present and past. But we never broke anything except, for a heady while, the quiet of the late summer afternoon.
In mid-season—maybe it was the Fourth of July weekend—the crew with great effort trailered the Caprice to a big regatta on Cayuga Lake. Bob and I didn’t get there until it was time to bring her home again, beaten again, although with fewer new leaks than expected. But she was in trouble. During the week while she’d been anchored at the lower end of the lake, a National Guard unit had set up a training encampment there. A thick black power line had been strung from the far bank across the little cove harboring the Caprice to the encampment site on the other side. Stretching at a thoughtlessly low level, lower than the top of the Caprice’s mast, the cable effectively trapped the boat.
The afternoon was waning when the crew gave up trying to find someone with authority, or maybe even with a handy screwdriver, and we resorted to plan B. Somehow, the mast would have to be tilted down low enough to be coaxed under the power line. This meant someone would have to climb up the mast and attach a line to its distant top. Then we on this side of the cable would pull on the other end of the line and hold the mast down until it sailed under and out.
Bob handed me his beer and said, “Give me the line!” We all cheered when Bob called that the rope was snugly tied to the top of the mast. But when the appointed team began to pull the other end, one of the many extension knots we’d tied in it gave way and it parted. Just behind Bob and the Caprice, a rather high bridge with a pedestrian walk spanned the small cove. The boat lay at right angles to the bridge, close by. She was broadside to those of us pulling from the shore, and her prow was pointed hopefully toward the offending cable and to eventual freedom beyond. A woman was crossing the bridge when our line of ropes broke, and Bob rose up out of the mist beside her. Paralleling her course, he rode the mast in a long sweeping arc. As he passed her, Bob politely said, “Good evening,” and sank out of sight. The woman ran all the way across the rest of the bridge.
I know that this tale, told and retold in the bar of the old Keuka Hotel, could never measure up to the mystery of the lakes’ distant drum. But for a time at least, there was a woman who could attest that on a midsummer’s eve in 1940, a man rose from Cayuga’s misting waters, spoke to her, and returned to its darkening depths. It had happened to her only once. No, never again. But it truly had happened. Right there on that bridge. Just past dusk, a man rising up from the water. Where else could he have come from but from the lake? Just past dusk, at that murky time of night...
Of such stuff are legends born. But when you visit any one of the Finger Lakes, be sure to listen. You may yet hear a lonesome drum.