My wife and I are cleaning up the house this morning after a family party on our acre-and-a-quarter that lies across the county road from Alum Creek State Park. It’s a happy chore as my siblings and two of our children’s families were here, one visiting from Florida and another from ‘just down the road’. Mom and my brother and sisters have to travel just over an hour to get here so it’s an extra honor they chose to make the trip on a holiday when they all live only a few minutes apart from each other in our hometown. The yard is mostly picked up from yesterday, everyone naturally lending a hand to put away the croquette set, pick up the balls and bats from the game, and clearing all the food and trash away into proper receptacles. The Florida family is off to continue their summer trek, heading for New York State and I head to the basement to see what needs to get put away down there. And there they are, still bright and light in the red, white, and blue pattern hanging on the line.
The glow sticks are still glowing and an instant reminder of the glow of the night before as twelve of us covered the deck of my Catalina 22, Lifeline. Five adults and seven kids, age’s four to eleven (the kids ages and the adults’ equivalent anticipation) were motoring out onto the lake for the fireworks celebration of this Fourth of July. Our local sailing association joins with the local Power Squadron and any other volunteer boats to create a lighted boat parade for those thousands watching from the shore at Alum Creek State Park near Columbus in central Ohio, USA. Red, white, and blue chemical lights outlined the rigging fore-to-aft.
Earlier during the week, my daughter helped measure the distance up the backstay of the sailboat. We tied a quarter inch twisted nylon line to the main halyard and hauled it up to the top of the mast. She held the halyard taut while I pulled the line to the aft rail and marked the spot. We pulled the line down, replaced the halyard, and then wrapped the quarter inch line around a wooden yardstick. Four wraps and one length, twenty-seven feet. We did the same for the forestay and came up with twenty-five. Off to the local big-box store and I counted out twenty-seven four-inch chemical lights in the three patriotic colors. Eight necklace glow sticks were also taken for the package. I entertained some of my family during conversation in the afternoon with the tying of the lights to a section of the line used to measure, splicing an eye in one end of that and an end splice at the bitter end.
Aboard Lifeline, my son-in-law and I managed to get one of the kids to help with each of the tasks. We tried first to get them all to break the lights and shake them. The lights were too tough for the little hands. The wands were a different story, though, and each in turn was snapped and shook with the glee only children know of with such things. The adults snapped and shook the sticks. Then one child in turn hauled up the sticks aft and another the necklace wands, tied parallel to the line they were on, hauled up forward. The sun was still shining over the trees to the west and its rays overpowered the lights. The decorating was done and it was time to get under way.
The boys had said they wanted to handle the helm and with them at ages seven and nine I was excited to let them steer. But sitting forward of the mast is a much more exciting draw for these kids all total, and when the boys were directed by ‘Mamie’ to sit forward they were only too happy to oblige. One of the mothers was sitting all the way forward so they were bound to be somewhat restrained. The girls sat, four of them back-to-back amidships under the boom, just aft of the mast. Mamie was standing in the open hatch, and the other mother and one dad were back aft with me. The youngest, frustrated he could not get forward as well, was fidgeting in the cockpit between the four of us.
A steady stream of boats was leaving the marina to join whatever awaited on the open lake. The roaring of a few more powerful speed boats could be hear through the trees and down the channel. Running at idle speed we were only boat lengths apart from each other and working to match our speeds so as not to run up on each other. Changing motor speed is easy, one just throttles down. Slowing a boat in motion is another thing. Reversing the motor works, but is not so easy on outboard motors on sailboats. Other boaters on the lake were heading toward the beach area to the south and not a few were ignoring the channel markers. Changing speed was a frequent maneuver and when the lead boat in the channel had to slow, the train of boats behind pressed up one-to-another. Still, we were all moving slow enough to avoid the crossing pattern and head up the lake a mile to the marshalling point for the parade.
Alum Creek Sailing Association was well represented and the ‘crew’ on Lifeline had many ‘honors’ to render, saluting ‘Raven’ and Penguin II, Half Baked and La Vita, Lady, JOATMON, and Wicked Pissa. Time and Change sped toward the group and joined those circling. Wind Swept motored along-side Lifeline for some time. Many, many more sailboats were circling off shore from the State marina. A Coast Guard Auxiliary boat was holding station just outside that channel, amber safety lights turning. Some powerboats were with the sailboats outside. The bulk of those came out from the State marina all at once. The USCG Aux boat’s lights switched, and the white and red emergency lights signaled the start of our parade!
Thirty-foot power boats lined in all white, pontoon boats at twenty- and thirty-feet sported flags and red, white, and blue holiday lights. Some boats carried pinwheels, others those tubular kites trailing streamers. Those sailboats carrying similar lights switched them on and all moved as one behind the lead boats. One sailboat was flying half-dozen star-spangled banners from its foremast. Another had red holiday lights strung from its masthead to its boom, and blue ones from the masthead to the foredeck. Still another had electronic controlled lights that shown as comets or fireworks scattering all about its sail area in all the colors of the rainbow. This was Raven, and Lifeline’s crew liked this display the best.
A hundred plus boats all traveling in the same direction on Alum Creek Lake and in the dusk of the night was somewhat tedious to begin with. The sun was behind the trees and the lighting of the boats was unusual, when ahead of Lifeline a boat was showing its port broadside. “What is happening?” ran through my head as Half-Baked’s sun decal shown full ahead of me. There was time and room to slow and motor behind her, but I had to wonder what caused one of my shipmate skippers to come fully about inside the flotilla. My starboard turn showed me the answer. They had lost a cockpit pillow over the side and were coming back to retrieve it! “Curious time for a crew-overboard drill” I hollered at the skipper as we passed port-to-port. He laughed and both of us returned our gazes towards the other boats. His situation was the more precarious and I was happy to be clear of his intended path.
This event filled most of the attention of the space between the State marina and our own inlet, as we were now passing back down the lake to the south. Still more sailboats were heading out and my favorite appeared at the outmost marker in the channel. Sledgehammer was flying what looked to be a U.S. flag to be four or five foot along the hoist. The banner was reminiscent of the original Star-Spangled Banner, so large it was and such a statement it was making! Sledgehammers lights were mostly the lit-up tubular novelties the crew was waving on deck. There was no mistaking what the primary décor was.
Many of the parade boats peeled off the formation as we passed the secured area of the water from which the fireworks would be launched. These headed toward their selected anchorages. I steered Lifeline into the single line that was forming behind the Coast Guard, Sledgehammer some boat lengths ahead of me. The crowds cheered the parade, a gala of flashes from the shore. Yet, more flashes from the water. The parade course steered was flanked on both the shore side and the lakeside by anchored boats and their crews. Lifeline and the other crews were the subject of joyous observation and waved back at those cheering, surprised to be in the focus of so many on-lookers. We followed the several boats that remained in the parade past the four-hundred yards of beach.
It wasn’t over for us yet. There were thousands more spectators on top of the dam that marked the end of our southward course. We came to port and motored across the water, each parade boat to its own chosen point to observe the anticipated fireworks. Lifeline motored for a half-mile past the dam before I turned her back north toward the east side of the lake and left the spectators behind. There is a wake marker along the eastern shore we call ‘B’ for our local sailboat races. We know the water is shallower there and only a few boats chose to watch from that area. It is directly opposite our inlet channel on the west side of the lake.
The air was chilling as the boat turned into the wind. The children began shivering and one sweatshirt was passed around for two of them to huddle under together before it was passed to another pair. The rest huddled closer to one another while waiting their turns. I slowed Lifeline to a stop by idling the motor and turning first to port and then to starboard. She began to move backward in the wind and waves and I had my foredeck crew lower the anchor. Thirty feet went out before it hit bottom. I had them run out another thirty feet. For a longer-term anchorage, I should put out a minimum of five times the depth of water beneath the keel. I decided we would be ‘ok’ for the short term, watched the shoreline at two places, and was rewarded with a ‘holding station’ for the duration of the fireworks.
My shipmates from Alum Creek Sailing Association had not embellished at all when they described the sight of multiple fireworks from the lake. Directly across the lake, a mile off, we watched the sponsored event in full brilliance, doubled in delight by the reflection off the water of every spark and glint! Over the trees, we watched the lights from the cities of Delaware to the north and west, from Powell to the west. To the south and west were the fired delights of Worthington and directly south the city of Westerville entertained. What we thought were echoes of our own pyrotechnics turned out to be a show of sparkling explosions from the area of Sunbury or New Galena. All around the horizon the sky was exploding with color and drumming with sound. Not a child mentioned the chill on their skin, nor the need for the sweatshirt, not a child of any age. It was a wonderful show. And those glow sticks, they are still glowing, but not as brightly as the glow in my heart for the wonderful memory I have of the glowing faces of my crew.
The trip back was uneventful, if we discount the one boat motoring backwards and another crew shining a spotlight in the faces of others trying to navigate the channel. The more profound and important memory I want to share is the comment from one of my adult crew members, about how she hoped those who suffer from PTSD might be able to still enjoy such celebrations. I am career Navy and though I served in the Red Sea for Desert Shield and Desert Storm, I am aware that the Navy has seen little in war-at-sea as compared to other generations. Ashore is a different story these last fifteen years, since the 9-11 events and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Thousands answered this country’s call and no matter the politics, they served and sacrificed. The celebration of this day is due to the same service and sacrifice of our predecessor patriots, who believed in the freedoms written in the Declaration and the Constitution that it bore. I wish too, that those so recently and so deeply affected, physically and mentally, might at some level be able to appreciate that which we celebrated this day.