Weekend Windjammer Getaway
Captain Owen Dorr has a lot on his mind. As his Nathaniel Bowditch sails into foggy West Penobscot Bay, the VHF is buzzing with radio traffic—its volume set perhaps a tad louder than usual. A named storm, Hanna, is working its way up the Atlantic coast, and it’s still uncertain when or where it will make landfall, or whether it will carry hurricane force. Captain Owen listens intently to the VHF for two reasons.
First, he’s tracking the whereabouts of the nearby Stephen Taber, Victory Chimes, and J & E Riggin—vessels that are drifting in and out of the veil of fog hanging all around us. Captain Owen listens for updates on their current positions, where they’re heading, and whether the visibility in their area is improving. (“Pea soup” seems to be the unanimous assessment.)
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Captain Owen is listening for updates on Hanna.
Today is Friday. The vast majority of Maine windjammer trips board passengers on Sunday night, depart on Monday, then return on Friday or Saturday. As such, most windjammers in the Bay are returning port, and they’ll ride out the storm in their home berths. The Nathaniel Bowditch, on the other hand, has just departed with 20 passengers for a scheduling rarity: a weekend getaway cruise. The Bowditch left her Rockland dock today at roughly 2:00 p.m. and she’s scheduled to return Sunday morning. This means there’s a very good chance we’ll be out here when the shit hits the fan—a possibility that seems to occupy this captain’s every thought.
Blithely unaware of the impending danger is 8-year-old Seth, an energetic, curly haired boy from Andover, Massachusetts. Seth and his 11-year-old brother, Jason, are both wearing life jackets at their parents’ behest. Jason is quiet, unassuming, and thoroughly polite. Seth, however, is brimming with youthful energy. Seth has insinuated himself as helmsman, and his over-the-top antics at the wheel are borderline comic.
“Captain? Where are we going?” Seth says.
“Captain? Are we there yet?”
“Captain? Can we go faster?”
“Captain? Can I turn the boat this direction?”
“Captain? Can we go any faster?”
“Captain? Are we there yet?”
“Captain? I’m just going to turn the wheel a little bit that way, OK?”
“Captain? Are we there yet?”
I’m not kidding.
Captain Owen Dorr is a family man. He and his wife—the warm and endlessly personable Cathie—have two small children. The captain’s family isn’t aboard for this trip, but it’s clear Owen’s brood has inoculated him from Seth’s badgering. Captain Owen seems completely unbothered by his new, self-appointed helmsman. You can almost picture Captain Owen standing knee deep in a jungle swamp somewhere, his head swarmed by mosquitoes but never so much as swatting.
Captain Owen on the VHF.
It’s a testament to the Maine windjammer fleet that captains are so accessible. In any other cruise situation, captains would be well sequestered from their passengers. Captains might meet with a select group of guests during meal times, but they’d otherwise be hidden behind closed doors and perhaps guarded by gun-wielding U.S. Marshals. In the Maine windjammer fleet, for better or worse, captains are readily accessed by their fawning public. No question is too small, no subject too inconsequential to be aired on the quarterdeck during business hours.
Maybe it’s today’s steady stream of information pouring from the VHF, or maybe it’s a survival strategy, but Captain Owen’s responses to Seth’s interrogation seem somewhat delayed, distant, and clipped. The scene is reminiscent of network news: an anchor presses a foreign correspondent for details, but the live satellite link creates a noticeable delay in communication. With every question Seth poses, there’s a lengthy pause between sender and recipient.
Seth again asks, “Captain? Can we go any faster?”
Captain Dorr stands at the nav station listening to the VHF while Seth’s inquiry lingers untended. In the gap of silence that lies between question and response, I grow uncomfortable. “Of course we can’t go any faster,” I want to explain. “We’re a wind-driven vessel with a displacement hull.” But I bite my tongue.
Still, several beats of silence continue and I begin to wonder. Did Owen hear the question? Should I repeat the question? Should I liaise in this situation? Should I broker an understanding between these two disparate parties?
The silence reverberates like an unresolved chord progression, and I grow evermore agitated. I reach the point where I’m about to blurt something, anything, but Owen finally offers a measured, captain-like response in his distinct New England accent.
“Nope. Can’t go faster.”
The captain’s sparse, albeit polite, answer restores balance to the universe and I am at peace for another four beats before Seth poses his next lingering question.
Seth at the helm.
This process continues for the better part of the afternoon until we reach Pulpit Harbor and Seth and Jason go to foredeck to help flake anchor chain.
We motor into the harbor and drop the hook alongside the Heritage. Soon after, the fog grows thicker, and the Heritage—just a hundred yards off our starboard beam—disappears.
In the evening after dinner, however, a few members of the Heritage crew row over to say hello. Jan Czasak, Alex Hardt, Morgan Parmenter, and Harry Sandler tie up to our starboard rail and climb the bulwarks like marauding pirates.
The Nathaniel Bowditch’s deckhands, Mike Daniello and Gerard Hoogeboom, are tight with the Heritage boys. During the winter before fit-out season, the Bowditch’s deckhands were among nine people crashing in Alex Hardt’s one-bedroom apartment in downtown Rockland.
The schooner professionals descend into the galley to catch up on the season’s events, and soon the bawdy language of the Heritage crew drives the Bowditch passengers abovedecks for fresh air. Then, in the midst of a particularly candid discussion of Jan Czasak’s past sexual exploits, the cook, Paul Dorr drops the axe.
“Before you finish that story,” Paul says, “you should leave.” He is polite, but firm.
The Heritage boys quickly acquiesce, reassemble in their rowboat, and shove off for the night. Tomorrow, the Heritage will sail for Rockland.
In the meantime, calm is restored to the Nathaniel Bowditch — the calm before the storm.
Tacking the headsails.