Mercantile Day 2: Brooklin to Fort Point, Stockton Springs
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
A few hours before I went to bed, John, a fellow passenger, gave me a pair of foam earplugs.
"You're going to need these," John said.
"You'll see," he said.
Sure enough, when I finally went belowdecks to get some sleep, I heard a passenger in an adjacent cabin snoring away like a hibernating grizzly. I turned off the light, crawled into my bunk, and tried to focus on the pleasant sounds of wavelets chiming against the hull. Soon, however, all I could hear was the waltz-like rhythm of nearby snoozing. I compressed the earplugs and shoved them into my ear canals. When the foam expanded and sealed off the outside air, I was suddenly lying in perfect silence and darkness. The only sensation was the gentle sway of the boat as she swung to her anchor. I fell into a coma-like sleep.
Pumpkin Island Light.
I get dressed and go topsides. It's another sunny day, but the wind is blowing out of the southeast just as hard as yesterday. It's 45 degrees.
I shamble groggily across the deck and into the galley where everyone is already assembled and nearly done eating. My fellow passengers rib me for oversleeping. Someone says, "Nice of you to join us."
"Hey, I've got a baby at home," I say. "Last night was the first uninterrupted sleep I've had in seven months."
I sit at a table and survey the goods. The main breakfast item is oatmeal. My heart sinks a little. Eleven years ago when I graduated from college, I took a solo hike on the Long Trail through Vermont's Green Mountains. It was a 17-day trip and I ate oatmeal every morning. On Day 17, when I poured the last packet into a bowl, I swore I would never eat oatmeal ever again. Today would be no exception.Instead, I grab a single-serve box of cereal, milk, and the coffee decanter. The coffee on the Mercantile is strong; the grounds that swirl within each cup could be measured in parts per billion. After a few sips, I feel as though I've been jolted awake by a pair of chest paddles. It reminds me of camp coffee and, despite foregoing the oatmeal, I feel as though I'm on another hiking trip. On this trip, however, there's a nice view at every leg of the journey, and someone else carries your baggage.
"Trying to re-create the magic, Connie?" I ask.
Connie ignores my question and it suddenly occurs to me that perhaps she'd been harboring a crush on Captain Ray for the past 20 years. Maybe she'd developed some companionship with that image, and would be embarrassed if Captain Ray knew about it. Or maybe I have a wild imagination and a propensity for dumb questions.
Captain Ray ties the yawlboat to the WoodenBoat dock and we file onto shore. Most of the passengers decide to take a tour of the school, but I strike out on my own and walk toward town. I feel a little knock-kneed on solid ground; after just 24 hours on the boat, the constant motion of the sea under my feet has become the new normal, and land feels unnaturally rigid.
I stroll onto the main road and walk two miles to town. Brooklin is small and quaint. There is a general store, a pizza joint, student housing, and little else. The weather on land is much warmer; I'm sweating as I head back toward the ship. The leaves are budding on the trees. Spring is in full swing.
Andy on dish duty.
When the passengers are finished with the tour, Captain Ray leads us down the dock to the yawlboat and motors us back to the Mercantile for lunch on the deck. The wind is easing a bit; it looks like we might raise the sails when we're done eating.
Running with the waves.
Today, however, I wish I'd followed his sage advice. I'm on the forepeak with Andy, Matt, and another passenger. The sails have already been raised, and now we're raising the anchor with an antique manual windlass. The windlass has two levers that together resemble a seesaw. Teams of two get on either side of the seesaw and rock the handles up and down. The handles turn a winch that slowly spools the anchor chain around a drum, breaks the anchor free from the muddy bottom, and hoists the anchor out of the water. It's hard work. My lungs feel like they're going to explode as Matt and I push our lever to the deck and pull it skyward, over and over again. The whole process takes several minutes and I can feel my heart pounding in my temples the entire time.When the anchor finally lifts, the Mercantile falls off the wind and sails eastward down the Reach, back under the bridge, and toward the Bay. Unlike yesterday, the bilge is dry. There's little to do but sit back and enjoy the rolling scenery.
As we approach the Bay, I see a long line of whitecaps marching northward. It looks rough out there - easily as rough as yesterday. When we enter the Bay, the crew sheets in the sails and we sail close-hauled into the wind. Andy and Matt work the jib during tacks while the bow crashes into oncoming waves. Spray flies over the rail and rains over the crew and the forepeak. I'd like to get involved somehow, but I still feel inexperienced and burdensome. Intellectually, I understand what they're doing up there, but I have doubts about my dexterity. I sit on a cabin house amidships and stay out of their way.
When we come upon the head of Rosier Cape, the crew lets out the sails and Captain Ray steers the Mercantile downwind. A steep following sea pushes the yawlboat against the Mercantile's transom with an occasional thump, but otherwise the conditions feel suddenly calm and peaceful. The difference is startling. It's blowing just as hard as ever, but now we're working with the wind and waves instead of fighting against them.
Matt on the quarterdeck.
"Sure," I say.
Matt and I grab the sheet and start hauling it in. The mainsail is full of wind and heavy. We put all of our weight into the line but we make little progress. The closer the sail comes to us, the harder the pulling gets. It feels like we're leading a train of stubborn burrows. I suddenly become catatonic. I can't breathe anymore and my muscles are so full of lactic acid I can't move any part of my upper body, including my hands. I'm like a boxer on the ropes; I'm too exhausted to fight, but too entangled to fall down. I feel punch drunk.
"Keep going," Matt says.
"I can't," I say. "I can't move."
"C'mon," says Captain Ray, "Let's get that sail sheeted in."
I take another deep breath and put my full weight into the line. We move the sail enough that Captain Ray can turn the boat without causing a violent jibe. I let go of the rope and step back to my spot at the amidships cabin house. That's enough work for me right now.
As we sail into the lee of Fort Point, the wind drops and we ghost into a little cove. On the way in, I spot a seal hauled out atop a boulder near the shore. The seal remains on its perch for several hours until the tide finally rolls in and floats it off the rock at dusk. It's unclear to me whether the seal demonstrates great patience or sloth.
Hauled-out seal at Fort Point.