The End of Season and Series
I didn’t sail much in July. When I disembarked the Lewis R. French on July 5th, I wouldn’t sail again until boarding the Angelique in early August. During that long month ashore, I spent most of my time writing; getting caught up on the six trips I’d already taken.
As a writer, I’m most productive in the wee hours, and, on some occasions, those productive hours extend well past sunrise and into a new day. One foggy morning in mid-July, for instance, I finished a story in the midst of civil twilight and, feeling a bit punchy, I took a walk along Rockland’s inner harbor. When I reached the Public Landing, I borrowed a friend’s dinghy and rowed away from the dock to an unknown destination.
Throughout the sailing season (and particularly during its early days), my fellow passengers frequently asked me three questions:
- Which windjammer is best?
- Are you sick of lobster?
- Do you think you’ll ever tire of sailing?
I’d addressed the first two questions in the early days of this blog, but there was really no good reason to delay my answer to the third. On that early morning in mid-July, I found myself mindlessly rowing toward North End Shipyard — as if I’d been unwittingly caught in the uptake of its railway winch. When I arrived, I could think of nothing better to do than row circles alongside the Heritage at her dock. I was like a heartsick boy walking aimlessly past the home of his schoolyard crush, and I knew at that very moment I’d never grow tired of windjamming.
The season is over now. All the vessels in the Maine windjammer fleet have been stripped of their sails and covered in plastic. The boats now look no different than they did last April at the onset of this project.
When I started this blog, I had a simple aim. I wanted to know if working aboard a windjammer was as fun as it appeared to be. Was it worthwhile to sacrifice the steady income and benefits of a full-time job ashore? Was it worthwhile to sacrifice a home life or time spent with friends and family?
The answer — if it wasn’t made emphatic long ago — is yes. Trip after trip I met schooner bums who’d made all those sacrifices, who’d lived in cramped quarters, who’d daily performed menial — sometimes unpleasant — tasks, and nearly all offered ringing endorsements for this life on the Bay.
Covering the Green Boats.
If I’d had any doubts, however, I was given an opportunity to learn this for myself. In mid-September, Captain Garth Wells asked me to serve as a deckhand aboard the Lewis R. French for a single, late-season trip. I accepted his offer, and for four days I cleaned heads, polished brass, and wore a knife upon my hip.
My deckhand stint aboard the Lewis R. French is a story unto itself (and — if fortune shines on me — it’ll be told in a book version of this blog), but suffice it to say I agree with the schooner bums’ assessment.
In my previous life, I was a book editor. I’d begin projects with a pile of manuscript pages, and I’d turn those pages one by one while making pencil marks in the margins. Over the course of weeks or months, the stack of pages would slowly dwindle; my daily progress — at least in a physical sense — was measured in millimeters, and the days themselves would blend into a drab monochromatic continuum. The nature of my work was somewhat unusual, too. If I was doing my job correctly, there would be no trace of my presence. In the editorial realm, good work is invisible.
The life of a deckhand, of course, is very different. Yes, there are daily routines, but the view changes constantly, and each day is memorable. (After a season of fifty-four sailing days and 1,100 miles, I can still recall how each day was spent, what the weather was like, and where we’d anchored.) But the sailing itself is where job satisfaction is truly found. Unlike the existential quagmire of office life, the work aboard a windjammer is like Newton’s Third Law writ large: for every line you pull, there is a thrilling and gratifying reaction.
On Saturday, October 18, the schooner bums gathered around a bonfire at Seven Tree Farm in Union, Maine. The “End-of-Season Pig Roast”—an event organized by the Green Boats — was in full swing under a cold, moonlit sky. Throughout the evening, the schooner bums voiced uncertainty about the winter months — where they would work and live — but, for the vast majority, it is a short-term problem. Next April, they’ll return to the harbors in Camden and Rockport and Rockland, and the cycle will begin anew.
For me, however, it’s over. It’s time to return to the home and family life I’d chosen long ago — good decisions that nonetheless preclude me from ever joining the windjammer fleet. Perhaps someday I’ll be overtaken by midlife crisis, trade in my office-casual clothes for a sturdy pair of Carhartts, and become the oldest-living deckhand to sail the Bay, but chances are good I’ll never again spend another full season at sea.
Already, there are reminders of what I’ve left behind: When my hands come in contact with pen and paper, I invariably sketch the bold lines of schooners. When I go to the grocery store, I inevitably veer off the main drag and drive past North End Shipyard where the masts of three schooners peek above rooftops. And sometimes, when I sleep, the schooners of the Maine fleet displace all other subconscious thoughts and plow to the forefront of my dreaming mind. Those dreams — like the rhythms of ocean swells trapped in shore-bound bones — linger well past sunrise and into a new day. Those dreams — like dreams visited by dearly departed—are both heartbreaking and kind.
Special thanks to Meg Maiden at the Maine Windjammer Association for coordinating my sailing schedule; to all the captains, crews, and administrators for tolerating my questions, camera, and presence; to Captain Garth Wells and Jenny Tobin for trusting me with a knife, bristle brush, and other dangerous implements during my short gig aboard the Lewis R. French; to schooner bums-in-recovery Tig Prendergast and Alex Fee for their insights from the outside; to reader Bridget Rolfe for calling me on my frequent omissions and shortcomings; to the employees of International Marine Books—both current and estranged—for their infinite patience and fine products; to the writers whose books and articles I researched; to my wife Jennifer and son Otis for forgiving my many, many absences; to my families of both birth and marriage for diapering Otis on the days when I couldn’t; to John Viehman and Down East Enterprises for trusting a rookie with such an enormous undertaking; to Bill Kelly and Matt Burgess at Down East for dealing with the deluge of windjammer photos, videos, and Word documents I sent their way; and, most of all, to my editor, Lorie Costigan, who always knew precisely when to give me a swift kick in the ass. A thousand thanks to you, dear Lorie.
Mary Day, Lewis R. French, and Angelique laid up for the winter.