Down East 2013 ©
For the deck crew, the day begins at a more civilized hour. At 7:00 a.m., Andy and Santi crawl out of the their dungeon-like bunks in the fo’c’sle, clamber onto the deck, and start working. They put away the lanterns, rinse the decks with buckets of salt water, and squeegee rainwater from the housetops. After breakfast, the galley crew brings the dirty plates and pans topsides, and the deck crew sets up four washbasins to clean and rinse them.
If a passenger decides to roll up his sleeves and help with the dishes, Andy will challenge him to a game of Rock Paper Scissors. The winner gets the honors of taking the lead position in the washing assembly.
It’s unclear whether Andy genuinely prefers the thankless task of scraping crusty food particles from pans at the head of the line, or if Rock Paper Scissors is some elaborate form of Tom Sawyer-style tricksterism to entice the passengers’ assistance. Lending credence to the latter hypothesis is the fact that Andy has been mired in a month-long losing streak. (Then again, it seems just as difficult to deliberately lose at Rock Paper Scissors than it is to deliberately win.)
Andy’s slump continues this morning, much to the delight of Captain J.R., Santi, and the small group of passengers who have gathered to help out.
Andy dejectedly (triumphantly?) concedes defeat, takes a spot at the tail end of the work gang, and belts out a sea chantey so ribald you’d think the caked-on food scraps would blister away on their own accord.
Pretty fair maid, it's time to give o'er,
For betwixt wind and rapture, you've run me ashore,
For me shot locker's empty; me powder's all spent,
And I can't fire a shot for I'm choked at the vent.
Here's a luck to the girl with the long, curly locks.
Here's a luck to the girl who runs Jack on the rocks.
Here's a luck to the doctor who eased all his pain.
He's squared his main yard; he's a-cruisin' again.
Sea chanteys are a staple aboard some vessels in the windjammer fleet. If you need to keep crews and passengers hauling lines or cranking windlasses in a steady rhythm, there’s nothing more useful than a good old-fashioned chantey to set the pace. (If everyone pulls at the same intervals—if they all heave their backs in unison—the work becomes immeasurably easier.) Aboard the Green Boats, however, chanteys are not a part of the everyday routine.
Nonetheless, Andy has taken it upon himself to learn some chanteys. In some ways, a full repertoire of chanteys is just as important to a schooner bum’s cred as worn-out Carhartts and sharp knives.
It used to be that chanteys were passed down from one sailor to another through oral tradition. In this digital age, however, chanteys are often found through Google searches or other means. Andy, for instance, was gifted a burned CD that he’s tasked himself with memorizing.
I suppose a great number of long-forgotten salts would spin in their watery graves if they knew chanteys were being propagated on the internets, but I personally don’t think there’s any shame in it. A greater shame, of course, would be if there was no interest in chanteys at all. Instead, we should be thankful that a few inquisitive minds are gamming up in chat rooms.
After the dishes are put away, we raise the anchor and motor into the cool, calm, foggy air hanging over Eggemoggin Reach. We leave Little Babson Island to port, the wind picks up, and we raise sail.
When the sails are raised and the halyards are coiled and hung, I perform a little morning ritual of my own: taking aspirin.
Granted, I’m in poor, poor physical condition, but hauling lines is tough work, and my shoulder joints burn with pain each time I help set sail on a windjammer. I could get depressed about this, but, as someone who’s pushing 35, I find some vindication in the fact that—apart from the rare masochist—there’s no such thing as a 30-year-old deckhand. Maybe it’s the shoddy pay, cramped living quarters, and absence of a home life that precludes over-the-hill men and women from mounting the lower rung of the schooner bum strata, but I like to think the blunt physicality of the work has something to do with it, too.
After gulping down two aspirin tablets, I find my niche at the bow. In my previous life as a book editor, I’d been afforded vision benefits par excellence. My faithful optometrist in Rockland had dialed my eyesight to an almost superhuman degree, and my polarized prescription sunglasses now allow me to peer through the foggy glare and identify navigation aids and oncoming boats with acuity that surprises even me. Santi takes bow watch on the starboard side while I keep an eye to port. The visibility is less than 200 feet, the Grace Bailey has no radar, and suddenly it’s no handicap to be a thirty-something ostensible deckhand. For the next two hours, I scan the near horizon, relay any sightings to Captain J.R., and pat myself on the back for a job well done. The crew, too, seems to notice.
After lunch, the fog lightens, the wind drops, and we motor through Merchant Row into East Penobscot Bay. Even if the visibility was still low—even if you were blind — you could still tell the difference between East and West Penobscot Bay simply by the feel of the boat. East Penobscot Bay is more vulnerable to southeasterly swells, and, on some days, the swells can be mildly nauseating. Today, however, the swells are gentle, well-spaced, and pleasant—ample consolation for the lack of wind in our sails.
The sun is out, too, and we are treated to views of sunning seals, rafts of eiders and guillemots, and three wayward puffins.
But soon the sun disappears behind another thick bank of fog. As we approach tonight’s anchorage near the southern tip of Vinalhaven, Captain J.R. gives the order to lower the sails, and Andy puts me on bow watch.
In Captain Irving M. Johnson’s black-and-white documentary, Around Cape Horn, Johnson says, “They always put the dumbest guy on bow watch to crank the fog horn.”
Nevertheless, I’m flattered.
We enter a small cove, drop anchor, and Captain J.R. assembles the passengers for shore trips to the little town of Carvers Harbor.
Just yesterday, Captain J.R. told us that a lobsterman had made him feel unwelcome in Carvers Harbor six years ago, and his memories of the place suggest it’s a rough-and-tumble town. So, as I explore the side streets, I’m anticipating trouble. I feel like a new prison inmate who has to act volatile to prove his mettle, so I spend the better half of my stroll concocting zingers for confrontations that never arise.
“Where do you think you’re going, Nancy Boy.”
“Oh, I’m just looking for your mom’s house. Is it this way?”
Real estate listing on Vinalhaven.
As it turns out, Carvers Harbor is pleasant enough. There are some Wild West elements, but, for the most part, the town’s legendary grit is besotted with well-maintained Victorian homes, white picket fences, and full-bloomed lilac hedges.
On my way back to the yawlboat, I bump into fellow passengers Mary-Beth Sullivan and her brood of teenaged daughters. I ask Mary-Beth — an obstetrician who’s an incongruous mix of a matronly taskmaster and blonde pixie—what she makes of Santi’s web-like tattoos and Andy’s scatological musings.
“I love those guys,” she says.
She goes on to say that she and her husband—a semi-retired vascular surgeon — could take their kids on a staid vacation and “do the Paris thing,” but they prefer a little edge to their travels. They once traveled to Costa Rica—before it was trendy, mind you—and they once stayed at a dude ranch in Wyoming where the cowboys were certifiably nuts.
“We like vacationing with people like Santi and Andy,” she says. “People like them make the vacation.”
It’s true. The Grace Bailey’s deck crew wears what they want and says what they want, but their off-the-cuff style isn’t the least bit off-putting. Instead, Andy and Santi’s demeanor set people at immediate ease. On any another vessel, these two scoundrels might be dressed in matching shirts, or they might be cautioned against speaking their minds, but on the Green Boats, these outsized personalities are free to spill their banks.
In the evening after supper, Andy and Santi sit on the foredeck and quietly listen to reggae on a battery-powered radio. When the sky grows dark over Carvers Harbor, they open the forward-most hatch and descend once again into the dank bowels of the fo’c’sle for a short night’s sleep.
Motoring through thick fog.