Down East 2013 ©
If Captain Brenda Thomas were a public figure she’d have gotten a lot of ink during the past year; checkout aisles from coast to coast would be littered with tabloids bearing her beaming image, and her publicist would log long hours on the telephone confirming or denying scurrilous details of the whirlwind romance with her new beau.
But Captain Brenda is not a celebrity; she toils in relative anonymity aboard the Isaac H. Evans and, thus, handles bloodthirsty members of the press single-handedly.
When I first met Captain Brenda last April, I stepped aboard her vessel amid the chaos of spring maintenance, interrupted her during a fit of orbital sanding, and asked a few simple questions about her hiring practices. Within 15 minutes, Brenda had divulged a beard-strokingly delicious scoop: Every member of her crew was new to sailing; the scope of this year’s fit-out projects threatened to delay her shakedown cruise; and she would soon marry Brian Thomas—an out-of-state landlubber she’d met on the Internet just 8 months earlier.
Isaac H Evans anchored in Stonington.
A publicist, I’m certain, would’ve woven a vastly different story of half-truths and spin, but Captain Brenda Thomas (née Brenda Walker) doesn’t roll that way. She’s a self-discloser of the highest order. If she ever cuts down a cherry tree, she’ll not only confess to it, she’ll submit the hatchet as Exhibit A. In a world where George Washingtons have given way to George Walkers, this captain’s honesty is not merely shocking—it’s apoplectic. Her trustworthiness verges on canonic.
If Captain Brenda’s propensity for self-disclosure is still in doubt, consider this. Yesterday, after leaving the Isaac H. Evans’s home berth in Rockland, Captain Brenda posted a news item on a dry-erase board near the helm: “One year ago today, eHarmony [a dating website] matched Brian and Brenda.”
A few months after that initial digital encounter, Brian quit his job as an auto parts distributor, packed his belongings, and moved from New Jersey to be with his new flame.
Today in Bucks Harbor, Brian stands on the foredeck cranking the windlass alongside some able-bodied passengers. He now serves as the Evans’s mate.
A mate’s job—apart from setting sail, swabbing decks, cleaning heads, etc.—is to anticipate and prepare for the captain’s next move. As a mate gains understanding of his captain, the two sailors increasingly live in unspoken symbiosis. (Think: Radar in M.A.S.H.) Yet this intertwined relationship doesn’t require personal similarities. In fact, when it comes to captains and their mates, opposites often attract. For instance: the no-nonsense Captain Ray Williamson is accompanied by the joker Andy Gardiner; the speed-talking Captain Doug Lee is accompanied by the stoic Adam McKinlay; and, in past seasons, the laid-back Captain Mike McHenry played straight man to the comic stylings of garrulous Dennis Gallant. Each member of these two-person teams complements the others’ strengths and weaknesses until they form a cohesive unit that can tackle everyday stresses with aplomb.
Sounds a bit like marriage, eh?
Under scrutiny, however, the parallels between mates and spouses begin to diverge (and I’m not talking strictly of carnality [though the members of the above list will surely thank me for drawing the distinction]). First, any two souls with twinkling eyes can get hitched; however, a mate generally toils as a deckhand for many seasons before earning his position at the captain’s side. Second, spouses in a modern marriage are equals; however, in the boating world, a captain’s word is law. If a mate fails in his duties, the captain has every right to issue a spectacular tirade. If, however, the same tone and tenor of argument were employed in marriage, the clamor would surely prod a concerned neighbor to phone the authorities.
Aboard the Isaac H. Evans, the captain and her mate straddle this fine line. Each has one foot planted in the terra incognita of matrimony and one in the practical matters of windjamming. Their relationship is reminiscent of the old Looney Tunes shorts where the affably paired coyote and sheepdog punch a time clock in the morning, battle for hours over a herd of sheep, then return to affability at the end of the business day.
Our cosumted hosts.
The deck crew aboard the Isaac H. Evans has just punched in and things aren’t going well. When Brian breaks the anchor free from the muddy seafloor, a moment’s distraction causes the chain to foul and the windlass to stop—a common mishap aboard windjammers. The Evans now sails toward the mouth of the harbor with the anchor dangling well below the surface. If we sail over shallow water, the anchor will set itself and the Evans will snap to a sudden halt. As Brian and the messmate feverishly attempt to unfoul the chain, the captain’s displeasure is made resoundingly clear.
After a few moments of high suspense, the deck crew frees the chain and lashes the anchor to the port rail.
Brian is new to this complicated game of sailing, but his skills have progressed in step with the passing season. In May, Brian began with a checklist of duties, but with each passing day those duties have become more ingrained—more like second nature. And, while facing such a steep learning curve, Brian has buoyed his spirits with a simple, time-tested mantra: “One day at a time.”
Brian hasn’t yet reached the point where he can anticipate his captain’s every move, but he has developed a skill that helps complete the symbiosis: he can roll with the punches. Each time his captain restates her expectations—now matter how pointedly—Brian keeps a stiff upper lip. While many would wilt under such impassioned tutelage, Brian shakes it off. He’s like a racecar driver who emerges unscathed from a fiery wreck and flashes a reassuring thumbs-up to the shaken spectators in the stands.
Not long after leaving Bucks Harbor, Captain Brenda and Brian share a good laugh over the anchor incident and harmony is restored to East Penobscot Bay.
Pirates prepare lobster.
In the afternoon, we drop anchor in Stonington Harbor for a brief shore trip, then sail into Merchants Row. After kindly ensuring that none of her repeat passengers have ever been to Russ Island before, Captain Brenda puts us ashore for a lobster bake.
The cook Ria Cornwell has salted the island with pirate-themed tchotchkes; the kids hunt them down while the adults mingle amid the hors d’oeuvres spread before us on the rocky shore.
Aboard the Evans, the captain and mate procure the last of the lobster bake supplies. When they arrive on Russ Island by yawlboat, they’re dressed in full pirate regalia: she in a frilly blouse, tattered breeches, flowing cloak, and tri-cornered hat; he in a doublet and cocked hat. The passengers applaud.
In the diminishing evening light of this peaceful setting, it seems as though the captain and mate have punched out for the day. There’s plenty of work left to be done, but as the lobsters and corn are cheerily distributed and our cups generously filled with sparkling wine, it’s clear from their enamored gazes that this party is hosted by newlyweds.
View from the campfire