Sunday, August 5, 2018

Rock-Paper-Scissors on the Maine Coast

Disclaimer: The schooners are real. The persons and personal interactions depicted here are strictly works of fiction.

The Grace Bailey up close.

        The historic Grace Bailey, eighty feet of white hull, high masts and bright wood cabin tops, glided through the crowded little harbor of Camden, Maine. The two dozen newly-arrived passengers clustered in the forward part of the ship and watched the captain thread the ship through a maze of lobster boats and small sailing craft moored in the channel. They approached another schooner tied to a dock with the exotic name of Angelique, and as they did, the deck crew on the Grace Bailey paused at their tasks to shout greetings to a young woman busy preparing the other schooner for the next sail. Jason, the first mate on our boat, and the young woman on the Angelique launched into a weird dance. They swung one arm up and one arm down three times, then quickly struck poses. Then they would laugh and start again.

       We passengers already knew the girl. Her name was Donna; she had helped our crew load our gear onto the Grace Bailey the night before. Afterward, she and Jason had done the same weird dance on the dock, which turned out to be a full-body version of the child’s game rock-paper-scissors. After about ten minutes of that, they had collapsed in laughter, then headed up the dock to the shops in the harbor.

       This morning, Jason showed up wearing a hand-knit beret, the same one that Donna had on the night before, and now as the boats passed each other they resumed their dance-game until the Angelique was hidden among the boats in the crowded harbor.

       We were outbound on a five-day sail around Penobscot Bay, a large bay on the central Maine coast the includes several groups of islands, with countless coves and inlets to explore. During the days that followed, we crossed open water under strong winds. The bay sparkled, low rocks and small trim lighthouses dotted the shores of the many islands. Beyond the shoreline our eyes soaked in the deep green of solid pine forests, and above it all the open sky. In the evenings we anchored next to secluded beaches or small coastal hamlets, and sometimes at night we would awake to find our little part of the world obscured by a blanket in fog.

Grace Bailey at anchor

       The Grace Bailey was a picture post-card of a Maine Schooner. From a distance the curve of her rail, the two wooden masts and long bow sprit, the cobweb of black standing rigging, woven brown lines, wooden blocks and other unidentifiable gear; all this was instantly recognizable as a boat from another time. The varnish of the low deck houses reflected the sun. Below decks, these provided head room for the various living spaces, but when up on deck they were ideal seats, and there was little above deck to stop the flow of wind or the wander of the eye.

       A one hundred and thirty-year-old heavy wooden working boat is far from luxurious no matter how shiny the woodwork on the top of the deck houses. The accommodations had nothing in common with a cruise ship. Each passenger “cabin” had a space perhaps three feet square to stand, and various bed and bunk configurations tucked under deck areas that often provided little head room. Small toilet compartments were exactly that, toilets. No spacious sink or plugs for the hair dryer. And these were marine toilets, with a pump pedal to pump water into the bowl, and an industrial-sized handle on the side that when pushed back and forth sucked the contents out of the bowl.

Action on the Foredeck
        There was work to be done. Raising and trimming the heavy sails, bringing the four-hundred-pound anchor up to its resting place on the rail, pulling and coiling numerous inch-thick hemp lines: all this was a lot of work, and the help of the guests on board was encouraged and needed. Many passengers often adopted the tasks they thought fit them most: there was always an eager group to join in the above-deck dish-washing line, and several passengers enjoyed taking turns at the bilge pump early in the morning.

       There was plenty of time to just watch the water go by. With two dozen passengers and five crew on this eighty-foot boat, life was up close and personal. There wasn’t much privacy, and with lot of time on our hands, so it didn’t take long for folks to learn about each other’s story. Jason talked openly about how much he loved this life—a young man’s dream of sailing wooden ships in some of America’s most beautiful sailing grounds. When the captain took a break and relinquished the wheel to Jason, his face glowed with pride as he held the wheel easily as the big boat surged across the bay.

       But it was hard work. During the six-month sailing season, Captain Christopher, Jason, and the rest of the crew worked six-and-a-half days a week, with Sunday afternoon and evening the only time off. Everything about sailing the boat was heavy. The cook and his helper spent most of their days below decks in close quarters cooking on the large cast-iron wood-burning stove, which was burning fourteen hours a day. Passengers speculated on what the pay was for this work. The guess was that it wasn’t very much.

       Becky and several of the other women passengers quickly adopted Jason as their surrogate son for the voyage. He shared his dream of finding his own house in Camden, maybe having his own boat to captain one day.

       “So, what’s up with Donna,” one of them asked, playfully snatching the knit cap off Jason’s head. “Nothing,” Jason said sheepishly, grabbing the hat back. “Right,” Becky replied, and everyone rolled their eyes.

Schooners off the Rockland breakwater.

       The Great Schooner Race was on Friday, the sixth of July, and so on Thursday over two dozen classic Maine schooners headed for Gilkey Harbor, a deep inlet in the island of Islesborough in the middle of the Penobscot Bay. This was a big event for the crew: the evening festivities were to include dingy sailing and rowboat races. Throughout the afternoon Captain Chris regaled the passengers with tails of shenanigans from previous years’ gatherings. Jason “turned to” with a natty outfit right out of the turn of the nineteenth century: brown wool trousers, vest, wool sport coat, English driving cap and even a gold watch chain tucked in a vest pocket—impressive costume attire for the rowing race.

       The Grace Bailey was one of the last schooners to arrive at Gilkey Harbor, and by the time we dropped anchor, lowered and secured the sails, and lowered the rowboat from its davits, the dingy sailing race was well under way. Jason and Mike, one of the younger passengers, jumped into the rowboat and headed across the anchorage to join in the action.

       As sunset approached, Jason and Mike returned. After hoisting the rowboat up on the davits, Jason quickly went below and emerged in his daily sailing gear of cutoff t-shirt and well-worn jeans. As the passengers sat around the forward deck-houses and sipped their drinks, Mike told us about the dingy race. Apparently more than rowing was involved; several boats had sacks of muffins on board that they hurled at opponents if they got too close. He and Jason had done pretty well rowing the heavy wooden rowboat, but had been beaten out by a four-person crew from the Victory Chimes. He reported that after the race, he and Jason had gone aboard the Angelique and been treated to cake that Donna had baked in the wood-burning stove. Afterward, she had wanted to row over to the Grace Bailey to visit some more, but the captain had gotten irritated and told her she couldn’t go.

       The next day was a celebration of sale, as two dozen wooden sailing ships made their way toward the start line of the Great Schooner race at Minot Ledge buoy. Off our starboard bow was a beautiful little private yacht, sparkling white hull above the water line, glistening wood gunwales, and clean flat deck uncluttered by the deck houses and other paraphernalia of the big working boats. To the East, the long narrow three-masted Victory Chimes cruised up the channel. The Stephen Taber, small, trim, and the oldest schooner in the Maine Windjammer fleet, was first over the line after the starting gun. And there was the majestic Angelique: deep green hull, white gunwales and deck railings; her light brick colored suit of sails, including topsails in perfect trim as she pointed smartly up into the wind.

       All afternoon the schooners spread across the bay as they plowed toward Rockland in a very stiff breeze. The Grace Bailey churned up a good wake as she sometimes reached over eight knots. It was glorious sailing, although the sailboat racers on board quietly noted that she was in the middle of the field at best, hampered by somewhat tired sails and a staysail that bulged like a bedsheet with a heavy bucket of water sitting in the middle.

       Becky and Jason had one last talk in the lee of the Salon Cabin. He wanted to know how she and Mike had decided to get married. He asked how one decides how to best construct a life. She said she didn’t know a secret; you were presented with choices, and you had to make decisions. Kind of like rock-paper-scissors—you had no assurance what the result would be. You just had to take the path that you thought was best at the time.

       By the time the Grace Bailey anchored in Rockland, the Victory Chimes was at anchor, having snuck over the starting line early, much to the disgust of the racing aficionados. Several schooners were taking advantage of the glorious wind, heeling way over as they tacked back and forth outside the Rockland harbor breakwater. The Grace Bailey had passengers to unload, so she came to anchor, stowed her sails, and the crew lowered the motorized yawl boat to begin the task of ferrying the departing passengers to shore. As Jason stood in the stern of the yawl boat and motored slowly around to the ladder, he saw the Angelique way out by the breakwater, rounding the light on her way Camden. He waved a big slow wave, but she was too far away for us to tell if anyone waved back.

The Schooner Angelique



1 comment:

  1. Great story. When I was a kid my folks chartered a 40 ft yawl. We sailed out of Portland to Boothbay, Tenants Harbor and Camden; then returned to Salem Mass. These days I'm still sailing out of Beverly in the Bristol 29 sloop that my dad bought in 1970. I'll have to consider one of these schooner trips in the future.