Ports in Passing

It's easy to remember the nicest people, the best dark-and-stormies and the hippest tiki bars. But our memory banks tend to fail us when it comes to the mundane stuff . . . like where and when.

by Jane Meneely 

The conversation drifted over my shoulder, coming from the booth behind me. "No,
no . . . it was over on Grand Cayman," one man said. "I swear it wasn't," said the other. "It was on that little island off . . . or maybe I'm thinking of that ratty dive down in Belize."

"Yeah. I remember that one too. Great mojitos," the first man said. "No, the one I'm thinking of actually had really awful mojitos. They were strong-they knocked your pants off on the second sip-but they tasted like motor oil."

The two gentlemen, it seemed, were talking about their favorite bars. At least they were trying to. They'd been to them all, or so it seemed. Up and down the Waterway, the Keys, the Bahamas, the Caribbean. They'd cased every joint that had ice and a beer cooler. And they remembered them all distinctly-except for where they were. That seemed to be the case anyway.

"They had these signal flags running all along the ridge post. . . ."
"Yeah, I remember. In Bimini."
"No. No. Staniel Cay."
"Staniel Cay."
I left before the fight broke out.

This is why logbooks and annotated charts are so important. Wise captains keep meticulous records of where the good tiki bars are as often as they circle the sand bars rising in the channel. When is a problem too, and it can get in the way of figuring out the where. How can you look something up in the log if you don't know when it was? That's me all over, a mind is like a steel trap-rusted shut. So many wonderful memories tucked neatly away, and no key.

I'm good with the sensory details. I'll never forget the breakfast spot where we found fresh hush puppies and homemade jam. The waitress wore a uniform and snugged a pencil behind her ear. It was down in Onancock . . . or somewhere up the Choptank, maybe.

And I generally recall the people I meet. I remember one night at a bar where the cutest older fellow in the whole world pulled up a bar stool next to mine and regaled me with tales of his new Cape Dory 28-the powerboat model, set up for cruising. It had a queen-size bunk in the forward cabin, he told me several times, though I can't imagine why. And he loved to motor into tranquil coves and just enjoy the peace and quiet. He had been a sailor. Now he just pushed a button, drove down the channel and got where he was headed without any fanfare or pulled muscles. He entertained me royally until my friend Paul showed up (finally!). Then the old fellow said something about its being past his bedtime, and he trundled out of the place back to his cozy queen. But before he left he gave me a wink and recommended the salmon special, which was fantastic.

After dinner Paul and I walked back to the boat, through some charming town somewhere. Don't ask me which charming town, though. Even Paul doesn't remember-he says it was Rock Hall. I know for sure it wasn't.

You'd think my kids would be better at the remembering game than I. After all, their brains aren't marred by hormonal overkill or too many dark and stormy nights. But they're really no different. Ask them about their favorite cove and they'll zero right in: "We were watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July and Johnny fell through the companionway." But it's a different story if you ask them where we were. "We were anchored off St. Michaels," says one. "Oxford," says the other.

In truth, I think we do it on purpose. Most of us go cruising to relax, to get away from it all. We want to remember the wonderful times we had more than the mundane where and when. It's the contact we have with a place or a person that sits foremost in our mind, not the logbook nitty-gritty. And it's those memories that we pass along over cocktails years later, embellished and polished like hard-won silver trophies.

Who really cares where my bar is-the cute old man is long gone, only the story remains. And if I told you where it was, you wouldn't remember anyway. Besides, Paul would say it was somewhere else. You'll just have to find it yourself. Or better yet, find a different place, with memories of its own.

The Rites of Spring

Nothing says spring like the cough and spit of a newly revived Atomic Four, eh Bubba?

by Jane Meneely

I could scarcely believe the words had come from Paul's own mouth. "Would you repeat that?" I said, steadying myself.

"Sure," Paul said. "I think it would be fun to just go cruising around for the summer. You know, start at one end of the Bay and go all the way to the other."
"That would mean sleeping on the boat," I said. "and we'd be anchored out. A lot."
"I know."
"I thought those were the deal breakers. . . ."

Paul had long ago drawn the line at sleeping aboard my little Petrel. He'd tried it once and failed. The gentle lapping of the waves against the hull (caterwauling, he called it) was not the lullaby I'd said it would be. The easy motion of the boat didn't remind him of a rocking cradle in the least. A roller coaster, yes; a cradle, no. For the last three years he's never hesitated to point out boats that he thought he could sleep on, beginning with the Queen Mary. He thought Petrel was a tad small-by at least 50 feet.

I had already considered the idea of sending little Petrel around the Bay without me, using relay teams. I would invite different people to take her on different legs and meet her when and where I could. My only hesitation was Bubba, my recalcitrant Atomic Four engine. What if Bubba started acting up-or didn't act at all? That being a real possibility, I've stuck pretty close to home, sailing out and back, and always checking the wind direction before I set off. If it was blowing toward the marina, it didn't matter if Bubba started or stopped. I'd put the idea of cruising up and down the Bay on hold.

Meanwhile, spring had sprung. I'd just repainted Petrel's interior. I'd prepped the cabin top for a fresh coat of brightsides-long overdue. And I had enlisted Boatyard Guy in the ongoing effort to placate my temperamental engine. He was busily recommissioning Bubba after the long winter. (Bubba seems to respond better to the experts.) The expert connected the hoses. He changed the oil. He replaced the filters. He stuck the key into the ignition and gave it a practiced twist. Bubba started, then quickly stopped. Boatyard Guy let out a grunt and scrunched back into the impossibly small access way to the engine. He fiddled. He tweaked. He grunted again. I heard a few knocks. A whack or two. More fiddling. One more tweak. His shaggy head appeared in Petrel's companionway, and his greasy paw reached into the cockpit to turn the ignition key again. Bubba sputtered to life.

All well and good, I thought from my position in the cockpit. I waited for the little engine to cough itself out. It didn't.

Boatyard Guy idly drummed his fingers on the cockpit surface as Bubba chugged on. Not a single spit. Not one hiccup. Bubba settled into an obedient unremitting growl.
Boatyard Guy bent back into the cabin and I could hear him packing up tools. "That should do it," he said with a perfunctory nod as he scrambled up on deck. "I replaced the . . . "

He said something, but the words were muffled by his leap to the dock. It didn't matter. Bubba was up and running. Boatyard Guy had successfully done whatever incantation or voodoo that was required to wake Bubba up from his winter's slumber. I just hoped the engine would stay awake long enough for me to get out to the Bay and back a few times.

"It was the spark plug coil," Brother Henry told me later. Brother Henry dropped by the boatyard office just to chat, and the mechanic had happily divulged the latest breakthrough in the Bubba saga. "That explains a lot. You shouldn't have any problem now."

He said the same thing last year when they replaced some other doohickey, but I didn't say that out loud. It might spoil the magic.
"Thanks," I said, crossing my fingers.
"Does that mean we can go sailing up the Bay and back?" Paul asked.
"Sure." I said. "Let's live dangerously."
"Maybe we could replace the fire extinguisher," Paul said.
"Okay. We can live a little less dangerously."
"They have waterfront hotels all over the place, right? We can sail from hotel to hotel, right?" Paul said.
I gave him a peck on the cheek. "I wonder if Bubba prefers hotels, too."

I stuck the new registration stickers on Petrel's bow. "We're in business," I said. "Let the games begin."

The Audacity of Sky

The sky and the stars have led sailors to the ends of the earth and back again. One deep look is enough to hook the most reluctant among us.

by Jane Meneely

I go to the river for peace, for adventure, for waking up in a still small creek, for staring into the forever of the sky. As a river is the source, the sky is the goal. Look how the ocean swells to meet it, pours itself into the lips of the horizon where the sky drinks deep, swallowing the ocean whole and using it to wash the heavens.

Sailors get to see this facet of eternity. They seek it out. I'm not the only one who has felt the sky rain down in splendor, or felt the wash of its warm sun, or been enthralled by the bewilderment of stars. In a line tracing back to Columbus, to the Vikings, to the Phoenicians, mariners all have stood at some time or another, leaning against the rail or shouldered at the mast, just taking in the sea and sky, and feeling the wonder, the power, the enormity of it all. 

And so it was that Paul and I found ourselves alone together in the cockpit of little Petrel looking up at the still night firmament tenting the Rhode River. "You can really see the stars," he said.

"Yes," I answered. They were many, but dim, a meager salting of the night sky compared to other places I've been. "You should see them from a cockpit in the Exumas."

Paul contemplated the vision silently. A smooth breeze brushed our skin. The soft lap of the river idled past our hull. The boats in the anchorage were still.

"We could sail there, right?" Paul said, "The Exumas?"
"We could," I said, crossing my fingers. "There's the Gulf Stream, but then . . ."
"What's this Gulf Stream thing?"

I pretended I didn't hear. Paul didn't need to know about the bump and roll of that warm current. Not yet. The stars winkled down in airy splendor. A bird cut through the night, only its black silhouette visible as it passed overhead. Paul was still gazing happily upward.

"It's like a map," he said. "You kinda want to see where it leads."

He'd taken the bait! That's when I knew that he could see past it all, finally. I knew that, deep down inside, as I'd long suspected, he was one of us. He had tasted that expanse of sky, was savoring it. He was finding it good. My smile felt like the flash of the trumpet section. It would just be a matter of time now before we could pack up and leave.

We looked for Polaris, the North Star, faint as a firefly in the distance and wondered out loud about the first person to note its steadiness in the northern sky. Did he or she remark about it to friends? Did he or she try an experiment-keeping that star always to the windward side of the mast, to see if they'd sail a straight line through the darkened sea? Was it a father who shared that discovery with his son? Or a fisherman who shared the secret with his neighbor? I guessed that sailors were the first astronomers, tapping into the waypoints of the stars to find their path across the wine dark sea.

"No," Paul said, "the first astronomers were sheepherders."
"Scottish shepherds, in fact." He sounded very definite.
"Scottish shepherds," I echoed.
"It was dark in those Scottish highlands, and the shepherds needed to find their way by the starlight to the next hole."
"Watering hole?" I guessed.
Paul looked at me darkly. "You're hopeless," he said. "And suppose they knew where the next hole was, but they were still looking for their ball?"
It always comes back to golf for Paul. Maybe I should have been more sympathetic. I gave a harrumph and fixed my eyes above me. I could hear Paul snigger.

"We can just sleep here in the cockpit tonight, can't we?" Paul said finally. This from the man who likes hotels, who swore he'd never sleep on a boat.
"We can." I saw again the glimmer of hope.
"A lot of those Bahamian hotels have golf courses, right?" The concept was enough to make him consider the long voyage and reconsider the teak.
When we got back to the dock the next day, he eyed the teak critically. "We'll want this cleaned up before we sail to the Bahamas," he said.
"It's all yours."

He studied it for a moment. "What would Odysseus do?" he asked. "Oil or Cetol?"