It was all hands on deck-even the blistered ones-aboard the Pride of Baltimore II in last year’s Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race.
It occurred to me that I might faint. Watching my only son climb the rigging onboard the Pride of Baltimore II as we sailed for Norfolk was so overwhelming I was afraid I’d swoon like a B movie diva and hit the deck hard. And if that happened, my son would be mortified, undoubtedly scarred for life. But this was a test for both of us. I looked away as Stewart scampered up the rigging after the crew to furl the main course. And I didn’t faint.
We were headed south full tilt, hoping to whip every other boat in the schooner fleet during the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race last October. Sixteen-year-old Stewart had grudgingly agreed to participate in what I at his age could only have dreamed about-there was no Pride of Baltimore then. But he’d gotten over the grumps and bent to with a will that was a joy to behold-well, except when he scurried up the mast. You see, I’m deathly afraid of heights. Deathly, knee-knockingly afraid of heights. Just looking at the masthead of a ship like the Pride gives me the willies. God forbid I should look up and see my baby perched there like he’s leaning against a corner lamppost. No matter, I told myself, studiously peering at the compass in front of me and keeping my hands hard on the helm. This was why I’d wanted him to come.
When Stewart was born, his father and I had promised him to Jan Miles, one of the Pride’s co-captains and a friend of mine from high school days. Jan could have him for a year, we’d said, before he goes off to college. Naturally, Stewart grew up detesting everything about traditional tall ships. He liked the mechanical advantage of winches, for starters, and he thrived on the fumes and roar of internal combustion. Sailing on the Pride of Baltimore, he announced as high school graduation approached, was for the birds. I tried to convince him that our signing aboard the Pride for the Great Schooner Race was the chance of a lifetime, but he didn’t believe me. He said he’d rather go to school; that missing his calculus test would be an unspeakable hardship; that considering what his father and I pay for tuition it was criminal to even suggest that he miss a few days (I’ll admit, this last argument was pretty convincing). But I played the Mom card and signed him up anyway. It was only four days, not a whole year, I said, and if he really didn’t like it, that would be the end of it. He could join the rat race like everyone else.
And so his father (who gets mortifyingly seasick and thus had begged off ) tumbled him onto the deck of the Pride of Baltimore way too early on the morning of the race. And Stewart sputtered and spit and fumed and generally poisoned the air around him: a child’s revenge, masterfully delivered (no slouch he). And I actually wondered if I’d made a mistake in “forcing” him to come along. So began our voyage together.
My voyage had actually begun the day before, on Wednesday afternoon. Probably half the fun of the schooner race is the Parade of Sail and the dock party in Baltimore, so I arrived in time to climb aboard the Pride with the full contingent of the A.G. Edwards Baltimore office, Pride’s guests for the parade. (The Pride offices are in Baltimore’s World Trade Center and had been doused into oblivion by Hurricane Isabel. A.G. Edwards, a financial consulting firm, had graciously offered temporary office space, and now the ship was saying thank you.)
Unfortunately the wind was too blustery, so the Parade of Sail was cancelled. But Captain Jan set out anyway. After all, a boat like the Pride is built for wind. Whitecaps sparkled across the Inner Harbor. A bright sun slanted from behind Fort McHenry. The sky was a deep cobalt blue, with just a smudge or two of clouds. We motored past Fells Point and the crew wrestled the ship’s cannon into the gun port. “Fire in the hole!” We plugged our ears as a geyser of flame and sparks shot from what is, literally, a hole in the back end of the cannon. Then, kaboom! We’d just put a shot into the Spirit of Massachusetts’s bow-figuratively, of course. She was the Pride’s main competition in this race, and she’d been put on notice.
With such a breeze, the boat hardly needed sails to move through the water. The wind was abeam full bore as we slid past the green ramparts of Fort McHenry. I looked behind me and tried to imagine Baltimore’s harbor without the tall buildings, without the wharves stretching along the shoreline below the fort. I tried to picture the time when Fort McHenry stood at the harbor’s gate and effectively controlled the shipping up and down the Patapsco River. If I squinted just a little to make things fuzzy and out of focus, I could turn the slope rising from the Canton wharves into a hill of small houses where the laborers for the Fells Point shipyards lived. What a view they must have had from their dormer windows.
The crew had put up the jib and it was enough to pull us toward the Key Bridge. A tanker was coming in from the Bay, and the tugboat Maria Krause idled nearby in the channel. Now that we were at the bridge and looking back at Baltimore, the town seemed smaller, more to scale with my imagination. Steeples poked into the sky. The downtown skyscrapers were hidden.
Our afternoon sail done, the crew retired to the party held beneath Bohager’s giant canopy in Fells Point. A crowd of schooner crew, captains, support staff, assorted significant others and hungry strays had gathered here to eat great quantities of food and drink prodigious amounts of beer. To gain admittance, I was told, I had to wear my official Schooner Race shirt, a long-sleeved affair with a John Barber schooner scene printed on the front. It was cold enough, though, that I was wearing a sweatshirt over it, so coming through Bohager’s door, I was told to peel. Mind you, I hadn’t had any amount of beer yet, prodigious or otherwise, but-transported back to the days of my wayward youth-I felt highly flattered. It had been a long time since anyone had asked me to peel, and I said so. It was like being carded-at my age (a squinch past 50), always a compliment. Turns out they only meant that I had to lift up my sweatshirt so they could verify the shirt. Oh well, you take what you can get.
Sidling up to the bar, I ran into Bill Oliver, once a partner in the nefarious China Sea Marine Trading Company, formerly of Fells Point (where the Fells Point Maritime Museum is now), and now brewer of Oliver’s Ale and proprietor of the Wharf Rat pubs. Not surprisingly, the biggest spigot behind the bar tapped into a keg of his special Ironman Pale Ale. This was a good thing, because Oliver’s Ale is like mother’s milk. You’ve just gotta have it in order to live right. And tonight it was flowing free for the asking. It took me a while to get my first swallow-I wasn’t the only one in line.
Then I was on stage singing with Ship’s Company chanteyman Jim Rockwell (sea music, of course) and the evening took off. More music, more food. And finally the crowd broke up and we walked over to Lane Briggs’s tugantine, Norfolk Rebel, at the Broad Street pier and sang some more. A lot more. Then the sun came up and we staggered back to our boats, some to sleep it off, some to be greeted by surly teenage sons.
Breakfast this morning was a simple meal of strawberries and bagels. Laura Morrissey, the cook, was already about, and I’d offered to help out in the galley. One of my fantasies is to be cook aboard a tall ship. I wouldn’t mind being a deckhand, but hauling on halyards and braces and sheets in the wee hours of the morning could get tedious. And truth be known, I couldn’t, just couldn’t, climb the rigging. The heights thing. Cooks, on the other hand, get to work “normal” hours and aren’t expected to go clambering around on deck unless they particularly want to. At least that’s the drill aboard Pride, according to Laura, who was now supervising me as I put away groceries and generally made myself useful. I was trying to stay as far away from Stewart as possible. Let him fester.
Stewart and I weren’t the only guests onboard. The Pride keeps several guest cabins open for thems that are willing to pony up for the privilege of sailing the ship from here to there-generally speaking, the short legs between two ports of call on the Pride’s hectic agenda. The price of the guest ticket pays for room and board and chucks a little into the boat’s operating coffers. In return, guests are expected to join the crew and work their butts off before the mast. Fun, eh? For the schooner race, Stewart and I were joined by John MacIver and Mac MacIver (fast friends, but no relation), and Ron Shurie and John Menocal. All of them had sailed the Pride in the schooner race before. Nothing to it, they said. Gluttons for punishment, I thought.
As the Pride headed out to the starting line, Laura told me I could make the soup for lunch. Nothing to it! She had what I needed for five-finger lentil stew: an ingredient and a cup of liquid for each digit. In this case, one carrot, one onion, one celery stalk, one bay leaf, one cup of lentils and five cups of water. Saute the dry ingredients for a few minutes before adding the water, then. . . . Oops, I didn’t get it started early enough, so it was a bit chewy at eight bells. (Way to go, Mom.) But the crew was very kind-those that weren’t related to me, anyway. They made their own sandwiches, adding diplomatically that under cooked was usually better than burnt, and it would save Laura the trouble of making soup tomorrow.
I joined the port watch, with Stewart, to work the boat. Even though I was the cook’s helper, I wanted to work the deck when I could. Laura gave me an alarmed look. It’s a slippery slope, said she. Help them once, they’ll come to expect it. But I reminded her that I was here for the fun and the experience, so I wanted to help sometimes. We’ll see, she said ominously. Stewart’s surliness had washed off, thankfully, and he was jumping into the fray, hauling on lines and generally looking lively. I found it a lot easier to stay out of the way and watch, especially after I ripped off half my finger hauling on a wayward halyard. But alas, Laura was right. I was soon perceived as one of the grunts and put to learning the ropes with the rest of the “guests.” I could hear Captain Jan snigger from the helm.
It was like this: Three or four of us picked up a line about half the thickness of my wrist. When the mate (or whoever) yelled haul, we all hauled. Or maybe we yelled haul ourselves to get a rhythm going. Or maybe nobody yelled haul and we just bloody well hauled anyway. For all we were worth. And when we thought we’d hauled enough, the mate yelled haul again, and we bloody well hauled again. And so on, until someone said, “That’s well,” and we could make the line fast. I had blisters before we even got the damn sail up. Before my nervous system could even register the news, the blisters ripped open and any remaining surface skin abraded away. I was a hurting puppy. (Stewart had brought his sailing gloves, smarty-pants.)
It dawned on me that this was not going to be a Sunday sail. The Pride actually needed every muscle the crew could muster. There was a brisk wind, and it was on the nose from Norfolk. We would have to tack over the starting line, then beat down the Bay. So it was all hands on deck, just like in the songs I like to sing. And just because I gouged a big hole in my index finger at the get-go didn’t mean I could weenie out. Jan knew me too well for that. Cook’s helper, hah! I cradled my wound with a moleskin doughnut and wrapped it with black electrical tape. My black badge of courage. I was a real deckhand now. It was like having a tattoo. If only I’d had a knife strapped on my belt.
I headed down below to wash up the pots and pans in the short stints between tacks, but I ran up on deck at the “Ready about!” to haul on lines. And I reminded myself that I’d withstood the rigors of childbirth twice, so a dinky little blister wasn’t going to get me down. Besides, how long could it possibly take us to get to Norfolk? Were we there yet? The warning gun went off-five minutes to start-and all hell broke loose aboard the Pride.
I’ve known Jan Miles for most of my life. In fact, he was my first crush. I met him when we were both in high school. He’d just returned from his first major ocean voyage-to Tierra del Fuego and back-and he carried the swell of the ocean like a sea chest slung across his shoulders. My mother said a girl could go anywhere with Jan. And I thought, first Tierra del Fuego, then . . . My crush went the way of Clearasil, but Jan went on to crew and captain some of the finest tall ships in America. He’s one of the most laid-back people you could ever know. Years of sailing tall ships has honed his instincts and built a rock-solid confidence. But out there at the start of the schooner race, a change came over my mild-mannered friend. When that warning gun fired and all the schooners pirouetted into position, his eyes blazed, his cheeks flushed and he became absolutely focused on the task at hand. “All right, you sons of whores, get that jib in!” he bellowed (he’s a big guy, and can he ever bellow). And we sons of whores hopped to and tried with all our might-which, in this instance, wasn’t quite enough-to get that jib in. And Captain Jan noted our efforts and allowed as how we were a bunch of lily-livered lumps of lard-or words to that effect-and we did our damnedest to show him that by golly we weren’t. And so it went as the Pride flew across the starting line and the race began with the final bang of the starting gun. This was to be no sedate around-the-buoys affair. This race would be won on the windward leg (aren’t they all?), but with the wind screaming from the south, it would be a long windward leg. And Captain Jan suggested that this pack of puckered prunes had better shape up and get with the program. Which meant getting the blinking jib in when the captain said “in.” Or else. At the rate we were going, if the British had been on our tail instead of the Spirit of Massachusetts, we’d have been toast. But we got better, and by the seventh or eighth tack, we’d gotten a lot better, and the mild-mannered Jan Miles came back and we were making good time. At least, at this point, there weren’t any other schooners nearby, so the competition wasn’t exactly lapping up our bow waves. And the Spirit of Massachusetts had fallen behind.
It’s hard work tacking a topsail schooner. At the moment, running down the Western Shore opposite the mouth of the Choptank River, we had eight sails up: the jib topsail, jib, fore-staysail, foresail, fore topsail, topgallant, mainsail and main gaff-topsail. And they all needed some kind of major adjustment at every tack-releasing sheets, taking in sheets, slacking braces, tightening braces. The only sail we didn’t have to manhandle was the mainsail, which behaved like any proper mainsail and obediently tacked itself. The only sails that weren’t up were the studding sails (stunsails) and the ring tail. But stay tuned. At this very moment one of the studding sails was being checked and patched and readied for rigging in the event the wind came around and we could bear off. The ring tail, I was told, wasn’t worth the bother. Too much work for too little oomph. And oomph counted for a lot in this race.
Night came on with winks and nods, like a fawning deckhand unsure just where to go. The sun blazed down, leaving a puff of color in the crease between land and water. The stars switched on against the dark of the sky. No moon yet. Stewart and I sat companionably on the deckhouse, breathing it all in. He’d worked the kinks out of his system and was ready to acknowledge that I was a fellow traveler. (This is pretty cool, Mom.) I showed him how to find Polaris, the North Star, and we monitored our progress through time by the turn of the other stars around it, and we checked our progress down the Bay by the way it hung astern. The half moon rose like a golden whale’s eye, defining the leviathan sky. We were moving along at eight knots, creaming through the water. There was no phosphorus, but the bow waves spilled away like milk, and moonlight paved the Bay with golden flagstones leading east. It was dark on deck. Even in the glimmer of moonlight, it was hard to see underfoot. It was easy to trip on lines and tackle that in daylight are relatively benign but at night behaved like rambunctious puppies nipping at our heels. At midnight Stewart and I were off watch and the boat had just slipped below the Patuxent River.
We were awakened at 5:30 a.m. to get the studding sail up. The wind had dropped and we were ghosting along on a whisper. Two of the crew were already up on the course yard setting the studding sail boom-running it out from where it normally lies against the yardarm. Moonlight poured down behind them, silhouetting them in a golden haze. The studding sail sat on the foredeck; someone had already carried it up from below. We rigged the halyard and the sheets and hoisted the spar up to the windward yardarm. Sail set, we could go back to our bunks. It was close to 7 a.m. now, and Friday morning was easing up on one elbow with a smudge of cheap rouge smeared across her cheeks. She, like me, had been too long at the fair. Laura was up, though, so I hastily brushed my teeth, washed my face, took off my woolie underwear, smeared on another layer of deodorant and grabbed a cup of coffee.
We were back on deck at 8 a.m. and down came the studding sail-gravity helped. And morning came to the Chesapeake. We could see Gwynn’s Island and Wolf Trap Light, which put us well below the Potomac. And there was no wind to speak of. The morning doldrums had us ambling along with plenty of time to look around and see-no one! We were as solitary on this Bay as Wolf Trap.
The finish was an imaginary line extending east from Thimble Shoal. The wind had picked up and Jan gave me the helm to take the boat across. I was honored. I could feel the boat surging under my hands. The helm was surprising. When the boat was balanced, she sailed a straight line, and for a moment or two I thought that Jan had switched on the autopilot and only pretended to give me the wheel. She didn’t deviate a hair from her compass course. But then we crossed the finish line and Jan told me to bear off, and I stayed on the helm as we tacked and began to work our way west. Full and by, Jan said. Just sail her. And I felt the wind across my cheek and looked at the sails, and I turned the wheel and the boat responded. To me! It doesn’t get any better than this. And then Stewart went up the rigging to furl something and I thought I was going to faint.
The race was over and Jan did some quick calculations. In 21:20 hours we raced a total of 139 nautical miles, at an average speed of 6.53 knots on a rhumb line of 127 miles. We hauled 12 long tons per person. (No wonder I was stiff.) We finished at 10:59:58 a.m. First in class. The Spirit of Massachusetts couldn’t touch us.
Stewart was back on deck and I asked him if sailing tall ships might be in his future. No way, Mom. Yes, he’d remember this sail for as long as he lives. But think about it, said he: He’s spent every minute of his waking life trying to invent his way to easy street. Without getting out of bed, he can turn on his bedroom light, switch on his radio, adjust the window fan, even close his door, using clever labor-saving devices of his own design. He understands the concept of mechanical advantage. Sail a traditional tall ship without winches? Why?
He is my son with whom I am well pleased, and I told him so. When he grows up (sometime next week) he’ll build fast engines for race cars, or maybe engineer the breakthrough for a mainstream hydrogen fuel cell. His house will be wired with buttons and switches that make things open, shut or turn off. Exerting minimum effort he will effect maximum change. If it weren’t for brains like his, we’d all be sailing tall ships-and not for the fun of it. Meanwhile, we headed for the party: roasted pig, awards, more singing. Then home to study calculus.