Mercantile Day 1: Camden to Brooklin
I'm sitting on a park bench on the edge of Camden's inner harbor. It's a fine spring morning; the kind of day that's difficult to dress for. A t-shirt is too sparse in the breeze, but whenever the wind lies down and the sun feels too oppressive, I take off my foul-weather jacket and drape it over my knee.
In the middle of the inner harbor, Captain Ray's crews scramble atop his three windjammers - the Mercantile, Grace Bailey, and Mistress. On the Mercantile, they're making last-minute preparations for our four-day cruise.
From the quarterdeck of the Mercantile, the deckhand Matt Epperson shouts my name. It's time to go. I pick up my dry bags, and teeter uneasily across the dock floats as I step toward the gangway and onto the ship.
Captain Ray Williamson.
This is the first trip of the season, and all but two of the Mercantile crew is green. Andy's been sailing with Captain Ray for three years, Captain Ray's been sailing schooners since I was in grade school, but this is the first cruise for Matt Epperson the deckhand, Alison Jones the cook, and Holly Takashima the messmate. As such, the departure is a little rough.
Piloting a ship is similar to piloting a jet in that the two most difficult aspects are leaving land and returning to it. Captain Ray's three ships - known collectively as the Green Boats - are rafted together in the middle of Camden's inner harbor; the Mercantile lies at its center. This is an unenviable position. Disembarking the Mercantile from between the other two ships is like extracting lunchmeat from a sandwich without rumpling the bread. It's an all-hands-on-deck situation for the Mercantile, Grace Bailey, and Mistress crews. Plus, once the difficult task of removing the Mercantile is complete, the other two vessels must be rafted together to close the gap. To facilitate this, Camden's harbormaster and another schooner captain have been enlisted in support craft.
Reaching across Penobscot Bay.
The wind, in the meantime, has picked up substantially.
Captain Ray gives the orders, the mooring lines and the gangway are cast off, and Andy throttles up the yawlboat. The Mercantile lurches forward for a few feet then grinds to a stop. The gangway somehow became entangled in the starboard rail and the Mercantile threatens to drag it out to the Bay. Matt springs from the Mercantile onto the dock float and struggles to unfoul the gangway - a substantial length of extruded aluminum—while Andy uses the yawlboat to ease the Mercantile back to her original position.A few minutes later, the gangway is disentangled, and the Mercantile is free to depart. Andy throttles up the yawlboat, and the Mercantile inches forward. When she's almost clear from the raft, a sudden gust of wind blows the Mistress's bowsprit into the Mercantile's aft rigging, and we're fouled again. After a few minutes' struggle, the Mercantile is once again freed and we motor toward the outer harbor. The passengers exchange uneasy looks.
This is my first of twelve cruises and although I've been booked on this trip for over two months, I feel like this day has somehow snuck up on me. It doesn't feel real. In some ways, it feels like leaving home for the first year of college: despite knowing the departure date for months in advance, it's still a total shock when it actually happens. Your head swims in the newness of it, time slows to a crawl, and everything you experience feels like it's happening to someone else. It's like an out-of-body experience.
Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge.
Most of the passengers are needed to raise the schooner's two biggest sails: the mainsail and the foresail. Andy and Matt uncoil the halyards and lead the lines down the length of the deck. The sails are raised one at a time, but each sail requires two teams. Matt and Andy divide the passengers into their respective teams: the peak and the throat.
Matt and Andy give instructions to their respective teams. There are five simple commands: 1) "haul away"; 2) "hold"; 3) "two, six"; 4) "take two steps"; and 5) "drop the line." Most of these commands are self explanatory, but steps 3 and 4 are a little abstruse: when we hear "two, six," we're supposed to yell "heave" and pull the line in unison; when we hear "two steps," we're supposed to walk the line two steps forward.
When Andy and Matt are finished explaining the procedure, I hear Andy call out.
"Ready on the throat?" he says.
"Ready," shouts his team.
"Ready on the peak?" Andy says.
"Ready," shouts our team.
We begin hauling. It seems easy at first, but as the sail lifts higher and the team's energy flags, the work gets harder and harder. I can feel the line biting into my hands and I'm short of breath. When Matt finally asks us to hold, I want to thank him.
The respite, however, is short lived.
"Two, six!" Matt shouts.
"Heave," we say and throw our backs into the line.
"Hold!" Matt yells. "Take two steps forward…and…drop the line."
When the line hits the deck, I straighten my back and look at my hands. My palms are wrinkled and red; I feel like I've been dangling from a short length of barbed wire. I'm struggling for air, too. I probably haven't breathed this heavily since I attended birthing classes with my wife last summer.
With the mainsail up, it's time to raise the foresail. We perform the same drill, and when the foresail is finally set, I feel like I'm going to pass out. I'm in terrible shape; I feel like a cream puff with Palmolive hands.
Sunset off Brooklin.
In the meantime, Andy and Matt are pure spectacle. The Mercantile is heeled way over on her port side, but Andy and Matt never lose their footing. They leap from the deck onto cabin housings into the rigging and back to the deck, and they execute every order with determined speed. Even when Captain Ray's orders seem arbitrary, they attack them with purpose. Andy and Matt are in constant motion and it's exhausting to watch. They're also still barefoot and wearing t-shirts, while the passengers have long since bundled up against the freshening wind.
I'm slowly getting my bearings aboard the ship, and I notice that the staysail halyard needs to be coiled. I decide that this is a chore I can probably handle, so I move unsteadily toward the forepeak. The Mercantile is still heeling quite a bit, so the starboard deck feels more like a steep hilltop than flooring. When I finally reach the halyard, I begin coiling; the line is fighting me every step of the way. Each time I turn the line, the rope twists itself into a figure eight. Nevertheless, I force the line into place and keep coiling. Suddenly I feel the forepeak drop steeply into a trough, the bow collides with an oncoming wave, and I'm sprayed with 46-degree seawater. When I'm done wiping the salt from my eyes, Andy is standing beside me.
The ever-barefoot Andy Gardiner shares some rare downtime with Matt Epperson.
Embarrassed, I uncoil the line and begin recoiling properly. After a few wraps, I feel the forepeak drop into another steep trough. An instant later, I'm literally soaked. My sweatshirt feels 20 pounds heavier, and I'm gasping from the sudden insult of frigid water on my back and chest.
"Holy shit, that's cold!" I yell.
I drop the line at my feet and stumble away from the forepeak toward my cabin. The line can wait; I need warm, dry clothes as soon as possible.
The shock of cold has gotten to me in another way, though. I'm suddenly present in my own body and present on this ship. I'm suddenly aware that, yes, this is how I'll be spending the next four months of my life. Yes, this is my vacation, this is my life, and I am in this moment. I feel laughter rise from deep within and I cackle without a hint of self-consciousness. I'm laughing more freely than I've laughed in months, maybe years. And I continue laughing as I walk the length of the boat, past the quizzical looks of the other passengers, down the companionway ladder, and into my cabin. I laugh until my abdomen hurts. And I keep on laughing.At noon, Captain Ray steers the Mercantile into a downwind run and she settles into flat attitude after a long tack on her ear. In the relative calm, I join the other passengers in the galley for a lunch of fish chowder and salad, then return topsides as we approach the western entrance of Eggemoggin Reach - a long, narrow stretch of water separating Deer Island from the mainland.
As we enter the Reach, the crew trims the sails and the Mercantile heels over again. When the Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge comes into view, Matt calls down to Alison in the galley.
"We're coming up on the bridge," he says.
Alison emerges from the companionway beaming. Alison once lived on a remote island off Stonington, but she's been away from the coast for many years. In some ways, this shakedown cruise is a homecoming for Alison, and her excitement is infectious.
The suspension bridge is indeed striking. It's as if the Manhattan Bridge fell out of the sky and landed in this out-of-the-way stretch of coastal Maine. It's a graceful span of gleaming steel that stands in perfect sympathy with the vast expanses of blue water and sky.
Sunset over the Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge.
As we sail under the bridge, Matt raises a conch shell to his lips and blows a long, bellowing note. This is apparently a ritual of some sort; a bit of showmanship for the crowd of awestruck passengers gathered on deck.
I feel chilled and - despite the fact that Andy and Matt are still running around barefoot - I go below for some hot coffee. Alison cheerily pours me a cup, then turns around to set down the carafe. When she does, she notices that her firewood is floating around in about a foot of water on the port side of the galley floor.
"Huh," she says. "That's an awful lot of water."
She looks to me to validate her concern, but I present a blank, unknowing look. Alison calls up to Andy and Matt and soon the ever-scrambling mate and deckhand drop down the companionway ladder to have a look.
Andy turns to Matt and says, "Run back and tell Captain Ray we're taking on water."
Matt leaps onto the deck and sprints toward the quarterdeck. By the time I climb out of the galley, Matt has already talked to Captain Ray and he's now busy working the lever on the manual bilge pump. Seawater is coursing out of the pump's spout, onto the deck, and through the scuppers back to sea. Moments later, I see Holly carry two pails of water out of the galley hatch and dump them over the rail. I grab another bucket from the forepeak and lower it into the galley on its lanyard. I ask Holly to fill it with bilge water. When it's full, I haul it up, dump the water overboard, and lower the bucket back into the galley again. We repeat this process for about a half hour before it's clear we're keeping ahead of the influx. In the meantime, Matt tirelessly pumps the bilge, moving the lever back and forth like one of those toy barometers that looks like a drinking bird. The captain and passengers are all calm; it's just another minor blip on an otherwise sterling day at sea.
It turns out that the excess bilge water isn't unusual for the first trip of the season. During the long winter, the hull above the waterline tends to dry out, the wood shrinks, and small gaps appear between the planking. Then, during the shakedown cruise when the boat is heeled over for the first time in many months, water leaks into the bilge until the wood swells again and seals out the water.
Nonetheless, I find that I'm truly enjoying my sudden sense of purpose aboard the Mercantile. There's something highly rewarding about playing this minor, yet vital, role. It might be the intellectual equivalent of stacking bricks, but I have a palpable sense that I'm a cog in a larger scheme. I feel like a white blood cell working in unison with others to stave off infection in our host organism. I feel I am suddenly part of a team, part of a whole. If I had no greater purpose than to haul buckets of bilge water for the next three days, I would be at perfect ease.
Lantern light at anchor.
Later in the afternoon, as the winds continue to build, Captain Ray receives a distress call from the Badger - a nearby lobsterboat. The lobsterman had capsized his dinghy shortly after he moored his boat, and his oars were lost. Now he needs a tow back to shore. Captain Ray asks Andy to assist him and I volunteer to tag along in the yawlboat.
By the time we get to the Badger, the lobsterman has finished bailing, and he's now sitting in it waiting to be towed. The lobsterman tosses me the dinghy's painter, and I struggle to tie it to the yawlboat's stern cleat. Andy thankfully intervenes, makes the line fast, and starts towing. I watch the dinghy wobble precipitously in our prop wash as we head toward land.
After we leave the lobsterman ashore, Andy motors the yawlboat back toward the Mercantile. Her bow pounds into the oncoming seas and sheets of water cascade over the gunwales and onto me. For the second time today, I'm drenched and laughing.
I'm still wet when I enter the galley for our dinner of spinach lasagna, garlic bread, and salad. By the time I get there, the tale of Andy's simple good deed has been inflated into an act of true heroism on the high seas, and I, too, am heralded for bravery. Although I did nothing more than botch a knot during the "rescue," I don't disavow this growing fable. The warmth of the galley's woodstove feels good, and so do the accolades.
Full moon rising.
Connie, a passenger from Cincinnati, is ecstatic.
"I booked this trip because I knew it coincided with a full moon," she says.
I take a few pictures, and Connie asks me if they're coming out well.
"No," I say, "but that's kind of how it goes. I took hundreds of pictures today. Two or three might turn out all right."
"Yeah," Connie says, "I had a similar experience when I sailed on the Grace Bailey twenty years ago. I took roll after roll of film, but I only liked two shots. One picture was of the Grace Bailey while she was at anchor; the other picture was of Captain Ray while he was driving the yawlboat. I liked those photos so much I hung them on my wall. I've looked at Captain Ray Williamson every day since."
I suddenly realize that I didn't spend much time with the captain today. I didn't really get a sense of the man other than the fact that his crew seems to admire him. Beyond that, he seemed a little intimidating; a little gruff; a bit of a mystery; an old-school captain.
Tomorrow: Captain Ray