Coming of age on the starboard side

Midwinter 2008

By David Roper

My age of innocence ended around midnight one Saturday in the summer of 1969. It happened alongside a cruising yawl named Seaduction. What I inadvertently caused to happen, and what I experienced in a few short minutes, gave me my first real look at the other side of the adult world.

As a teenager I knew kids could be rascals, but I had never experienced any real impurities or waywardness in grownups – except, perhaps, when I was five and my Dad and I discovered that Mr. DeMansi had, without asking, taken the oars to our skiff. I still remember the level of shock I felt about a break in what had previously appeared as a perfectly behaved adult world. But that was minor compared to what happened the summer of my 18th year.

Early in that summer of 1969 I had been awarded my first command – operating a 23-foot yacht club harbor launch, shuttling members and visiting guests to and from their yachts. Being a launch boy was a coveted position, especially in the major yachting center of Marblehead, Mass., a small 17th-century town harboring some 1,500 yachts and five yacht clubs, with a harbor so big and crowded one could almost be anonymous – almost.

By early July, I was assigned my first 3 p.m. to midnight shift. The afternoon and early evening part went well. During the afternoon, I worked in tandem with a veteran launch driver, and the two of us brought most everyone ashore by sunset. After sunset, however, the other launch boy’s shift ended; I would be on my own until midnight. Right around dusk, I was returning from a drop-off of a visiting yachtsman’s family at the head of the harbor when a man from a slowly motoring yawl waved me over. “Do you have a guest mooring for the night?” he asked.

The veteran launch boy had primed me for this moment, especially for what he called “the classic tip-generating response.” I had plenty of moorings available for visitors, as the yacht club’s cruise was ongoing and many boats were away. But regardless, I slowly shook my head, clenched my lips, and gave him the most pessimistic and concerned look I could. “Boy, that’s tough sir – pretty tight. Well, let me think.” That man looked across at me intently, pleadingly. “Well, there may be a mooring way up at the head of the harbor,” I ventured.

“I’ll certainly make it worth your while,” the man said. Bingo!

“Follow me,” I said, and put my launch in gear. Even though I knew where the mooring was, for a little effect I motored around “searching” for one. Finally, I pointed. “There you go sir; you’ll be fine on this one.” He waved me over, and I pulled up along his starboard side. Few things are certain in life, but one was that there was a big tip coming.

“Here you go,” he said, handing me a twenty (a lot of money in 1969!). I was at his service!

“We close at midnight, by the way; in case you want to come ashore, I’m glad to take you.”

“No, we’re fine for the night,” he said. Then the man leaned toward me, and gestured toward his money, now in my hand. “You never saw this boat tonight, OK?” It was then I noticed an attractive women standing in the yawl’s companionway.

“No problem,” I said, and headed back to the yacht club. As I did, I looked back over my shoulder and, in the last moment of dwindling light, could just make out the boat’s name: Seaduction.

From 9 p.m. until about 11:45, all was quiet in the harbor. I sat in the launch shack at the yacht club, monitoring the radio and waiting for any late-night stragglers. Just before midnight, I heard clomping feet, slurred words, and laughter from the gangway behind the shack. It was a group of about eight or nine adults. They walked past the shack and piled into my launch, which was idling with its running lights on. As I climbed aboard, someone from the group said they were from the Blue Jacket, a big powerboat moored at the head of the harbor.

Off we went. A three-quarter moon lit the way pretty well. Still, I tried to concentrate on avoiding empty mooring buoys and pennants despite the distractions of the drunken adults behind me. Snagging a mooring at night with a launch half-full of people would not go down well with my boss. We made it OK, and I pulled up carefully to the starboard side of Blue Jacket. The group climbed out of the launch, amid more laughter, a few thanks, but no tip. Oh, well, I’d done alright that night anyway with the Seaduction guy. That thought got me to wondering: What was happening right now aboard Seaduction?

She was just a few boats over; in fact, without thinking, I must have passed right by her on the way to Blue Jacket. Now that I’m alone, I thought, why not cruise close by and do a bit of snooping on my way in for the night? I altered course a bit and her stern came into view, as well as the shape of two people, clearly locked in a passionate embrace in the cockpit. Close enough, I thought and began to turn. At that moment I felt a tap on my shoulder; my 18-year-old heart entered the lower part of my throat.

“Geeze,” I yelped. And there, standing in the glow of the launch’s stern light, was a woman in a black sweater. She was pointing at the Seaduction.

“Right there,” she said. “Let me out on that boat.” She must have been sitting in the stern behind the other group, waiting to tell me her destination until the others were dropped off. Then she must have seen the Seaduction as I passed and stood up and pointed.

So now the same launch boy who had received a $20 payoff from the man to stay away, was, like a golden retriever bringing back a rabid squirrel to the feet of its master, depositing this woman – the last person on earth the man wanted to see – at his feet. It was all quite awkward.

The man looked at me, then at the woman in the launch. I saw the whites of his eyes despite the darkness. Then, in a stark absolute tone, he said: “Gloria.” It wasn’t “Gloria?” It wasn’t “Gloria!” It was, like the finality of death, just “Gloria.”

“Go below George,” Gloria said, as she climbed aboard Seaduction. The other woman seemed to melt into the far corner of the cockpit. And I? Well, I left the scene. Yes, I left them – all three of them – out there together for the night.

So we’re all left to wonder: Just what did happen on Seaduction after midnight. I’ll never know. Though George does, and so does Gloria. And so does the other woman. As for me, well, it was then past midnight, and I was off the clock. The launch was closed for the night. And the person who was once a launch “boy” headed home, wondering.

Dave Roper, who lives in and sails out of Marblehead, Mass., will be sharing his experiences on the water with us each issue in a column entitled simply, “Dave Roper,” which to all familiar with him should say it all.