Growing older together

September, 1999

By Dodge Morgan

Man and boat in harmony as rigging and joints squeak in The island home has some characteristics in common with a boat in that it is surrounded by water, has a windward and leeward side and presents an endless list of chores to accomplish. Of course, the island can’t go anywhere, never rocks (in the tactile sense), cares not at all about which wind blows, and takes nearly an hour for a walk around. It occurs to me that the island could be a kind of boat-replacement place for someone growing old or running out of dreams. That scares the shit out of me.

So I find myself sailing old Eagle, 73 years of age now and mine for 31 years, around inside the small circle of the bay. When I am with her, it is one of the few times when I lower the average age of the assembled. We know each other so well, we make few mistakes together and about the only mutual concern is recognizing that we both are older every day and must be watched with care. A boom bale shakes apart in a quiet, purposeful jibe; I take longer than usual to start the jib and foresail and trim down the main when coming up to the mooring. The slights are small, but there seem to be more of them.

The bay is so protected that it is wave-tranquil even in brisk wind. This is a puzzle to both of us because we have so many sea miles of testing each other much more severely and celebrating flying water everywhere. The only sail off shore this summer was when we returned from her winter home in Newcastle to the bay mooring, not more than 40 miles distance total, and all of it in wind too puny. We are beginning to forget what it is to reef down. We seldom find a purpose for our old tried-and-true schooner tactic of, “when confused, let all sail forward fly and hank the main down hard”; she stays into the wind like a vane, makes way slowly straight backward, gives me time to brew a thinking cup of coffee and her time to relax until I come up with an answer. She must feel like a horse retired to pasture, trotting in circles now and again, plenty well fed with tenderness, but curiously kept out of harm’s way so the pulse doesn’t pound with the old challenge. I sit below on her and remember what we have done together and wonder if the memories are enough for either of us.

Wings of Time does not even begin to understand the easy life. She sits at her mooring knowing the time there is just an interlude between explosions of experience. She seems to keep reminding me that she craves the next test, that she is strong enough to carry me through anything and that she is impatient to do it again soon. Occasionally I sail her around this bay. I can almost hear her say to me as we sail back to the mooring, “Hey, what goes here? This is where we started just a minute ago, and I haven’t even shaken my wrinkles out.”

Alone, it takes me about 20 minutes to get Eagle under way and about one minute to get Wings of Time under way. Eagle is a 31-foot-on-deck gaff-headed schooner with eight halyards, six sheets, five sails and enough blocks to hoist herself on a sky hook. All is manual. Wings of Time is over 53 feet on deck, has two active halyards, three sheets, sails that roll out and in, eight powerful winches with four of them electric, and all sail work done in the cockpit; her only foredeck requirement is deploying one of two poles to wing out the jib.

When I was half my present age, I sailed another old, bigger schooner, Coaster, alone damned near around the world. For two and one-half years, I never slept ashore. She was a solid double-hernia rig with no self-steering gear. Even more painful than it was sometimes to sail her, is now realizing how over-civilized I have become with little sails on Eagle and easy passages on Wings of Time. And, then, of course, there is the island. She is here beckoning, a safe place with the illusion of the boat.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives in Portland, Maine and Snow Island.