In sheep’s clothing

I walked from the shore to the site of our picnic; sure enough, there was a dirty, shaggy, totally disreputable-looking sheep standing with his head buried in our huge bowl of fresh fruit salad, and quite a crowd standing back watching him. Photo courtesy Paul DeOrsay

Winter 2023

By Paul DeOrsay
For Points East

Jan de Hartog, in his wonderful book “A Sailor’s Life,” uses the term “Skipper next to God” to describe the unique authority and mystique bestowed upon the captain of a ship. Nearly 50 years ago, at a tender age, I was the captain of the schooner Mattie and discovered that my ultimate authority included not only seamanship and safety, but also a realm far beyond my experience or expectation.

The Mattie, a venerable coasting schooner built in 1882, was engaged in the Windjammer Cruise trade out of Camden, Maine. Every Sunday evening, our crew of five welcomed aboard some two dozen guests who would be our shipmates for the coming week as we cruised Penobscot Bay and the mid-coast. A high point of each week was the lobster dinner, cooked over an open fire on the shores of an uninhabited island.

On this particular week, we were staging our picnic on Scott Island, just off Deer Isle. Getting 30 people, food and cooking gear ashore for dinner resembles an amphibious landing, and I had been shuttling folks from schooner to shore while the cook and her assistant got the fire started and made ready for serving. After the last group got ashore, first mate Ted took the yawl boat back to the schooner, and I started up from the shore to join the party.

“Captain, Captain, come quick!”

Not words I ever wanted to hear. I scrambled up the granite ledges toward the group, rehearsing my first aid training and pondering how I would execute a medevac in our peapod. Then came the details: “There’s a sheep eating our dinner.”

Full stop. In all of my years on the water, I was mentally asking myself, “what if…” trying to prepare myself to cope with rig failures, fog, squalls, men overboard, engine breakdowns, dragging anchors and so forth – a gluttonous sheep had not once occurred to me. My experience with livestock was zero, but I was the captain. If anyone else knew what to do, they would have done it. This was clearly my responsibility; ignorance of bovid behavior is no excuse.

My first thought: delegate! “Well, shoo him away,” I hollered.

“We tried that; he’s still here.”

Rats! Back to me. Racking my brain for ideas, I walked from the shore to the site of our picnic; sure enough, there was a dirty, shaggy, totally disreputable-looking sheep standing with his head buried in our huge bowl of fresh fruit salad and quite a crowd standing back watching him. I felt all eyes turn on me expectantly as I approached the scene of the crime.

Still drawing a total blank as to what I could do to get this beast to go away, I tried shooing him in my most authoritative voice of command – with, alas, no impact whatsoever. It occurred to me that if this sheep had any fear of humans, he would not have approached our picnic in the first place. Therefore, I needed to find a way to get him to fear me. If border collies could do it, I should be able to.

I picked up a baseball-bat-sized piece of driftwood and made my approach slowly. Slowly, because running through my mind was this question: “How do sheep defend themselves?” Dogs bite, cats scratch, horses kick, but sheep? I decided that I needed to beware of kicks and bites while taking up a batting stance off his port quarter, as his head remained buried in the bowl. I voiced a booming “scram” in the most menacing tone I could muster and gave him a mighty swat across his transom.

Success! I had distracted him from the fruit! His head came up, and he turned to face his attacker – me. And at that moment, while still facing me, he lowered his head. I remembered then how male sheep – “rams” – settle their disputes. This is not a contingency for which I was prepared, but instinct served me well and inspired quick enough – though graceless – footwork to dodge his charge.

It occurred to me later that my carefully maintained captain’s dignity had probably suffered as I scrambled over the granite ledges to escape his lunges, but I had at least achieved the desired result: he gave up on me and wandered off, so we were able to enjoy our lobsters in peace – though without dessert.

I spent another 15 years as captain of various large sailing vessels. Sometimes, as “skipper next to God,” I was called upon to deal with matters far removed from navigation and seamanship (though never again sheep.) At those times, I remembered the advice of one of my heroes, Capt. Irving Johnson: “It doesn’t matter so much what you do, captain, but do something.”

Paul DeOrsay’s working life included 20 years as captain of various large sailing vessels, 20 years in maritime museums, and a few as an advocate for the marine environment. Now retired, he and his wife sail their Cape Dory ketch out of Rockland, Maine.