Just another day on the water

The day’s forecast was five to 10 southwest, gusting to 20 in the afternoon, but as we crested the hill over the marina, all we could see was a flat, mirrored surface on the bay, with an Opti fleet seemingly riveted to it. “Hope you find some wind out there,” offered a dock neighbor as I neared Chessie’s slip.

Instead of my usual, “Oh, we will,” I replied resignedly, “We’ll find something,” not really believing that we would. We should have known better: On the water, what we see isn’t always what we get.

I ghosted out to the harbor mouth and picked up a weak southeast, which was all my little gaffer needed to get the mast wedges creaking and the bow wave faintly chuckling. For a cloudy day, it was a pretty seascape that greeted me.

Ospreys circled high over pogy schools, against a fleecy stratocumulus backdrop, through which the sun peered infrequently, gilding cloud edges with a light that evoked a mid-August tone. Off the far shore a large dark-hulled schooner lay at anchor, her Grand Banks lines beguiling the crew, and giving us a hook for this pre-work sail.

The wind, still southeast, had built to a steady five to eight. We tacked against a flood tide that poured into the bay in a northwesterly direction. Wind and tide conspired to cancel the visual effects of each, and we sailed into an unsettling, mirrored dimension, often without sound, with little indication of progress until we anxiously looked at the shore to see if it was moving.

This phenomenon brought to mind an early morning transit of the Cape May Canal, with friend Mac McGeary, now executive editor of “Good Old Boat” magazine, during which fog, land and water were all of the same hue. But for our compass course, we had no clue where we were in relation to the canal banks – or if we were still in an earthly expanse.

Back aboard Chessie, our fantasy air ship, we closed with the schooner. The catboat channeled the most sensitive of musical instruments, her tiller the virtual bow in a surreal world without sound. I hailed the vessel, asking who she was, and a young woman coiling heavy manila, cried, “The Lettie G. Howard.”

A former Gloucester fisherman, the 78-foot, seven-inch-foot Lettie is owned by Manhattan’s South Street Seaport Museum, we later learned, and operates with the official status of “seagoing museum ship.” She was launched at the A.D. Story yard, in Essex, Mass., in 1893, and acquired by the museum in 1968.

In the 1980s, the museum pondered scrapping the Lettie, but a story in a Sunday news magazine about the National Maritime Historical Society greased the skids for a $750,000 grant from New York State. This infusion launched the restoration to her original appearance in 1993, one century after she kissed the salt for the first time. Not knowing the Gloucesterman’s age, we asked as we tacked away “How old is she?”

When the crewmember hollered, “One-hundred-and-twenty-four,” our octogenarian catboat apparently overheard, for she responded like a kitten and grabbed another five degrees to windward we hadn’t known was there.

To extend our hooky sail a little longer, we headed for the northern shore of our bay on a sweet broad reach, after which we planned to head for the barn. But we couldn’t turn back: To end this sail with a spell in force seemed obscene. We’ve said throughout our career (most likely to our detriment), They can take this job away, but they can’t take this day away. Maybe we were ahead of our time, for Donna Sapolin, founding editor of the Next Avenue website, wrote on Forbes.com:

“By playing hooky, I mean judiciously using traditional work hours on a single day to do enjoyable things that allow you to decompress, recover mental and physical well-being, or deal with important personal tasks . . . that work prevents you from addressing . . . .” Recreational boating clearly falls under her umbrella.

We jibed over toward the west shore as the Acela Express high-speed train barreled north. We wondered if someone was longingly watching Chessie and her crew, wishing she or he was out on this bay, weaving some magic in a small boat in sensuous conditions.

I’ve been on those trains – literally and figuratively – looking out at the world I wanted so badly that it hurt, feeling like I was careering in the wrong direction, away from the life I should be living. But I know that such days have paid for these sails I have in my own backyard. As mariners are wont to say, You pay for the good days with the necessary but less desirable ones. And, gosh, did I earn a good one.

But we never got that southwest.

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