My ‘mermaids’ are real

The author’s “mermaids” on the “Dance Floor” at Baker Island, Acadia National Park, Maine. Photo courtesy Tim Plouff

Throughout human history, tales have been spun about marine creatures with torsos of women and lower bodies of fish. Called “mermaids,” they traditionally are associated with shipwrecks and rescues at sea, and their positive image has been portrayed in books, paintings, music, and movies for both adults and children.

Greek mythology cast mermaids in an outsized role in humankind’s perspective of the seas, and this perception persists today. So, a thought: Could those who are drawn passionately to the sea be closer to the mermaid lifeform than we might imagine? Who among us, after hours – or days – on the water, has not felt more like a sea creature than one of terra firma.

Recreational mariners recognize that the sea brings a calmness to self, a peacefulness rarely found on land. The smell of the sea, the sounds of the wind, tides and waves, plus the never-ending visuals excite and amaze us, and settle our wordly concerns. Sure, the sea will sometimes threaten us, so we respect it and defer to it judiciously.

Reverence for the sea not only makes us feel properly small, it also prompts us to feed off its stimulating power. We think about the vast ocean when not upon it. We talk boating when not at sea. We read about the sea when not on it, which fills a void when it’s cold outside or when we are trapped on land. The sea is always on our mind, often jostled to the forefront of our waking lives by a comment, a news flash, a scent, a sound, an image. How far are some of us from mermaid status?

My wife and boating partner, Kathryn, is one consummate mermaid candidate. She paddles our kayaks until her arms fall off, plots our courses, and takes us to new adventures until the sun sets. In 14 years of powerboating, she has never missed landing the boat precisely on the trailer. And she ever so patiently puts up with an obsessive cruiser, who can be myopic in his view of time spent on the water at the expense of her wants and needs.

Much of our time at sea is spent sharing our adventures with others, a trait my navigator attributes to my departed mom, a first-degree gatherer who cherished her adventures with family and friends as though the sea was calling to her, too. Even in less than perfect health, she couldn’t deny herself a boating experience, especially if it meant heading down the Kennebec River from Bath, and across the Sasanoa River to Boothbay Harbor. With mom aboard, we didn’t need a compass: The pull of her personal “bearings” in these beloved waters was so strong we always knew in which direction to steer. On the evolutionary scale, Mom had to be closer to mermaids than other folk.

Of late, two of our mermaid candidates have been visiting landlubbers, two young ladies who now seek contentment in the blue waters of the Gulf of Maine. It has been exhilarating to witness their spirit, their fondness for quiet maritime adventures, and how they reflect the healing powers of the sea. Both were initially frightened by what could happen to them when they ventured out with us. After their first cruises out into the briny, the hook had been set for life.

Their smiles and obvious contentment were only tainted by their exhaustion after full days at sea. Their respective experiences had dissolved any fears and stirred a previously unknown passion that would only expand. The two of them were being groomed for their new roles as nautical ambassadors. And their figurative tailfins would start to grow at the same time.

JoAnn Peavey had gone with us first. Her legs were as nervous as Jell-O when we took her on her first boat ride out of Southwest Harbor, but it wasn’t long before Jo’s sea legs appeared, and the seawater infusion into her being began. It was an impressive transformation to watch – more stunning than a brilliant seacoast sunrise.

Ruth Susee was even more hesitant to set off on the salt. She was concerned about leaving shore in a small boat, and anxious about the Maine coast’s numerous unknowns. Ruth’s embrace of the sea occurred at the same pace as Jo’s, and Ruth soon displayed a confidence that overwhelmed us. Being on the water became a passion she was not bashful about sharing. A couple of Maine islands on a top-10 summer day can do that.

The invitations to sign on our boat continued, and each offer was greeted by Jo and Ruth with gleeful acceptance. Exploring islands didn’t matter to them much at first, but soon their appetite for new adventures encouraged my wife and me to push the envelope. We went farther afield to Marshall Island, south of Swans, where the soft sand beach and long hiking trails delighted; to Frenchboro, Long Island, where the “gift shop” offered take-home treasures; to Isle au Haut, Wheat, and Dix and High islands near Owls Head. I soon discovered that Jo and Ruth were suddenly content mermaids with a healthy desire for the sea.

My mermaids learned to help launch and retrieve the boat, operate the inflatable, read the tides, and become working crew. If men are always 14-year-old boys with ever-larger toys, then the mermaids of any age are 15-year-old girls happy to sign on our little vessel, spend time with those of a like mind, and enjoy the rich experiences, visible and intangible, along the coast of Maine.

Countless studies report that boating makes each of us healthier. Our breathing improves, and our heart rates slow, our bodies and souls savoring the spirit of the sea in ways that no medicines can achieve. Scientists have claimed that the mere sight of the water can produce neurochemicals in our bodies that instantly improve our health.

I didn’t need a study to learn that, and Jo and Ruth didn’t either. Nor did the thousands of sea lovers and recreational mariners who relish their onboard time, knowing their lives are better for the time they spend on the water, in the water, with the water.

Wellness emanating from the sea is, for some, Zen-like. Perhaps it allows us to disconnect from the harried pace of normal life and enter a less familiar, less complex one. Maybe we all have some mermaid in us, a different way of thriving in the world. I only know that I have thrilled to the blossoming of two new mermaids. It was a fantastic transformation.

Tim has been trailer-boating with the 2000 inboard-V-8-power Sea Ray 215 Express Cruiser Tegoak (“place of breaking waves”) since 2005. He writes the weekly “On the Road Review” automotive column for “The Ellsworth American,” while his day job is as wholesale oil and gasoline sales manager for Dead River Company.