Reviving the sea story

And here they are, the merry gathering poses on the snow-covered dock. Points East file photo by David Roper

Winter 2023

By David Roper
For Points East

In my files this winter, I came across this invitation from nearly twenty years ago, sent to ‘middle-aged sailing men’ who are now, in 2023, old sailing men:

As a Middle-Aged Sailing Man Known to be a Competent Bullshitter
You are Hereby Invited to the:
First Annual Middle-Aged Men Tell Sea Stories in the Cabin of a Frozen Sailboat in the Middle of the Winter Annual Luncheon
Location: Elsa’s cabin, Pickering Wharf, Salem, MA
Date: January 17, noon to ???
Provisions: Heat (limited) Cheap rum* and even cheaper sandwiches (provided by host)

* Note: please bring your own extra libation to help re-supply when we inevitably run out, to help fortify you against the cold, and to provide you with the courage to render grossly exaggerated Gulf of Maine sea stories when it’s your turn.

And remember what Tristan Jones probably would have said:

Never let the truth get in the way of a good sea story.

No Regrets Accepted

No known form of bad weather will cause cancellation or even delay of this historic event.

There ended up being several of these meetings, some of which were chronicled in this publication. These meetings came to be due to my crazy idea of a way to force storytelling, even in the dead of winter. How dead of winter? Here’s an excerpt of conditions a week before the first event as I go aboard to get things ready:

It’s ten at night, January 5, 2004, and minus 2 degrees F outside as I hurriedly flip open a corner of the canvas tent covering Elsa’s cockpit. There is very little spring to her as I step aboard, and I know she’s mostly frozen in. Scrunching under the canvas covering the cockpit, my back hits the tarp and causes a mini avalanche, pouring snow down under my coat and shirt, which slides down my bare back. It all causes me to move too quickly, and I slip on the dusting of snow which has blown in onto the varnished teak grate on the cockpit sole. I land in a lump in my cockpit well. On the outer edge of my mind, I’m already thinking I’ll freeze to death if I don’t get below.

At the forefront of my mind, though, is the dreaded Sesame lock, a temperamental sentry that secures the hatch boards and blocks my entrance into the cabin. I know from experience that it may or may not be frozen solid. Through thick rag sock mittens, I fumble with the tumblers, carefully moving the last one up just one notch, which I know should be the right combination.

No good. I’m really shivering now. A line from “To Build a Fire,” Jack London’s classic Yukon story where the central character slowly freezes to death, pops into my mind: “It certainly is cold, the man thought.”

I pull the little Mag lite out of my coat and shine its weak beam on the tumbler numbers of the lock. They’re correct. I blow hot breath on them. I pull again. Frozen.

In desperation, I grab a winch handle and bash the lock. It opens. I enter the 11+ degree F ‘warmth’ of the cabin. It’s even darker down below as both hatches, and all six bronze ports are blocked with wind-packed snow. I grab the Mag-lite again and point its weakening glow toward the hook, where I know I’ll find the butane lighter to light the cabin heater. As I fumble with the heater valve with one mittened hand, I pull the trigger on the lighter with the other, and suddenly the most wonderful orange glow springs to life. I bow over the heater as if it were a shrine, palms out, just above the burner.

A shot of rum warms me further, and I begin to relax. I turn on the VHF weather station and listen to the buoy reports at the Isle of Shoals: northwest winds gusting to 50, 12 foot breaking seas, air temperature minus 11 degrees F, water temperature 37 degrees. I try to imagine what it would be like out there in a 31-foot sloop like Elsa. What would happen if I tried to sail to Maine right now? What spot, situation, moment, slippage, breakage, physical or mental meltdown would be my undoing? And how quickly?

Surely it would make a great sea story, I think. But I need a character. A motive. Another shot of rum warms my stomach and prompts initial thoughts on the storyline: Sam, a love-struck young man who lives a ‘romantic’ existence on a boat in a marina in Salem, MA, is jilted by his true love, a woman who lives in Portland, Maine. Some comment she made that cold January night by cell phone (“You’re spineless, Sam…we’re done…you just don’t have what it takes…”) hurts him to the core.

Sam pours his fourth shot of rum. He must see her. But he has no car. But he does have a boat. And, goddammit, he DOES have “what it takes,” … so he’ll just sail to Portland, in this storm, this very night, and show her what he’s made of! And so begins a foolish string of seemingly small actions that, cumulatively, lead him out of the marina, headed to Maine, on a route to catastrophe…”

Anyway, all this got me thinking about the dwindling flow of new sea stories, maybe due to today’s great weather broadcasts, cell phones, safer equipment and safer boats. I wondered what Herman Melville would have thought–he who wrote how experiences at sea, when ‘spun as a yarn,’ relieved the weariness of many a night watch. He who went on to write that yarns did much to excite the warmest sympathies of his shipmates.

Well, that’s what I’d do, I thought. My “Middle-Aged Men Tell Sea Stories” events would be my small 21st century attempt to jump-start sea stories in the post-Melville era.

Maybe I’ll even include the “spineless” Sam story.

David Roper’s upcoming novel, “The Ghosts of Gadus Island,” is scheduled for publication next year. Dave is the author of the three-time bestseller “Watching for Mermaids,” as well as the sequel “Beyond Mermaids” and the novel “Rounding the Bend.” All are available through or