Sailing way into the past

The author in a contemplative moment. Last, big voyage? We all think about where and when that might be. Photo by Bryan Burns

“We’re getting to be antiques,” I whispered to Elsa, as I collapsed into the cockpit after dropping the old Herreshoff anchor 50 yards off a nearly abandoned fisherman’s wharf. It was the end of a brisk fall solo sail, a late cruise, as I was reluctant to let go of the summer. “Nice work, Elsa. Forty-one years is a good long time for a vessel, though you’re still nearly 30 years younger than your captain, and much sprier than I.” I patted her cockpit coaming. Once I was certain the anchor was well set, I knew I would fall asleep easily. I looked ashore, picking a landmark on the wharf, a rusty red steel fishing vessel, from which I could determine from its location if we were dragging.

I admit, I talk to my boat, and that evening I asked: “What about one last big voyage? Next season. What do you say? I know I’m moving slower, a couple of fingers don’t fold and grip the sheets and halyards like they used to, but still, what do you think?” Her rigging hummed an answer that only I could understand.

I sat up on deck, wrapped in an old wool sweater, studying the half-moon that lingered in the fall sky for what seemed hours, musing about that one last voyage, wondering when and which it would someday be. After dozing off a few times in the cockpit, I headed below, grabbed my favorite fleece blanket, blew out the lamps, curled up on the starboard bunk, and was gone.

“Begging your indulgence, sir, but I’ll be rounding up close by to head for that wharf,” came a voice from above. I shot up on deck and there, in what was now a misty breaking dawn, was a craft from another century. At the wheel was an old man with a gray goatee; he was wearing a broad-brimmed hat and appeared to be alone. As he let go the wheel, he ran forward, flawlessly downing the jib. The vessel rounded up nicely into the wind and gently laid herself along a mooring pile on one corner of the wharf not far from where Elsa was anchored. I looked twice at the wharf, then rubbed my eyes; all the steel fishing draggers were gone; the wharf was now filled with all manner of sailing craft from the 19th century. Soon what looked like a half-dory with an old man aboard rowed toward me.

“Strange vessel. Where you bound for?” he asked, rounding up the dory expertly just off my port side.

“Hello, sir. Funny, I had just last night been thinking of one last big voyage,” I replied.

The old man nodded appreciably. He looked Elsa over. “Stout enough for that, I guess. Good work in the building of a vessel will always stand you in good stead. What’s she planked with?”

“Fiberglass.”

The old man dismissed my answer with a wry smile. “Does she sail herself?”

“Autopilot.”

Another wry smile. “She as well,” he said, gesturing to his vessel at the wharf. “Hardly ever touch the helm.” He started to row away.

“Where have you been?” I asked, not wanting to lose him.

“Oh, been around,” he said.

“Where around?”

“Around. All around.”

“And now? Where are you headed?”

“South. Later today with the tide.” He pulled up his collar against the slowly building fall wind. “Don’t like the cold. Doesn’t suit these old bones. Toward the Bahamas, I figure. Or the Antilles,” he said, as he continued his row back to his old sloop tied to the wharf.

An hour later, at the turn of the tide, I watched him raise his canvas sails, watched his vessel float off the wharf like a bird, catch the wind, and slide ahead, the old captain standing rigid at the wheel. He was beam on to me, headed out of the harbor, but as he moved ahead, I strained to see the name and hail port on her stern. Finally, I grabbed the binoculars.

Spray, Boston

I knew from history that he’d once uttered “the Spray will come back.” And I knew from history that she never would. So I tried to change fate. I got in my dinghy and rowed madly toward him, yelling, “Stop, Captain Slocum. Stop. Stop.”

It was my wife who grabbed my flailing arms in bed. “Bad dream. Bad dream,” she said. I turned my head, opened my eyes, and stared at her. “It was like you were rowing for your life.”

“Not for my life,” I said. “I was rowing for his.”

In November 1908 Captain Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail around the world alone, sailed away alone one final time. He was headed south. He and the Spray were never seen again.

Look for David Roper’s forthcoming book, “Beyond Mermaids . . . Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends.” It’s a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-times bestseller available on amazon.com.

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