The last sail

December 2009

By David Roper

The boat was very tired, and the thought of getting her out of the shallow Maine cove, and sailing her to Massachusetts, made me feel weak and jittery. The paint on the sides had lost its high-gloss finish, and had bubbled, cracked and peeled in many places. The seams between the planks were prominent, loose from many years of shrinking and swelling.

The starboard side of the cabin trunk had a crack along the length of it, which bisected each porthole along the way. The forward porthole had been removed, and the hole was covered with a scrap piece of delaminated plywood, like a hasty patch thrown over a wounded eye. The warmth of the cockpit varnish had long since disappeared; what was left was the cold bare structure of the mahogany, now gray with age.

She sat low in the water, as if ashamed that anyone should see her condition. Green, stringy sea growth clung parasitically to what remained of her worn waterline. The early summer breeze blew in through the narrow entrance of the cove, and the thick manila halyards thumped impatiently against the tall spruce mast. A gull circled overhead, gliding silently, searching. On the other side of the cove, a lobsterboat’s engine revved in starting, and then settled down to a steady idle.

“You said you’d take me sailing,” he’d said. I stood alone beside the old sloop and remembered.

* * *

In the spring my grandmother had died. Grandfather wanted to live alone and fend for himself “until I get back together with your grandmother,” as he put it to me after the funeral. There was no doubt in his mind that he would join her; it was just a question of time, he’d said. I couldn’t argue with that, but I told him I had to get back to Minnesota, where I was living.

I said I’d see him in the summer when I’d return for a visit. He said I’d probably not see him; he just wouldn’t be around, but off with Grandmother. He smiled at me. He was such a formal man, and I knew he wouldn’t think it quite proper, but I gave him a hug anyway. I couldn’t accept the fact that he wouldn’t be there. He was too special, too big a chunk of my life. “I want you to have the boat,” he said, his chin over my shoulder as I hugged him. “Do what you think is best for her when you return in the summer.”

“I’ll take you sailing when I get back,” I said.

He looked at me for the longest time, but he didn’t say anything. There was a wondrous expression on his face. I didn’t know what was happening or what he was thinking. Slowly, I stood up. Maybe this was “passing away,” and some angel had gracefully entered him and filled his face with wonder. In my short 21 years, I’d never seen anyone die. His speech jolted me.

“Wouldn’t that be something? You know, your grandmother never did like sailing, and it was always a chore for me to get away on the sloop,” he chuckled. “It will probably be the same way in the hereafter, if they have sailing there. This could be my last shot at it David.”

Over the next couple of months he grew weak, had a stroke, and lost sight in one eye. Too frail to care for himself, he still refused to burden my parents in any way. He went to a nursing home. He didn’t like the place, so, I suppose, his mind clogged it out, and he put himself back in the past. My mother wrote that he spoke often of me and hoped he could see me; he had something to ask me. He wouldn’t tell my mother what it was.

When I returned that summer, I went to see him in the nursing home. I’d never been in one before. It looked like the junior high school I taught in: long and austere, a one-level brick building with a flat roof. There were few trees. In the hall, I smelled disinfectant and heard nothing.

I rounded the first corner. The hallway was filled with wheelchairs. The silence made my head throb. In the wheelchairs were remnants of long lives, people whose bodies continued to work through sheer force of habit. Their chairs seemed to be swallowing them while they stared blankly into the present, as if melting away into their memories. I moved along, looking for Grandfather.

It was meant to be that I had to go through much of the home to find him. When I finally did find his room, I knew what he’d wanted to talk about. Sitting in the corner, he stared out the window. As I put my hand on his shoulder, he turned and looked at me. One eye looked right into me; the other, the one the stroke had taken, looked away into nowhere. “You said you’d take me sailing,” he said. “This place is the doldrums.”

* * *

As I stepped aboard the old sloop, those memories faded. I noticed that she lacked the spring and buoyancy she used to have. I knew the bilge must be full of water. Reaching under the aft cockpit hatch, I felt around for the key to the cabin. It was there on the hook, probably untouched since Grandfather had put it there months ago.

She had been wet stored, uncovered, in the little Maine harbor the previous winter, and Grandfather had been up only once to see her and check on things. After my grandmother died, Grandfather had, for the first time in decades, neglected his sloop. Water was above the floorboards, beginning to claim the bunks. I pumped 300 strokes on the old-fashioned bronze bilge pump and then rested, sitting on the horsehair mattress on the port bunk. The exertion from the pumping made me realize the amount of work that lay ahead, and a sense of futility began to leak into my mind.

Then the lobster boat passed close by, its wake slapping the old sloop’s hull. She shot upwards, rising to the intruder, limberly bouncing over the next wave. I smiled. My apprehension left. “We just might make it,” I said, patting the inside of the hull.

Two days later, she was in fair enough condition to attempt the 100-mile sail to Massachusetts. I wanted to bring her to Grandfather, so he could sail her and still be close to his doctors and the hospital. His sloop still looked neglected, with the engine way beyond hope, a rusted block of afterthought claimed by the salt air. But her rig was in order, and the sails passable. And I’d cleaned off that encroaching green waterline slime. It was enough; I wasn’t sure just how much time I had to spare.

We sailed. Not fast, but true, slicing to windward with a purpose. The winter’s growth on her bottom and the tide fought us. And the next morning, when the southwest wind blew hard on the nose, the waves fought us. I worried for the seams, the tired ribs, and the tall spruce mast. Still, we sailed. Newer boats passed us handily. It wasn’t like the old days, when she could easily show her stern to many of her challengers. Now when we were passed, we weren’t noticed; we were suddenly insignificant, and that hurt the most. I cursed the shiny younger boats, trying to ignore them as they did me.

The lighthouse of the harbor near the nursing home appeared off the bow. The old compass was dead on. The sloop rounded up easily inside the breakwater. I ran forward and let go the jib halyard, and then dropped the old Herreshoff anchor with 20 fathoms of chain attached. As I let go the main halyard, the sail hesitated, and finally I had to yank it down.

He was in the corner, looking out the window, just as I’d last seen him. I walked around in front of him slowly, so as not to startle him. He looked at me and sighed deeply. In fact, he sighed so hard it scared me.

“Grandfather, don’t do that!”

“Don’t do what?”

“Sigh so hard.”

“What so hard?”

“Sigh. Sigh so hard. It scares me.”

He smiled and gave me his high pitched laugh. “Oh, rubbish,” he said. Pausing, he looked out the window and then looked back at me. “Look, I’ll tell you when I’m going to die. OK?”

He had sensed my embarrassment and lifted me out of it.

“You got her here safely, didn’t you? I know you did.”

“She’s ready,” I said with pride. “She’s here. We’re going sailing.”

His good eye looked toward the hall. “Yes, but David, we have a problem with a Mrs. Blake, the head nurse. It seems she is adamantly against this.”

“We’re going,” I said, adamantly.

He seemed very relieved at the determination in my voice. He smiled and tried to adjust himself in the wheelchair. “I’ve been working on Mrs. Blake,” he said. “I’ve made myself a terrible burden and told her I shan’t die until I go on that last sail.”

“How does she take that?”

“Well, now she blames the whole thing on you.” Then he smiled deeply, a crooked smile knocked off balance by his bad eye, which couldn’t follow the aim of his grin. “You’d better start right now looking for another nursing home for yourself David, because when you’re ready, in five or six decades, this one will never take you. At least not if Mrs. Blake is still around. She doesn’t take to people who try to stir up a little excitement around here. ‘It strains the heart’ as she says.”

“Mrs. Blake will be six feet under by then,” I said, laughing and shedding for the first time some of my hang-ups about death.

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” he laughed. “She seems quite determined to hang around until she sees the whole world through a quiet, sedate, and uneventful life and death.”

She was at the front desk when we left. I simply said to her: “I’m taking my grandfather sailing this afternoon.”

“He’s in no condition for that,” she replied quickly, turning her head and brushing back a long strand of hair from her eyes.

“Mrs. Blake,” my grandfather interrupted, leaning forward in his wheelchair. “Then what, pray tell, am I in condition for?”

* * *

“She’s not in the best condition,” I said in the taxi. Grandfather sat on the far side of the seat, smiling and clutching the arm rest on the cab door. Looking around, he was very happy to be out in the world again, even in a cab.

“Oh, forget that old bag,” he said.

I laughed. “No, Grandfather, I meant your sloop.”

He chuckled and we rode on in silence, past the pungent saltwater marshes that surrounded the road.

“Is that forward seam leaking again?” he asked, finally.

“Yes, pretty bad under way. But it won’t be a problem for short daysailing.”

“Never could fix that leak,” he said, shaking his head.

I paid the driver, and we both helped Grandfather out of the cab and into his wheelchair. I’d brought the sloop to a dock with a wide gangway attached, so I could more easily wheel him down to her and get him aboard. At the top of the ramp, he saw her. His good eye took his boat in fully, appreciably. “My, my, David, you did get her here. You got her here. Wonderful!”

On the dock, I put one arm under his legs, my other around his back, and lifted him up. It was no great strain. He was so willing, he almost floated from the wheelchair into the cockpit seat.

“We’ve got a day for it, haven’t we?” he said, looking at the sky and then at the wind direction indicator at the top of the mast.

“Perfect. I’ll do the legwork and you handle the helm,” I said, going forward to raise the mainsail. I cast off the bow, stern and spring lines. Grandfather adjusted the main sheet, and we slid neatly out of the harbor while I unfurled and then hoisted the jib.

We sailed southeast, down the south shore of Massachusetts. The wind blew heartily, and as a puff hit and the rail went under, I watched Grandfather unflinchingly hold his course, refusing to round up and spill a little wind. He knew the limitations of his sloop, and he stretched them to the edge. He sailed her in toward Plymouth, and I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the Pilgrims, feeling their way in here more than 300 years ago. Grandfather sailed her a little farther down the coast, past the nuclear power plant. “Used to be horses running about where that thing is now,” he said.

He paused and looked at the sails, making sure he was taking full advantage of the wind. “I hope all this energy crisis business works out for you,” he said. “And I hope that thing doesn’t blow up, or whatever happens when atoms go haywire.”

He tacked the sloop away from the coast, out to sea. He did the maneuvering by himself, and I watched, detached and somehow alienated, as the two of them, products from a different age, sliced to windward, away from the stark square structure that occupied the hill where the horses used to roam.

We were both aware of the weakening daylight and stretched the day out as far as we could. But I didn’t want to try to make the harbor entrance after dark, and I persuaded him to come about and make for home, saying that we’d have some coffee down below decks in the cozy cabin. It was one of those things I knew he loved.

He was quiet on the way in, and it seemed finally that he was satisfied with the sail. He rounded her up gracefully at the dock. I tied her off and furled the sails, while Grandfather coiled the main sheet.

The sun was beginning to recline on the horizon, and over the land behind us the sky spread to a blanket of red. I went below to heat up some water and check the level of seawater in the bilge. Grandfather sat in the cockpit, fading to an outline in the dwindling daylight. I pumped a hundred strokes while the coffee water heated. I heard him talking faintly. “My room faced north in the nursing home, and I never got much of a chance to watch the sun,” he said.

I looked up from my pumping. “You should get a different room,” I said.

He continued, apparently not hearing me. “Sunsets are precious things. Powerful things. One should never take a good sunset for granted.”

It took some time, but I managed to get him down the companionway ladder belowdecks. I made him comfortable on the port berth, and together we sipped steaming black coffee. When I poured him more, he tapped the bunk and said, “Now this is a nursing home.”

I changed the subject: “What do you suppose the deal is with that leak up forward? I pumped a hundred strokes again.”

He thought for awhile: “It may be a stopwater gone bad up where the stem joins the keel, or just a hunk of caulking missing somewhere.”

“Well, this fall I’ll check into both those things when I haul her and get her fixed for good.”

“You think that will be the end of it?” he asked softly.

“It couldn’t be anything else,” I replied, missing the point.

For the first time he looked at me as if I were a child, and not a friend. “David, she is very old, and when you try to get at the stem, you’ll find the fastenings on the planks weak and deteriorated, and the planks will be soft and punky around the fastenings. And when you do get to the stem, you’ll find that piece of oak tired and maybe not able to hold new fastenings. And the stopwater between the stem and the keel may be deteriorated, but that, by then, will be inconsequential.” He shook his head slowly. “She’s old, David.”

“So what do I do?” I asked.

His eyes reflected the last bit of the sun’s radiance. He blinked twice, both times so slowly I thought I’d never see his eyes again. But they appeared, holding a look that seemed utterly tired yet utterly satisfied. “You can get me a blanket, so I can take a beautiful long nap on my lovely old sloop,” he said. He smiled and then slowly he closed his eyes.

Dave Roper sails Elsa, a Bruce King-designed Independence 31, out of Marblehead, Mass., where he lives and works. This is Elsa’s 30th year, he says, “and is still, despite her age, she’s quite lovely, and she never lets me down.”