A land-lubber gets a taste of the sea
I report to Petersen Boat Yard, arriving with my possessions stowed in a sailor's bag - actually, my laundry bag - just as Ishmael would have done when boarding the Pequod in "Moby-Dick."
A sailing adventure awaits me. The voyage: Nyack, N.Y., to New London, Conn. Vessel: The Venture, a performance sailboat of cutter design (length, 40 feet; mast, 55 feet; beam, 11 feet). Crew: Capt. Hazard Gillespie, approaching his 94th birthday; cook, the captain's "young brother," David; first mate, Richard; second mate, Matt, who, at 30, brings the average age of the crew down to 66; cabin boy, the writer of this piece.
My fellow crew members are experienced sailors. My experience is as a land-loving urban dweller. Had Columbus asked me to join his expedition, I would have chosen to remain in Spain.
The movement of the earth excepted, I prefer not being in motion, especially not being bounced around in a boat. I am here because of the persuasive powers of Captain Gillespie, who charmed me into this undertaking. As I board the Venture, I hope our journey will fulfill the title chosen for a work by Felix Mendelssohn: "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage."
Our first stop is the George Washington Bridge. Here we anchor for the night. I will never forget the shimmering lights of this magnificent bridge, seen through the mist. Across the river, on the New York side, silver passenger trains speed north and south. Airplanes overhead prepare to land at city airports. Geese and cormorants fly above the water. From the ever restless city, sounds of music and sirens.
At 6 a.m. we leave our anchorage and proceed down the Hudson River on an ebb tide. The river is choppy. Even at this early hour, many ferries and water-taxis cross the Hudson, bringing people to work. The wake of passing vessels causes our vessel to sway in ways I do not find comforting.
I try to focus on the buildings and streets we pass, places where I have lived, studied, worked, and visited in a lifetime here. I see my city in ways not seen before.
We round the Battery and sail up the East River, under the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Beneath the Manhattan Bridge, I hear the roar of a Brooklyn-bound "N" train, the same train I board to travel to work. We pass east 73rd Street, where I live, and proceed under the Triborough and Hell Gate Bridges. At the Throgs Neck Bridge, we enter Long Island Sound. The Sound brings a world of lighthouses, buoy bells, lobster traps, and oyster beds.
During the voyage, I perform my cabin-boy duties as best I can, but I keep cracking my head on doorways and other low-hanging objects. I am timorous about walking on deck for fear of falling into the Sound. When I take the wheel, the boat goes in the wrong direction. I come to realize the complexity of sailing, with its constant concerns about tides, weather, rocks, navigation, and avoiding other vessels.
I will never be a sailor. Why pretend? So I sit on a comfortable cushion by the wheel to admire the views, enjoy the sea breeze on a hot day, engage in conversation with captain and crew, and partake plentifully of the cook's fine meals.
The captain and I sleep on deck by the wheel. On the third night, at l a.m., rain begins. We crawl out of our sleeping bags and make ineffectual attempts to put up rain-protecting canvas. (Do I hear gulls laughing at our efforts, or is this part of a dream?) I finally succeed in snapping the canvas in place and return to my sleeping bag, feeling a measure of satisfaction for having completed one nautical task.
The next morning, Captain Gillespie, in gratitude for my services the prior night, elevates me from cabin boy to seaman. I now feel worthy to extend to you, dear reader, this greeting of George Eldridge, who 130 years ago established an essential mariner guide, "The Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book": "Yours for a fair tide."