18 September 2005

Wooden Ships and Nylon Men

(Prologue: Some years ago, when I still had hair in most of the right places, I allowed myself to be persuaded to help crew a small boat from Ocean City to the Vineyard. Flash used highly unethical tactics to do so; sea stories and alcohol.
“I almost felt sorry for you.” He later confessed, “But you are a right bastard, and I made an extra hundred bucks by dragging you along, so it all worked out for the best”.)

“You have,” I said, “got to be kidding me.”

The boat, lovingly described the previous night as a seaworthy 36 foot yawl with lovely weathering capabilities, bucked and shuddered at the wharf, in seeming terror of the angry sea that was battering the other side of the breakwater.

“Get on board, fat boy,” The ocean seemed to say, “and you’re mine!

Flash nodded happily.

“A beaut, ain’t she? And a fine fresh day for sailing.” He sighed contentedly. “Come on, and I’ll introduce you to Captain Bill”

Captain William looked me over like I was a piece of spoiled salt cod in his fruit cup.

“Do you vouch for him, Flash?” He snarled. I was beginning to suspect that this trip was a bad idea. There were parrot droppings on his shoulder, for God’s sake.

“Hell, NO!” Replied Flash. “You asked for a strong back and a weak mind. This cirrhotic, spavined, sorry excuse for a syphilitic wharf-rat will have to do.”

Capt. Bill merely grunted.

“Show him where to stow his crap and get back up in deck.” This was going to be a hell of a trip, I thought. Stuck between a manic giant, who’s bent on paying me back for a decade of indignities and the biggest sourpuss I’ve ever seen. Thank God for rum rations.

Flash took me below and showed me my rack; it would have made a fine coffin for a malnourished pygmy. Unbidden, the phrase “Ten pounds bullshit, five pound bag” sprang to mind.

“It’s not so bad, Soapy.” Flash said sympathetically. "With your lee cloth in place, you can pooch out considerably into the cabin."

I cursed him; no doubt he was laughing at me. (N.B. I checked with Flash years later. Indeed he was.)

We got underway, and I spent most of the day in an accelerated training session. I ended up sore in places I was not aware that humans had muscles, but eventually Captain Ahab either accepted that I was unlikely to kill them, or resigned himself to a watery grave.

In any event, he no longer referred to me as “Buoy boy” or the “Great White Whale”. Now I was “dipshit”.

I belonged.

We enjoyed a meal of burnt corned beef hash and bad coffee and I rigged my lee cloth. Now a lee cloth is nothing more than a canvas barrier to keep you in your rack. If the boat is on a tack that would put you on the high side, you end up sleeping half in your rack and half in a sort of hammock made by the lee cloth. It’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds.

Now, a smart fellow would have made his lee cloth fast with some care, but I thought that should the boat go down, I would like to get out quickly, so I tied it off with a slip knot, climbed in and fell asleep.

I was awakened for my watch.

“Coffee” I moaned, sleepily pulling on the lanyard. As it turned out, I really didn’t need any caffeine. Bouncing off the bulkhead and landing on one’s skull has exactly the same effect as a steaming cup of black coffee, with a side order of stitches and skull x-rays.

Groggily, I made my way above. We were enjoying a following sea, so all I had to do was maintain the heading, watch the radar, rub my head and try to avoid larger landmasses and the Exxon Valdez. It proved doable.

Before long, dawn reinvented itself with its fiery palette. Occasionally foam would spray past the wheel. Nobody else would get to see this exact scene. (Oh sure, many others have witnessed similar, Hell, almost identical dawns, but this exact memory, from that particular pilot house is mine and mine alone. When I’m gone, it’s gone. Magical.)

The next day passed much like the first. Flash was merrily working off years of pay-backs, Cap’n Bill glowered, and I tried to not do anything excessively stupid. We ate bad food and worse coffee. I broke the head’s macerator. Flash got to fix it. (One point back to me).

It quickly became a comfortable routine, and before long, we arrived at Martha’s Vineyard.. We set the mooring lines to Bill’s satisfaction and hooked up to shore facilities. Some swabbing, stowing and general clean-up and we were done.

“Damn good job.” He growled. “Here’s your pay. You ever want to do this again, you just let me know”

“Hell, yes!” I said. What?!! Had I gone mad? Madder?

“Great!” He replied. He didn’t look great; he looked like a constipated basset hound. I honestly thought his facial skin would split if he smiled.

“Drink?” He said, brandishing a bottle.

.”Uh, sure…”

“Say, do you play poker?”

I nodded

Captain Bill smiled for the first time; and I wish he hadn’t; freaking shark teeth. I took a step back.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you, Soapy? Bill’s a lawyer.” Flash announced innocently. “Cut the cards?”

Damn. Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?

And that's the way I likes it.