Cast Iron Seagull, part I

There is something just amazing about a super-duper low tide when you live on the ocean. It’s as if all the land has taken a deep breath into its lungs and floated just that much higher than it usually does, giving you the chance to go and gaze at its normally water covered navel. In local parlance, it is referred to as a drainer (pronounced: drain-ah). Our little corner of the coast takes up a diminutive bite in the greater Gulf of Maine and goes by the name, Casco Bay.  The particular island we live on is flanked by a few small, uninhabited islets, which offer adventure, discovery and poison ivy galore if you’re careless. To visit these little, cut off worlds though, you have to possess the means to get there.

That is to say, a boat.

Boats… Ah, boats. They are wonderful, fun and thoroughly evil little things. They are problematic right off the scale and unless you are a boat person who thinks of nothing but bobbing on the waves and smelling the sea breezes AND doesn’t mind pouring all their time and money into a hole in the ocean, then boating really isn’t for you. Owning a boat in freshwater is hard enough. Owning one that sits in salt water compounds the issues by a factor of about a hundred. The corrosive nature of the water, unexpected storms smashing the hull against the dock, filling with rain water and even just the relentless sun pounding on them does exhaustive damage requiring constant maintenance to keep them ship-shape. And that’s not even mentioning the engine!

Boats are one gigantic pain in the butt.

They are also, admittedly, fun and my wife wants one in the same way an eight year old girl wants a pony: with every fiber of her soul.

The problem is, the buying of said boat is the cheap part… and even that, if you’re careful, isn’t very cheap. If you want something that isn’t going to need to be completely overhauled from stem to stern before it’s safe to try floating off the boat trailer, then you’re going to need to pay up front for quality.

Then there’s the whole “ocean” aspect to consider. We do not live on a pond or lake and if you want to use a boat for transportation rather than just fun on a sunny and calm day then size, I assure you, does matter. Also you need to consider the hull shape, the type of drive system, the ability to get under some sort of shelter when it gets snotty out and how much fuel it burns per hour. All of this I let wash over me like a figurative wave as I listen to Action Girl enthusiastically expound on the latest boat for sale she’s found and how this one would be the perfect match for our needs.

The problem here is two fold:

Firstly, I am most definitely not a boat person. What I know about boats, I have pretty much learned from her. There is no doubt in my mind that she knows her stuff cold, don’t’ get me wrong!  Being a commercial boat captain, she’s out on the sea almost every day and after years of familiarity, can read the waters like a book. She knows where to go and when. She can make a many, many ton vessel dance like a dry leaf in a dust devil and not put down her coffee while doing it. She is incredible at her job. She is also at it quite a lot and thus, not exactly rich in free time. This means that caring for the boat will fall to… me, the “not-a-boat-guy” guy.

Secondly: I need a new hobby like I need a disgruntled porcupine in my underpants. Even if I was so inclined to dive head first into the deep, bottomless chasm that is being a boater, there is no way on God’s green Earth that I have time for it. When a person looks at taking a shower as a significant portion of their “me” time for the day, that’s an unmistakable indicator that the candle might just be burning not only at both ends, but a touch in the middle as well. I had hobbies once. I had lots of them. They all now sit in my basement with about eight centimeters of dust on them. I only hope that when the day comes that I again have the opportunity to get back to them, I won’t be so soft and squishy to get back to it all.

We obviously needed a solution that all parties could get something out of. A way that would keep me from getting devoured whole by a task not of my making or wanting, yet also get my sea loving wife out on the water when she wasn’t at work… out on the water. Hmmm…

Our answer came smunched and flattened in a huge, impossibly heavy and ungainly nylon bag. It was a boat, some assembly required. Happily for me, all the assembly entailed was adding air. Through a series of events both odd and unexpected, we had wound up with a rugged little inflatable boat. We couldn’t use it to commute, but it would be a lot of fun AND easy to take care of! Living with two, small children, if there’s anything I know how to do, its patch holes. The boat’s tiny, measuring only about three meters long and of the type that would be dragged behind something much, much bigger and more impressive as its dingy, but still, it was ours! It even came with a broken, non-fixable engine!

The engine was going to be a problem.

Calling it unfixable isn’t really fair. After all, everything is fixable if you sink enough cash into it. In this case, according to the marine engine mechanic in town, that number was going to be in excess of seven hundred dollars. That’s a lot of cash for a free, five horse power, two cycle outboard of unknown abilities or hours of use. It’s also indicative of how price structures work when talking about anything that goes on a boat. Every figure needs to be shot through the magical “boat pricing prism” so that a doodad that would normally cost ten bucks will now run into the hundreds. It’s magic, I tell ya! Fixing a lawn mower might have set me back a couple of hundred bucks, but THIS thing touches WATER! Needless to say, there was no way we were going to repair it and in one fell swoop, the dead engine graduated from “outboard” to “anchor.” Not literally, of course, but you get the point.

So, there was a lot of rowing to be done and row we did. We rowed here and there and the kids seemed to really enjoy their mini-adventures even if they did need to stay low and clear of the swinging oar ends as my wife or I pulled away hard on them. We got some fun use out of the little inflatable. The reality of the situation though, was that rowing is something more fun to watch than do, especially if the boat you’re rowing is essentially a beach ball that is at the utter mercy of both the wind and tide. I has no keel and so, doesn’t track well at all and because it’s only floating perhaps an inch and a half down in the water, any good breeze will move you where it’s blowing, regardless of where you want to go. With those two factors close in your mind, you stick pretty close to shore and none too far from the dock. After all, you need to have enough oomph not just to row where you want to get, but also to row back. Enter our friend, Ian.

Ian, like me, has a weakness for poking at broken stuff. The advantage he has over our affliction is that he’s managed to focus that weakness to just one kind of broken thing. He rebuilds antique outboards. I had no idea about this until I was chatting with him at a summer barbecue and telling him about my rowing related blisters as I cooled them with a cold beer.

For medicinal purposes only, naturally.

“What you need, is a Seagull!”

This is not a sentence you often hear used in Maine. In the past, I’ve heard people refer to pigeons as being, “sky rats” and to extend the analogy to seagulls, I think you’d wind up with perhaps a sky badger or maybe, sky weasel. In short, they are not pleasant creatures.

“Beg pardon?” I took another long pull from my cool pack.

 

To be continued…

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A Hierarchy Of Worth

I spent a large chunk of my youthful summers by the sea shore. There’s a little community on the Maine coast where, back in the fifties, my Grandfather built a vacation house to take his sizable family on weekends. How a man from the hills of New Hampshire came to find this place is another interesting little bit of history. As a very young man thrown into the armpit of a hellish war, he made a friend. Both of these young men had become captains of large, specialized landing craft in MacArthur’s island hopping campaign. The branch they belonged to was the Army’s Combat Engineers and the fact that they both survived to the end is a minor miracle in its self.

His good friend was named George, though most everyone, with the exception of myself, called him Skip. I was a little kid and in those days, a child did not refer to an adult by nickname. George had grown up not merely on the coast, but on the water. He was a lobsterman by trade. One of a rugged bunch of men who made their living harvesting bugs from the ocean floor. George was gruff, big and instantly likable. At some point during the war, he told my Grandfather that if they ever got out alive, he should come see where he lives. George thought he might like it. He was right.

After they all came home, my Grandfather bought a piece of property from his friend’s mother-in-law, just across the street from George’s own house, in fact. The two friends set to building what would become our family’s cottage. Fast forward about twenty years and now there was a little boy, tottering around in the grassy lawn looking for toads and bugs. That, was me.

That place was magical to go to. By the time I was old enough to walk down to the little market in the village on my own, or ride my bike to the sea wall down front, I knew exactly where to go to find the most sought after kid-treasure of the ocean. I knew where the sea glass was.

I always remembered being amazed that it was there just for the picking. It was like finding jewels on the beach left behind by a careless lady, just waiting to be scooped up and dragged away by the incoming tide. The part that I liked the most was that just finding it wasn’t enough. For it to be any good, it had to be “done”. No sharp edges, no clear, unscuffed bits and yet, not over cooked either. The pieces had to be big enough not to slip through the hole in the corner of your pockets. It was like sifting for diamonds.

We had a particular place that we liked to go to and the few of us who knew about it, guarded its location carefully. It was set up as the perfect mechanism for grinding glass into jewels. A natural outcropping of rock funneled the sea through a small gap where the stone was warn smooth by a billion waves. As the sea surged in, it ground what ever it pulled along over a blanket of fine sand and pea sized rocks. We called it “The Gates” and it was natures polishing wheel on the Southern Maine coast. The gates look directly out to sea, but for some reason, an amazing quantity of glass was refined and deposited there and for those of us who knew the secret, we were its stewards. All this would have been a boon for any treasure seeker but there was another surprise. This place was rich in one of the rarest of commodities: blue sea glass.

There was a hierarchy of sea glass that was pretty universal. Kids could understand it and take to it quickly and no one who I ever heard of, disputed where the various colors were on the list. From the least to most sought, they run like this…

Brown,
Green,
White,
Light Blue,
Blue,
Oddities.

Oddities were bits of pottery with intricate designs or glass colors that were just so rare that they belonged on a list of their own. The oddity that was claimed the most was red glass, but calling it common is not right. It was simply the most common of the rare. I can say that I’ve probably only come across a dozen or so pieces of it in my life. You never expected to find them but when you did, it was big news.

No, blue was the color to look for. The pieces were usually small. Smaller than any of the browns, greens or whites. Nothing back then was still being sold in blue glass jars and so what we were finding were the remains of inkwells, old medicine bottles or bits of depression glass. They had been rolling around with the sea for a long, long time and had been reduced to tiny fragments that were easily missed. A honed eye could find them, though. So, like a bunch of wet footed truffle hunters, we scoured the sands at The Gates, sun burning the backs of our ears and chins welded to our chests. When the incoming waves finally chased us off our patch and the last glance down was torn away, our eyes focused upwards and we would go home to count our bounty.

First came the sorting. Color piles were made and sandwiches were provided by smiling mothers. The potato chips and pretzels were always a little soggy from the humidity but it was never minded by the happy hunters. After that, the vetting process began. Pieces that had been picked up in haste were scrutinized by the group and if they did not pass muster, then they were voted down. They were not done yet and need to be returned to the ocean. The piles must all be of high quality. Then, the trading began.

“How many light light blues for that good blue piece?”
“I have a white that looks like a horse’s head. I’ll trade you for five big browns.”
“This once still has some pattern to it. Any one want to trade? What do you have?”

It was a great way to spend a summer day.

Now when I walk the beach, I can’t help but look down. In various boxes, forgotten to the basement or shed, sit bags and bags of old, hard won treasures, far too special to dump. I don’t need any more sea glass but I still can’t seem to keep my gaze away from my feet for long. I’m more particular about the pieces that go into my pockets now and try like hell to leave most of it where I find it, but old habits die hard. Blue is not as rare as it once was, now that it’s back in bottling use. I tend to walk past it now. An old bottle rim will stop me though, as will a piece with some printing on it. Though I don’t get down to the family cottage much anymore, I have found little places here and there near my new home. The pickings aren’t as good, but then again, no place ever could be. Some day soon I’ll have to make a pilgrimage back and be sure to bring my treasure hunters in training. Once they get a little older, I think they’ll be good at it. After all, they’re closer to the ground and have better eyes than the veteran, showing them the ropes.

The Blue Lady, Epilogue

Now, for those you who don’t know, The Doctor is my oldest and closest friend. He’s a year younger than I am and exactly 426.8% smarter. The why our friendship worked out over the years was…

I come up with brilliant plan.
The Doctor figures out how to make it happen.

This brilliant plan came about a few years after my cruise on the Norway. I had told him all the stories, possibly multiple times and he agreed that the best possible plan would be to go together. THAT would be fantastic!

So, I left it to his huge brain to figure out the way to our dream vacation and I couldn’t have entrusted it to any better grey matter. In short order, the collusion had begun and the mechanism of our master plan was in motion. Independently, we waited for the appropriate moment with out respective parents. We talked about how great the cruise was. I simply had to keep it fresh in the family memory while The Doctor related my vacation tales with has much enthusiasm over his own dinner table.

Then, well… “Lie” is such an ugly word. I prefer to think of it as “seeding”.

One day, I related to my folks that It looked like The Doctor’s parents were planning a cruise on the Norway! Naturally, my friend was at his house saying the exact same thing about us.

Then the hook.

“Wouldn’t it be great to make the trip with them? You guys could do grownup stuff and I’d get to travel with my best friend!”

Amazingly enough, not only did this work, but it worked almost immediately! The enthusiasm that both sets of parents exhibited quickly quelled any residual guilt and things looked good. The only hiccup that was encountered was the airline to be used to get to Miami. Our fathers looked at different criteria and it led to a little discomfort in the beginning. I remember that the cheapest alternative was Eastern Airlines but their safety record at the time was one of the lower ones in the industry. After a little polite bickering between fathers, we elected to book our flights separately. After all, We were going to the same place. There would be plenty of time to spend together, later on the ship.

Our cabins weren’t very far apart but that wasn’t the point. As far as The Doctor and I were concerned, those were for sleeping in only. We had adventuring to do. This was the part that I dreamed about. I got to show my best friend the ropes on the ship. Where everything was, how to get from point A to point B with out being seen and where hang out and just watch. I’m thinking of the pool viewing room here.

Oddly enough, I have fewer memories of this trip on the Norway than I do of the first one. I remember that Zane, our young waiter from the first time, was on another ship. I can recall that we drank indecent amounts of Coke and that at least 50% of our time at sea, the two of us had the racquetball court signed out. Both of us got really quite good at it on that trip. Even though the memories of the trip have blurred and faded over time I can assure you that we had a fantastic time. We always do when we’re together. We could be running, playing, reading, planning, traveling or even working. As long as we were doing it together, we seem to enjoy the time immeasurably. That’s the kind of friend he is to me. That’s why I call him my brother.

I won’t delve too deep into this time spent on board. We did a lot of the same things I did alone, the first time. It was just better with a buddy. It all ended far too soon and we had to pack our bags, too full of baubles and souvenir t-shirts, and leave them out in the hall the night before departure for the baggage handlers to remove and get ready for transfer to the dock. We kept our secret of how we got our folks to take this trip, thinking that it would be better to let a few years pass before we reveled how our two families managed to go to the same place at the same time. We figured a decade might be long enough.

Many, many years later, I meet a fellow who was seeing a young lady who just happened to be a member of the family who owned Norwegian Cruise Lines. I enthusiastically told him about my time on the Norway and he sort of grimaced. He had been on the ship in the last few years and he had said that she was looking a little rough. I hoped that it meant that she would be getting a refit soon but I was worried. The Norway was an throwback ship even in the days when I had ridden her. Her name even gave it away. She was the S/S Norway, in a day where almost every other ship was the M/S Whatever. The “M/S” stands for “motor ship”, meaning that it runs of diesel motors. Very modern and efficient motors. The “S/S” stands for “steam ship”, meaning that she has boilers and turns the shafts with turbines. A design that came about over a hundred years ago. Hers was a highly refined steam engine system, to be sure, but it was an anachronism in this age.

Her other flaw for modern cursing was one of design. She had originally been built as the S/S France and had sailed on her maiden voyage in 1962. She was meant for transatlantic trips and therefore, built for speed and comfort. As inexpensive jet travel took over the duties of ships, she was mothballed and then later sold to Norwegian Cruise Lines. NCL had her refitted for duties in the Caribbean but after fifteen years or so, she had a hard time competing with the newer, albeit smaller, ships built specifically for warm water vacations. It was simply not what she was designed for. She wasn’t profitable enough.

Then, one day while in port during a refit, disaster struck. A boiler explosion in the engine room and ten crew members died. All work ceased and after damage assessment, the decision was made that she was too costly to repair. There was some interest in her from new buyers and one individual did buy her and renamed her the “Blue Lady”. Naturally, there were high flying plans and naturally, they all fell through. The should have talked to The Doctor, first. As it was, she was finally sold for scrap.

The end of the S/S Norway isn’t really so sad, if you think about it. She did wind up in a breakers yard, getting cut up and melted down but let’s be honest with ourselves. This is a ship. A beautiful one to be sure, but a ship none the less. What other possible end could she meet? So many other great and beautiful liners have sailed the seas and met far worse fates with hideous loss of life. She was never carved up and refitted as a troop ship later to be used as target practice after the war. She was never torpedoed to the bottom of the ocean or ran into a mine field. No Iceberg ever claimed her or fires swept her deck, causing her to roll belly up, still tied up to her berth. No. She passed with as much dignity as a cruise ship could have. Though she never attained the rarified status of the few ships that we choose to preserve, that is a very elite and tiny bunch and one should not expect immortality for an object designed for hard work.

Besides, she did her job. I have only the fondest memories of traveling in her beautiful hull. I can see the decks when I close my eyes and recall watching the soda in my glass move ever so slightly as the Captain announced that we were plowing through eighteen foot seas. She was a beautiful ship and the glass boxes that have taken her place on the waters look like cheap tarts compared to her elegance. She was a lady whose silhouette will be missed across the oceans but, damn, she still makes me smile when I think of her.

I’m not sure… but I think The Doctor and my secret might have actually out lived the ship its self.

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