Morning in Nassau harbor. An eagle ray, blue-backed and white-speckled, with a pointed nose and a long, slender tail, jumped out of the water and landed with a splash. It always jumped in the same spot, across the main channel looking toward the coral-colored towers of Atlantis. I didn’t know if it was the same ray, but I came to expect it in the morning’s cool before work began.
As we ate our simple breakfast cereal of crumbled-up Dr. Krackers, goat’s milk, and dried pineapple, the cruise ships lumbered into the harbor. Five a day, every day. They docked at the massive wharves near the harbor’s entrance. We had gotten to know the ships pretty well; the same ones came back here week after week. They sat like monoliths and took up most of the horizon to the northwest.
The Disney ships always played the famous seven syllables, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” on their horns whenever they entered the harbor. The ships from the Fantasy line had enormous decks hanging off the stern, several stories high, which made them look like gigantic layer cakes.
Into the harbor puttered small cruising yachts, bedecked with the latest in sailing paraphernalia, which cluttered their view from the cockpit. Captain—being from an age where you just went out and sailed the boat without buying all the doodads first—would often exclaim, “Look at them! They’ve got everything—wind generators, solar panels, cockpit dodgers, dinghys, davits. It’s amazing they can even see to drive the boat.” To which observation we would nod solemnly and agree, secretly exchanging glances back and forth, as if saying “there he goes again” with our eyes.
Our schooner, black-hulled and wooden-masted, stood out from the other cruising boats anchored in the harbor. She was by far the biggest—at 70 feet long, she dwarfed the legions of 30- to 40-foot fiberglass sloops that congregated near the dinghy dock of the Green Parrot Bar. We were the only schooner rig and the only boat in the harbor that wasn’t the typical nautical yacht colors of white or blue.
We were also the hardest-working boat in the harbor. Everybody else cruising there was retired or on vacation, cruising for a few weeks before returning to the states and their steady jobs. But we were there to accomplish a goal. Our task at hand, while we waited to hear from our Bahamian business partners, was to make the schooner as shipshape, polished and beautiful as we could make her, so when the deal was finally worked out, she would be ready to charter immediately.
Our daily work was a combination of painting, grinding, sanding, varnishing, fiberglassing, or building something new. Captain led from the front, as usual, and worked harder than all three of us somehow. He still had time to cook, plan, and dream of new ideas to better improve the boat.
A little before noon one of us (usually Captain or Artist) disappeared down into the galley to cook our simple lunch (beans, rice, lentils, and fresh sprout salad). It was always nice to eat a hot meal and sit in the shade for a while, out of the burning sun. Afterward we resumed our work.
Over the purple caprail passed a seemingly endless procession of brightly-colored and oddly shaped charter tour boats and sailing catamarans, filled to the bulwarks with tourists, who sat low on the waterline from the weight. To these our moon-eyed captain would occasionally look up and say, “There goes another full boat. Those Bahamian boats sure are funky. It’s amazing they can get certified to carry passengers. If they can do it, then the schooner can certainly do it”—followed by, “Now there’s another boat full of people. I can’t see why people wouldn’t want to come on the pirate ship that did the longest sea voyage in history. This charter business has to work.”
That last sentence was whispered mainly to himself. He was running out of options and time. His dad was dying of Alzheimer’s in Greensboro; his wife and young son were his father’s caretakers while he was south trying to start a business to support them. His finger was no longer on the pulse of the New York City art scene. His boat was draining his pockets, and the world ignored his voyage. He couldn’t get a book deal. He couldn’t sell his paintings. After a lifetime of hard work, after accomplishing his dream, he was now having to start over again just to keep on living.
Many other cruisers in the harbor came by on their little inflatable dinghies to have a look at the big black pirate ship, and Captain would stop his work, walk over to the railing, still holding a battered power tool, wearing a dirty long-sleeved button-down work shirt and his hat, which he had painted designs on and cut eye holes in the brim so when he ducked his head he could still see in front of him. He would say, “This boat holds the record for longest sea voyage in history. I sailed on her for a thousand days!” If they wanted to hear more, Captain would say, “Come back at 3:30 p.m. That’s when we take our afternoon coffee break, and we’ll talk.”
They always came back, and we drank more coffee and broke out the Dr. Krackers again and smeared them with peanut butter and good apricot jam. The conversation was always light-hearted and spirited, and our bodies were relaxed after the hard day’s work—our minds energized from the coffee.
Barring exceptional circumstances, it also was the time of day the crew usually stopped working. I’d play music on my little guitar, Saint would fish off the back of the boat, and Artist would doodle. Captain, in his unflinching determination, would often work right up until dinnertime, when he finally put down his tools and went into his cabin to do yoga before he ate (always best to do it on an empty stomach). He emerged, relaxed and focused (which he always was anyways), and sat down to our pasta dinner. The knife had been keened still finer: the smallest imperfection of grit sanded away until the instrument was razor-sharp and incisive.
We talked of philosophy, or he spoke from his voluminous knowledge of art history. He told us stories of his early days going out to sea: sailing four continents in his little home-built wooden catamaran; spending a year up the Amazon river until he was captured by pirates; going on his first voyages where distance wasn’t the consideration but rather the time spent out was; drawing sea turtles with his course in the south Atlantic. This was the time of day when wine flowed and hearts rose and brains thought and spirits questioned what it meant to be a spirit.
Night fell. Occasionally a sleek luxury mega-yacht would cruise by and head into Atlantis, engines a low throb, always a television on inside. What did these people want to see? The stars overhead were not as numerous as they were at sea, but the lights onshore reflected off the water with their own beautiful glow; the ripples of lives of people foreign to us; strange scents wafting on the warm evening breeze; the towering hulks of the cruise ships, every light on, mirroring the stationary outposts of Atlantis resort hotels. And then there was our little schooner—her one anchor light on high overhead, her captain asleep, her saint asleep, the artist and I softly kissing on the stairs in the fo’castle.
The next day was to be the same. Weeks passed in this pleasant routine of life.
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.