At breakfast the next morning, our normal view of Nassau Harbor had been replaced by tall stained concrete bulkheads, and a gathering force of Bahamian workers in dirty blue coveralls congregating around us, watching us eat with disaffected boredom. One of them, a heavyset man in a light blue jumpsuit with “Antonio” stitched in black cursive script on the left breast pocket, came aboard and introduced himself. He started asking about the construction of the schooner; he was trying to determine where to put the heavy mesh straps that would hoist us out of the water.
The captain went below and returned with a book of all the press clippings about himself and the boat he had gathered over the years. He thumbed through them, Antonio looking over his shoulder, muttering to himself, “I thought I had a picture of her hauled out in here … This boat has gone further than any other one you’ve ever worked on, you know … Here’s a picture of her in Antarctica … This is a clipping from a French newspaper when we got back from the Odyssey of the Sea Turtle, which at that time was the world record for longest sailing voyage by a couple … You should be honored to pull this boat out, she’s very special …” Antonio nodded mutely in the background, until finally, “Ah, here she is. This is a photo taken by my uncle when we were building her in the side yard of my family’s beach house. You can get a shape for her hull here. I built her more or less by sight, sitting on the roof of my neighbor’s house.”
Antonio examined the photograph, did a few mental calculations, and then took the photo to a white man in dusty sneakers, blue jeans and thin glasses. This was Thurman, and he was in charge of the whole operation. “From this picture it looks like her center of gravity would be about here,” Thurman said, pointing at just below the main mast, “which means we should put the straps here,” gesturing to just aft of the pilot house, “and here,” just before the foremast. His speech was slow and measured, in total control.
“Boy, you guys sure must get a kick out of moving around a lot of weight,” said the captain. “I bet that’s a real rush for you.”
Antonio and Thurman didn’t respond, and consulted with each other quietly. The Saint and I shared a small smile at the captain’s remark. That’s just how he was.
Finally, Thurman said, “Yep, that’s how we’ll do it. Alright, bring her in, George,” and with a whistle and a wave, gestured for the Bahamian man operating the giant blue travel-lift (a thick, blue steel-framed hollow cube on wheels with two straps hanging in the middle) to come on over. The Bahamian driver pushed a lever, and the machine roared to life. The noise was tremendous. The blue cube crawled out on the tracks that ran down each side of the bulkhead we were tied to, and Thurman began to direct traffic, telling the Bahamian teenagers working the lines to “take some in there, let some go there, keep her centered, boys, that’s the way. Now slip those straps under her—Captain, what’s her draft again? Ten feet? God damn. Better let down some more slack, George.” George presses a button on the lift and the straps begin to lower, slowly, as the machine roars further out on the dock. “Nice and easy, George, there you go. A little further… stop. That’s good right there. OK, start to snug them up. Uncleat those dock lines, boys, but keep a hand on them for now. Keep going, George, a little more—OK, boys, throw those lines onboard—we’ve got her centered. Keep going, keep going, keep going, nice and slow—”
And with a roar, the diesel engine winched up the straps and the schooner began to slowly rise, lifting out of the water, inch by inch. The situation was totally out of the captain’s control. He paced across the bulkhead, wringing his hands, eyes fastened to his ship as she rose out of the water, as if by sheer willpower he was making her rise. The schooner’s hull cascaded saltwater raindrops from the thousands of little red hairs of seaweed and barnacles growing on her long-immersed hull. Finally, her keel breathed air for the first time in 10 years. She was totally suspended, like a child on a swing or a baby in a cradle, hanging from the metal dinosaur roaring with her weight, first over her well-known medium of water, then—“OK, George, bring her on back!”—hovering onto the hard unforgiving concrete of dry land, defying gravity and her nature.
Seen like this she looked delicate, almost fragile like an egg cradled in a string, even though this was the boat that had taken the hardest beating the sea could throw at her on our Atlantic passage and countless times before that on her thousand-day voyages. She was a very strong boat, but seeing her suspended over the gravel-covered boat-yard path put her strength in perspective. Any second, some catastrophe would happen and a strap could come unhooked or, worse yet, snap completely, and she would plummet to the cruel earth and be lost forever, broken, shattered. And so would our ride back home and the captain’s chance of making an honest living for his young family. A lot hung from those two straps; boats and dreams tied up in each other.
The roaring lift carried her at a slow walking pace up the dusty path, strewn with gravel and pockmarked pieces of old zincs and the occasional stainless bolt- relics of past ships that had hovered over this dusty street. We ambled along beside her, in awe of her sheer size out of the water- she was like an iceberg in that way, much of her mass was hidden below the waves. “For not having been hauled out in ten years, she looks pretty good,” said the Captain. “I think having the parrot fish in the ocean chomp on her barnacles helped me out.”
Eventually the lift ferried our ship to her final resting place: a slot between a dilapidated white building with a rusty tin roof and a blue-and-red-hulled pilot boat, whose job in life was to carry the pilots of the port a few miles out to sea to meet the incoming cargo ships as they approached the harbor.
The crew of Bahamian teenagers that had handled our dock lines in the slip now retrieved the thick wooden blocks and heavy metal jack stands, a kind of angled tripod with an adjustable wooden pad screwed into a ball and socket joint on the top, laying in a pile beside our new parking spot. Supervised by Antonio, they began to “block and chock” the schooner, wedging the heavy wooden blocks under her hull and chaining together two opposing boat stands, one on each side, chained together so they wouldn’t slip out from under the boat. “A little to the left with those blocks,” said Antonio. “Put another one under the keel. Screw that stand in tighter.” Satisfied, he whistled to George, who slowly lowered the straps, finger at the ready in case the boat began to lean. The straps disengaged from the hull; George reeled them in and out of the way, and slowly roared off back down the dusty road. A forklift driver placed an enormous set of wooden stairs beside the boat so that we could walk up and down comfortably and zoomed away.
A buzzer rang from the side of the white building, and all the Bahamians disappeared to go to lunch, leaving only us four haoles in the dusty empty boat yard, staring up at our schooner, swaying a little from stillness illness (it was our first time on solid ground in a while), scratching our heads, and wondering where to begin.
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.
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