“We’ll only be out of the water a week,” Captain said optimistically, the first day our schooner rested on the dry dusty ground of the Freeport boatyard. “Our chore list isn’t that long: We just need to mount the new exhaust, install a transducer, get a survey, and paint the bottom. Then, we’ll sail back to Nassau, and start chartering with the Symonettes!”
It had been a month already, and the list of things we needed to accomplish before splashing grew longer. The pace of our work had been slowed partly by the boatyard’s management, who—demanding more money from the already broke captain—declared the bottom would be painted by their own people, blue-suited workers paid hourly, with no desire to work quickly in the island heat. And new projects mysteriously kept cropping up: Our quadrant, part of the schooner’s steering system, needed rewelding—something we had no capability to do ourselves. Artist discovered, as she chipped away rust while preparing to paint, our transmission had rusted completely through in some places and would need a new housing.
“Bad, Captain!” Captain muttered to himself, eying the leaky water pump that had allowed seawater to drip on the transmission for years. He knew of it, but he’d never replaced it. “We’ll have to replace it while we’re here. If we’re going into charter, then we’ve got to have a working transmission.”
So Saint and I hoisted it out of the engine room on a halyard and lowered it gently to the dusty earth, where it was whisked away by forklift to some secret room. We were truly stuck, now: We couldn’t go anywhere without a transmission. The boatyard knew this, and knew that the longer they kept us waiting, the more Captain had to pay.
We spent our days doing what work we could on the schooner, and our afternoons and evenings wandering around the silent boatyard, desperate to escape the boredom that pervaded this dead landscape. The Saint, Artist and I rambled every inch of our temporary prison, from the open field of scattered boat parts that might one day be useful again, to the canal-side moorings where rusted old hulks awaited paint and repair, to the furthest aisles of forgotten boats: the graveyard of “permanent storage.” Here, the carcasses of once-beautiful watercrafts were left to rot slowly, abandoned in varying stages of decomposition.
In that quiet grassy field were recently placed sailboats, which exuded a naïve optimism: Surely my owner will return to me next season, as soon as he gets his finances together. It was a misplaced hope that ignored the decrepit yachts beside them, separated by 10-foot’s distance and 15 year’s time.
One long-forgotten sloop must have once been a beautiful pride-filled star of a boat. She now lay on her side at the farthest end of the field, where the scrubby pine forest began. Weeds grew around her graceful sheer. We crawled inside to disarray; everything of value had been stripped by grave robbers. All that remained was a broken old television, cracked dishes and cups, a rotting mattress, and spices in the galley cupboards that no one would ever taste.
Worn-out, old work boats, beaten and battered from years of fishing, were thankful to be finally at rest after a life of toil and the constant driving abuse of the sea. There was even an old sight-seeing submarine, the Deep Star, that once carried children with their faces pressed against the thick Plexiglas windows, as they peered out into the mysteries of the deep. Now, it was home to a family of wasps. Never again would she submerge.
Along with the old boats, there was a small population of other seafarers in the same purgatory limbo. They waited on parts that never came, shuffled around by shipowners, forgotten in the dust. A crew of ropy-muscled Haitians worked at repairing the funkiest wooden boat I had ever seen. Their brightly painted craft looked like it was built from scrap lumber and twine. They had hauled out to replace some waterlogged boards below the waterline. Saint, smiling as always, walked up to them and introduced himself. Soon we were laughing with them, watching them replace planks while they chattered in an island-accented French and smoked Palms cigarettes.
There was a small green steel freighter we had seen in Nassau, who had come to weld patches onto her hull, already checker boarded with repairs. When the travel lift lowered her back in the water, Captain shouted from the bridge and gesticulated wildly to raise her up again—apparently the welders had missed a spot, and water was pouring into the bilge.
There was the tanned young crew of a sleek palatial yacht at the far dock. They didn’t talk to anyone outside of their own little clique, and wore matching dark blue polos and crisp white shorts. They all looked like they could be Abercrombie models.
There was Sarkek, the pudgy Greek mate whose big white-and-blue cable-laying ship had been stuck here longer than any other boat. He had the hollow-eyed stare of the suicidally bored. We often saw him walking down the road alone, smoking cigarettes, headed toward the cruise ship terminal—a depressing place, designed like an artificial Bahamian village, where you could buy overpriced trinkets or get drunk with sorority girls at Senor Frogs. It was the only stimulation for miles; everything else around us was a blighted, post-industrial wasteland.
Then there was Josh, the Canadian mate of the 100-foot converted Norwegian fishing boat, “Discovery,” the man who had welcomed us to Freeport by shouting, “I like schooners,” in his underwear from the yacht’s deck. He was in his early 30s and hailed from Nova Scotia, where he ran a stainless steel fabrication and welding shop. He had accepted this crewing position to escape the Canadian winter.
“I grew up on schooners,” he told us, when Captain invited him over for a lunch of rice and beans. “My father and grandfather were schooner sailors, too. In fact, my grandfather still has some old Ironwood blocks in his shop from a boat he was on back in the ‘20s.” He and Captain immediately hit it off, and discussed the details of the schooner rig, its mastery of downwind sailing, and the differences between our Anne and the Lunenburg boats he had crewed.
He told us about life in his hometown—a little town called Blue Rock, where, he said, there was nothing to do but the three “F”s. When pressed as to what these were, he said, “We fish, we fight, and we fuck. But not necessarily in that order.”
Trying to be clever, and noticing his perpetually-full glass, I asked, “What about drinking?”
He looked at me suspiciously. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Drinking is a constant. It precedes the other three.”
One afternoon Artist and I bumped into him at the cruise ship terminal. “I’m going to get a taxi to Port Lucaya,” he said. “Want to come along? I’m buying drinks, and we’ll go see my friend, Tony Macaroni.”
Port Lucaya was the main tourist attraction on the island, the center of the island’s nightlife. We were desperate for a change of scenery. “Sure,” we said. We hopped into the back of the taxi and roared off down the pine-lined road to head to the faint loom of electric light on the horizon—the dim promise of entertainment, stimulation, altered states of mind, following our Canadian guide into the black promise of the island night.
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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