She won’t sail, she can’t sail, this great queenly 120 feet long, three-masted white ship; her sails are furled, covered with their canvas slings and tied down tight, and the hydraulics that would grind them aloft are silent. One of these tall aluminum masts broke in a 15-knot wind some weeks ago with a terrible crack, a sundering, and a crash. Now the coastguard has ordered that the sails cannot be raised until all the masts are stripped of their paint and minutely inspected for more cracks.
We—her twenty-eight passengers on this six-day trip from Newport to Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket to Cuttyhunk and back to Newport—were disappointed, but there is a strange regimen of the sea that takes over and makes for compliance, like the small brass label, CAPTAIN, on a forward cabin door. Young and curly-headed, Captain Mike seems to have some of the fishy nature (so-called) of the captains who manned the whaling ships out of Nantucket in the last century, as described in In The Heart of the Sea, that winning tale of disaster and survival, which I have just finished reading.
They are arranging diversions for us, excursions in other boats, clambakes, and so forth, most of which I will probably avoid. For me, this is enough: the slight motion of the moored ship, far out in the Newport harbor, as soothing as the rocking of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief as she makes her way from Lamy, New Mexico to Los Angeles. My cabin is the same size and configuration as the one I sleep in on that overnight train trip; neither space has a window or a porthole I can open. The bed is wedged between two walls, the carpeted floor space between it and the corner sink is about four by five feet, and the tiny bathroom, as on the trains, has a shower that also serves to lave the toilet.
From In The Heart of the Sea, I remember that during their ordeal—93 days in three whaleboats after the whale-battered sinking of their ship, the Essex—no one washed and there was no mention in all those heat-stricken days of how bad the men must have smelled. Maybe starving men don’t smell, I don’t know—or the author is sparing us; when the survivors are driven to cannibalism, he doesn’t describe the terrible smells that must have accompanied cutting up their companions’ flesh and organs. Maybe enough is enough.
Which brings me again to the sense of confinement I felt a little while ago in this small cabin, a confinement that seemed almost unbearable. (A little yoga on the breezy prow relieved me.) We are all bound for a very small space in the end, perhaps even just a little vase or box now that many people are cremated, causing a problem, I would think, for those who believe in a literal resurrection. This life seems to offer a choice between confinement with its horrors or terrible loneliness, and I wonder as I begin to watch all these wives—for there are no other single people aboard except for me and my son Barry—how these women have made and continue day by day to make the choice for confinement.
As a talkative stranger at a bar in Bristol yesterday explained her thirty-year marriage, “It takes persistence.” I didn’t notice if her husband agreed.
[Part 1 of 4]