GAIL ATTRIDGE, cook aboard the schooner Mercantile, was on her knees. Pleading. Begging. Not for mercy - for butter. She had climbed aboard the sister-ship Maiden, tied alongside the Mercantile, in the middle of Penobscot Bay. Her mission was to finagle a pound of the precious spread from Maiden's cook.
``Just one pound - four little sticks,'' she wailed, shedding crocodile tears at the feet of Maiden's crew. Ms. Attridge had used the last of her butter at breakfast. The nearest supermarket was a chilly two-hour swim away.
``Maybe if you bake us a pie,'' Maiden's cook teased, clutching the treasure and twisting his red beard nefariously. ``A French Chocolate Chiffon pie,'' he demanded. Attridge groaned in assent, snatched the butter, and returned to the Mercantile's wild applause. ``You'll get a canned pumpkin pie and like it,'' she retorted victoriously.
Begging for butter was not a prerequisite in Attridge's previous upscale job as an economist with Data Research Inc., outside Boston. ``But I had had it,'' she said, snapping the tops from a mountainous pile of green beans down below in ship's cozy galley. ``I got my master's, and worked for three years. Finally I realized that I wasn't running my life, my job was.''
On May 19, she quit her job and her high-style urban living. On May 20 she boarded the 115-foot Mercantile, a schooner built in 1916 to carry wood and salt fish up and down the Maine coast. These massive seahorses are now being restored to carry passenger/tourists on three- and six-day summer cruises. Undisputedly the best way to see this rugged coast.
``I came up here and applied for the job wearing a designer sweat shirt. Ha! The first thing the captain had me do was painting and carpentry in the galley,'' she said with a laugh.
The only previous cooking experience Attridge had was informally for friends and roommates while living in Boston. ``Actually all you have to do is to be able to generate energy, take pride in what you do, and get along with people in a close situation,'' she says.
It takes that and a lot more to feed a crew of five, plus 26 passengers.
There may be waves out here, but no microwaves in the galley. No gas stove with self-cleaning oven, or fingerprint-proof, double-door refrigerator-freezer.
Fortunately for Attridge there is a large dishwasher - a young college student, Nathan Spectre, too tall to stand up in the galley. He performs his menial chore cheerfully, seated on a stool.
Attridge does all the cooking and baking on an ancient, cast-iron wood-burning stove. The old relic radiates an especially welcome warmth on this cold, foggy day, a magnet that lures unsuspecting passengers to the galley. Attridge quickly puts them to work kneading bread, or shelling peas.
Dry goods and pots and pans are hidden away beneath hinged wooden benches that also serve as seats for the hungry passengers, and as beds for Attridge and some of the crew.
Perishables, enough for the entire voyage, one hopes, are stacked in a giant, ice-filled insulated chest.
Capt. Ray Williamson promises his passengers three hot meals a day plus ship-made rolls and breads. It's Attridge's job to deliver. That means rising at 4 a.m. to fire up the big, black, behemoth to get it hot enough for baking breakfast bread.
``That's not so bad,'' the cook insists, stirring a large pot of stew simmering on the stove. ``What's hard is remembering where everything is stored. And the worst thing is running out of butter,'' she quips, rolling her dark eyes.
``It's hard work, and long hours, but every little thing you do is really appreciated.''
On deck a little elderly woman from New York with flip-up sunglasses and yellow slicker agrees. ``Faaaabulous,'' she says in a nasal monotone. ``Just fabulous. I don't know how she does it, reaaally. Last night she spread out a complete turkey dinner. It was fabulous. You know what I mean? Faaaaabulous.''
Later, below deck, Attridge thumbs through a Silver Palate Cookbook - a dogeared remnant from her yuppie days in Boston. She's looking for perfect crust for a growing order of pumpkin pies.
``People are so sweet. They come down here for dinner, cold, or wet, or sunburned and exhausted, and just devour everything you put in front of them.'' Recalling last night's spread, she adds, ``It's funny everyone's so impressed with a turkey dinner. It's so easy to cook a turkey in one of these stoves. It's a lot harder to bake cornbread. There's no temperature control, no timer, and you have to keep checking and turning everything,'' she said as the front of the galley began to billow with black unctuous smoke.
``My cookies!'' Attridge screamed, lunging toward the stove. ``Oh, no,'' she cried, pulling a sheet of once-oatmeal-cookies from the oven. Oh, well,'' she shrugged, ``more sea gull food.''
``The captain wants to know what time lunch is,'' one of the crew shouted down to the cook.
``Twelve-thirty, if I can get some more help with these beans,'' she yelled back, blotting pearls of perspiration from her tanned brow. ``Roger!'' he acknowledged.
At 1:30 Attridge rang the lunch bell and 26 hungry semi-salts tumbled down and crowded elbow to elbow around the galley tables.
For lunch, along with the green beans, was a somewhat watery but satisfying beef stew, a rather undercooked, lopsided corn bread, with recently acquired butter, and a fresh, perfectly baked new batch of homemade oatmeal cookies.
``Faaaaabulous, just fabulous. We just don't know how you do it, Gail,'' the little woman from New York said.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
Attridge just stood there proud and tall, glowing brighter than a Maine lighthouse.
``I don't know what I'll do come fall,'' she said later, while rolling out apple cider crusts for her pumpkin pies.
``And I can't believe what a great feeling that is,'' she adds. ``I can go back to school, or work in Japan with my father. And I just heard the Maiden's captain is looking for a chef down in Key West for the winter. Hmmmmmmm.''