A Day at the Mast With The Admiral
I WAS standing on the float, practically at attention, waiting for the great man to arrive. He would probably take one look at our boat, dress me down in no uncertain language, demand his money back (a week's groceries!), and inform me that his lawyer would see me in court.How could I have made the mistake of telling a biographer of Columbus, not to mention the official historian of the United States Navy, that the "Scatt," our ever-leaking, 34-foot wreck of a catboat - was a suitable vessel for him to charter for the day? Wait until he found out the motor didn't work, and that he wouldn't be able to talk over the sound of the bilge pump. If the wind failed, he might even have to take his turn at the oars. But it was too late for all that. Here they were: Admiral Morison and party, off loading picnic hampers and extra clothing from the station wagon that had just brought them the 40 miles over from Northeast Harbor to Hancock Point. And there was the admiral himself, striding down the wharf toward me. At least he wasn't in uniform; only the typically eccentric costume of the aristocratic Northeast Harborite: blue baseball cap, double-breasted blue-flannel coat with white, probably silk, scarf at the throat; gray flannels bagging over dirty white sneakers. He was a large man, robustly denying his 70 some years; his eyebrows bushy, his blue eyes penetrating, as he charged down the gangway. "Fine day!" he shouted. "Trowbridge? Morison here." He crunched my hand in his. "Let's get right off, shall we? We're a bit late." He hardly glanced at the boat and seemed pleased at the thought of sailing right off from the dock. "Here. I'll take the throat," he said to our 13-year-old son Paul, crew for the day. Together they raised the sail. "Cast off!" I shouted, and they jumped to my bidding. Only after we were underway did he get around to introductions. Mrs. Morison was a 50ish, conventionally pretty woman who appeared to be permanently flustered. Denney was the name of the well-tanned, elderly, horsy-looking couple who had come with them. We were headed for deserted Turtle Island, 10 miles away. The plan was to have lunch en route, go ashore for a while afterward to walk (or nap) it off, and then sail back again. We were two-thirds of the way there when Mrs. Morison brought out her hampers of lunch. There was fried chicken, deviled eggs, a mixed salad, potato salad, buttered rolls, cole slaw, rolled-up slices of ham, and fresh cherries for dessert - all unwrapped, or unbuckled, or untied from smooth-looking leather boxes or shiny, silvery tins. It all smelled delicious and looked like something from a magazine ad, quite putting our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to shame. Fortunately for us, there was enough to go around. When we reached the island, the admiral rowed his party ashore, giving us a chance to pump. The wind had been mild, and Paul had had to go below only once. When the boat took on water and needed pumping - and there were strangers aboard - what we did was this: Whoever was crew would descend into the cabin, close the doors, and turn on the radio. After allowing a few minutes for the passengers to react, I would say something like: "Kids! Look at that. A day like this, and what does he want to do? Listen t o the radio!" All the time, of course, the person down below would be hard at it, the sound of music hiding the slurpings and guzzlings of the pump. We had been caught only once, by someone who forced his way below during one of the moonlight sails. (This was a few years back, when I'd been doing four trips a day out of Bar Harbor.) "There's a swimming pool down here," he had shouted merrily, splashing around. But there had been some unpleasantly close, close calls. My wife had crewed, and the governor of Puerto Rico and a party of eight had been aboard for the day. Most of the ladies had brought their furs. I had shortened the sail, putting a reef in it, on that occasion, though there was almost no wind. The less sail you had up, the less the mast acted as a pry bar on the lower seams. I put a reef in now, as the breeze was increasing slightly. The admiral and his party were in a jovial mood when they returned to the Scatt after their brisk walk around the island, but as soon as the admiral saw the reef, he became disturbed. "What's the matter," he said, "afraid of a little spray?" "No," I lied. "I just thought ... ." "Well, take it out!" The ladies looked apprehensive. Luckily we were headed pretty much down wind, when the strain on the planks is the least. Nevertheless, Paul went below to his "radio" soon after we were off, and stayed there until we were halfway home. The admiral was enjoying himself, mightily. "A fine vessel," he said, straining to hold down the wheel. I knew we couldn't go on like this for long. Each time a strong puff hit, I could practically hear the water rushing in. Finally, I decided to act. "We'll have to get the sail down," I barked. The admiral brought the Scatt up into the wind. Just then Paul opened up the cabin doors. His face was white and covered in sweat, and I could see water sloshing over the floorboards and around his ankles. "There's water down there," said Mrs. Morison. The Denneys looked over her shoulder. "We're sinking!" she cried. The admiral left his post at the wheel and peered into the cabin. "Nothing to worry about, my dear. It's an old boat, that's all. Leaks a bit. They all do." He took off his coat and scarf, and rolled up his sleeves. "Let's have that pump, Paul," he said. Twenty minutes later he had bailed her dry. With a double reef in the sail, the Scatt maintained an even keel, and I began to relax. Perhaps, against all odds, everything was going to turn out all right. Mrs. Morison and the Denneys appeared calm, and the admiral looked happier than ever, back at the helm again for the last mile. We rounded up alongside the float in good order, and Paul and I lowered the sail. "I like the Scatt," the admiral said, taking me aside before following the others up the gangway. His ice-blue eyes seemed to narrow. I felt my stomach sink as I waited for his "but." Now he was going to give it to me. "She's not like these modern yachts," he continued, boring in me with his eyes. His left hand slid into his inner coat pocket, and out came his wallet. "A little something extra," he said, handing me two large bills. "A real ship," he went on, almost to himself. "Best time I've had in years. No fancy geegaws."