The Pleasure of a Little Peril
WHEN I first took tourists out that summer of 1952 in our ancient, leaking 34-foot catboat "Scatt II" from the municipal pier at Bar Harbor, Maine, I was torn between excitement and dread: The excitement of command and the dread of failure (what if we couldn't keep up with the pumping?). I needed to make some money, at least enough to feed my family until graduate school started up again in the fall. And we had this boat.... It was a brilliant idea.
Bar Harbor was just beginning to be a tourist town. There were excursion boats but no sailing crafts. In other words, no competition. We would run four trips a day: the morning sail, the afternoon sail, the lobster picnic on one of the islands, and the moonlight sail. And so we did. The first few weeks were rocky. Some days no one wanted to go out; on other days trips were made impossible by the rain. But by July 4, I was confident enough to set off a few firecrackers. We were making a modest amount of m oney, and so far nothing disastrous had happened.
If there was any wind to speak of, I reefed in the sail to practically nothing. The motor, a Model-D Ford car engine, sputtered and backfired; and to engage the starter I had to hit it with a hammer. But treated with respect, the motor continued to perform. I had a first mate - 17-year-old Bobby - who worked for 10 percent of the take. His main job was to pump. If some people didn't care to join us, that was their business. We appealed, proudly, to the more adventuresome types.
Then one day, fully loaded with eight paying passengers aboard, the motor made an ominous grinding sound when I turned it on, and then it quit. I hit the starter with a hammer, but nothing happened. Should I cancel the trip? Refund all the money? There was a mild breeze. It was a beautiful day. "Prepare to raise the sail," I commanded. Bobby gave me a questioning look. We had never sailed away from the dock before. But he took his place by the mast. "When I give the word," I said to the man in the shorts
and cap to my left, "Cast off that line." He nodded. I hoped I had picked someone who understood.
Bobby did as he was told, and so did the man, and in a few moments we were careening off toward the 50 or so boats that surrounded us in the crowded harbor. Tacking up to the dock through the boat traffic three hours later was even more challenging, but by then I had a third, even a fourth mate. The ice, which usually took some time to be broken on these trips, had shattered with the first near collision; and we were all mates now - surviving members of the same expedition.
A week or so later, when the motor was functioning again, Bobby called in to say he couldn't make it, and I had to take out the passengers alone. I got through the morning and afternoon sails all right, and I was going to cancel the lobster picnic and go home when a large group showed up. They wouldn't be happy if I said no.
I had had no chance to pump ship since noon, so after I rowed the people ashore about an hour later, I excused myself. "I'll be back in a little while," I said. "Walk around. Collect some driftwood for the fire, if you want." Half an hour later, when I returned, the pot of seawater was on the boil; a capable-looking, middle-aged woman, grinning like a banshee, was up to her knees in freezing water waiting to pull me in; and a young man, precariously balanced on the slippery boulders, was calling out for me to hand him the crate of lobsters. I hardly had to say a word. Three people actually vied for the privilege of melting the butter. I staggered up the beach, collapsed on a smooth ledge, and waited to be served.
For the rest of the summer I was pretty relaxed. The main halyard broke one day, and someone had to go up the mast. "OK," I called out, "Who'll it be?" Two young men and a girl volunteered. When the motor sputtered to a stop a mile from home in a flat calm, one of the men aboard asked if he could look at it. He turned out to be a mechanic. Not only did he get the thing running again, but he came back the next day with his toolbox and fiddled with it until it purred.
If there's a lesson in all this it's that, deep down, most people would rather serve on crews than be served on cruise ships; and, oh yes, that a pinch of the perilous spices up life.
By the next summer we had cleaned things up a bit, plugging the worst leaks, but not so completely as to take all the fun away.