Once the world had traveled by sail. One side of my ancestors had arrived in America on the Mayflower. The trip lasted 66 days. My great-grandaunt Bert had circumnavigated the globe in the 1870s. Her father’s clipper ship had been powered by wind. Steam engines had replaced sail by the beginning of the 20th Century.Proud schooners and brigantines were retired from the high seas. Their hulls rotted in remote estuaries. Only a few luck ships survived into the 21st century and yesterday Tom Berton of Manhattan by Sail invited an ex-lover, her daughter, and me for an early evening cruise on the Clipper City.
The 158-foot schooner had been a veteran of the logging trade between the northern woods and the city of New York.
The previous week I had seen the black-hulled vessel sailing from Governor’s Island and thought, “Pirate ship.”
Some friends from Paris were in town. I called Gabby, her sister, cousin, and daughter to meet at the North Cove Marina along the Hudson. The July sun baked the bricks of Battery Park City. The wind off the harbor was light. I arrived at the docking area to discover that the Clipper City was instead berthed at Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport. Tom had told me that information three times.
Sometimes I don’t listen to nothing.
It was 4:10. The boat departed at 4:30. Now wasn't time to panic. The girls showed at 4:15. Now was the time to panic and I frantically called Tom, while hailing a taxi.
“I have 139 people waiting.” Tom was a fan of my writing, but he had a business to run. 5 seats cost $200.
“I’ll be there on time.” I signaled a taxi. It stopped at the curb. I explained my problem.
The driver said that he was he going out of service, but would drive us for double the fare. I agreed to his offer and we jumped in the cab. The driver was Bangladeshi, but the son of a rice farmer rounded the southern tip of Manhattan in 7 minutes. We made the Clipper City with 5 minutes to spare. Tom waved us onto the ship. The evening cruise was a sell-out.
“I’ll see you when you get back.” He waved from the dock.
The Clipper City motored away from the pier with incoming current on the East River cresting as a chop against the hull. The bow rose and fell with a mythic cadence. I bought drinks for the ladies and leaned on the railing. Gabby and I hadn't seen each other since New Year’s Day 2009. She was still beautiful at 50 and her ten year-old daughter was a stunningly younger replication of her mother. The Quebec-born actress was glad to be on the open water. A harbor breeze suppressed the memory of Manhattan's hot concrete.
"It's nice that there's no music." Gabby sipped her beer.
“Tom likes for the people to hear the wind through the sails.” The engine was muted by several decks.
“Funny how you never lost that Boston accent.” Gabby had come over from Paris to an audition. Hollywood wanted her to play the heiress to a Swedish steel fortune. Blond and sophisticated she had the right look to play rich and haughty.
“Never really tried to.” Boston was in my blood.
“And you speak French with the same accent.” We knew each other from the late 80s. Neither of us spoke about that affair. She had told me it was over on a long-distance phone call. I was in new York and she was in Paris. There was no sense in asking for an explanation.
“And Thai too.”
"Sometimes I hear JFK."
"More Southie than Brookline." I sounded like a thug from South Boston and the brawling drawl grew more pronounced with every drink. The L Street lift was an act. I was reared ten miles from Southie on the South Shore. “I’m stuck with my accent. No matter what language I speak.”
A giant liner was stormtrooping south to the Narrows. Its wake rocked the Clipper City. Several guests turned a little green and Gabby said in a whisper, “They look like they might be seasick.”
“It can happen in the calmest waters.” No landlubber was prepared for the methodical quivering of the sea, but ocean voyages were in my blood. “My Nana crossed the Atlantic in the Year of the Crow. I’ve narrowed it down to 1910. She was a 12 year-old girl from County Sligo. Most of the other passengers were cattle. Nana never liked ships after that trip.”
“Guess it was a rough crossing.” Gabby was also a brave woman. She had migrated from Montreal to Paris at the age of 21 to pursue a modeling career, but a 747 was not a sailing ship.
“When I was about 6, my older brother and I stayed overnight with Nana at her house in Jamaica Plains. It must have been summer, for the next day my father phoned to suggested that we take the ferry from Lowe’s Wharf to meet my family at nantasket Beach. It was a beautiful day, a little like this one. Hot and muggy. The ship was filled with hundreds of kids heading for a swim in the cool Atlantic. The ferry had a clown to entertain us. He had a funny wig and big floppy feet. My brother and I were scared by him.”
“Clowns scare me too.” Emma had a sparkle of mischief in her eyes. She would be trouble in her teens.
“They scare my son too.” Fenway was frightened by monks too. I didn’t mentioned that to Emma. Kids have enough hang-ups without ones borrowed from stranger’s children. “We kept our distance from the clown. The trip was usually lasted about 30-40 minutes and was uneventful because the route was sheltered by the many harbor islands, however that afternoon the wind picked up and the sky grew dark. The waves smashed over the bow. The boat swung from side to side. My grandmother clung to my brother and me, while the clown and scores of children slid across the tilting deck. The storm ended faster than it began and landed at Nantasket. My mother asked about the trip. My Nana said nothing. We didn’t say anything either.”
“A secret,” Gabby said under her breath.
“Secrets are only good if you don’t tell them.” I kicked off my sandals. Neither my older brother, Nana, nor me had blown our cookies. We held our sand.
“So it’s not a secret anymore.” Gabby was sitting out of the sun. The beer was getting to her. She didn't have much meat on her bones.
“No, I have a big mouth.” I sat with her. My skin had had too many years on the beach. "I tell everyone everything."
The captain shut off the engine. Emma and I helped pull up the sails. It was hard work. The wind caught hold of the Clipper City. The tall ship fell under its spell. I shut my eyes and smelled the salt air and felt the wooden deck under my bare feet. We could have sailed through the Moluccas in 1830. Our cargo would have been spice. The time warp stretched several seconds into the present, until a squad of jet skis from New Jersey buzzed along the port side.
We were back in 2010.
Temperature was 93.
It was time to order another beer.