Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Adventure ∩ Dream Boat (part 3)

Please see part 1 for general background on this story. The crew of the St. Barbara have made it through the Straits of Mackinac and their first night on the water, only to find what Lake Huron has in store for them.

September 16 . . . What this journey gives us it also can take away. It is a kind of barter that we can never predict, much like the weather, which defies the radio reports from the National Weather Service and the Internet.

Patrick has decided to use the engine, rather than risk damage to the sails in the dark as we traverse Lake Huron. It is raining and the wind has picked up to 25 miles per hour, while the waves have grown to 15 feet or more in height. Steve has discussed four-hour shifts with the crew but not with Robert or me, for our job is to record this journey. I realize that I am not part of Steve’s circle of friends, and he wants this adventure to be theirs.

Most of the men stay up all night, and I think they love it, this facing down of the elements and blazing a path with a boat the likes of which the Great Lakes have never seen before. When I stir in my berth, awakened by the pitching, I see Pat sitting at the navigation table, reading charts in lamplight. I hear boots on the ladder and then Steve, Aidan or Niall talking at the helm. They communicate in snatches of Gaelic and a constant “Eh? Eh?” No matter what one guy says, the man he’s speaking to asks him to repeat himself with “Eh? Eh?” Cigarette and cigar smoke wafts into the cabin.

By early morning, we are about 50 miles off course. The waves hit us from multiple directions, the rough movement taking its toll on everyone.

Each of us has a way of staving off seasickness, which can be a minor annoyance or incapacitating. Pat’s approach is to keep busy, while Steve suggests we sing. Does anyone know a sea shanty? Niall, who is in his 40s, chooses to eat nothing for the first several days of the voyage, drinking only beer when we pull into a port. He seems a bit reckless but superstitious, too, with the steps he takes to ward off harm. He carries in his wallet St. Patrick’s prayer for protection. His copy is handwritten by his aunt in Gaelic on a long piece of paper, which he has folded into a small square. It is so worn and brittle that it is illegible. I am not a religious person myself, but when I sought out the prayer in English, I found it comforting, as many people do. Here is an excerpt from one version:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Brilliance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today

Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to secure me

It goes on to say:

Christ protect me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come abundance of reward.

A cloth scapular with an image of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus hangs from a string around Niall’s neck. From his back pocket a green plastic shamrock dangles on the chain that runs from his wallet to a belt loop. He will tell you a story in a deep, growling voice or make a boyish joke.

“You can read an ocean but not these lakes,” he says. “They are like reading Chinese.”

Niall seems to relish his long shifts at the tiller. He is in shirtsleeves, a look of importance on his face. He is rail thin, his face almost gaunt. I wonder if he eats well, living alone in Chicago, where he has a job finishing concrete. He flirts with me almost constantly, but I do not really take offense. I sense he does not have much experience with romantic relationships. He comes from Connemara, not far from where Steve grew up. Both of his parents died within a year-and-a-half of each other. He tells me this quietly, at the helm. He was nine when his father died. They were being driven home after competing in a contest of traditional Irish dancing, where they had both won prizes. Sitting in the back seat, his father reclined, putting his head in Niall’s lap to doze. Niall did not realize he was dead until they reached home.

Steve’s father, Coleman Mulkerrins, had been friends with Niall’s father, and took the boy under wing. Coleman organized dances across Ireland and often took Niall along, giving him the job of collecting tickets at the door.

“He was almost more of a son to my father than I was,” Steve says.

“A gentleman,” is how Niall describes the elder Mulkerrins, who, as he would with family, hung a framed picture of Niall in his home. “Steve is the spitting image of his father,” Niall tells me. “When he says he’ll do something, he does it. He is a great man.”

Niall left Ireland for England when he was 11 years old. He met Steve there two years later and then again in Chicago when he moved to the US nine years ago. Steve was established in Chicago by then and gave him work. Now Niall is part of this crew. He pours strength into his current task as human lever, his chest leaning into the tiller while his legs angle outward, his athletic shoes pressed against the gunwale.

There is no letting go of the tiller, for there is nothing else keeping us on course but the 18-foot-long rudder it controls. The St. Barbara has no polished steel captain’s wheel or steering system driven by rack-and-pinion or hydraulics, let alone autopilot. Every minute we sail, every broadside blow from the waves, and every shove from a wind gust transmits through this length of oak. The guys will maintain direct contact with the boat and the elements this way for every moment of their journey through these lakes and across 4,500 miles of open Atlantic until they reach Ireland.

Against the current we crawl for several hours at five knots (just under six m.p.h.) deep into Thunder Bay. The bay, which is both 10 miles wide and deep, is a bathtub compared to the ocean to come, but this is no leisurely soak. Everything is a miserable shade of gray: pale sky, steely water, hazy tree line. The rain whips around like airborne needles as I watch the waves peak above our heads. The story-telling stops; Robert and Tom have hunkered down. Aidan, Patrick and Steve help Niall at the tiller.

I sit just behind the cabin roof, tense and hating where we are at the moment. To fight seasickness, I have taken Dramamine and am wearing pressure-point bracelets on both wrists. But queasiness sneaks up. I am cold and wet despite wearing three pairs of pants (including a waterproof pair Niall has lent to me, as well as my own), fleece, a life vest, my ski jacket, a rubber-coated jacket (also from Niall), a hat and hood. I train my eyes on the thin strip of land to starboard, each rise of the waves corresponding with a horrible upheaval in my gut. I am shaking and decide to stay quiet, sipping from a water bottle. But filling my stomach with water is the worst thing I could do. I lose it several times over the side as Niall, who has given the tiller to Steve, grabs my ankles. I am oblivious to this as I feel myself turn inside out. I am supremely embarrassed, but the best antidote to seasickness is giving into it, at least for a bit.

We lurch forward, passing three ports because their harbors are too shallow, even for the St. Barbara. Alpena, an industrial town on Michigan’s east coast, is our only hope at this point for finding fuel, potable water for the tank and a hot lunch.

“You have to have patience on a journey like this,” Steve says.

And then, hallelujah, Alpena appears! Not much is happening along the waterfront, where a hardboard manufacturing plant anchors a series of blank-walled buildings. By the time we moor along a seawall, the sun is out. I can still feel the waves in my legs as I struggle to keep pace with the men, who walk into town looking for Main Street and a restaurant for lunch. The streets seem abandoned and too many storefronts are vacant. But we find a steak joint on a corner, decorated like a Western saloon.

The guys let out a cheer – red meat is what they crave! We pass through heavy wooden doors and glance at the animal-head trophies mounted on the walls. We take their biggest table, a circular one that seats ten with a lazy Susan in the center. Everyone feels how tired they are now and says nothing, staring off in different directions as we wait for the food.

Niall has three beers while most of the others devour T-bones. I still have not learned my lesson – despite my returned appetite – and modestly order a hamburger, which does not stave off the lake’s cold and wet like steak and potatoes. But our mood rises, the joking starts up and we talk of reaching Lake St. Clair by first light the next morning. We have 160 miles to go down Lake Huron and the St. Clair River to get there. Steve talks about how well the boat is holding up. When he and the crew discuss sailing the St. Barbara home, they always say they are bringing her “back to Ireland,” as if she had been there before, rather than a gal born in a warehouse on Chicago’s South Side. Back at the pier, she has her fill, too, of diesel and fresh water for her tanks. We will now have running water in the sinks and toilet.

Lake Huron is gentle with us this afternoon. It is hard to believe this is the same lake we knew this morning. The deep blue waves are just a couple of feet high and the breeze is warm and light, so we must use the engine again to augment the sails. We don't like its drone, but we are cruising at a leisurely seven-and-a-half knots. The only distractions are the rush of water splaying from the hull, the leathery flap of sail and the pulleys’ rattle. This boat does not creak; it is still tight from being so new. There isn’t a soul in front of us for miles. Not a person, not a building, not a car nor a billboard. There are no phone calls, pop-music radio stations or demands, except to move forward.

And to sleep. Finally, the guys can sleep. Steve takes a long berth by the engine and puts plugs in his ears. Patrick takes a second long berth behind the chart table.

I sit with the other guys on deck. We are now running with the waves. They keep pace with us and then drop away, like a dog that races a car and suddenly wheels around.

Then I notice a ghostly moan coming from somewhere inside the hull or the water. It goes up in pitch as the St. Barbara pushes great volumes of water out of her way. It falls as the boat settles lower in the water again. Could the waves’ friction on the hull be humming? Perhaps it is mysterious lake whales calling. Later, Patrick tells me it is the dual propellers rising and submerging as the waves roll beneath us. We are carried southward toward ocean freighters, Detroit and a human manatee.

Coming within the week – the next installment of “Dream Boat,” with more photos from the journey.

Above photo by Ardis Berghoff.


Matt said...

You should pitch this to the New Yorker. It's just terrific.

Ardis, do read John McPhee? This writing seems similar to his stuff.

2KoP said...

You have frequently said that this is Steve's story, but it is becoming clear to me that this story belongs to you. It's just wonderful. As a native Michigander with relatives in Alpena, this installment was particularly fun for me to read.

My favorite bar band, called Free Hot Lunch, sang a version of "A Sailor's Prayer," which was written by Rod MacDonald. Click here. for a link to the lyrics.

That being said, you should also know you have been tagged. Go here now: Chained to Letters.