Monday, June 2, 2008

Adventure ∩ Dream Boat (part 4)



All right, I admit that it has been more than a week since my last posting. I hope to make up for the delay with some good storytelling and photos for you.

First I recount how I met Steve and then we rejoin the voyage, which has reached the middle of Lake Huron.


The first time I met Steve, he was sitting before a roaring fire at a friend’s house. It was a February afternoon in 2004, and he was answering questions for a documentary about his building the St. Barbara and sailing her home to Ireland. Drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee for energy and then his homemade poteen (Irish moonshine) to calm his nerves, he sat stiffly before the camera, which Robert had trained on him from a tripod at the room’s edge.

The second time I met Steve, two weeks later, he was installing the rudder on his boat. It stood on scaffolding beside the Chicago River, a few yards from the warehouse where he had completed the bulk of its construction. I walked around the hull, amazed at its steeply rounded sides and tightly planked, tar-blackened skin. It was like standing before a sleeping whale. Its massiveness was palpable, the sides heavy and thick with wood. I could almost see them move in and out, breathing.

Minutes later, I scaled the ladder to the deck and descended another ladder into the unfinished cabin. I made my way to the front bulkhead, eyeing the wooden berths along the bow. The boat’s framework, while still impressive, did not seem as invincible as it did when I was on the ground looking up at the hull rising some 16 feet above me. I imagined trying to sleep, my body bent to the curving, foreshortened bunk, the water’s force against wood inches from where I’d lie.

Back on deck, Steve paused in his work so that I could take a photograph. The black silhouette of Sears Tower punctuated the downtown Chicago skyline behind him. It was less than three years since September 11, 2001. From the solidity of this 19th century leviathan, I looked at that steel 20th century leviathan and thought about how each was the product of men’s ambition and how vulnerable each really was. The first to whatever nature will deal out in high seas and storms. The second to whatever plans men hold onto with hatred. Man’s threat seemed far more menacing than nature’s on that sunny day, and I was glad for people like Steve, who are driven to build something wonderful, something that others see their dreams in as well.



September 16-17 . . . So we are heading into the second night of our journey, and I sit on deck with Niall, Robert and Steve. The waves are dark mountains before us. I feel their steepness as we surge up and over them to slide down their slick backs, again and again. It is black all around us but for faint sprays of light on the horizon to mark towns. A sliver of bright orange moon rises and falls within an hour in the western sky.

“What have you liked better, building or sailing the St. Barbara?” I ask Steve, as he and Niall, each on a side of the tiller, alternately lean into it to take the waves.

“Do you want the truth?” he replies. I nod. “Building. I like to work with wood.”

Pat indicated the same thing earlier in the day. “Steve likes to build them, I prefer to sail,” he said. “It takes patience to sail, you have to concentrate.” Pat said he would sail all the way to St. John’s, Newfoundland, despite the lateness in the year for crossing the Great Lakes and 600 miles of open Atlantic, both of which grow dangerous in the fall. The same notion gives Steve pause.

The St. Barbara is a Galway hooker, a shoreline boat that was never designed for crossing oceans. Only one hooker has made the journey before, the adventurer Paddy Barry’s St. Patrick, from Ireland to New York in 1986. The hooker’s legacy is one of daily work. Throughout the 19th century and halfway through the twentieth, hundreds of them supplied the people of Connemara’s isolated coastal villages with the staples they needed to survive: food, tools, cattle, pigs, and turf cut from the region’s bogs to heat their homes. Men also used the boats for hook-and-line fishing, which likely gave the vessel its name. The hooker was the main link between villages and larger cities such as Galway. It rose to nautical prominence on Ireland’s west coast without fanfare and nearly went extinct the same way. After World War II, the government paved the roads so that cars and trucks could reach the towns. Workboats making daily deliveries became obsolete.

Left to rot on beaches and in fields, the hooker almost disappeared. There were just two of them still delivering cargo in 1970 when a few men started to preserve the boats and use them for pleasure sailing. One of them was Coleman Mulkerrins, Steve’s father. A traveling insurance salesman by trade, the elder Mulkerrins was interested in preserving Gaelic culture. As the official “King of the Islands,” he was responsible for raising money to save the coastal communities, which he did by organizing the dances that Niall, Niall’s father and many Irish attended. He also helped write and produce plays in Gaelic about contemporary Irish life. He organized trips so that his troupe could perform in Dublin; London; Geneva, Switzerland; Boston and Chicago. No one else was doing such a thing, and the plays were extremely popular.

“They’d pack houses with lines out the door,” said Niall, who accompanied Steve’s father. “Even in London, where the theater manager said it was never packed.”

Back in Connemara, Coleman had bought two small hookers that Steve worked on as a boy. Some days, the two of them sailed one or the other of the boats from their village of Maumeen across Greatman’s Bay. Coleman organized races of Galway hookers, often calling them from a stage on shore. Steve remembers running through town with friends to steal ice cream from the stands set up for race days.

“It was always a big day because we had no stores in town,” he said. Maumeen had just 200 people and one long stone pier. Most residents made a living by fishing and subsistence farming small plots of rocky land. Like many local teenagers, Steve decided to leave home at age 16 for London, where he would learn a building trade.

“My father tried to stop me, but I was too thick-headed,” he said.

Steve worked six years in London, coming home during the summers to see his family and work on the boats. Then he moved to Boston, where he spent another six years working construction and on boats during his free time.

In June 1987, Steve returned home once more. This time he accompanied his father. Coleman Mulkerrins had gone to Boston to try a second round of chemotherapy to conquer his colon cancer. He was in the midst of planning to take one of his Gaelic plays to New Zealand. Instead, with Steve at his side, he crossed the Atlantic west to east on a stretcher laid over three airplane seats. He died several days later in Maumeen at the age of 59.

A decade later, Steve was married and living with his wife and children in Chicago, where he’d begun a construction business and had just launched plans to build a Galway hooker of his own.

“He would be totally over the moon if he knew,” Steve says of his father.

From 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. rain pelts Steve and Niall at the helm while lightning fills the sky and big swells blot out the horizon. Aidan is on deck too, to help navigate. At midnight, while most of us hold onto fitful sleep in our berths, Aidan peers through a pair of night-vision binoculars.

“Tanker!” he shouts and points toward a ship heading right for us. Barely visible because it is missing many of its lights, the tanker is 500 feet away and closing fast. Steve and Niall pull on the tiller and the St. Barbara swerves 90 degrees, out of the tanker’s path.

“I doubt anyone on board was watching for obstacles like us,” Aidan told me the next morning. No one watching on deck, no one watching for a small blip on the radar. He reported the tanker to the Coast Guard by radio after we were back on course. Colliding with such a huge vessel would have obliterated the St. Barbara.

Despite the close call and the bad weather over night, we have made good progress down Lake Huron. Waves are peaking at 15 to 20 feet and the wind is 25 m.p.h. Pat has us raise the staysail and jib to stabilize the boat. In less than six hours, we have gone 55 nautical miles, are doing 10 knots and at 6 a.m. are approaching the bridge at Port Huron, which marks the end of this lake and passage to the St. Clair River.

Before reaching the river mouth, we pass several more freighters, each a couple of hundred feet long, and a Coast Guard ship. Not 30 minutes later, after entering the river, we hear a muffled bump and the St. Barbara lurches. There is a gritty, rubbing sound. We have run aground, most likely on a sandbar. Everyone – Niall, Robert, Tom, Aidan, Steve and I – rushes to the bow and stands on its tip or straddles the bowsprit to shift the boat’s weight as Pat yanks down on a lever to throw the engine into reverse. The St. Barbara eases off the sandbar with a grumble, shifts her weight again as we disperse across the deck, and picks her path carefully down the river. Aidan and Patrick take a closer look at the charts for any marked sandbars ahead.

As the writer on board, it is my job to keep the ship’s log as well as my own notebooks. So I bring the log up on deck and sit on the cabin roof to record the wind speed, the boat’s speed and wave height. I also include a reference or two to things we’ve seen. Steve suggests this bit of detail: He claims that last night our modest skipper Pat, in a sleep-walking stupor, climbed the ladder to the deck, thinking he was back home in his Chicago apartment because he came up in his underwear looking for the bathroom. Everyone laughs, including me, but it takes me a beat to realize this is a tall tale. We all sleep in our clothes. But I put it in the log for posterity, and the guys have me read it out loud when Pat joins us on deck, to great amusement.

I am not immune to pranks, either. Because I am a light sleeper, I use earplugs and a folded bandana, which I tie over my eyes and around my head to block out the cabin light. The guys find this interesting, in an S&M kind of way. Two nights ago, Niall says that Aidan put the blow-up doll, with her collar and dog leash, next to me as I slept and took a photo. This may or may not be true. I have yet to receive an incriminating print in the mail.

Despite the threat of sand bars, it does not take us long to make our way down the 30 miles of St. Clair River and into Lake St. Clair. As we near the Detroit skyline in the damp gray light, we pass a tugboat pulling two barges and then spy a 20-foot fiberglass sailboat approaching us from the south. It swings around and comes alongside us, four men on deck. All of them eye the St. Barbara and its rumpled crew, most of whom are on deck for late breakfast/early lunch.

“You guys are nuts!” the man at the tiller shouts.

I laugh and so do a couple of the other crew. Steve has not heard what the man shouted and asks me to repeat his comment. When I do, he is not amused.

“Why would he say that?” he asks, not smiling.

“He’s teasing,” I reply.

“Let him come on board and say that,” Niall mutters. Steve looks at the men as they wave and then looks ahead with a straight face. I am a little surprised. He and Niall and the rest of our crew can tease one another relentlessly, but this journey is no joke to them.

Later, I sit on the cabin roof again, this time writing in my notebook. Steve sits down next to me and leans in, as if to see what I am writing.

“The sailboat always has the right of way – put that down,” he tells me with only a bit of levity in his voice.


All photos this posting by Ardis Berghoff.

1 comment:

2KoP said...

Wonderful, visceral image of the ship as whale. It always strikes me how big sailboats look on dry land, yet how small they look when plunked down into the water. Keep up the good work. Your story is terrific.