THE WAY OF SAIL by Peter Nolan Smith

Once the world traveled by sail. One side of my ancestors arrived in America on the Mayflower. The trip lasted 66 days. My great-grandaunt Bert circumnavigated the globe in the 1870s. Her father’s clipper ship powered by wind. Steam engines replaced sail by the beginning of the 20th Century. Proud schooners and brigantines retired from the high seas. Their hulls rotting in estuaries. Only a few luck ships survived into the 21st century and yesterday Tom Berton of Manhattan by Sail invited several female friends and me for an early evening cruise on the tall ship the Clipper City.

The 158-foot schooner was a veteran of the logging trade between the northern woods and the city of New York. I had seen the black-hulled vessel the previous weekend from Governor’s Island and thought, “Pirate ship.”

I told 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, as I arrived at the supposed docking area to discover that the Clipper City was berth 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 time to panic. I kept my cool. The girls showed at 4:15. We had 15 minutes until departure. I frantically called Tom, while hailing a taxi.

“I have 139 people waiting.” Tom is a fan of my writing. He has run his business for over ten years. 5 seats were $200.

“I’ll be there on time.”

A taxi driver said that he’d drive the five of us for double the fare. A bargain. We jumped in the cab. He was Bangladeshi. He rounded the southern tip of Manhattan in 7 minutes. We made the Clipper City with 2 minutes to spare. Tom waved us onto the ship. It was a sell-out.

“I’ll see you when you get back.”

The Clipper City motored away from the pier. The wind was light. The incoming current on the East River created a chop. The bow rose and fell with a mythic cadence. Gabby and I had seen each other since New Year’s Day 2009. Her daughter was 10. A stunning replication of her mother’s beauty. Her sister was a painter. She was glad to be on the open water. A breeze exiled the memory of the hot concrete of Manhattan. Her cousin smiled with the realization that there were no loudspeakers or music.

“Tom likes for the people to really hear the wind through the sails.”

“You never lost that Boston accent.” Gabby was rehearsing for an audition. Hollywood wanted her to play the heiress to a Swedish steel fortune. She had the right age and look. Blonde and sophisticated.

“Never really tried to.” It was impossible.

“Not in French.” We knew each other from Paris. The late 80s.

“Not in Thai either.” I sounded like a thug from South Boston more than a Kennedy. The more I drank. The more L Street. It was an act. I was reared on the South Shore. 10 miles from Southie. “I’m stuck with it.”

A giant liner was stormtrooping south to the Narrows. Its wake was strong enough to rock the Clipper City. Several guests appeared a little green. Gabby said in a whisper, “They look like they might be seasick.”

“It can happen in the calmest waters.” No landlubber is prepared for the methodical quivering of the sea. 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.”

“Guess it was a rough crossing.” Gabby was a brave woman. Actress and singer. She had migrated from Montreal to Paris at the age of 21. The inverse of my Nana.

“She ventured onto a ship from Boston to Nantasket. My older brother and I had stayed at her house in Jamaica Plains. My father suggested taking the ferry from Lowe’s Wharf. It was a beautiful summer day.” Probably a little like this one. Hot and muggy. “The ship was filled with day-trippers. Hundreds of kids. A clown to entertain them. He had a funny wig and big floppy feet. My brother and I were scared by him.”

“Clowns scare me too.” Emma, the 10 year-old daughter, had a sparkle in her eyes. Mischief. She would be trouble in her teens. Mostly to young boys.

“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 distant from the clown. The trip was usually about 30-40 minutes. Uneventful because the route was sheltered by the many harbor islands,however this 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. We landed at Nantasket. My mother asked about the trip. My Nana said nothing. We didn’t say anything either.”

“A secret.” Her cousin was used to those. She was the pastor of an episcopalian church off 5th Avenue. If she was preaching from a pulpit, church-going wasn’t such a chore. she accepted my non-belief. I admired her avocation to do good.

“Secrets are only good if you don’t tell them.”

“So it’s not a secret anymore.” Gabby’s sister was sitting out of the sun.

“No, I have a big mouth.” I sat with her. My skin had had too many years on the beach.

We drank beer. Corona in a frosty can. Even little Emma. Only a sip.

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 was under its spell. I shut my eyes. Salt air. Wooden deck under my bare feet. The sun on my face. It could have been 1830. The Moluccas. Cargo of spice. The time warp stretched several seconds into the present, until a squad of jet skis from New Jersey buzzed along the port side.


New York.

Temperature 93.

It was time to order another beer.

To join the crew of the Clipper City or Shearwater, please go the the following URL

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