I’ve always kind of admired Camus’ thought about how dying summer breathes life into the new season. Such a startling reversal to conventional thinking.
But this morning, I am literally to my waist in wet sail bags, as we haul one by one out of the locker, spread the Dacron to hose off the salt, then hoist in the breeze to dry.
Just one of those not unpleasant aftermath drills that keeps you in touch with fresh memories of the summer’s “big cruise,” as the kids called it — big cruise meaning they were not going to see their friends for an excruciating amount of time.
Piece of cake in the age of cell phone communication where the neighborhood and schoolyard comes along for the ride. Which is some sort of psychic invasion of sorts, though well beyond mentioning, though rules for cell phones on boat trips should be a consideration at some level.
I remember first sailing in Buzzards Bay over 40 years ago. Onboard was a young boy who had a young girl on his mind. They had had a (semi-tragic) parting, so I imagined, and we were off for the teen eternity of several days without contact with the distant world most of us aboard were happy to escape.
Our trip that year was conventional as we learned the ways of life on a cruising sailboat as it can only be learned — first hand. We sailed across Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown, which I then and always have proclaimed Massachusetts’ most fun and wacky town, back across the bay to the Cape Cod Canal, then into Buzzards Bay and the spectacular chain of Elizabeth Islands running for 25 miles or so to the southwest, with passages in between beckoning sailors to the other side of the islands to Vineyard Sound and the fabled island of Martha’s Vineyard itself.
At the end of the chain is the chunky island of Cuttyhunk. Without radar in those days, we dead-reckoned through ground fog, and with great luck (and an unnecessary five-mile hitch) we were able to drop anchor just outside the pond. Only with clearing the next morning did we see atop the bluff over the village what looked to be an ancient windmill suitable for the set of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
There were two hotels on the island then — the Allen and the Bosworth House — and they had offered the two most coveted treats for anyone confined to a boat for several days — hot showers and hot meals, not to mention clothes washers and dryers. But our teenage Romeo found something even rarer and sweeter up in that rarified air over Cuttyhunk Pond — a phone booth.
Yup, I know you haven’t seen one in years now, but they were boxes made of blue glass and aluminum, just large enough for a human being to send — via wired instrument — whatever love plaint, or just complaint, about a life of confinement to which he had been subjected.
All these years later, I remember only the huge stack of quarters he amassed and the growing line of people waiting outside for their turn to use that one public phone on the island.
The next day we rowed (yes, rowed in our wooden dinghy) to the beach and hiked the island. The northerly grassy bluff slowly lowers, and about four miles to the south you are back on the beach, where an ancient tower proclaims this to be the landing spot of Bartholemew Gosnold, the English explorer who named the Elizabeth Islands for his daughter. The views from the southwest-facing bluff must have struck the explorer as among the most beautiful he had ever come across in the world, and happily they are unspoiled to this day.
We probably got to Newport and Block Island on that first cruise. And I do recall clearly the wondrous sensation of a full Buzzards Bay sleigh ride sailing home to Marion, with a 20-knot southwest at our quarter.
Wind-driven Buzzards Bay waves are square on the front side when the wind kicks them up, but long and rolling down the backside, which is like injecting your lead-hauling hulk of a hull an injection of superspeed. The sloop rises to the crest, hesitates a moment before plunging down the wave, pinning speeds never seen merely under sail. The boat literally surfs beneath you, finishing each plunge in sizzling foam.
Ah, but as we ride our course north with all the happy anticipation of getting home, and all that that means, we are also closing out a portal behind us, the portal called summer, and all that that means.
So, more than 40 years have passed since that early cruise that focuses still in my mind on those desperate whisperings in an old phone booth beneath a surreal windmill (now long removed) on the bluff of Cuttyhunk Island. Once again, I face those familiar chores of cleaning, hosing and scrubbing, the aftermath of the “big cruise” of the year.
The boy on that cruise is now father of his own family, who love boats and sailing. The object of his affection has her own brood, and the two have remained friends all those years. And once again, the world has entered its turning to a new season, which, as we have to remind ourselves with a little assist from Camus, contains its own beauty. Though as a sailor drydocked, I just have to look a little harder for it.