Today is National Talk Like a Pirate Day. In honor of it, I’ve decided to break a fifty-year silence. This is no fairy tale or folly; I was there when it happened. So listen up!
In the hurricane that whipped up the coast in early October, the schooner Periwinkle had gotten caught threading the eye of the Needles, the narrow passage between the reefs called the Widows. When the tidal surge went out, she’d grounded; when it returned, she’d swamped and gone down. The Periwinkle was not the first to attempt threading the Needles, only the most recent to fail. Threading the eye of the Needles was a puzzle best left to the experienced, and the skipper of the Periwinkle had refused the advice that might have saved his boat: stay clear.
Insurance declared a total loss, and no one appeared interested in salvaging the boat. But she had been well-built by a famous Boothbay builder, and her fittings had been the finest money could provide.
My father-in-law, the Cap’n, had grown up in these waters and knew every tidal nook and cranny. He knew precisely where the Periwinkle went down and how deep she rested. He estimated which spring tide the hull should be awash at. To be there at the right time with pumps, one might get Periwinkle afloat and, on the tides, out through the needles. Once salvaged, the Cap’n’s boat-building friends could help him turn a profit off the hull and fittings.
The Cap’n could handle seamanship, and I could handle the brawn. Lyman, his brother, could bring his lobster boat to help, but where would he get the engineering skill needed to pull the stunt off? So that evening after dinner, I found myself calling New York and trying to persuade my father, a Merchant Marine engineer, to contribute his talents to the effort. But, let me say this: my father and the Cap’n did not see eye to eye on almost anything except that Bridge and Engine room would agree to disagree. But my father surprised me. He needed a vacation from my mother’s honey-do list. The opportunity to get out on the water for several days was bait enough to get him to agree, even if the bridge and engine room would have to cooperate.
On the night of the spring tide, we took Psyche, the Cap’ns ketch, and Lyman’s lobster boat and slipped unnoticed from the cove. We made the Widows just before dawn and prepared our equipment. To pull this off, the ketch and the lobster boat stood off in deeper water while we readied the gear. If we refloated Periwinkle, the ketch, under power, and the lobster boat would pull her free.
As Periwinkle emerged from the tide, my father and I arranged the pumps, started the engines, and prayed that the hull had not been pierced.
Luck was with us, and the plan succeeded; by the turn of the tide, we were ready to maneuver Periwinkle through the eye of the Needles.
Up to this point, everything had gone as planned. I was brewing a pot of coffee below, but I heard the Cap’n tell my father, “Nick, this could be trouble.” My father used a single two-syllable Spanish obscenity in reply. I left the coffee and ran on deck to see a wreck of an old trawler heaving towards us through the swell. A red-bearded giant wearing fisherman’s half-boots stood in the bow with belaying pins stuck in the tops. Behind him stood the foulest assortment of dreck-ridden seaman that graced the worst harborside stew we had ever seen. No, they were worse. I’d have been surprised if there was a single intact tooth in the bunch. But the big red-bearded lout had a mouth full that a shark would have been proud of.
As they came alongside, Red thundered, ” Jones salvage here. Thanks be, and Ye’ll be releasin’ the tow now. Appreciate your help and such, but ‘yer best be on about gettin’ home.”
My Dad and the Cap’n were taking in Red and his crew. There were assorted belaying pins and old cutlasses for weapons. This beat out our meager collection of rigging knives and a signal gun.
The big guy with the shark teeth had to be Davy Jones himself. As he saw the expressions on our faces, his grin grew even wider. “Now, hand her over, and there’ll be no trouble. We’ll even throw over a demi-john of “Kill Devil Rum” to ease the pain.” His crew spat tobacco juice and swilled something from open bottles. Having read up recently on the lore of Davy for a paper on sea lore, I hollered, “We demand a trial by the Prize Court of Neptunas Rex!” Silence ruled on the decks of boat boats. But Davy, looking even fiercer than before, laughed loudly and shouted back, “Agreed!” At about that point, Lyman, the Cap’n, and my father looked at me in horror. “Do you know what you’ve done, you ninny?” the Cap’n asked? “if we lose, our boats and possessions will go to Davy.” Before more could be said, Davy asked which venue I preferred for the trial. I responded that the closest Blue Anchor Tavern franchise would do. So we were off to Portland’s Old Port.
This was in the days before they cleaned up the Old Port and tarted it up with bistros, fancy bars, and such. It was rough, dirty, and dangerous. The Blue Anchor had a certain “reputation”. I had done a good bit of “fieldwork” there and knew the lay of the land. So I hollered across to Davy. “midnight till dawn, Kaile, hornpipe, and Greek line dances. Four bells of the morning watch winner will take all: belaying pins, cutlasses, the kill devil rum, your trawler, and whatever you wear. The curses from the other boat were fierce.
Davy knew the briny deep, but I knew the Saturday night Kaile, hornpipe, and line dance competition at the Blue Anchor. As we walked in all I had to do was mention “fresh fish” to Harry, the barkeep, and watch the flashing smile.
The Blue Anchor was built on the site of a famous massacre in Portland, and good report had it that the dead rose on the spring tide to dance with the living. Well, that night, we’d find out.
The crowd quickly discovered it was an early Halloween when Davy and his crowd filtered in. Cocked hats, worn and soiled velvet knee breeches, and slashed sleeve coats hadn’t been seen in these parts for centuries. As midnight approached, both teams lined up on opposite sides of the dance floor. About a dozen of my sometimes drinking buddies lined up with me, my father, and the Cap’n. Davy’s team had not laid off the kill devil rum and looked to be in bad shape to start. But they probably weren’t what we usually call living, so it didn’t matter.
At midnight precisely, the house band started playing wild, upbeat kaile music. The ancient building seemed to rock on its foundations with the dance steps, twirls, and eager movements. There was a palpable shift to hornpipe music at four bells of the Middle watch ( two AM). Dust began falling from the old rafters as twenty-four dancers sang and danced the hornpipe as energetically as possible. But soon, there seemed to be additional dancers in early 19th-century attire; Davy’s crew cried foul; we’d recruited spirits from the land to dance with us.
At the eighth bell of the middle, the pace again picked up as we whirled and stepped into Greek dances. It was now the beginning of the morning watch, and we only had a few hours to go. Cries of Opa! were coming from our team as they made complex steps that the drunken sailors of Davy’s band could not complete. Near the very end of the dance, Davy and his band wound up in a collapsed pile, with a fight breaking out as individual pirates struggled out of the pile.
Harry blew a bosun’s whistle at four bells of the watch and declared us winners. It came not a moment too soon for my Dad and the Cap’n, who promptly collapsed. Davy’s men disagreeably dragged themselves from the sizeable unsorted pile they had fallen into. The last call came, and after that parting glass, we all piled out to divide the spoils.
The take was enough to fund my next two years of tuition, repair the Cap’ns ketch, get Lyman a new lobster boat, and pay the considerable tab due to the Blue Anchor. In exchange for a promise not to revenge himself on us, we allowed Davy and the crew to depart in their skivys and take the trawler. We sold the clothes to a California movie props house. You probably have seen most of the stuff in Pirates of the Caribbean and other Pirate movies.
The Periwinkle, you know the reason we went through all this happy huhah, was declared a total loss. We lost money on her salvage.
A day after our great escapade, the Blue Anchor shuddered and collapsed. We all thought it was due to the strain on its ancient structure caused by all that dancing. The new one they built in the tarted-up new Old Port is too sanitized for me. But on the back wall is a photo I am told was taken the night of the great Kaile, Hornpipe, and Greek dancing contest. It’s hard to tell who is who except for the antique clothing on some.
So today is National Talk Like A Pirate Day, and this is my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. ARRR!!!