Old Hand

Age can bring wisdom, but it just as often brings a fixity of opinion. And a fixation is a block to creative thinking and change.
The man who taught me to sail, the Cap’n, grew up with manila lines and Egyptian cotton sails. He shared an affection for the old materials that did not interfere with his adoption of newer and superior materials- sentimental affection was one thing, and obstinate stupidity was another. But, being a very pragmatic Yankee sailor, he had no space for that on board his ketch, Psyche.

Despite modern, for that era, electronic navigational aides, he insisted on traditional methods. So I learned to adjust a compass using fixed navigational objects, just like in the old days. I also learned to use sight reduction tables and a sextant. The Cap’ns fixity of opinion on this was based on experience. Nothing was going to help you out if the modern stuff failed. You would have to fall back on the traditional meaasures. So here was where a career at sea came in handy; if it can happen, it will, was the maxim. Knowing multiple ways of doing things was a buffer between you and disaster.

Being all “prim, practical, and old school” was very good when it made sense. But not if it was just “because it’s always been this way” or ” this is how we did it when I was young.”

The Cap’n always maintained the young sailors got to be old hands by staying one jump ahead. Now that I’m getting on to being an old hand, I tend to agree.


Perhaps the only advantage of standing a morning watch was the sunrise over the horizon. Possibly saltier sailors than I could contradict me, but there seemed both an infinite sameness and a similar degree of variability. I’d gladly get up for the morning watch for this reason rather than stand the monotony of the mid-watch – midnight until four AM. My more philosophical friends delighted in referring to my fascination with sunrise and horizon lines at sea as proof that I was not as vulgar as I sometimes seemed to them. To them, it was proof that I could see the extraordinary in the ordinary. I just smiled and said something vulgar.

While I was being vulgar, I took advantage of their inability to make light of anything or enjoy things without analyzing them. Some of their taciturn pronouncements on the profound nature of existence just rubbed me the wrong way. Going to Boston’s Museum of Fine Art was a dangerous proposition. Their ability to talk at great length about almost nothing – to bloviate – was prodigious. After a while, I’d start hectoring them, asking for definitions of words or terms; behavior that they termed vulgar.

Eventually, I wander off to find a nice seascape and wonder how Winslow Homer had nailed it so accurately. The horizon at sea sunrise, sunset, heavy weather, or light air is so changing, but always the same.

Sometimes you just need to be in the moment and not run your damned mouth

Under The Weather

Under the weather was how I felt whenever the Cap’n decided he wanted to sail on a cold breezy day with a lot of spume and whitecaps. He felt flush with the excitement of the ketch heeling over with all sail set. I merely repressed my feelings of dread that he’d sail us under a convenient swell. But of course, he never did.
We both belonged to “wet” families able to tie ourselves to the ranked generations of seamen before us. But no matter whose offspring we were, he had most of a lifetime ar sea, and I would always be a new hand -except for one week.
I had developed water on one of my knees, and the advice I had was to stay off of it and rest with it elevated. Above all, I was not to aggravate it by doing something stupid. My interpretation of the stupid and absurd was going up on a foredeck to haul in staysails and jibs. High on the list was clambering over lines and deckhouses to pick up a mooring as the boat whipped past.
my take on this neither matched my wife’s nor the Cap’ns views. ” Wes. Daddy really needs you today.” No. So I sat in front of the woodstove with the cat in my lap and thought very little of spume, whitecaps, and half-frozen hands.
The Cap’n resorted to various replacements; one day, his brother went out with him, but the former Navy Chief Petty officer resented being so far away from a pot of hot coffee. Next, his friend Lowell went out with him, but he begged off the next day because he felt the need to check his lobster pots a day earlier than usual. And that was how it went the whole time I was laid up. He was not an easy man to work with.

At last, there came a time when the doctor decided that I could resume regular duties. My ever-faithful wife dutifully reported this to the Cap’n, and that Saturday, I was informed that we’d be going sailing. Once again, it was a blustery day, and the Cap’n quoted to me a favorite saying: ” a calm sea, never a competent sailor made.”

On taking up the mooring and dropping the sails, he offered about as close to a compliment to me as he was likely ever to deliver. Filling his pipe, lighting it, and then puffing, he opined that ” one of these days, I expect you’ll learn to hand reef and steer. Then we can start in on pilotage.”
As I had heard one of my former Royal Navy professors intone: ” Oh Lord, may we be truly grateful for that which we are about to receive.” Amen.

%d bloggers like this: