Sailor Wife By Andrea Caswell
Ten years ago, I married a sailor. They say sailors swear a lot, but my husband barely does. Actually, he’s kind of a disappointment in that area. I can swear him under the table, usually within the first few minutes of watching a football game. And as far as being drunken, my sailor rarely is. I think it’s because he was drunken a lot in college, and a lot after that. Still, we keep a healthy supply of rum on hand and limes to fend off scurvy.
My sailor is superstitious. They say you should never leave port on a Friday, and he won’t, not for a voyage anyway. If it’s a day sail and he’ll be back within a few hours (theoretically), I think he’d go if the conditions and his schedule aligned. But conditions on the ocean are hard to predict, even with fancy satellites and computer models.
My husband doesn’t allow bananas on the boat because they bring bad luck. Once, he and a friend sailed to the Isles of Shoals; even that name sounds inauspicious to me. The main thing to do there is walk around a crooked cemetery and contemplate death. The whole place has a Lizzy Borden vibe. If you were to look on a nautical chart, the Isles of Shoals is a set of nine islands, crags strewn off the coasts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. So they sailed to one of them—Smuttynose Island or Star, I think—and the friend didn’t know the rule about bananas. He packed one in his lunch, and it made it aboard undetected. And would you believe? They crashed into a rock by the end of the first day! My husband never crashes the boat. Somehow, they managed to sail home, but the damage was bad enough that the boat had to be hauled out for repairs. The rock tore up the keel and gashed into a section of the hull. It was a real problem. All because of that banana.
Never whistle on a boat, my husband warns. Especially a sailboat. Whistling is the equivalent of conjuring the wind, of tempting a tempest. Why risk it? It’s dangerous enough to be on the ocean or anywhere near it. Even without whistling, it gets awfully windy while sailing. My main hobby is reading, because you know what I love? Not dying.
On Nantucket they say, If you can see the ocean, the ocean can see you.
The Andrea Doria sank off Nantucket on July 26, 1956. Disasters are fascinating, there’s no way around it, especially if your name is involved. The 700-foot ocean liner left Italy on July 17 for New York City with 1,134 passengers and 572 crew aboard. A section of Nantucket Sound is called “The Graveyard” because so many ships rest on the bottom there.
The night before the Andrea Doria sank, she was surrounded by heavy fog, what sailors call “thick weather.” Captain P. Calamai noted a blip on the radar and identified it as the Stockholm, a passenger liner headed to her home port in Sweden. Though each captain steered a course to avoid the other, one or both miscalculated, and by the time they understood they were on a collision course, it was too late. This despite Captain Calamai’s extensive experience at sea and decorated service in both World Wars.
When the bow of the Stockholm, an icebreaker, crashed into the Doria’s starboard side, it crushed her watertight bulkheads and drove 30 feet into the hull. It is said the orchestra was playing “Arrivederci, Roma” at the moment of impact. First, I imagine the deafening noise, the roar of thirty tons of metal colliding, the crackle of snapping wood, the screams of passengers plunging into the midnight water. Later, I imagine silence, like the silence of musicians separated from their instruments. I see broken violins and a harp floating to the bottom. The silhouette of a grand piano buried in the sand.
A freighter, two Navy ships, and a luxury liner called L’Ile de France arrived with lifeboats. They helped save over a thousand people, in what remains one of the largest maritime rescues in history. By the time the Andrea Doria disappeared into the Atlantic at 10:09 the next morning, five souls on the Stockholm and 46 from the Doria were lost. The ship now lies 240 feet below the surface and has become a mythical site among divers, the Mount Everest of shipwrecks to explore. Since her sinking in 1956, two dozen people have died trying to reach the Andrea Doria. This ship with my name keeps killing people.
Another boat bearing my name, the Andrea Gail, was lost out of Gloucester in 1991. We live about twenty miles north of there, as the crow flies. Once I drove down to an old wharf to watch my sailor come in on a schooner. The Andrea Gail was a 72-foot commercial fishing trawler with a crew of six men. Three were born and raised in Gloucester.
Storms are strong in this part of New England because a constellation of weather systems collides over us. We have hurricanes and tropical cyclones, the famous Nor’easters, and whatever else swoops down from Canada. In October of 1991, a hurricane named Grace merged with a Nor’easter over the Atlantic Basin. When a Canadian cold front crashed into those two systems, the result was a three-headed monster. Most people know it as the Perfect Storm, but officially its name was the No-Name Storm. On October 29, a buoy at Sable Island near Halifax registered a 100-foot wave, the same day the Andrea Gail sent its final communication.
Many towns around Cape Cod and Cape Ann display plaques to memorialize those who’ve been lost at sea. So many have come from Gloucester, the oldest seaport in the U.S., that the town holds an annual memorial for its dead-at-sea, and people come to toss flowers into the harbor. The flowers float out to sea and die there too. Gloucester Harbor is the site of the great fisherman statue, an eight-foot bronze of a mariner at a ship’s wheel, facing the horizon. Beneath him the inscription: THOSE THAT GO DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS, 1623-1923.
A stroll along the water near us in Newburyport takes you past the Harbormaster’s, a shingle-sided building near the maritime museum and Coast Guard station. The memorial at the Harbormaster’s is covered in metal plaques. One is dedicated to the memory of the crew of the Heather Lynne II, lost on September 5, 1996; Captain Jeffrey J. Hutchins, Kevin Foster, and John M. Lowther will never be forgotten. There’s one for the Lady Luck, a fishing vessel lost at sea the night of January 31, 2007, with Captain Sean Cone, age 24, and crewman Daniel Miller, age 21, aboard. Another more general plaque is for everyone who has left this harbor and never returned. I assume all those people thought they’d be back in a few hours.
I do love being with my sailor, but I do not love sailing. First, let me explain that I never represented to him any desire to sail, to learn how to sail, to sail around the world—all that stuff you might say when you’re first dating someone and you want them to fall in love with you, so you say things like Sailing sounds fun or whatever. I didn’t lie through my teeth and make any promises about sailing. In fact, right around our first date, before any sailing conversations had come up, he invited me to go camping and I said no. He didn’t seem to believe me—he thinks it’s fun to boil water over a campfire and then do dishes after eating a dinner of canned chili that supposedly tasted good because you had to suffer to eat it. He asked me to go camping again a few days later, and again I said no. That’s how serious I was about being myself, I didn’t even pretend to like camping. This is a second marriage for both of us, so I was older and more sure of who I was, though I still had a bunch of hang-ups and issues. This was back in the day when on your Facebook page, you could include a little tagline. Mine was I love not camping. So anyway, I was just being honest with him. You know what sailing is like? It’s a lot like camping, with the added fact that you can drown at any moment.
Some may think of sailing as romantic, like some John and Jackie Kennedy outing while wearing V-neck sweaters, looking shiny and windblown on a yacht. My husband and I do live in Massachusetts, and the Kennedys did spend time here, but we don’t have a compound down the Cape (that’s how they say it here; they leave out the word ‘on’). And no, I’m not from New England. I grew up in Los Angeles where it’s warm and sunny and people don’t fight for their lives against Nor’easters seven months of the year.
To raise my spirits in the winter, I joined a group that plants flowers around town. As soon as the ice breaks, we fill old watering troughs full of geraniums and pansies and impatiens. We were potting plants last spring, and I told the woman next to me that I don’t care for the cold, I’d be happy to live in New Mexico, but that my husband is a New Englander. She smiled a kind of sad smile and said, “That means you’ll never move.”
Blue + Water
Around the time my husband turned 50, he started searching for a sailboat to purchase. A few years earlier, he’d built a wooden boat, a beautiful Swampscott dory he named Fondly. But she wasn’t made for bluewater, the long-distance sails across large bodies of water. He looked at used boats and talked to other sailors about his bluewater dreams.
There was this one boat nearby, and my husband brought me along (usually I didn’t get involved). This boat was out of the water, mainly because it was winter, but also because that’s the best way to examine a boat. You want to see the whole thing, really sniff below the waterline to check the hull and rudder, and a part called a cutlass bearing that’s connected to the propeller.
When a boat’s propped up on stands in a yard, it can be a 15- or 20-foot climb to reach the deck. On this day, I followed my husband up a wooden ladder and scrambled into the cockpit, which was only about 2 feet by 3 feet. Small cockpit. Kind of a small boat, because our budget was small. He and the seller talked about technical things: what kind of keel it had, and how many feet of draft it drew, and mathematical stuff no one worries about on land.
I think one reason my husband brought me that day is that I tell him what I really think. On this landlocked boat, we extricated ourselves from the tiny cockpit to navigate the toothpick steps into the cabin below. My husband looked around, no doubt judging weird things like engine access and breaker panels and something called the fiddles.
It was just the two of us below deck; the guy selling the boat remained above. The cabin was so small, my husband couldn’t stand up straight and had to hunch his shoulders.
“What do you think?” he said, and I saw his breath-clouds in the cold.
I didn’t know if I should tell him; I feared it might be bad luck. “Are you sure you want to know?” I asked.
He assured me he did.
There were little curtains on the portholes, and polished wood panels behind him. “This seems like a very expensive coffin,” I said.
My husband didn’t buy that coffin-boat. He found another one, built in 1979. It was perfectly seaworthy (he wasn’t trying to die) but it needed updating, like new wiring for the electrical systems. The man selling it was in his seventies and didn’t do much boating anymore. This older sailor, Mr. C., kept the boat in Lobster Cove on Cape Ann. The last step before the sale was a sea trial on the water. They sailed it in Gloucester Harbor, my husband and this old sailor, and the boat passed the test.
There is no shortage of expensive gadgets for a sailboat. Mostly, my husband isn’t interested in the bells and whistles; he wants functional and trustworthy and affordable. He named his boat Resolute, if that’s any indication of how he thinks. But for the bluewater sailing he hoped to do, the boat would need safety upgrades.
The safety equipment is costly. I’m sure it’s all very fine and specialized equipment, but I also think the manufacturers exploit our fear of mortality. My husband needed an EPIRB, which stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. It’s like the black box on an airplane and is the size of a loaf of bread. But the EPIRB thing costs $1000, and the goal is not to use it. If you use it, it means your boat is sinking and you need a maritime rescue. So they can charge a thousand bucks for this beacon, because are you really going to gamble with your life over $1000? My husband knows I won’t argue with safety features, that I want him to return home.
Another example is the life raft. Sounds simple, like I was picturing a little raft. It is a very complex “raft” that costs $2200, more than my first car. Same situation, the goal is to never use the thing. What’s worse, even without using it, the life raft needs special tune-ups and inspections and refurbishments and eventually it just wears out, even though it has done exactly nothing. We drove that raft all over New England for service, once all the way to Maine, because we can’t just take it anywhere. The technicians need to know what the hell they’re doing, otherwise we’ll die if the life raft doesn’t work.
Atlantic vs. Pacific
I’ve been surprised by how much I don’t like sailing. I love the ocean, spent a lot of time at the beach as a kid and teenager in California. Before I could swim, my mom used to hold me against her and wade out into the water, and we rose and fell with the waves, up and down, up and down. What I’ve learned after these ten years with a sailor is that being on the beach by the ocean is much different than being on the ocean. Being on the ocean is disconcerting. For example, you can’t hear the waves, except the hyperactive ones slapping against the hull. There’s nothing to lull or distract you. The view is monotonous—just water everywhere. Plus, the Atlantic, the one with all the hurricanes and Nor’easters brewing, is a different story than the Pacific, the one I grew up with. Pacific means peaceful.
Another piece of safety equipment: the dinghy. It can also be pricey, but you’ve got to have it. Otherwise, how will you get out to the boat? Or get off the boat if there’s a problem (a slight one, not serious enough to require the life raft)? Sometimes a dinghy is called a tender. My sailor bought a dinghy and he named it Love Me Tender. He’s romantic that way. He named the dory he built Fondly, and the dinghy Love Me Tender, because he knows that’s how I love him.
Andrea Caswell holds an MFA in fiction and nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She’s a fiction editor at Cleaver Magazine and is on the faculty of the Cleaver Workshops. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Tampa Review, River Teeth, The Normal School, Columbia Journal, Consequence, and others. She’s an alum of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from Los Angeles, Andrea now lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where she’s writing a memoir about place and identity. For more information, visit www.andreacaswell.com.