Monday, March 5, 2012

Shanghaied! (Part I)

Lisa and Jules before they set sail on March 10, 2012. Photo by Cindy Barry Photography
    The following is an excerpt from the book I'm currently working on, "Mystic Pizza and Beyond: Adventuring the Seafarer's Trail." (Or,do you like this title better: "Can't Get Thin and Famous? Become an Adventurer!")


Friday, January 27

When Jim and I were invited to dine at the home of our friends, adventurers Neil (career Navy) and Jules (social worker), I asked Jules to serve us only cheap, boxed wine. They were willing to oblige so Jim would be forced to try it. Jim tasting something new was about as adventurous as he ever hoped to be, and until I got a "real" job with benefits, we needed to learn how to entertain our guests on a more modest budget.  

After we'd had a few glasses, Jim was beginning to think boxed wine might be the way to go since a leftover opened bottle of red goes bad quickly. Seeing he was growing to like the idea of serving cheap wine to his guests, Neil decided to stretch his newly awakened adventurous side even further. "Hey Jim, how would you like to save even more money by taking a free sailing vacation--on us! I'm taking off from work in early March so Jules and I can sail our boat up from the Chesapeake Bay to Mystic--you can come along as our guests!"

Sitting all warm and comfy on the couch, Jim suddenly went into shock--he just sort of froze in place.

Answering for Jim, I yelled, "You're kidding!" We were actually getting a shot at a real adventure--not just the kind I imagined in my head! "What will our jobs be? Yell 'Land ahoy?'"

"No need for that. We will always be in sight of land." I felt disappointed--our voyage sounded so tame. But perhaps I could yell "Ahoy there" to anyone relaxing along the shore. Do people relax on the Jersey Shore in early March?

Jim rallied, remembering his role as the voice of reason--remembering his frozen toes when we went seal watching last March. "In March?" he asked. "Isn't the air still really cold over the water then?"

I had to admit, Jim was right to be a little concerned about our role as crew in the winter--especially since we had zero sailing experience between us. Just the night before, I had attended a talk given by a man who sailed to Greenland. His video highlighted his unhappy-looking crew member in a wetsuit jumping into the frigid water to scrape barnacles off his hull. I asked, "Are you going to make us scrape barnacles off your hull?" (I didn't really know what barnacles were, but sailors were always scraping them.) 

Neil laughed."Gosh, no, it's too cold for that."

Recalling how the Greenland sailor also made his crew sleep in the forward cabin where the heat wasn't as good, and the ride was bumpy because every wave is hit head-on, I asked, "Which cabin will you be giving us?"

Jim, thinking he had learned what a keel was, ventured, "Will we be sleeping on the keel?"

Still in recruiting mode, instead of laughing at Jim's keel question, Neil said, "No, the keel is the ‘backbone’ of the boat. You'll be sleeping in the fore (forward) cabin, called the V-birth. The mattress is shaped like a V, so it can fit within the shape of the bow." Seeing that Jim loved learning new facts, Neil went on to explain what happened to sailors who were keelhauled. "Keelhauling is a form of punishment. Unruly sailors are tied to a rope, thrown overboard, and dragged underwater from one side of the boat to another. If they don't drown, they will most likely be shredded by the barnacles on the hull."

Since Jim thought sleeping in the front of the boat meant he was assigned to the cabin of honor, I decided to keep my mouth shut so he'd agree to go. Besides, Jim and I should experience sleeping where all greenhorns have slept throughout the ages.
The rest of evening, Jules and Neil took turns assuring Jim how safe and fun it would be. The boat would be well heated below deck, they would bring all kinds of hand and foot warmers, and we would go ashore all the time to dine in elegant marina restaurants. They told Jim he could just laze around the salon (fancy way of saying he could sit on a cushioned bench in the living area), sleep in as late as he wanted, drink cheap, boxed wine, and make microwave popcorn all day in their modern galley (kitchen). For emphasis, they showed him a picture of the galley table with a TV mounted above it so he could watch his favorite DVDs.

Although depressed that he would miss basketball's "March Madness" on T.V., by the end of the evening Jim could resist no longer--"Hey, why not! I'll go--sounds fun!"

I couldn't believe it! We were no longer going to be the Mystic newcomers who tried to look nautical with our brass, whale-shaped door knocker, a painting of a ship over our fireplace, and sailing books strewn about our coffee table--we were going to become real sailors! No longer would Jim ask questions like, "What's a keel?" He would know first-hand.

Falling asleep that night, I couldn't believe I was about to embark on my own real adventure. I had read so many adventure stories from the comfort of my warm bed, finding it exciting to live vicariously through someone else's bravery and misery. But would sailing in early March mean I would suffer more misery than thrills? I could still hear the plunk, plunk, plunk of frozen toes being amputated into a tin can when I read about Earnest Shackleton's misadventure in Antarctica. Another long ago Mystic area cousin I had unearthed was William Sisson, an ice pilot on the ship "Genetta." He was lost while exploring the Arctic region. Common themes in sailing adventure stories are hypothermia, starvation, scurvy (note to self: bring limes), cannibalism and insanity. Were we insane already? Were we about to embark on our own "March Madness?"

When Jim awoke the next morning, the reality of what we were about to do overwhelmed him. Recalling how miserably cold and wet we were last March when we went seal watching on a re-outfitted lobster boat, he turned to me and said in his morning voice, "What did I just agree to do? Sailing? In early March? What if I'm seasick? What if I can't sleep on that bed?" Hmm. Jim couldn't even sleep in hotels because it took him a while to get used to a strange bed. Our v-shaped bed was going to be strange all right. Listening to him, I wondered if I had just witnessed a shanghaiing. I looked up the definition of the word online. According to, when someone shanghais another, it means to "force (someone) to join a ship lacking a full crew by drugging them or using other underhand means."

I had witnessed a shanghaiing! And I thought this only happened in the sailing yarns of old. But it can happen just as easily today with a few glasses of cheap wine and promises of microwaved popcorn and DVDs!

Enjoying the fact that I had witnessed a first-hand shanghaiing, while I, on the other hand, was more than ready to embark on a swashbuckling adventure, I e-mailed our friends with the exciting news. Knowing Jim's quiet and predictable habits, many felt inspired to respond with all kinds of jokes. Perhaps slightly offended that I had accused Jules of shanghaiing my husband, she e-mailed me back with, "He was not forced, but discovered his inner adventure child." (Jules uses words like “inner-child,” because when she's not sailing, she's a therapist.)

Kate, my sailor friend who gave birth to her daughter on a schooner and rowed to shore to weigh her on a lobster scale, said, "No, no. He was plied with dreams of cheap wine and sleeping in to the restful sound of gentle waves and sweet wind in the rigging. Personally, if I get shanghaied, I'm going for cheap rum instead of cheap wine. Or single malt if it's overseas."

My girlfriend, Chris, said, "I can't see Jim stuffing his belongings into a seaman's bag and go off sailing in discomfort. I picture him vacationing in a nice hotel, the kind where he can pack his clothes neatly into a large, sturdy suitcase on wheels, and unpack his toothbrush into a ceramic holder."

Jim, normally agreeable to his various roles in my story telling, finally had enough. "You're making me out to look like the wimp in this venture. How do you know you're really up to this? You've never done this before--and it will be cold!" I reminded him that anyone married to a writer should be willing to sacrifice their dignity a little for the sake of a good story. (Jules has noted this goes for friends of writers as well.)

E-mailing my friends that Jim was tired of looking like a wimp, Jules rescued his lost dignity with her reply: "Certainly no wimps were invited on this journey."

The next day, however, all fun banter ceased as Jules and Neil realized they had a lot of work to do to get us ready for the trip. Me knowing how to tie bowline knot was not enough.

Thursday, Feb 2:
E-mail from Jules to me:
"We ought to study knots and tide charts."

Tide charts? I thought Jim and I didn't have to do anything on this voyage except keep them company. Just serve as fun, company-keeping cargo. Why would we need to understand tide charts?

"Because we need to determine when to arrive at certain places, like the bridge where our main mast will only clear the underside by one and half feet--at low tide. We have to be very certain we are at the lowest tide possible before sailing through. We may need to go through it at 4 a.m."

Oh my gosh! We had to worry about getting stuck under a bridge-at 4 a.m.?


More to Sailing Than Bowline Knots

In an effort make our inland sailing lessons more fun, Jules decided Jim and I could have our own titles. As the most experienced sailor, she would be making all the sailing decisions. Having named their 33' sloop, “Watercolors,” in honor of her passion for art, she went on to declare herself the Sailing Master; Neal, Captain; Jim, Skipper; and me, Navigator. I was pleased with Navigator, especially since I had recently learned how to locate the North Star and use it for celestial navigation purposes. Yet, I also knew that everyone blames the navigator when voyages go awry--as in Amelia Earhart's disappearance. She and her navigator were simply unable to locate Howland Island before running out of fuel. 

Although my landlubbing New York friends are excited about my upcoming adventure, my seasoned Mystic sailor friends keep responding to my news with, "In March?" When I told Mary, my neighbor who has sailed across the Atlantic a few times, we were leaving in March, her face fell. She finally managed to say, "I can lend you my foul weather gear--and my harness."

What was a harness, and why would I need one? I decided I didn't want to know. I was beginning to wonder if I had been shanghaied as well!

When Jules, my sailor friend Kate, and I later met for coffee at Green Marble Coffee House, a haven for local artists and musicians, we discussed our route up the coast. Kate asked Jules, "With the erratic winds in March, you're not tempted to sail through Hell’s Gate, are you?"

Alarmed, I asked, "What's Hell’s Gate?"

Kate replied, "It's one of the most treacherous passages on the eastern seaboard. It's a tight channel with a rocky shore in the East River, a tidal strait connecting three major bodies of water. You can get sucked into a whirlpool or smashed into Execution Rocks if you make a piloting error or misjudge the wind and tide." 

I looked up Hell’s Gate on the Internet, and found that it’s officially called Hell Gate. It has been the site of some deadly maritime tragedies.

Jules doubted we would be attempting Hell Gate. But what if Neil wanted to risk it to save time? What if foul weather held us up earlier in our voyage and he had to get back in time to fight in some war?

Later, Jules and Neil came over to our house with large nautical charts and laid them out on our dining room table so we could get an idea of our intended course. Seeing we would be sailing about 10 miles out from the New Jersey Shore to avoid waves and other currents, I realized I wasn't going to be yelling "ahoy there" to anyone crazy enough to be sunbathing on the beach. At 10 miles out, would there be rogue waves? Pirates? Although Neil was a trained fighter, having served in two Middle East wars, I decided to pack my own knife.

What if we hit sudden squalls, like in the movie, “White Squall,” the true story of a windjammer out of Mystic that overturned in a sudden storm, taking the lives of several high school students? Jules and Neil assured us that the weather station would be on at all times, and that the Coast Guard could easily be reached by calling 16 on the radio. (Note to self: learn what the radio looks like, where it is, and how to use it.)

As we discussed our course around Manhattan, Jim noticed we would sail through a place called Gravesend Bay. He said, “I’m sure that name is just an exaggeration, right?” After reading how Hell Gate got its name, I didn’t want to know how Gravesend Bay got its.

But I did finally work up the nerve to ask Jules what a sailing harness was and why my neighbor suggested I borrow hers. “Actually,” she replied, “that’s not a bad idea. It’s a way to tie yourself onto the boat to prevent any erratic waves and wind from knocking you overboard.” The truth was finally coming out—there was just a little more risk to this trip than microwaving popcorn! If I accidentally fell overboard, would my first worry be drowning, freezing or shark attack? (Note to self: bring an even bigger knife and keep it in my boot.)

Next Neil showed us a Youtube video of people sailing a boat similar to theirs. It looked fun to hoist a sail up and down. When I asked what they taught their Special Olympic sailing athletes, Jules replied, “We teach them how to work the jib.”

I asked, “Can you at least teach Jim and I how to work the jib?”

Suddenly sounding very Navy, Neil said, “Oh you’ll be doing a lot more than working the jib! We are going to be sailing 18 hours a day, so there will be a lot of work for everyone. We will be drinking hot tea all day and night to keep warm. We must be alert at all times—ready for anything.”

So I had been shanghaied too! Gone were the promises of movies, microwave popcorn and cheap wine. Would we be swabbing the deck form dawn til dusk? If Jim and I weren’t up to snuff, or deemed too lazy, would we be flogged? Clamped in irons? Was keelhauling still legal?  How does one stage a mutiny?

What if the sails tore off and we ran out of gas--would we be set adrift in the Atlantic? If we were starving, would we resort to cannibalism? When I asked Jules who would be eaten first, she said, “The least useful.” Thank goodness I was about to take a four-hour coastal navigation course at Mystic Seaport. Poor Jim, he just doesn’t have time to become indispensable before the trip.

Saturday, March 4:

Jim and I went to a marine store so he could buy some sailing gloves (ones where his freezing fingers could remain uncovered so he could tie knots) and rubber boots. He actually started to become excited about the trip when the salesman encouraged him to buy the Greek fisherman’s cap he was eyeing. He said something like, “You were made for that cap—you look like Zorba the Greek.” Though not as practical as the wide-brimmed waterproof hat Jim had tried on earlier, he began fancying himself looking like a rugged seafarer.

His excitement over his purchases dimmed, however, when the salesman also mentioned he should buy a whistle. “Why would I need that?” Jim asked.

The salesman replied, “Didn’t you see the movie, “Titanic?”

In the car ride home, I assured Jim, that unlike the leading lady in the recent "Titanic" movie, I would share my floatation devise with him so we could both whistle for rescue.

That evening, Jim recovered his enthusiasm for the trip when he put on his new, Greek fisherman cap. Clipping off the tag, showing a bearded sailor smoking a pipe with the seas rolling behind him, Jim flipped it over to read the manufacture (Aegean) statement:  “…one does not need to be Greek, or a fisherman, to wear our caps. However, a feeling for adventure and romance is a must!”

“Hey, that’s me!” Jim said. He was finally coming around—just in time for our “set sail” date next week on March 10th. Strolling hand in hand through Mystic that night, we were excited to embark on a new adventure together--one we could tell our grandchildren. At least that's what we hope!

My landlubbing New York friends continue to feel only excitement about me adding my own name to the Mystic Seafarer’s trail. They seem to be blissfully unaware of how cold and erratic the March air is over the Atlantic, and apparently haven’t read all of my favorite sailing disaster stories.

Do I tell them that I prepared our daughter, Jackie, for the worst, by telling her who to call regarding our assets? That I instructed the kennel boarding Bailey what to do if he becomes orphaned? Would I cause my family worry if I revealed that our sailing master, Jules, is completely blind? Would they understand, as my seasoned Mystic sailor friends do, that since no sailor can see the wind, why would Jules need to? 

Sure, why not tell all! Let my friends and family share in the terror and thrills as our voyage unfolds. They can live vicariously through my adventure--the way I have all my life by reading the sea voyages of others from the warmth of my bed.

And do I tell Jules that it’s not quite true that I’ve never sailed before? That when I was a teenager, I went sailing with a friend and her dad and tore their very expensive sail by raising it incorrectly? That I must have “heaved” instead of “hoed?” That after 35 years, I can still see that father’s expression as we motored back to the marina?

Why not tell Jules all! Knowing a bit about me already, she doesn't seem to be afraid to sail with me. In her role as a social worker, she has worked with the criminally insane. I couldn't be much worse to deal with than they are!

Monday, March 5 
I just got done with my four-hour navigational class, where I was shocked to learn what lies beneath the waters on the east coast. Sailing charts are full of symbols warning of all kinds hazards to sail around--rocks, underwater ship wreaks, and even unexploded depth charges!

Well, I gotta go. Jules just called me, telling me to come over to practice getting into their “man overboard” harness. She said, “You don’t want to fall overboard this time of year, but if you do, it’s a lot easier for me to teach you how to get into this harness on my floor than in the cold water!”
If you would like to know how Jim and I have been faring as shanghaied sailors serving as crew for Sailing Master Jules, a blind adventuress who knows how to pack a pistol, and Captain Neil, a Navy Chief who is accustomed to barking out orders, check into my blog at:

If you would like to read how Jules is dealing with me, a plump, lazy writer who likes to imagine adventures more than actually having them, and learn more about Jules's life as a gunslinger, rock climber, artist, social worker, and blind sailor, she will have her blog up and running soon.

We set sail on Saturday, March 10, leaving from Chesapeake Bay, MD, to head to Mystic, CT, where the 33' sloop, Water Colors, will remain. We will stop along the way in Atlantic City, sail past the Statue of Liberty, through the Long Island Sound, and finally through Fishers Island Sound, to our home in Mystic, which is located close to the border of Rhode Island. If you sign into my blog with your e-mail in the box on the upper right, you will get updates in your inbox as the trip unfolds.

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