A high summer day, end of August, Bar Harbor, Maine. Tide’s out. We stand squinting on a metal pier some 25’ above the water, queuing up for a windjammer sail aboard the Margaret Todd, a 151’ four-masted schooner. Once they open the gate, we passengers must make our way down a steeply inclined grate to a floating dock at the end of which we will go up a set of wooden steps to come aboard the ship. It’s only 10:00 a.m. but the heat is increasing with the rising sun which glitters on the harbor, already burning our bare arms and legs.
It’s a two-hour sail out of the harbor and around Frenchman’s Bay. The dock is filling with tourists. A lady next to me has brought a baby stroller holding a dachshund who blinks out at us through the screening. “You should have seen her this morning,” the lady laughs, her red-lipsticked mouth agape. “I don’t know what was wrong with this dog. I had to drag her along! She wouldn’t use her back legs and stand up.”
Her friend pokes her to get her attention. “Hey, your mother is hanging over the railing with her phone trying to get a photo of the boat. She’s gonna drop it.” The mother, an excited woman in her eighties with steel-wool colored hair is rushing back and forth on the platform snapping pictures of the harbor, the islands, the schooner below us and the people waiting to board. A family with two red-haired boys, about six and seven, stands behind us in the line. The kids already have the jitters and are trying to escape their parents’ grasp.
“Alright, we’re going to start boarding in just a few minutes,” a young woman in a “Margaret Todd” t-shirt announces. We all step aside as a lady in a wheelchair is steered through the crowd to the gate by her husband and two young male crew members. It takes all three men to stop the chair from racing down the sharply-inclined ramp with its occupant in it. Holding our breath, we all strain forward to see what will happen. All goes well until the wheelchair gets wedged in-between the rails of the wooden steps. Several other crew members yank it free, lifting the lady safely aboard.
She and her husband are in their forties and neither of them change their expressions while all of this is occurring. “MS?” I think to myself, as I watch them secure her chair on the port side, up front. Now the rest of us scramble aboard, choosing our seats. Dan and I get a bench facing two South American women seated at the rail. The red-haired boys and their parents are in-between Dan and the wheelchair couple. Stretching out on the bench, the boys began teasing each other until the mother moves to the rail with one son, separating them.
A lady in a long skirt, grey hair in a French twist, takes a seat with her husband and a group of older men and women.
People trickle on in small groups. We still have five minutes before the cruise starts.
“I’m boiling,” I tell Dan. “I wish so many people didn’t wait till the last minute.”
“Once we start moving you’ll be cool enough,” Dan replies. The last passengers board; a young couple carrying a curly-haired strawberry-blonde toddler.
We feel the ship move beneath us like an earthquake.
The captain’s microphone crackles to life as he welcomes us. “We request that until we are out of the harbor and raise the sails, everyone remain seated. All children must be in physical contact with an adult when walking around the deck.” The parents of the two boys both tighten their grips on each kid. Anyone can see the brothers are dying to get at each other across the isle.
“Look, Dan. These are two of the Porcupine Islands.” We pass in-between the islands; tall, tree-covered and rounded. “I think they look much more like hedgehogs than porcupines.”
The sails are unfurled and raised, and the Margaret Todd sails past several rocky shoals as we enter Frenchman’s Bay. We’re allowed to walk around the deck now. Almost everyone but the couple with the wheelchair ends up on the starboard side, straining to see the sleek bodies of harbor seals playing around the rocks.
“OOOH!” A shout goes up as a harbor porpoise leaps out of the water near the bow on the port side and all the passengers hurry back across the deck to stare fixedly into the froth, hoping for another sighting. The lady in the wheelchair sits open-mouthed, having clearly seen the porpoise rise out of the water into the air, like an unexpected gift; sudden, precious.
“You were right, Dan,” I say, zipping up my fleece hoodie. “It is cold out here!”
We tool along with only the wind moving us, as the crew tries to maneuver in-between the thousands of lobster traps that bob on the dark blue water like colored balloons.
Halfway through the sail, one of the halyards becomes entangled in one of the blocks. Everyone becomes quiet as two young crew members, a woman and a man, leap aboard a stack of life rafts to untangle things.
“The wind out here in the bay is so strong that we need to lower most of the sails to get back around the Porcupines and into the harbor,” says the captain. I glance at the lady in the wheelchair, whom I haven’t heard speak. Her brown hair whips around her face; she appears to be lost in thought. Her husband returns from standing at the rail and takes a seat beside her, giving her hand a squeeze.
Just then, the little toddler cries out, “Daddy, up, up . . . Daddy, Daddy . . . NO . . . NO!” I turn to see a small thrashing shape in pink, spread-eagled and furious, strawberry curls bouncing.
“She looks just like a little red starfish,” I tell Dan.
The wind stills and we glide by Sheep Porcupine Island.
“Look up at the top there and you will see an eagle’s nest. Yup, there’s an eagle; maybe one of the chicks. They’re just about fledged,” the captain tells us. Sure enough, a small white shape can be seen against the blue-black shadows of the dark green pines riding the air currents like a dandelion seed. . . .
“Daddy, Daddy . . . NO! up . . . DOWN!!” The child’s screams cut through the air. Everyone tries not to stare but takes a peek as the ship docks.
“Somebody needs a nap!” I hiss to Dan over the hysterical child. Even the boys can’t look away. The woman in the wheelchair looks wistful. Makes me wonder if she has children. I’m betting it will be a real challenge getting her back up that steep ramp.
The Margaret Todd docks without issue. Dan and I move towards the wooden steps, anxious to be away from the screaming child.
“One last thing,” our captain adds as we depart. “Those of you who plan to walk out on the sand bar to Bar Island over there, (he’s pointing) need to know that the tide will be coming in and within an hour you won’t be able to walk back. Your legs will be useless once that sand bar is 6’ under water.” The lady in the wheelchair and her husband will be the last passengers to leave the ship. I look back to see her being lifted down the wooden stairs and wonder what it’s like when your legs are useless.
Jack is determined to take me on the windjammer sail. I would have been happy to do something on the shore but I wanted Jack to have a good time on our holiday. We arrived at the dock half an hour ahead of schedule, but neither of us reckoned on the tide being so low. Here’s the thing: If you have never been helpless, I mean, where you really can’t walk, you can’t imagine all the obstacles you will encounter.
First of all, I can see that the water level is about 6’ below the high-water line. What this means is that somehow Jack will have to get the chair down a long, very steep ramp just to get us to the floating dock. As I look down, I am picturing Jack losing his grip, the chair accelerating until, “BANG!” It hits the floating dock, tips me out. As I slide across, I can see the sparkle of blue water in-between the slats. My last thought before I slip into the icy harbor is, “Jack was determined to take me on this damned boat ride!” I hear myself scream, shrill and high-pitched. . . .
“EEEECH!” The gulls circle above us, screeching as we wait atop the pier. Jack stands behind the chair as two strong young crew men run up the steep ramp and grab the arms of my wheelchair. The three men provide the brakes as I am inched down the slope to the floating pier. By now, a crowd of fellow passengers stands, fascinated by the spectacle, watching from above; even the children, hoping . . . no . . . maybe just imagining my chair breaking loose.
I am rolled across the floating dock to a little portable wooden stairway, which acts as a gangplank with hand rails to help passengers climb on board. Of course, my chair gets wedged in-between the rails. A few more crew members run over, muscling me loose and lifting the chair on board. Jack wheels me as far forward as possible, parking me next to the roped-off area at the ship’s front. He takes a seat next to me.
“See?” he says, sweat rolling down his forehead. “That wasn’t hard.”
Two red-headed boys and their parents take the seat next to Jack as the passengers swarm on board. The kids pay me no attention as they poke and pinch each other until they are separated by their parents.
“We request that until we are out of the harbor and raise the sails, everyone remain seated. All children must be in physical contact with an adult when walking around the deck,” the captain announces over an intercom. The parents, facing each other, exchange significant glances.
We wait, baking in the hot August sun, for the tardy passengers. Not a cloud in the sky; not much wind here in the harbor. Finally, a young couple with a tiny red-haired toddler hurries aboard and, amidst much scrambling on deck, we feel the Margaret Todd’s powerful engines backing us out of her berth. Turning slowly, as though we were in a blimp, the schooner motors in-between the rounded, forested islands they call “The Porcupines.”
Oh, look! We’re out of the harbor and they’re hauling up those huge red sails. Even Jack is helping. I think they just ask for help to make the passengers feel like they’re true sailors.
“Now that we’ve raised the sails, feel free to move around the deck and explore,” the captain announces. Jack stands at the rail, watching the water, somewhat in front of me, but I can see a little smile on his face. It’s the same smile he usually wears. But the way the light plays off the wrinkles around his eyes tells me he’s somewhere back in time, back before the accident. With his silver hair blowing across his forehead I still see a twenty-year-old Jack, freckles and that reddish hair. There’s a wildness about red hair. . . .
Now that people may walk about, the two little boys are more interested in knuckling each other than observing the water.
“Captain’s shut off the motor, honey,” Jack says, and, sure enough, the ship glides quietly through the bay like a great white swan. He and I sit together; most of the passengers have relocated to the sunny side of the deck. We tip our faces upwards, eyes closed, breathing the fine salt air. I am glad for my sweater, especially in the shade of the sails.
“OOOOH!!!” A harbor porpoise vaults out of the water before us in a graceful arc. Now people’s gazes are glued to the water, hoping for another sighting. The Margaret Todd threads her way through a sea of colorful lobster traps, past several rocky shoals. Two slick brown seals play at the shoal’s edges, too far away to be seen clearly without binoculars. Passengers begin to settle down, lulled by the ship’s motion and the sun’s warmth.
“Listen. . . .” I whisper to Jack. “It’s so quiet!” The only sounds were the luffing of the sails and a distant bell ringing in a buoy. We can hear the cries of the gulls that trail the occasional lobster boats. White, white birds whip through the blue wind above; the sharp prow of the schooner parts the deep blue waters like a young lover. Seals and porpoises, slip, unseen; swift dark secrets below all of us.
I am imagining myself escaping my wheelchair and rolling towards the the rail. Before anyone knows it, I pull myself overboard, into the icy cold chop. As I sink down, down through the bubbles, I open my eyes, feeling my body grow sleek and streamlined. These useless legs become strong fins that propel me forward with each muscular stroke. I don’t feel the cold; just an exhilarating sense of freedom . . .
“DADDY . . . DADDY! . . . NO . . . Up! . . . Up!” a toddler’s voice splits the air, shocking me so that I nearly do fall out of my chair. If I turn my whole upper body I can see the commotion halfway down on the other side of the deck. Simultaneously, the crew has begun to lower the sails, one of which’s lines have somehow become entangled.
“As we return to the harbor, look up at the top of Sheep Porcupine Mountain there and you will see an eagle’s nest. Yup, there’s an eagle; maybe one of the chicks,” the captain tells us. We can barely see the bird against the dark foliage. The crew takes their places as we enter the harbor.
“Passengers, please return to your seats now while we start the engine to come into the dock.”
We are all straining to hear the captain over the screaming child. With her strawberry ringlets, her little pink sweater and pants, she had worked herself into a tantrum, flailing her arms and legs out to the sides.
“She looks just like a little pink starfish,” a woman tells her husband.
“Daddy . . . Daddy . . . NO UP! . . . Down!” she howls, commanding the attention of all the passengers. As we watch, the furious toddler kicks herself free of her father’s grasp and hangs by one arm, limbs akimbo, exactly (indeed) like a starfish.
“Boy, somebody needs a nap,” the lady near me says. “Glad we’re back in port!”
The child’s piercing shrieks nearly drown out the captain as he thanks us for sailing with him and warns us about walking out on the sandbar to Bar Island. I think he’s saying something about the tide coming in but all I hear is, “Your legs won’t do you any good. . . .”
I watch the child’s mortified parents climb down the wooden stairs carrying the little girl, whose screams are subsiding into a loud wail. Her little legs, however still flail so hard that one of her shoes flies off, nearly slipping into the water. Such strong little legs!
I am the last passenger to exit the ship. Jack and the other crewmen drag me and my chair backwards up the ramp towards the shore, where, I know everyone will complain about how long it takes to get their “land legs” back.