Whale, Dead Ahead!
From the first faint light of morning, distant, ominous clouds electrified the eastern sky. The late spring weather was turning around, backing up, threatening a full-blown nor’easter. Even the temperature came down mighty cool for June, yet the breeze had not yet given way to the full force of the approaching wind.
It was our day off, and feeling trapped by six consecutive days of looking at walls in a seemingly forgotten dining room, we decided to take the ferry from Shelter Island across Gardiners Bay to Sag Harbor. From there we’d drive toward the Atlantic and then down the coast to Southampton where we hoped to find a dining room occupied by bonafide customers instead of empty tables. So, at 8 o’clock that morning, I and my job-scouting partner approached the tiny eastern Shelter Island dock with little more than new employment opportunities on our land-loving minds.
But before we depart for Sag Harbor, let me say a little about Shelter Island. If you look at a map of eastern Long Island, you’ll see right off how it got its name. Yet, islands are also sheltered by their isolation, and such separations tend to attract those who build their summer cottages far apart, so far apart they create castles behind moats. A long walk or short ride between each island dwelling, and you’ll see not another living soul out or about. Thus, we suspected the hidden residents of Shelter Island left before dawn and returned after dark with their lamplights and lanterns well out.
When Charlie and I had first arrived by ferry from the Greenport side of Shelter Island a week earlier, we stopped at the little mariner’s bar about six ferry-lengths up from the dock. While we waited for our tuna-salad sandwiches, the old bartender, assisted by two equally old-salt patrons, volunteered a current history of Shelter Island (c. 1967).
It pays to know that the Shelter Island locals don’t usually encourage strangers, especially those coming off the Greenport ferry wearing technicolor shorts. Yet, since we had arrived to work at the Derring Harbor Inn, and were not wearing such atrocious examples of Bermuda togs, we were temporarily probated in.
“Oh, you work for Miss Carpenter.”
“Uh, no, we’re going to work at the Derring Harbor Inn.”
“What d’ya think, Miss Carpenter owns the Derring Inn!” replied the one with the white beard, bamboo cane, and red plaid shirt.
“What d’ya know, Miss Carpenter owns this whole damn island” added his salt-kick with the silver beard and wearing a nicely contrasting blue plaid shirt, navy-blue captain’s hat, and puffing on an unlit, long-stem, curved pipe – which he whispered between words had been carved from a whale bone back in ‘31.
“No she don’t own this whole damn island, Mike,” corrected the bartender, wearing a red apron below his green plaid shirt – and who whispered back that Mike had paid through the nose for that god-awful pipe after running aground off Istanbul in ‘48.
“Well, if she’s the Miss Carpenter what owns the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, then she’s the Miss Carpenter what owns this whole damn island!”
“Look, I own this bar, and no Miss Carpenter…”
“Yeah?… she’ll give you twenty, then push you off the Greenport ferry and come back tomorrow to fish out her twenty!”
Their three-way conversation continued while Charlie and I first studied, then ate our tuna sandwiches. It had become apparent that their dialogue had been going on for years, including the decades before Charlie and I were born. Kind of an oral jukebox spinning old times and new tales, and going at it seven days a week without taking a plug-pulled break. After they quit Miss Carpenter and the whispered footnotes, they turned to whaling and the harpoon-boats they manned as young men. Of course, this is where city dwellers get off -- from pitching decks on seasick seas, and sudden squalls pushing man and mast overboard amid shouts of “Whale dead ahead!”
The bar was situated in what must have been Shelter Island’s commercial hub. If memory serves, this disguised, offset spoke consisted entirely of one small retail building, letting three modest stores and, one bar. From an inside stool, the view leads quickly down to the water, then across Gardiners Bay to the town of Greenport – the mainland, representing the shortest land distance between us and Brooklyn. The outstanding feature of Shelter Island, however, stood nonexistent, that is, based on the collective opinion of the three plaid shirts. “In the old days…” when not sailing the oceans, the three plaids lived in Sag Harbor, which was, they declared and agreed, “The whaling capitol of the world!” Maybe so, but Charlie and I had already washed overboard when they mentioned ships beyond the sight of dry land.
Shelter Island did, however, reveal one notable feature; its isolation. It’s was more feeling than fact, although the fact was clearly more visible. At night, after work, having waited on two, maybe three customers, Charlie and I would drive around in search of excitement – or at least diversion. If we drove slowly, it took twenty minutes to travel end-to-end every road on the island, but at normal speed we’d wind up back where we started in seven minutes flat. Thus, remaining on the island for the summer, or a full year, would require 1.8 or 6.7 gallons of gas, respectively.
Thus, on the morning of the approaching storm, not even a nor’easter was going to keep us from spending our day off seeking the rewards of low paid work. But when we reached the dock on the remote eastern edge of the island, our minimal car seemed awfully big compared to the tiny ship waiting at anchor. Adding to the rising apprehension, the bay appeared rough, mighty rough, as if preparing to swamp the barely seaworthy plank of wood they called the Sag Harbor Ferry.
“You wanna go 'cross?” yelled the deck-hand as we paused at the ferry’s threshold.
“Yes Sir, looks a bit rough though.”
“You kiddin’, this ain’t nothin’, nothin’ like September.”
“Well, I guess we…”
“Listen, the captain’s fish’n to go, so pull’er on so we can get this tub underway.”
Still, I hesitated, waiting for a consensus.
“C’mon, no big deal, pull on,” Charlie urged.
Meanwhile, the waves were picking up under increasingly heavy, fast moving skies. Our Rambler weighted the tiny ferry down level with the sea, inviting salt water to slosh freely across the fore, aft, and mid decks. Sea spray covered our windows, and the sudden 50-mile wind was pushing wet through cracks in the doors. And, we were still tied to shore.
Finally, a ship’s horn equal to the Queen Mary let loose, and we were underway. The shock of the blast cleared our windows of spray, and us of the car. Actually, that oversize horn seemed a counter to any storm, its force capable of – by itself – propelling this toy model of a Sag Harbor ship through any blow.
We stood on a narrow, corrugated-metal walkway holding firmly onto the flimsy railing. Not hundred feet from shore, Charlie was already going code green and retreated to the car – which was independently sliding this way and that across the tacked, metal deck. It was then that I saw the captain smiling up on the bridge, up being relative. His face seemed somehow familiar, like the animated image I’d once seen in a dusty magazine while waiting in the dentist’s office – an image of a laughing captain going down with his pirated schooner (because he hadn’t brushed his teeth).
I couldn’t hold out much longer getting pummeled on deck, but before I caught the car as it slid by, I took one last squint between the sea sprays at the laughing captain’s face. Then I remembered. It was the barman’s salt-kick, Mike, the one wearing the blue plaid and puffing the empty pipe! And there he was, in all his ocean-going glory, shipping Ramblers while chasing whales over tidal waves and whiskey said tales!
A massive ocean it was, too, as we pitched and rolled, bearing east while heading north, tires and hearts alternately plunging under water. From inside the car it was a voyage charted in cold sweats, code-green Charlie, both of us seconds away from crashing overboard – then only to be remembered by the coming summer’s overhead pleasure boats;
“Percy, isn’t this where that Rambler went down?”
“Pardon, what Rambler?” young husband Percy Old-Money asks absently as he continues searching their 90’ yacht’s mirror-finished mahogany galley for something profoundly more important.
“You know, Darling, the one with those waiters, the one’s who worked for Mrs. Carpenter.”
“Oh, yes, the one named Chas, or Chuck, mashing rotten anchovies into our Caesar salad.”
“Percy, you should be more respectful, and I liked the salad.”
“Honey, where’s the caviar?”
(“DOWN HERE, you silver-spoon FOOL! And by the way, Percy, sweetie, that wasn’t anchovy Charley slipped into your fetid salad.)
Like it or not, Captain and mate, water and waiters, were in the gale up to their necks. And I can tell you now, we were out hunting whale, out beyond love and sight of land, storming the high seas, heaving and plunging through giant waves searching for the telltale sign, the black giant with the missing left eye, calling us ever closer to his monstrous air-spout, his flag -- and battle. The captain was on the bridge, behind the glass, his pipe askew, holding onto anything he could grasp. Charlie and I were out on deck, our Rambler inches from disappearing into the raging sea; “RAMBLER OVERBOARD!!”
“The chocks, get the chocks!” the deck-hand/first-mate screamed over the furious din while pointing aft from the bridge; the “bridge”, that outhouse with a window – no matter, we were hunting whale! “Put the chain up, put the chain up!” he pointed again, this time his finger shot fore. I wondered why I alone had to save the Rambler, until I noticed the first-mate was the ship’s only device propping our captain up. “Let it go!” Charlie yelled, as if I could bear our car going down to become a sea chest. But he was right, so I scanned the deck for the harpoons. The captain was busy and his mate was busier. Thus, I alone spotted the right-eyed colossus surfacing the waves, and my destiny to bring this monster in; “WHALE, DEAD AHEAD! WHALE DEA…..”
Just that quick, the gale subsided, the waves receded. The turmoil on dark gray clouds lifted from whence it came, turning light, then milk against the clearing skies. Sag Harbor lay quiet and peaceful ahead. The captain was upright, his pipe adjusted and lit, while his mate hurried to straighten the deck. Charlie and I leaned wet and wrung against the Rambler, wondering if we had just shipped through a fish tale told from books. Yet, it wasn’t such at all, as seawater spilled from rambled doors and whaler’s shoes.
Yet, I say, if there was a dream dreamt that day, then let its ship prowl the seven seas. Let it search ‘till it finds that villainous monster, and brings him in strapped under the S.S. Sag Harbor!
If you’d like to whale along the coming seasons of summer or fall, remember what the mackerel-faced mate said as we pushed our car onto shore; “You really want to see somethin’, cross in September!” Yet, our Rambler had other ideas as it coughed and sputtered, shooting tempests of sea from its rear pipe into the ocean’s face. Yes, it cleared its muffler of whetted salt and baby crabs as no ifs to say, “Keep your whales and sail your seas, we’ll be ramblin’ high, dry land well clear of whales and bay!”