Life by the Sea

JOHN J. ROWLANDS lives at the water’s edge of Massachusetts Bay on the rocks at Cohasset. He has written, for the ATLANTIC, and is the author of a delightful book about the North Woods, CACHE LAKE COUNTRY.

Always, the day long and the night through, there is an exciting and pleasant sense of expectancy in life by the sea, for what interesting event or adventure one day doesn’t bring, tomorrow may, and the winds and the tides bear generous gifts.

Adventure can be almost anything. Perhaps it’s only a bit of driftwood for the fireplace, a hatch cover lost from a fishing boat, or planking needed for a building project. Maybe it’s only a lobster pot. Adventure can also be the wet black curtain of a squall sliced by lightning as it sweeps across Massachusetts Bay from the northwest. It may be a three-day northeaster and, once in a long while, the ominous threat of a hurricane.

Once on a summer day a white full-rigged ship, with all sails pulling, slipped over the horizon in a shimmering noonday haze. Vision of the clipper days, she turned out to be a Norwegian naval training vessel, but for a few hours we knew what it must have been like when the sight of a square-rigged ship off Boston usually meant the end of a voyage from the China Sea.

On Massachusetts Bay we remember events rather than dates. For instance, there was the day the Mauretania came ashore. it was nearing the end of an easterly blow when we sighted her, almost hidden by flying spindrift, a hundred yards offshore. There was no mistaking the long, graceful hull of the first Mauretania, and the characteristic rake of the Cunarder’s four black-tipped red funnels. She was plunging and broaching in a terrifying way, and once she heeled to starboard a full ninety degrees. But she shook herself free, water flying from her stacks, and came on until she reached that watery limbo where floating things are often impounded, even in the most violent storms, a few yards off the beach. She wallowed there for an hour, yawing and pitching until finally a huge wave broke just astern and she came in, riding the crest of the breaker. She was less than two feet long, this Mauretania, and although the model was crude, the proportions were perfect.

Where all our gifts from the sea come from we never know, but we speculate to fit the mood. The Mauretania may have drifted out from one of our own beaches only to be brought back by the storm, but there arc times when logic is an intolerable nuisance, for it is far more pleasant to develop if, and, and but theories. We should rather believe that some old mariner whittled her out on a sun-baked ledge in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland for his grandson, who later helplessly saw her drift to sea.

Our best timber comes ashore on northerly winds from the general direction of Maine, and we have learned to be cautious about what we accept. But the sea does not always keep its promises. A particularly desirable piece of lumber may come almost to our outstretched hands, only to be carried out by a sudden change in wind or the ebbing tide. The workbench in my shop is wholly from the sea, with a top of two-byeights bolted to four-by-four uprights. One of the drawers in the bench came ashore on a spring tide. Our old bureau was repaired with a scrap of antique walnut veneer that turned up on the beach one morning after a storm.

Then there was the day when a wooden sandal drifted in. It was the type that lascar seamen wear to protect their feet from the burning deck plates in tropical seas. The thong still bore the oily scent of an engine room. And another day brought us a Barbados rum bottle. The careless owner had left at least four drops in the bottom of the bottle.

Storms bring in lobster buoys, most of them local, but there was one that came from Nova Scotia trailing a string of the familiar green mooring line. Under certain conditions when the sea is very quiet and the sun is riding down to the west, the steely surface is studded with hundreds of lobster buoys, each bearing the colors of its owner. They range far out toward Boston Lightship.

In the hurricane season we turn our glass on the masts of the Lightship, six miles offshore, to pick up weather signals. We don’t worry much about southeast or northwest storm warnings; what we don’t want to see is the two red flags with black squared centers which herald the approach of a hurricane. At night the signal is two red lights with a white between.

Some of our guests find living by the sea a little difficult to understand. One night a sudden squall worked up heavy seas, and a freak wave, breaking close in, sent flying spray through a window on the face of one of our sleeping friends. To be sure, our house is perched on the rocks less than fifty feet from high water, but the force of the sea is broken by a barrier of enormous ledges. After a storm, the dried salt spray leaves our windows frosted like a barroom mirror on New Year’s Eve.

Morning, the whole year round, is the loveliest part of the day by the sea. Although one can never be sure what the rest of the day will be like, it is usually perfect at sunrise. Dawn may break as a thin horizontal wedge of color rising out of a purple sea, or it may come as a golden light increasing in radiance until it. floods the whole eastern sector of the sky as we watch.

Usually the air is clear and cool. We instinctively look across the Bay, starting in the east with Minots Light and moving on to Boston Lightship, on against the dim gray line of the north shore to Graves Light, and then to Boston Light at the entrance to the harbor.

Always somewhere between the Lightship and Nahant we see the ridingsails of the pilot boat jogging back and forth on her station. With a 25power glass we can watch her putting a pilot aboard incoming ships or takingone off as a vessel leaves the outer harbor. On clear days we can see the white yawl in which pilots are transferred from the pilot boat to the ships. She flies a white and blue flag at her masthead and reminds us of the old Gloucester schooners, although she is much longer with a high and exceedingly graceful spoon bow. Essex-built, she will take anything the Atlantic can develop in the way of nasty weather.

As we watch, we discover many things about the ships that pass in and out of the Bay. If the derrick booms are riding high, we can be pretty sure that the vessel is moving up or down the coast to another port to take on or discharge cargo. But if her booms are lashed to the deck and her spars stand bare and clean, we can be fairly certain she is beginning a long voyage.

Approaching the pilot boat, a heavily loaded vessel cuts off power a mile or so before they meet, and we always know when the meeting comes by the plume of white water at the vessel’s stern when she reverses for a full stop. If a heavy sea is running, she will swing across the wind to make a lee for the pilot’s yawl. There are two pilot boats, and every Tuesday they meet and the one on station heads into Boston for a week’s rest.

All foreign ships are required to take on a pilot, but that does not apply to coastwise ships. We note that most of the big oil tankers pass the pilot vessel without slackening speed. Their masters know their way in from long experience. Of all the ships that pass our window none are more beautiful than the pale blue heighters of the Maersk Line of Denmark. They are our regular visitors.

Before we turn in at night we pace the flying deck that spans the full width of our house thirty feet above high water. Then, as at dawn, our eyes swing the are of the Bay from Minots Light north and west toward the far shore. We pick up the steady blinking of Boston Lightship and, if visibility is very good, we may be lucky enough to see the group of five flashes every twenty seconds from Cape Ann Light on Thatcher Island in Rockport. If we can see Cape Ann, then we are sure to pick up the sky glow of Gloucester and the winking of Eastern Point Light.

And so we move down the North Shore to the alternate red and white flash of Bakers Island, the steady green glow of Marblehead Light, the high commanding flash of Graves, and finally the waxing and waning of the 100,000 candle-power beam of Boston Light at the entrance to the harbor. If visibility is at its best and we are careful in our count, we shall have picked up nineteen lights and buoys, and always, as sure as the Big Dipper rides high and serene, we can see the white light over red at the masthead of the pilot boat.

When it is calm and the sea is in a murmuring mood, we may hear the pleasant clicking of the pebbles washing back and forth in the cove, and quite often from overhead comes the croaking of night herons on their way to the tidal flats. Except in fog and heavy weather it is never completely dark at sea, for the accumulated glow of the star-strewn heavens usually fills the atmosphere with a soft radiance, a glow suggestive of the phosphorescence in warmer waters. Finally we check wind direction and barometer, and turn to bed feeling all’s well with our world by the sea.