Rite of Passage

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 9:30am

And so we come into April with great winds and high seas. The rains are heavy, with nothing of sweet spring showers about them.

There are no boats today; tomorrow, April 2, in 1980 the spare notation in my mother's hand does not include a name but it was likely the Manitou, intrepid little vessel that she was, that did not turn around and head back to Point Judith until she was off Clay Head. Those were the Good Old Days — “Gosh darn it, we're going to make it!” when people would debark with tales of big trucks running the whole way over, the drivers ready to engage air brakes if the chains broke or the wooden blocks under their wheels proved inadequate.

And then it was Tuesday, April 4, another lousy day after a lull of decent weather, and the first boat, bigger now, loaded with more people and vehicles, and with cargo we could not imagine in 1980, turned around and went back to the mainland. 

Early reports that it was running at all has come as a surprise; the wind was driving the rain, again, the seas were high, again.

Then the recollections I had briefly pondered a few days ago began to appear on social media, initially with first person accounts of having to go back from whence they came and throw all their clothes in a dryer, to younger voices recounting the hot dog machine flying off the counter, and a telling mention of “51 years” without having experienced a turnaround, a particular rite of passage. 

Then everything morphed to the inevitable recollections of other trips and other mid-ocean reversals, on these large vessels that currently ply the winter waters, then the Manitou, which may have over time morphed with tales of the Manissee, the sister ship. They were the first vessels that had open decks and could carry the big trucks, the vehicles of the chains and blocks and air brakes, the first stern loaders.  

They would run far off to the east then south, up toward the bluff where the lighthouse sits, before positioning to make a run for the mouth of the Old Harbor. The horror stories come cascading down, all these crazy memories that we will carry the rest of our lives, tales of trying three times before returning to the mainland.


Someone mentions the engines being slowed, and I remember a particular Thanksgiving Wednesday trip and a young fisherman, one of my mother's former students, explaining it was in anticipation of a drive into an oncoming wave. Then the quiet engines roared, up we went, only to drop into the trough on the other side of the cresting ocean. There are stories of coming home with new babies, and water washing into the second floor cabin of the Manitou. Small wonder when I saw that vessel, its once green cabin painted white, a failed attempt at disguise, at the dock after Superstorm Sandy. I thought the Ghost of Bad Crossings Past had come to haunt us through the coming winter, a fear which did not materialize. 

Enter the Quonset, an awkward summer vessel a lifelong summer weekend traveller once remarked “can't get out of her own way!” A side loader she was, and I think of my brother coming home, dressed in the uniform of a Naval Officer, summer whites, one Friday when the Quonset couldn't get the second line secured before the squall hit and the poor craft lumbered for half an hour, unable to reach the dock.

There are other summer recollections, the time the captain literally jumped ship in the harbor on the other side, of the Quonset – again – losing engine power, and more, but mostly words are of the winter boats, and all about the Point Judith run.

Inevitably came the Sprigg Carroll, the sturdy little boat of my childhood and my own singular experience with that call — an hour out of Point Judith — “we're heading back!” We, a group of school kids, many of whom had never before been sick, were returning from a trip scheduled to accommodate a basketball game the night before in Jamestown.

It was, knock on wood, the only time I have ever been seasick, the only time I've been on a boat that turned around. The cabin of the little Sprigg was aft, closer to the water than I can believe when I look at pictures, and we hung just outside it, by the doors to the deck that encircled the stern, many wretched kids, watching the hills and valleys of the great ocean swirling as we changed course.

Then it was calmer, we were no longer fighting the wind, and it took, at most, half as long to get back to port as it had to reach that place, perhaps a third of the way out, where the captain decided enough was enough.

We all have to share our horror stories online, and mine of that trip elicited a response from a classmate, remembering the night we spent in Westerly, waiting to fly home the next day and only now, all these years later, am I finally thinking I have the answer to “why not Narragansett?” - it was Saturday, winter, the boat may not have been scheduled to run the next day.

Morning, a day later, the sun is shining and people are wondering about their PeaPod orders, part of that cargo we could not have imagined in 1980, “home delivery” of plastic “pods” filled with groceries, brought not to our doors but to the dock in Galilee.

When I go out in the afternoon the late-arriving pods are hard to miss, a green wall punctuated with purple, down by the freight shed. It is disconcerting, Wednesday is not a PeaPod day any time of year, the way Thursday is not a dump day, no matter the season.

The ultimate arbitrator of our lives, the boat, can even change — if not the reality — at least the perception of time.