Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Appledore Revisited: I Am Charles Ryder (& Ishmael for Melville's Birthday!)

Happy Birthday, Herman Melville! Born August 1, 1819.

I read the stupendous Moby Dick in college, like generations before me.  My experience of the great American novel is that it is a symphony: some chapters seem to be independent movements, but you come away from the whole as though you have heard a musical masterpiece.

My own schooner sailing experience, however, has more resonance with Hemingway and Waugh.

“I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.”

Charles Ryder, Brideshead Revisited

Last night I dreamt I went to the Appledore again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the dockyard, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. I called in my dream to the captain, and had no answer.

Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me, and I was once again on the familiar douglass fir deck, underway with the enormous sails around me.

M.A.Peel via Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca

I crewed for two summers during college on a schooner out of Sag Harbor, New York. The Appledore was the last schooner custom built by the Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine, in 1978, designed by Bud Macintosh. After Herbert Smith sailed it around the world, he sold it to Cornelius Donovan and Ed Orr, two wild dreamers who were making a business of day sails in Gardiner’s Bay, and overnights from Montauk to Block Island. That’s when I entered their story.

I had only just sailed for the first time in college, as a guest of a childhood friend and the Georgia Tech Sailing Club for their annual tradition of sailing from Miami to Bimini. We were under a pelting storm across the Gulf Stream throughout the long night, and it was thrilling. When I got back home I wanted to learn to sail. I saw an article in Newsday about big boat sailing on the East End. I wrote 3 letters asking to be apprentice crew, and got 2 job offers. And so I landed on the Appledore.

Ed Orr: A Sagaponack Hemingway

The man who offered me the Appledore job was her captain Ed Orr, a retired principal of Southampton High School who loved sailing and the life of skilled sailors. He had a soft spot for an Irish American English major, and he received my letter just as he was thinking that he needed a feminizing influence for his overnight sails from Montauk to Block Island (although those aren't the exact words he used). His real schooner sailors were colorful, if a little rough on the edges. (They turned out to be great shipmates.)

He had sunk his retirement money into the Appledore, and strove to run it without losing the joy of it. Cornelius Donovan was a true Mad Men ad man,  a silent business partner who didn't interfere with how Ed handled the sailing.

Ed had the timelessness of the sailor's soul. He could have been been a whaler during the 19th century or on the deck of a Roman trireme.  I didn't know him well,  but there was a commonality of place and time: like my father he was in the service, I think also a Marine, went to college on the postwar GI Bill, and raised a family in postwar suburbia. He was blustery, with the Irish gift of storytelling. It wasn't hard to see that he was frustrated by some of the life choices he had made and he was railing against his fate in ways large and small, unimportant and corrupt: a classic tortured soul.

The Funniest Day: Tough Time Docking on Block Island

This memorable day took its first turn when the real schooner sailors George and Bobby both didn’t show up, and we had a usual sail planned from Sag Harbor to Block Island, with about 10 guests.

The captain that day was a very young, very talented guy named Robbie who had gotten his GRT 200 commercial captain’s license at a very young age.

“Captain—no guys today, just me.”

“No problem, we’ll be fine.”

Hmmmm. Maybe.

We had the guests to help raise the main and foresail, and the winds were low that day, so the run to Block was—yes—very smooth sailing. That wasn’t the problem.

The sun was just starting to set as we motored slowly through the forest of anchored boats in New Harbor on the way to Payne’s dock. I am standing in the bow, holding the bowline to throw, as Rob--

[I Interrupt This Story for Several Important Notes: Everything on a schooner is supersized. Even a fairly small amount of line on a schooner is very heavy. Lines are usually thrown overhand, to get the distance needed between ship and dock. I, alas, did not yet have much upper body strength, being fresh from two years of English majorness, compounded by sophmore mono. George and Bobby always do this part. Narrative resumes. . . ]

bie is piloting the 86-foot schooner toward the dock under a low engine. He brings the ship in at an angle, to get me as close to the dock as possible before he has to straighten it out. And in that flow of motion, I throw the dock line with as much might as I have. But---SPLAT!!!—--right into the water. Without the bowline to anchor us, Robbie has to swing away from the dock, and I have to haul the now wet, heavier, line back into the ship.

Robbie circles us around in as tight a radius as the size of the ship will allow, and we are headed again straight for Payne’s.

The Appledore coming into port is a majestic sight—it often attracts a crowd. Chug, chug, chug--we are close again---again I pick up the line, and throoooooow it with all my might.

OHHHHHHHHH the crowd roars, as the line once again falls into the water, and Robbie has to peel off, again.

I was horrified. I was exhausted. I was scared. What if I can’t get this line onto land? Isn’t this how the Ancient Mariner’s world went horribly wrong?

I can barely write this, but my throw fell short a third time. We were entering Monty Python territory now. (I built a castle, but it fell in. So I built another castle, and it fell…), but it wasn’t funny.

For insurance reasons, the guests are not allowed in the bow during docking, so even though there are some good sized guys with the guests, I am on my own. Once again, I coil the evil line. Robbie shouts that he is going to come in even more slowly, which means he can get even closer to the dock.

Chug-chug–chug. There is now a very large crowd gathered, many rows deep, waving, shouting, pointing to our ship. Mercifully, they are a blur to me. (I should have never left the safety of the library.)

Several resourceful, Frat-looking guys are forming a human chain to hang out as far as possible over the dock. Someone yells at me, “Throw it underhand.”

We are now close enough that I can lob 2 feet of this cursed line to the guy at the end of the human chain. He cleats us, Robbie goes into reverse, cuts the engine, and we are home.

I didn’t have time to be too mortified at that moment. I help the passengers off the boat, dress the deck as usual, and go into town.

After dinner I go to Captains Nick’s, a friendly place where the sailing crowd dances.

I am relaxing at the bar, when a very good-looking man starts the “what brings you here” conversation with me. Now, during this summer, I was not above aggrandizing my job a little--tall tales are the way of the world on the water--but that night, I say, “I’m an apprentice sailor, learning big-boat sailing.”

He looks straight at me and smiles and says, “I know.”


“I tried to catch one of your dock lines today.”

At the public dock in Sag Harbor


Eddie said...

Okay, I looked up the "Rebecca" reference. My interest was piqued. Loved this post. Having spent a year and a half at sea, I appreciate your descriptions and the memories that came flooding back.To paraphrase. I felt like I left something behind, and have felt the lack of it often enough. Thanks for stirring some emotions.

Guy Santostefano said...

Hi, not sure how I found this blog, but it's cool!! My name is Guy Santostefano. I sailed on appledore as a student from southampton college in the fall of 1982. In the summer of 1985 I crewed on her out of sag harbor, then montauk for half of the summer. We made 7 trips to block island that summer. The Bobbie you refer to was probably Bobbie Barnes. he worked with us in '85. The captain that summer was Jim Wright, along with his family. They were from Ct. I'm guessing Charles Ryder sailed on appledore before '85?

Ellen O'Neill said...

Ed, thanks for reading. You should see the 1940 film Rebecca. It was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, his first in the US, and stars Laurence Olivier & Joan Fontaine. Really good.

Your comment about being on the sea made me think of something my dad once said. He didn't talk much about his time in the Marines, but for some reason he once told me that while at boot camp the sergeant asked him, "What part of the Navy is the Marines?" Dad said he gave him the textbook answer, and the guy shouted back at him, "It's the best damn part of the Navy and don't you ever forget it."

I think you would enjoy the novel Brideshead Revisited, written by the great English Catholic convert, Evelyn Waugh. Set during World War II, the narrator looks back at his life to that point.

Ellen O'Neill said...

Guy, so glad you found this post. I lost touch with Ed Orr after my 2 college summers, which were 1981 and 1982, so we almost overlapped. Sounds like he sold the business shortly after that. [Charles Ryder is a character in a novel. I was an English major!]

Gsanto2009 said...

Ellen, so YOU were the crewmember? did you go to southampton college? I was there from 80-84. Do you have any pics of your sailing adventures on Appledore? Was Bobby, Bobby Barnes?

Ellen O'Neill said...

Hi Guy, all the pictures you see in this post are from my crewing days on the Appledore. I think the confusion is that Ed Orr & Con Donovan owned the ship in early 1980s. They rented it out to Southampton for the sea-mester,but had nothing to do with it.

I did not go to Southampton on LI. I only sailed with Capt. Ed Orr for 2 summers. The other young captain I knew was definitely Robbie, not Bobbie. And again, he wasn't connected to the sea=mester.

Gsanto2009 said...

do you remember Con's assistant? I believe her name was Fran or France Posner?

Ellen O'Neill said...

Yes, I did know France. She was around that first summer, doing the bookings for Ed and Con.

Horse Jitney said...

My father, Dr Tom Haresign, conceived SEAmester as a platform to attract students to Southampton College. It was a great program. I was on the 10th anniversary cruise but also got to go on The Harvey Gamage as a kid.

Ellen O'Neill said...

Hi Horse Jitney, thanks so much for stopping by. Did you know of Ed Orr as a kid from those early years of the SEAmester when I think he still owned the Appledore.