Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Boy Scout Navy

This makes my fourth summer—if I survive it—of working for the Boy Scouts of America, in the capacity of Sea Captain.

They don’t call the job Sea Captain. But the scouts who arrive at this program—their special-issue duffel bags stuffed with a week of clothing, sunblock, batteries, postage stamps for postcards, iPods (actually forbidden), DVD players (really vehemently forbidden), rain ponchos, flashlights, matches, water purifying tablets, science fiction novels, mosquito netting, sunglasses, miniature sewing kits, pocket knives and emergency flare kits—expect something very nautical and adventurous from the experience they are about to receive.

Maybe they get it. Usually some adults come with the kids—scout leaders and their assistants, adult staff, parents—and these also look forward to a seafaring time, full of complicated knots, salt spray, whaling yarns and the lore of boats. I usually start them out learning how to coil and cleat lines, crank a winch and use the toilet, an activity only faintly related to the similar practice onshore. During a later lesson they learn how to throw up over the side (always the leeward side, try to aim slightly upward.) Then they learn how to bucket off the deck with seawater. These early lessons take on a tediously practical character, though necessary.

I explain the importance of cleaning up, of closing bags, of collecting all crumbs of potato chips. I do this mostly to amuse myself: at the end of the first day, a riot would look more orderly than our boat.

I used to say all adolescent boys should be put on a boat and aimed out to sea; I never expected to be on the boat with them. But these kids have proven time and again to be thoughtful, awake and curious—most of them—the sorts of boys anybody would like as a son, and for a week they are mine. Included in the lot of big, helpful, always prepared young men is the occasional eccentric, and these are my favorites. We had the guy last year—long blonde hair, granny glasses--who insisted on wearing a kilt during most of the week. This he complimented with a pirate’s plastic sword and tricorn hat he bought in Yorktown, and swaggered up and down the river walk there with his entourage, to the great amusement of the local girls. There was the young man two years back who had made a remarkable number of fashion accessories including a wallet out of duct tape, and who, out of all the adults and boys there, was the only one to laugh at my less-obvious jokes.

The people I work with—another interesting group. The first pair I sailed with, a captain and mate, could not be persuaded to rise from their bunks before 10, which put us on the water from about 11 to 4, long enough to catch the ferocious thunderstorms that were numerous that year. They spent the summer naked but for their baggy Hawaiian swim trunks and never even packed their official CHASE shirts. Their presence echoed with waving palm trees and a crisping lilt of surf, and it was impossible to be near them and not relax.

Two years ago there was the mate who, after the program ended, persuaded one of his 16-year-old Venture Scout girls to join a voyage of his own boat for some near coastal cruising. At least, they were near the coast when the Coast Guard caught up with them. The girl had explained the trip to her parents as a kind of extension of our program and then disappeared completely from phone contact. The Council assured her parents the program had definitely ended, and the girl took on a status of national significance as helicopters went searching. They found her alive and well, as the whole crew of them were, sailing happily down the coast of South Carolina. They had managed to run through Oregon Inlet above Cape Hatteras on an outgoing tide, a treacherous bit of navigation in the best of circumstances, at night. Oh, yes, and without a working motor. I knew this young man to be a very good sailor. If he ever acquires some judgement he’ll be great.

More in a bit.