Monday, September 06, 2010

The Day Boat

Daysailing on a tourist boat? Oh yes! New people to work with, a new boat to learn, new lines to pull. Maybe a little money! Three sails daily depending on the weather, from the big dock in the sunny old port.

Quiet captain. Reserved. His smile is fixed in place with the long practice of hiring new people, and firing them. Effective smile, efficient smile, which it turns out express many moods depending on the situation: the smugness of preeminence over new deckhands, the wrath over something done completely wrong, the satisfaction over contemplated vengeance.

It’s a simple boat, and without trouble you learn the important things to pull, and the best way to pull them. You learn that if you pull them one way, you should have pulled them the other. And that if you pull them the other, there is yet a third way you clearly haven’t the wits to figure out for yourself. Most important, you learn the right attitude for learning, which is this: As soon as anything is explained, take up the task boldly, execute it confidently, and then give it immediately to the mate, for she will not be happy with it. This is good policy. Her esteem for you will grow, the more you prove her value by doing things unsatisfactorily before her.

Her attitude is one of standing disapproval, plus maybe a small dose of physical revulsion, but with a trace of hope. This is designed to bring out the best in her crew. With a single crinkle of her nose she is able to convey very complex ideas, such as the concept that you are one of those people who could not be trusted to put your underwear on straight without help.

The customers line up at the gangway, full of questions, waving their reservation printouts. Once aboard they sit and look bewildered, wondering if it will be like a Disney ride, where a kid in a company polo tells them to strap in tightly and keep their arms in the car. Some of them bug their eyes in apprehension. The wind is now gusting to three knots.

And here comes the richly-tailored lady sprinting toward you as the boat takes in lines, her grandchild ambling ever further behind her. She is not to be denied, she will come aboard no matter how difficult it might be to reset the gangway. And so it happens. The new passengers are welcomed, the gangway struck once more, the ship cast off. Reaching into her purse she announces that she has no cash. But you do take credit cards, don’t you? Surely you take credit cards.

Meanwhile her grandchild has begun working loose a belaying pin. He is a gifted child, clearly. An intuitive child. He senses your unease with his work on the belaying pin, and so his effort increases. When resisted he tries with both hands. When prevented he screams. His grandmother only smiles. A lovely child. He will caper about getting himself into every sort of trouble he can find, showing an arrogance and contempt for others that are remarkable in one so young. Someday he’ll run an insurance company.

Two hour sails. Haul the halyards and hoist the gaffs. Raise the staysail and jib, and then haste to the galley to sell beer, wine, softdrinks and light snacks. Stay in the galley until the captain’s testiness reveals you aren’t required to stay below, only be present when customers come. No, you can stay on deck until passengers appear in the galley. Then you run and sell them pretzels. Unless you’re doing something very important, then stay on deck. The captain will reveal what something very important might be whenever you stop doing it.

In a moment of levity, you urge your fellow deckhand to explain the Bernoulli Effect to the good people aboard. This proves unwise. He plunges into a discussion of high and lower pressure systems around the sails, sometimes putting the high pressure before the sail and sometimes behind, and speaking of the port of the boat while pointing to the starboard, and you begin to hope that you have not invited him to demonstrate what idiots you are before your bosses. Later you understand you should never have done this to this poor man. Never ask him to explain something complicated and never let him tell a joke. The structure will not rise far before falling down upon itself and writhing there in confusion until someone shoots it.

Chat up the guests. There is the usual bunch, the guy who gets launched into a discussion of his diabetes and branches out into back problems, hospital stays, work layoffs where the medical coverage won’t cover, relatives who’ve died of this illness and a similar one where—

There are Bob and Barbara, down from Pittsburgh to visit their timeshare by the big themepark; the retired Navy guy who interrupts the captain to give his own answer to a question about fore-and-aft rigging; Tom and Kathy, sent here by their kids for their 40th wedding anniversary, who speak not a word to each other the whole trip.

There is the old guy who sits alone by the rail watching the water, bemused, nostalgic, faraway. He seems unconnected to anything happening on deck, any other action by the passengers. Someday you will be that guy, you think, lost in your own dreamworld, wandering among large thoughts, or perhaps just heavily medicated.

The end of the day comes finally and, taken all around, all things considered, when you get right down to it, it’s been damned exhausting. But then the tip jar is divided and you go home with a fat wad of bills and maybe life is not so bad.