“It’s Too Crowded!”

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” This gag is usually attributed to Yogi Berra, and he did confirm that he’d said it. But it was popular even before Yogi was born. It doesn’t matter; content is almost always more important than source; and this expresses perfectly the way I feel about Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard during holiday season. As the beleaguered doctor mutters to himself in Act V of “Macbeth,” “Were I away from Dunsinane and clear, profit again should hardly draw me here.” There are seaside mansions elsewhere on the island; but Vineyard Haven, where the ferries land, resembles a red ant hill that somebody has carelessly kicked open.

The crew and I are here to film an episode with a program named FUEL – Foundation for Underway Experiential Learning, – a rather tortured acronym, but an interesting program. It uses the 154-foot, 170-ton schooner “Shenandoah” as its primary classroom. At the moment, there are thirty sixth-graders aboard, with their bedrolls, towels, toothbrushes – and even a few stuffed toys – ready to cruise the coast for a week, learning about the sea, ships, and life aboard. I envy them what they’re about to experience; but they radiate energy like little space heaters, and there’s probably nothing that could induce me to spend a whole week aboard with them.

Oftentimes, for shoots like these, I travel from central Vermont to rendezvous with the crew at the scene. But over the years of our operation, I’ve grown a bit foxy, and decidedly chary, of descending into the maelstrom of high-speed lunacy that begins just north of the Massachusetts border and intensifies at it funnels down toward the Sagamore Bridge and ferry landings. So, if I can, I leave my car at the television station in Durham and hitch a ride with a crew member. Thus, I no longer have control over my fate, but I didn’t, anyway. So far, it’s worked. Much less stress.

The producer, who has the unenviable job of coordinating all the moving parts – crew members, reservations, scripts, questions, meeting places, even AA batteries for the microphones – discovered that motel rooms on Martha’s Vineyard are going for about $1,000 a night. So, we spent the night before in East Sandwich, at the Sandy Neck Motel. The early ferry for the Vineyard leaves at 6:15, and we were told to be at the dock a half-hour early. So up at 4:15, ready to go at five; drop off two cars at a Park & Ride, and (whew!) the producer had the ticket ready. We’d gotten the last available slot. The vehicle deck resembled the inside of a sardine can.

After breakfast – two over easy, hash browns, and a cup of coffee ($22) that I wouldn’t serve to a prisoner – we motored out to the “Shenandoah” in the harbor launch, climbed the boarding ladder, and took a look around. Beautiful ship! After years as a tourist vessel, she’s been turned over to FUEL for service as an educational venue. The kids came aboard, found their gear, and were assigned bunks below. Back on deck, with no wind in the offing and a hot, humid, smoky day ahead, they were introduced to a few commands and heaving in unison on a heavy line as they raised an old sail in a tent shape to shade the deck. Yachting types call it a bimini.

Then came lunch, served mess-style below (we took ours picnic-style on the deck). After lunch, just what I remember from my days as a camper at their age: quiet time. Then an around-the-circle introduction session – all the kids were from the island – followed by the long-awaited announcement, “The Captain has opened the pool. Go get your bathing suits on.”

I couldn’t believe how fearlessly those kids could swim. Over the side, maybe an eight-foot drop, swim to the boarding ladder, up over the bulwarks, and back up onto the rail for another go. Afterward, each got one dishpan of fresh water from a pump amidships to rinse with. We chatted with a few on camera. The ones who’d been here before said their favorite thing about the whole experience had been – the food! Ah, well. At least they were back, and happy to be there,

At length it was time for us to go if we were to catch our ferry. We got ashore about seven, and back to Durham a little after ten. I’d managed to score a veggie wrap on the boat. With another three hours to get home – it’d already been an 18-hour day – these old bones were ready for a motel room. I was clear of Dunsinane and would drive home in the morning with the sun behind me.