It Was a Magical Month

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – I first saw the coast of Maine, as nearly as I can remember, in the summer of 1965. I’d managed to snag a job for the month of August with the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School as an assistant watch officer (we were all very properly nautical in those days). My wife and I were both teaching, and were free to go; so on a day in late July we loaded our (then-two) kids and a month’s worth of duds and camping stuff into our 1954 Ford Estate Wagon – electric seat adjustment! – and headed east from the Adirondacks. An adventure!

Luckily, the car spared us any adventures on the way over (that came a month later, in the middle of the night on the way home), but we did run into some excitement just before reaching the coast at Rockland. As we approached the maximum-security prison in Thomaston after dark, we were stopped by a galaxy of flashing red and blue lights. A booted and uniformed trooper stepped up to my window. He needed to do a search of our car – everybody stay right where you are – which he did, and sent us on our way. What was the problem, I asked him. A murderer had escaped, and was on the loose. We should keep our windows closed and doors locked.

Uh-oh. I don’t know which of us realized it first, but as poor as we were then (we were teachers, remember?), we’d planned to spend the night in the car at the Maine State Ferry dock. The four of us, cooped up in that closed station wagon all night in August, slept a bit fitfully. But we avoided the attentions of the bad guy, and the next morning began the process of reaching Vinalhaven, transferring us and all our gear to a launch, thence to the shore of the island, up a vertical ladder (it was always, somehow, low tide whenever we arrived or left), and then a few hundred yards up a hill to our tent platform, which at that moment was a pile of lumber, nails, and hand tools.

It was a magical month. Apprenticed to a really witty Liverpudlian, I became familiar with the 30-foot open pulling boat that we used as a vehicle to self-awareness, initiative, and group cohesion. (I still consider it the nearest thing ever to a perfect pedagogical device.) After nearly four weeks of sailing, rowing, rock climbing, initiative tests, and a ropes course, we watched almost everyone leave for their fall employment.

But there was a problem at the float down by the boat docks. Somebody had lost hold of the cable inside that raised the centerboard of the 28-foot sloop belonging to the school, and with a big swell running, the heavy board was thudding ominously on its hinge. This couldn’t wait. Somebody had to dive down under the boat, find the cable, and feed it back up through its tube. Water temperature 44º, air temperature 50º. There were three of us standing there on the float.

I’m making a long story mercifully short. Neither the director (Princeton) nor his aide (Harvard) felt up to the job. That left me. I lowered myself in to the waist, hyperventilated, let go, flipped, and dove. The centerboard hung down about six feet into the green depths; the cable hung down, invisible, beyond that. It was one of those situations in which you can show no hesitation. Wouldn’t have helped, anyway; nobody could see me. When I’d finally fed that cable up through the tube and felt someone pulling on it, I prayed fervently he wouldn’t let it go. I’d been down a while.

It was an utterly unplanned, but utterly successful final exam. Next day, as we parted, the director shouted, “See you next year!” And so he did, for several years after that.

Well, I don’t kick around quite as sprightly in open boats as once I did; so, like the Ancient Mariner, I catch hold of young folks when I can and tell them tales of ancient derring-do. I’ve also booked a six-day cruise on an old fishing schooner, now a pleasure vessel. I’ll reprise the auto trip to Rockland, though without my adventurous wife. I’ll smell the old aromas of the rocky coast – though without the addition of the refuse from the marine colloids plant this time. The curve of white sails against the sky and the creak of rigging will be balm to a soul much troubled by the news. The muted sounds in early-morning fog and the vague silhouettes of spruce peeking through it will excite old feelings. And if we should happen to sail through Hurricane Sound, I’ll salute that spot on the shore where I once went for an icy dip and came up with the start of a new life.