Tyler had a challenge filling the hot, sticky Maine summer days with something other than swatting flies and wiping the stinging, salty sweat that dripped into his eyes. Seemed everyone in the fifth grade, except himself, was away at camp. Playing, alone, even thinking was difficult. Thursday, at lunch, his mom asked him to go visit his grandma at her house nearby.
“Mom, I hate going there. The house smells old and musty. She just rocks and snoozes and doesn’t even know I’m there. It’s boring.”
Without waiting for his mother’s response, Tyler ran out the door. He wandered off into the nearby woods and headed toward the ocean. The bracken of the woods, the close overhanging branches, and the rustling leaves underfoot would offer relief from the heat. The ocean breeze, blowing over the rocks, would chase the flies and fill his nose with the smell of salt and kelp.
He took the trail to the coast cut through the thick underbrush. When he reached the rocky coastline, a blast of cool air soared up over the bluff. He turned north, going the way opposite he and his friends usually took to their favorite rocky beach. Making his way among the rocks and shrubs, he watched the seagulls, smelled the salt spray and heard the heavy waves smash against the rocks. Coming to a quiet inlet where the bluff dropped down to sea level, he headed inland to explore. Foundered on rock and mud was an old sailing vessel, completely surrounded by water. Tyler scrambled along the shoreline to get a closer look.
It was low tide and the high water marks almost covered the hull. A couple of broken lobster traps lurked in the mud nearby. Pieces of splintered wood floated in the murky, quiet water between the ship and the shore. The smell of old and decay lingered in the air. A big hole had been cut in her side, with the remains of a dock sticking out of the water. Growing out of her foredeck was a tree, and anything recognizable was rusted or rotted.
Tyler, in his imagination, saw her as a beautiful sailing ship, sails unfurled and tight in the wind, her hull racing across the waves on the open sea. There he was, Captain Tye, standing legs astride on the bridge, arms folded, sailing home from the Indies with his merchant crew. A whale spouted nearby, but he was no whaler. He spotted a distant pirate ship, but easily outran it, his speed no match for them. His cargo would be precious to them, but it was to him, too, and he raced on toward home, racing time and wind, carrying teas of exotic flavors, beautiful fabrics, flowers no one at home had seen, spices, jewels, and a parrot of his own. Every great sea captain must have a parrot, and he taught his to say, “Aye, Aye Captain Tye!”
His imaginary voyage took him late into the afternoon when the shifting tide made him realize he needed to hurry home. He would be in trouble for not going to his grandma’s. His thoughts stayed on the ship as he worked his way back through the woods, seeing waves crested and storms conquered.
At dinner, he tried to avoid questions by asking a flurry of questions. “What kind of ship was it? Why was she abandoned? Could she be re-built? Could she be beautiful again?”
“Tyler,” interrupted his mom, “Do you remember that I asked you to go to your grandma’s?”
“But I don’t like to go there. It was too hot to sit there and watch her doze off.”
“She needs you, Tye. She may not look like she is enjoying your company, but it means a lot to have you drop in. Her days are long and having you over gives her something to think about. Tomorrow, I want you to spend the whole morning with her and help her around the house. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mom,” Tyler grumbled.
He walked to the library in town after dinner to find information related to the ship. He discovered an era of clipper ships, the beautiful three or five masted schooners with as many as twenty-one sails, built in the 1800’s and early 1900’s for speed on the open ocean. Tyler looked at photographs of some of the vessels, and learned of the most famous clipper ship, the Flying Cloud, which set a time record in 1851 between New York and San Francisco that wasn’t matched for over one hundred years. He tried to find anything about the ship he had seen. The closest he came was information about a ship museum in Bath, Maine, not too far from his home. Tyler ran home to bargain with his parents to take him there on Saturday.
Friday, Tyler walked slowly to his grandma’s. He swept the porch, picked strawberries and helped her clean up the kitchen. While they sat on the porch together, Tyler told her about the ship he saw and the clipper ships he read about at the library. She looked drowsy, her eyes closed, but he talked anyway, his own voice filling the stillness. Once, when he paused, he noticed she was smiling. He asked, “What is so funny?”
“Tye, did you know your grandpa used to sail? He had a little schooner he took out whenever he could. He loved the sea, and he loved talking about boats, just like you are doing right now. You remind me of him.”
“Really, Grandma? How far south did he ever sail? Was he ever caught in a storm? Did you sail with him?” He sailed questions that his grandma patiently answered until the morning flowed into the afternoon. He had no idea he had a history of sailing lore in his family. No wonder he loved to think about it.
Saturday morning he was eager and hopeful to learn the answers to his questions. At least some of them. In the museum, he saw pictures and paintings of schooners and their captains. He ran his fingers over the wooden models of the ships, their smooth brass and polished wood. He saw displays of the cargo and passengers they carried and the races they ran around the continents or along the coast.
Tyler began to understand why the beautiful ships had to be scrapped and set aside. They endured tremendous storms which weakened their structure, and although they served many productive voyages, their glory was short when they were replaced by stronger metal steam driven ships. Re-building the wooden ships today would be impractical and outrageously expensive. He still needed to know, though, what about his ship?
Nervously, he approached one of the docents at the museum, explained about the ship he had found up the coast, and asked, “Do you know anything about her?”
“Yes,” the guide replied. “She is the Cora F. Cressy, owned by a family that had three merchant sailing ships that sailed up and down the east coast. She had the highest bow of any sailing vessel on the east coast and she was one of the few five masted schooners. Unfortunately, she was obsolete before her first voyage as the technology of steam ships passed her by. Because she weathered a severe storm off the coast in 1924, she was known as the Queen of the Atlantic Seaboard. After her last sea voyage, she was sold and converted into a floating nightclub in Boston, then sold again and moved to where she is today, a hole cut into her and a dock built to farm lobsters in the hull. Now, she is just a breakwater, a sad shadow of what she used to be.”
The guide showed Tyler a painting of the Cora speeding across the ocean waves, her sails tight in the wind, her five masts and tall bow regal and proud. He told Tyler, “What appears a worthless object today, can be remembered as a thing of beauty and usefulness.”
Tyler thought of his grandma, her body weak and worn, though her smile was still strong. He thought of her house, the paint peeling, and realized that age affects everything. It was sad not to be able to re-build the Cora in all her glory, but in his imagination he could see her strong against the waves, the sunrise behind her, the horizon distantly misty ahead of her. As the Cora could live on, his grandma would live on too, strong in his memory.
Tyler went to the souvenir stand and bought a couple of post cards to show to his grandma. He couldn’t wait to visit her and tell her of all he had seen and learned. On the way back to the car he asked his dad, “Could we paint grandma’s house this summer? Can I help you?”