The words that follow were written by the great singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett in the form of the song “A Pirate Looks at Forty.” And almost every time I hear them I cry. Not with outward tears for the world to see, or with any measure of sadness attached, but instead, with an inward sense of profound joy and almost spiritual connection.
Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call,
Wanted to sail upon your waters
since I was three feet tall.
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.
Watch the men who rode you,
Switch from sails to steam.
And in your belly you hold the treasure
that few have ever seen, most of them dreams,
Most of them dreams.
Yes, I am a pirate two hundred years too late.
The cannons don’t thunder there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late
Some of my earliest and fondest memories of the sea were born from weekend visits to my grandparents’ house in the Houghs Neck neighborhood of Quincy, Massachusetts, when I was less than “three feet tall” myself.
Grandpa Thomas Meade, an Irish immigrant, was a giant in my eyes and heart. He would often bring my siblings and me down to the hard, rocky shore at the end of his street, and we would spend hours skipping stones, discovering sea creatures among the jagged rocks, and frequently doing nothing more than sitting on the seawall staring out at the ocean.
Maybe my grandpa didn’t say much on those walks by the ocean because by nature, he wasn’t a man of big words or small talk. Or maybe he was just teaching us simple lessons about the importance of listening, the power of the ocean or the quiet harbor of strength within each of us. Regardless of his intent or limitations, he taught me more about life than anyone else. He was a hero to me then and now, and I miss him deeply, even 30 years later.
Those memories from decades ago often collide with the existential here and now as I ask myself: did “I” arrive too late to be part of the magic and mystery of the sea? Not as a pirate, but as someone who believes that the ocean is much more than just a natural phenomena that we share on this earth, but that it is part of us, and we are a part of it.
It is a question asked while I have walked the warm sand beaches of Bora Bora, ridden the cold and angry Bering Sea, sailed with humpback whales in Maui that were close enough to touch, cruised the Mediterranean Sea, and just a few weeks ago, watched a giant glacier in Iceland melt before my eyes. Forty-six countries of exploration, decades of living near the ocean later, and my simple question only generates more complexities in each changing, churning and evaporating answer.
Last week I set out on a modest ocean adventure closer to home, searching for a different brand of understanding. Up at 5 a.m., I joined Capt. Mike Bryand and his crewmates Gretchen Frank, Nick Ferrara and Parker Robinson on the Casco Bay Lines’ Maquoit II, for more than three early-morning hours of ferry service.
Leaving the Portland dock in a cold cloud of mist at 5:45 a.m., I made six trips back and forth from the mainland to Peaks Island among 395 explorers (adults and children,) 23 dogs and four crew. I say “explorers” because to travel by boat or ferry is more than just transportation, but a unique experience on every occasion, just as the ocean itself is never the same.
On that day, Mike-the-carpenter and Marco-the-painter were riding the calm seas out to Peaks along with dozens of other tradespeople, tasked with getting homes and businesses ready for a new season. Going in the opposite direction were many islanders heading to work of all different types. Norman and Desiree Leadbetter were heading to theirs jobs in the restaurant industry, while 6-year-old son Nikoli was heading to school. The common element on the ferry was an aura of positive purpose among everyone on board.
One of the most dramatic sights occurs most days at around 7 a.m. What starts as a trickle soon becomes a flood of Peaks Island school children pouring down Welch Street, forming a human funnel to catch the 7:15 a.m. “school ferry” to Portland. Once on board, the kids all seemed to congregate together in small pods, creating a floating before-school playground with PDAs and conversation fully engaged.
My ferry experience ended with Capt. Mike in the Maquoit II wheelhouse. When asked about his 18-year career as a ferry captain, he mentioned the satisfaction he gets from being on the ocean and “having an office that is constantly changing … with new people and views every day.”
Maybe recognizing “change” and adapting to it is one of the ocean’s gifts to us. A gift that is difficult to receive if you’re not looking for it and listening.
Thank you, Capt. Mike. And thank you, grandpa Meade.