What If Whales Weren’t Big?

    The four of us were sitting around a mesquite-wood campfire at the base of a canyon amid the hills high above Tucson, near the old Tucson to Tombstone stagecoach road. We had spent all day in the saddle, my horse and I following Joe Valdez and his pack mule. Joe was a small grizzled man who seemed, to this East Coast sailorman – who was in those days running a whale-watch boat – to be the epitome of the western wrangler. It was the wrong season for an overnight in the hills, but I’d talked Joe into it, saying I was an ocean guy and just had to try this.

            All day during the ride, I kept trying to get Joe talking, asking what I hoped wouldn’t be stupid questions. But all I ever got back were a few grunts, yups, and mebbees. That night, while intently remaining silent despite my questions, Joe cooked some tasty steaks on the mesquite fire.  Coyotes howled in the darkened hills above us. A small stream bubbled past. The horses were bedded down inside an abandoned old corral. Still no talk from Joe. But quite a day, regardless.


            I gave up on expecting discussion, and said I’d be turning in, which meant just slipping deeper into my sleeping bag by the fire. Joe simply nodded, continuing to poke a stick at the embers. And then, just as I was drifting off, he asked in the clearest most earnest voice “You ever seen a whale?”

            Whales fascinate people. I think it’s mostly because they’re big. If whales were the size of mackerels, no one would care. If they hung out on the surface more, we’d probably barely notice.  Whales and I have had some interesting times. The first time I saw one I was the skipper of whale-watch boat of out Salem, Massachusetts. In the pioneering days of whale watching,  I was the captain, the “whale expert” and the expedition leader, all rolled into one. And I’d never seen a whale. But off I headed, bound for Stellwagen Bank, jam-packed with 135 curious souls, mostly tourists from some of those places far from whales.

            “Just find the edge of the bank with the depthsounder, southeast corner, and you’ll be fine, my boss said. “And here, take this,” he continued, as he discreetly handed me a whale guide through the pilot house window. “You can talk about finbacks, minkes, and humpbacks, and say what a thrill it will be when they swim right up to the boat.”

            And that’s what I talked about on the way to Stellwagen. But what I thought about was my job and what would happen to it and the $18 per head times 135 when all I found was empty ocean. In retrospect, I’m sure the tourists wondered how, in the midst of this empty ocean and empty horizon, I would know when to suddenly stop and then show them whales. I wondered this too. But finally, bless their giant hearts, there they were.

            The first was a humpback and her calf. The mother even “spy-hopped,” coming right up under our bow and looking up with a very curious basketball-sized eye at the tourists and their cameras.  One woman got really excited and blurted out to her heavyset lady friend, “My God, I think I’m having a whalegasm.”

            So that was the first time. There were dozens more over the next two years. Both the whales and the people came in all shapes and varieties. I even took 100 Salem witches out on their private Witch Whale Watch, though the whales were not as spellbound as the witches. I also took numerous school groups, including a high school with some tough characters. About a mile from the dock, headed out to Stellwagen on a particularly rough day, the crew chief came up to the pilothouse. “Cap, I’m getting nervous,” he said. Looking over his shoulder. “These guys are eyeing the booze, the candy, even the fire extinguishers. There’s a hundred of them and only two of us.”

            “Don’t worry,” I said, advancing the throttles of the big 6-110 GM diesels, then feeling the 65-foot hull begin to pitch and roll. “You’ll be fine in about five minutes. Nothing like a boatload of seasickness to calm an uprising.”

            These days, when I sail back and forth to Maine, I’m often alone, and sometimes, I really look forward to a whale or two for company. It happens rarely these days, but there’s always that hope that my old belly shaped 31-foot sailboat hull will prove attractive to a friendly humpback. And then, maybe if it’s just the two of us out there, with no one else watching, something extra special will happen.

Some Upcoming Mermaid Lectures


Here are some MERMAID SIGHTINGS, current and future (well, I guess there were no ACTUAL sightings, but we’ve sure had some fun readings, slide shows, and a theatre and music event since the publication of Watching for Mermaids). Here’s where we’ve appeared as well as some places we’ve been invited to swim to in the next couple of months:

Corinthian Yacht Club
Manchester (MA) Yacht Club
Portsmouth (NH) Yacht Club
Boston Yacht Club
Pelagic Sailing Club
Winthrop Yacht Club
New Hampshire Power Squadron
Maine Boat Builders Show
Sebasco Resort
Newagen Seaside Resort
Ericson Cruising Association
Tartan Cruising Association
Sabre Cruising Association
Numerous book clubs and Rotary events
Salem Theatre Company
Landfall Sailing Club (upcoming, February)
The Whiting Club
New England (Boston) Boat Show (upcoming February)
Essex Shipbuilding Museum (upcoming, March)
Manchester Boat Club (upcoming, March)
Smith College Alumni Book Club (upcoming, March)
The Corinthians, New York (upcoming, April)

Big Red and Driving the Bend

The year I met Big Red I was living alone in an ark under a bridge in St. Paul, Minnesota on the Upper Mississippi River. Dave’s Ark was a 42-foot home-built steel houseboat which, due to its ancient and long-ago seized-up Ford 302 engines, never went much of anywhere. But that was OK because I spent most of my waking hours running a 135-foot stern wheel cruise ship along the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. On the rare Saturday evenings I had off, I would climb over a tired security fence on the shore beside my houseboat, ascend the more than 100 rusty steel stairs that led to the top of the Wabasha Avenue Bridge, walk across the span of the Mississippi, and stand outside the World Theatre with a tall shy man in a white suit. Together, we would try to muster in enough people to generate audience noise for his local radio show. The year was 1978, the show was A Prairie Home Companion, and the tall shy man was Garrison Keillor. Later, he got real famous. I didn’t. But that’s OK, too, because in watching and listening to his mesmerizing monologues I truly learned to appreciate the art of story telling.

After one particular show and after an earlier incident on the river I’ll never forget, I walked back across the bridge, but didn’t descend the stairs to my houseboat as usual. Instead I continued on to a river bar called Awada’s. I was still jittery from what had happened that morning and thought a drink or two might calm me down. At this point I didn’t know many of the river pilots, as I was a new transplant from the ocean, and considered just a ‘cub pilot’– green, newly licensed and still learning the river. I functioned in a make believe, tourist-focused world, driving a recreated Mississippi River sternwheeler and narrating with authority about a river I knew little about. As a sternwheeler captain, I wore a uniform designed by the cruise ship’s marketing department and calculated to radiate authority and a sense of command. It consisted of white boat shoes, blue pressed slacks, a belt with a big brass buckle showcasing a Mississippi sternwheeler, a white shirt with four gold bar epaulets, and a name tag that said ‘Captain’. Thank God there was no hat. Believe me, I never wandered too far off the ship in this get-up. And the very last place on earth I would ever go in this rig was the world of Awada’s Riverfront Tavern, the domain of the hardscrabble commercial towboat pilots, whose uniforms consisted of what was closest to them on the floor when they got up each morning. Towboats, by the way, actually push rather than tow barges, and what they and their pilots do is extraordinary. Their emotions on the job fluctuate between complete boredom and total terror. Pushing barges with a million gallons of gasoline through steel bridge spans in a fast running river in the middle of a city in the dark of night is not for the faint of heart, especially when the bow or ‘head’ of the tow can be a couple of football fields in length ahead of you. In fact, the largest tow ever pushed on the Mississippi is eight barges long by four barges wide. That’s makes it a 1600 foot ship with a 200 foot beam on a narrow river. So next time you think you’re hot stuff docking your 30 footer with your bow thruster, think again.

So I wandered into the smoke-filled darkness of Awada’s in my jeans and tee shirt, took a seat at the bar, and ordered a Grain Belt beer. Before long, four men came in and grabbed a round table just behind my bar seat. I stole a glance at them over my shoulder, but the big one with the red beard caught my eye. “Hey,” he said, in a deep, gravelly voice, “I seen you from my pilot house today…can tell it’s you there, Cubby, even without yer little Captain America suit. You’re that new one runnin’ that silly paddle boat that looks like a wedding cake, ain’t you?” He stopped to wave over the waitress, then continued. “Passed you kinda tight in Monkey Rudder Bend while we was pushing a couple of empties down from Lock 1 this morning. ‘Nother few feet and I coulda squished you down through that Mississippi River mud right to China. Mebbe you happened to notice me.”
“You’re off the Sadie Mae,” I said. “That’s why I’m here drinking. That mud you mention was in my Captain America pants when I came around the bend with my 300 tourists and found you and your 400 feet of barges bearing down on us, taking up most of the river.”

“Yeah, I was drivin’ that bend with them barges there, Cubby. Some guys, they’ll back a bend instead of drivin’ it…let the currents pull their lead barges through while backing slow against it to try to get control.” He looked over at the other three pilots at the table, and they all smirked. “’Backin’ Jacks’…that’s what we call them guys. Backin’ Jacks waste time, stretch their tows across the whole river, backin’ and trying to line up for the next bend. Them’s cub pilots, like you. You got to drive a bend, son. Kind of like a car in a skid. Got to let go the brakes, put the hammer down on them 3000 horses, and steer through it… also maybe hope there ain’t nobody around the corner.” Red smiled. “Look here Cubby,” he continued, “you might as well come over and join us. Might learn a thing or two.”

So I grabbed my Grain Belt and moved over and met the pilots of the Sadie May, the Mike Harris, the Itaska, and the Bull Duram.

The waitress came by and stood next to Red, who clasped her tiny hand in his mighty paw, and then released into it a one hundred dollar bill. “Sweetie, I want you to fill the top of this round table with open Budweiser bottles ‘til you can’t see the top no more. Then kindly go away, cause we don’t want no interruptin’ as we got some cards to play and some stories to tell, and it’s been one long day on the river.”
Then he looked over at me and winked. “Ain’t that right there, Cubby?” he said, and, just light enough not to hurt me, my new friend punched me on the shoulder.