By Elliot Slater

Sam, behind the wheel, watched his father secure their reconverted lobster boat to a dock cleat in his easy, expert way. The cleat, mottled by salt and sun, served as a footrest for Sam’s grandfather, who stood on the dock grasping a railing against the swells of the ocean. Sam’s father and grandfather were a study in contrasts. His grandfather was wearing grey trousers of thick-spun cotton, cinched up above his stomach by a narrow belt. If not exactly fat, he was possessed of an ample midriff. Sam was fascinated by the stomachs, accentuated by their trousers, common to men of his grandfather’s age, along with their short, wide ties, their white shirts, and their hats. His grandfather was sporting his white yachtsman’s’ hat, a joke gift, a short-sleeved white sea-island cotton shirt, and canvas boat shoes. He stood unsteadily on the rolling dock.

Sam’s father was slim, taller than his own father, tanned and handsome, wearing a blue long-sleeved jersey with a soft white blue-striped collar. His trousers were rolled at the bottom. He was barefoot. Sam was behind the wheel of their boat, the engine idling, waiting for the thrilling moment when, all aboard, he would engage the throttle and pull away from the dock.

“Okay, Pop,” Sam heard his father say. Sam called his grandfather Granddaddy. “Take your time.”

“I know how to board a boat, James,” said Granddaddy. Between the two of them they had logged many hours at sea. Sam had heard about their Atlantic crossings countless times. His grandfather had told Sam about crossing on a World War One troop transport liner. His father and aunts had crossed with his grandparents on freighters of the sort that might have four cabins for paying guests, then later on grand ocean liners in lavish staterooms. His father had served on Merchant Marine vessels in the Second World War. Not to mention their lifetimes of sailing and cruising the Maine coast in all sorts of small craft. At Sam’s age James Sampson had stood at his father’s side on the bows of freighters plowing through huge waves on the grey Atlantic, shooting home movies.

Granddaddy was having a little trouble with his balance. “Take it easy, Pop. Here, take my arm.” Sam, watching intently, accidentally revved the engine. The sound of impatience. The men both stopped and stared at him.

“Sorry,” he said, mortified.

“Relax, Sam,” said his father. Sam was itching to be off and away, to be at sea. The ropes were creaking and pulling against the dock.

“Okay, Pop.” Sam’s father was holding his father’s arm, and half guiding him onto the boat. His father glanced at Sam, who went over to help.

“Thanks Sammy-boy,” Granddaddy said, smiling. His smile was enormous and entirely genuine. In every photograph Sam had ever seen his grandfather was beaming. “Shall we be off? We’ll get some gas first.”

They headed out to the Marina where their boat was maintained, and afterwards decided they would continue out to a trio of islands they liked on the other side of Bailey Island, meaning they would, or could try, depending upon the tide, to pass under the Cribstone bridge that connected Bailey Island to Orr’s. This could be tricky in a boat the size of theirs, a gleaming white beauty that Sam adored. The boat was christened the “Paula” after his grandmother. There were few things Sam enjoyed so much as being allowed to operate the Paula, most especially the docking maneuvers required to unload people after outings.

The channel under the Cribstone Bridge at dead low tide was about five feet deep, and there were so many rocks it was scarcely possible to get through cleanly, though many lobster boats did so. It was the sailboats that had to go around. Sam loved going under the bridge. They decided the tide was high enough. His grandfather was steering, his father was standing to his left, thereby well positioned to communicate with everyone. Sam, enclosed in a puffy orange life preserver, was on the roof, gripping tight the rails. They passed under the bridge.

The three islands ahead of them were Ram, off to port, Pond, off to starboard, and Ragged, visible in the distance straight ahead. They planned to circumnavigate all three islands. Ram was the smallest, and uninhabited. “No water,” said his father.

“Apparently, over the centuries Ram was used mostly to raise sheep, although people, usually solitary people, lived there intermittently,” said Granddaddy. He looked to his son. “Does Sam want to take the helm, Jimmy?” James smiled at his son. Once behind the wheel – constructed of iron and wood – Sam gloried in piloting the Paula, alert to instruction. His grandfather stood to his right, studying the chart, which was anchored by four identical iron weights with green felt on their bottoms. “Keep to the right of that one,” he advised about a red buoy, unnecessarily, Sam felt. Black buoys to starboard when leaving a harbor, red to port. Occasionally his father would sneak his foot over and adjust the wheel, then bend over and grin. Sometimes when all the grandchildren and aunts and uncles were present, and they were sprawled all over the roof, the forward bow deck, or down on deck chairs, Sam’s father would steer the boat with his toes that could also grab a child’s arm, while maintaining an entertaining line of patter.

Sam had always liked exploring Ram; there was something about its rocky meadows, its treeless landscape, and its lack of man-made structures, which appealed to him. He imagined the wild landscape of the Scottish Highlands looking like Ram, the lines of quartz sparkling in the sun, the wildflowers making poets out of wild clansmen. They circled the island slowly, watching the multitudes of marine birds swooping and feeding. Sam noticed that his father was taking notes in his pocket notebook. His grandfather looked at Sam, and pointed towards Pond Island. “There is Pond Island, Sammy-boy.” Sam began to steer towards the larger island. “Pond is marshier than Ram. It was named after a pond that no longer exists.”

“Yes, where the treasure is,” Sam replied. Sam had all sorts of theories about the treasure, allegedly three kettles of bar silver and a chest of gold from a Spanish galleon.

“The historical record informs us that the pirate Edward Lowe came here in 1717. He supposedly landed at that cove,” said Granddaddy, pointing. Sam knew this much. “The account goes on to say they secreted the treasure by dropping it in the pond. It says that they began fighting among themselves, and that two dead pirates were also thrown into the pond.”

“Thus rendering the water even more undrinkable,” said Sam’s father.”

“But where exactly was this pond?” asked Granddaddy. “No one really knows. This poor island has been dug up over and over again, especially in the 19th century.”

“They were digging in the wrong places,” said Sam.

“Is that so, Sammy-boy?” His grandfather chuckled.

“Yes. I have explored this island a lot. The whole interior is kind of swampy. I just can’t believe there was actually a real pond. I think it was mostly a swamp.”

“Yes, imagine what it looked like after the latest ice age, which wasn’t so very long ago in geological terms,” said his father.

“Somehow I don’t see pirates throwing their treasure into a pond,” said Sam.

“There never was a map that I have ever heard of,” said Granddaddy. “The legends are specific, but the history is vague. I fear the treasure could be a myth.”

Sam’s father leaned in. “Myths,” he said, “Are really just religions no one believes in anymore. There is no doubt, though, that the locals believed there was treasure here once. Who knows? It is doubtful that if anyone found it they would broadcast the news.”

“There was treasure here at one time,” said Granddaddy. “Have I ever told you the story of Captain Wilson, Sammy-boy? I first heard this story from my own father when I was about the age you are now.”

“That would be in 1901,” said Sam’s father, smiling.

“That’s about right. We used to go to Cliff Island when I was a boy. My father had met Captain Wilson when he was a boy. The Captain was out hunting right over there.” He pointed west. Sam couldn’t really see anything besides the ocean. “The Cedar Ledges. At dead low tide the largest of these looks almost like a little island. All rock. Captain Wilson was hunting, probably for geese, on Thanksgiving morning, 1859, on these very ledges.”

They circled closer. Sam eased up on the throttle.

“Captain Wilson found three iron kettles of Spanish coin. Of course, that was the common currency in these parts two-hundred, three-hundred years ago.”

“That is same amount that the Pirate Lowe was supposed to have buried on Pond!” Sam said excitedly.

“Yes, very good, Sammy-boy. Captain Wilson made about $16,000 on his hunting trip. A small fortune in those days, and more then most people make in a year even now.”

“Head towards Ragged,” said Sam’s father, pointing to the large island in the distance. Ragged Island was his father’s favorite, and he loved to circumnavigate it whenever they were out here. Sam and his father had explored it many times. Ragged was a much larger and lusher island than Ram or Pond. There were woods, pine and hardwood, dramatic cliffs, paths, outcroppings of granite everywhere, height and expanse. Ragged had just one small harbor, and one little house, which according to Sam’s father, had once belonged to a woman named Edna St. Vincent Millay. Sam was always aware they were trespassing when they were on the island, but there never seemed to be anyone there. Sam used to think Millay was a Saint who lived on Ragged in monastic isolation, which his father thought very funny.

“Saint Edna, right, sport?” 

Sam smiled, embarrassed. 

“Far from a saint, was old Edna,” Sam’s father said. His grandfather chuckled.

“No, she was a poet, Sammy-boy,” Granddaddy said. “Quite famous. Nana met her once. On shipboard. An Atlantic crossing.”

“She would have liked that you thought her a saint though,” said Sam’s father. “The area lobster-men knew all about her nude swimming and sunbathing on the rocks. Perhaps her swimming was a sort of martyrdom for St. Edna.” His grandfather laughed. “Or an absolution.”

Sam didn’t really know what they were talking about, just that his father hated swimming in the cold Maine water, and made jokes about those who did, including Sam, who was a lover of swimming in the ocean, of jumping off rocks and boats into the sea. He imagined that doing so proved he was courageous.

Ragged Island, as usual empty of inhabitants, stood glorious in the afternoon sun. The wind was up. Their boat ride in these unprotected waters was wet and exciting. The long cliffs on the east side of Ragged were simultaneously reflective and full of shadows. All three of them were now standing together under the shelter of the roof, behind the wheel.

“The harbor is the only place you can really land,” said his father to no one in particular. Today was not an exploration day, though. They had no picnic and had not brought the dinghy. Sam knew, also, that climbing around the island would have been difficult for his grandfather.

“Cocktails in two hours,” said Granddaddy, which was a way of saying that it was time to head back, one that required no explanation. Sam was loathe to leave Ragged Island behind, and his father, sensing this, went around one more time.

“Remember that slide of you in the ferns, sport? I took that right over there.” This was a famous series of photographs in his family, Sam and his sisters, as smaller children, hiding under massive ferns. Sam looked longingly at the long fronds waving in the wind.

As they neared Bailey Island, Sam’s father turned to him. “Want to take her under the bridge?” he asked. Sam had never been allowed to do this before. “I think we should be okay at this tide. We’ll ease her in slowly. I will be on the bow, directing you. If you go in slowly, and follow my directions, we should be fine.”

The water on the outskirts of the bridge was in shadow. Sam was going as slowly as the Paula could go, though he wished to be moving even slower. Granddaddy was resting on the stern, but stood up when he saw his son motioning for Sam to put the Paula into reverse. Sam did this, none too smoothly, and the stern drifted in the current. “Watch out to starboard Sammy-boy,” said his grandfather. Sam’s father was still standing in the bow, straddling the anchor, his left hand pointing the way. Sam eased the throttle down again and the Paula drifted somewhat towards the shore prior to Sam attempting a hard turn to starboard to pass under the bridge. 

“Put it in neutral – no, back up!” Sam’s father was gesturing in a serious way (though calmer about his orders than he was in a sailboat) and Sam tried to obey his directions, but, in agonizing slow motion, almost genteelly, the Paula went up upon a submerged rock. The sudden stop caused Granddaddy to fall to the deck. The engine was in neutral, whining as Sam opened the throttle by accident. The bow of the Paula was elevated ever so slightly. Sam wasn’t sure if leaving the helm to help his grandfather constituted abandoning his post. Granddaddy had struggled to one knee. His father came down the side of the boat, looked at Sam, then at his father. He leapt on to the deck.

“My fault, sport,” he said, clapping Sam on the shoulder. “I cut it a bit too fine. You go back with Pop, and both of you sit on the stern, as far back as you can. This should help us off the rock.”

Sam went back to his grandfather, still on one knee. “I’m sorry, Granddaddy,” he said, helping him up to his feet.

“Thank-you, Sammy boy.”

“Dad wants us to sit on the stern. All the way back.”

“No problem at all, Sammy-boy. Just lost my balance for a moment. No harm done. Let’s do our duty.” He laughed and laughed, and smiled hugely at Sam, who realized at this point that his grandfather was enjoying himself. They sat on the stern, holding hands, and Sam’s father put the engine in reverse. With a scraping sound that made all three of them wince, The Paula slid backwards off the rock.

Elliot Slater grew up in Massachusetts and Maine. He is working on a number of thematically connected stories and poems based on his childhood and adolescence (of which “The Boat Trip” is one), and other short fiction, poetry, and a novel. His work has appeared in The Northern New England Review, Halfway Down The Stairs, The Lothlorien Poetry Journal, and in early 2023, Ibbetson Street Magazine and The Wilderness House Literary Review.


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