by Barry Hill
June 16, 2017
I’m surprised to see the parking lot at Ketewomoke filled. Thursday. Race night. I had completely forgotten. For some reason I thought it was Wednesday. I park in the Harbormaster’s lot next door. I bump into Allen on my way to the dock. We had raced his boat last week, and it was a great sail. I wanted to sail again, but tonight I’m on a mission. We’re both disappointed but there will be more sailing days ahead. I was determined to meet the man who bought the Blue Moon, the wooden sailboat made famous in former boating member John Almberg’s book, An Unlikely Voyage.
I had all but given up on KYC Journal. I didn’t seem to have a lot of readers. But at the previous night’s officers’ meeting, Lou suggested that I talk to the man in the Blue Moon. “He’s 89 years old, and is sailing to Maine,” he said. “It would be good for your blog.”
The Blue moon is not at the club dock like I expected it would be. It has been moved to the wash down dock about 90 yards out from the club. I gather my oars and PFD from my locker, and back out of my dinghy space using my Craig’s list electric motor. “I think I’m ready for a charge,” I say to Bob on the way out.
“Get a solar charger for that battery,” he says. “It will charge it up nice.”
“Yeah. I have one,” I say. “I just have to put it on.” Like everyone else, I have a list of things yet to be completed for the season.
The waves toss me freely as I motor out to the dock. The Blue Moon is the only boat there. I tie up and lean out, lifting one leg at a time to get onto the dock. I had not considered the possibility that he might not be there. But I had seen an inflatable on the dock. I had my hopes up. I look into the cabin and see a head of long white hair. I call out loud, “Ahoy!”
He does not move. I lean over so that my voice will travel into the cabin. “Ahoy!” I call again. He hears me this time.
He comes to the companionway door. He eyes me over and says, “Yes?” “Permission to come aboard,” I say.
“Of course,” he says.
I step into the Blue Moon for the first time. She barely lists when I step on the cockpit seat. The paint is peeling there, and the plywood is beginning to crack on the cabin. But there is something glorious, something uplifting, perhaps something spiritual that I’m feeling being aboard her. The simple oversized tiller, wooden cleats, and a bowsprit that was carved by John and rises towards the sky from an upturned bow that lifts her head like royalty. There is barely room for two in the cockpit, and the cabin has been built for hermitage.
“I would invite you in,” he says, “if there was any room.”
“That’s Ok,” I say. I explain that I’d like to talk with him and document his trip. I hold out my hand. “Barry,” I say.
“Oren,” he says. “Oren Hunt.” I get out my pocket-sized notebook and write his name
“This boat is famous,” I say, “and now you are part of it.” He smiles and leans on the
companionway. He welcomes the idea of me documenting his story. “It needs a little bit of work,” he says.
“I guess if you have a wooden boat, you never stop working.” He laughs. “No,” he says.
As I sit in the cockpit, I see a man whose arms are lean and reddened from the sun. He’s thin and tall, and has striking white hair that goes nearly to his shoulders. I can’t help but think of Christopher Lloyd from Back to the Future. His hands are large, but have the swelling that comes from arthritis. He shows me his cane. “When you get to my age, you can use a cane, and you get tremendous respect,” he says holding up his aluminum walking aid.
I turn on my recorder. I have no list of questions. I’m not a journalist, I’m a story writer, maybe an ethnographer. I’m going to wing it. Just a conversation.
“Where are you going on your journey?” I ask.
“Portsmouth, New Hampshire,” he says. It’s about two and a half hours from my home in Vermont.”
“Have you ever sailed on a trip this long before?”
“Well, I sailed to Cape Cod Canal once,” he says, “From Boston. I haven’t gone on something this long. Not that I remember. But you know, if I can sail to Portsmouth, I could sail
to Maine. Then I could go to Labrador, then Greenland. And if you can sail to Greenland, you can sail to Iceland. Then Norway. Then Scotland, and eventually Corsica. He laughs hard and it evolves into a hacking cough.
“Is that what you are going to do?” I ask.
He laughs. “I don’t think so. First of all, the boat needs a lot of work. I just may put her for sale after that.”
“Already?” I ask.
“Well, I don’t expect to sell her right away. I could sail her until I can sell. I found out something a year ago that has changed things.”
“What did you find out?’
“That my wife has Alzheimer’s.” “I’m sorry.”
“You’d be astounded how quickly that disease develops. The day will be soon when she no longer knows who I am. She’d like to go on this boat, but this is just impossible for us.
Impossible. It will take 5 to 8 days for the trip. She’ll be with friends. I’m leaving tomorrow so a friend can drive me back with more supplies. Then he’ll drive the car back to Vermont while I sail Blue Moon to Portsmouth. I have a mooring in Newington in a place called The Great Bay.”
“Were you married long?”
“Fifty years. She’s my second wife. I have 3 kids.” He visibly counts out loud.“ “Five Grandchildren.” He continues to count. “Eight grandchildren.”
“That’s fantastic.” I pause awhile. Then, “Did you have a boat when you got this one? “Oh, no. I had given up sailing 10 years ago,” he says. “I was too far from sailing water.
At least that’s what I thought at the time. We live in an ancient old farmhouse that I’ve been fixing for years. We’re too old to think about moving, now. I started to look at the boat back in January. I said to my wife, ‘I’ve got to have that boat.’”
“How old are you?” I ask.
“89. But sailors live into their 90’s. It’s a geriatric society and that’s not terribly good.
But sailors are always on the move.”
“What have you done besides sailing?”
“I was always a teacher. But I edited books in New York. I did a bit of writing, but it wasn’t really my thing. But I did have an art studio. That was my thing. I was also a technical writer. I made really good money. I went back to school and taught. I wanted a small class where I could teach a group of kids all day. That was elementary school. I ended up teaching 5th grade. It was wonderful. After about 15 years I thought more about the “why” I was teaching instead of the “who.” It was the best thing I ever did, I learned how to get good at it but then it became just a damn job. After that I got a real estate license and made a lot of money. I had a property that was more than I could manage. It’s hard to be old, you know? Arthritis. I alternate Tylenol and Advil. It hurts. I just don’t think about it.”
Oren rubs his hands together. “Before you came I was just about to have dinner. I’m famished.”
My watch tells me it’s 7:30. All the racing club boats have left the harbor for the bay. “It’s OK. I’ve already eaten. I’ll stay if you don’t mind the company. Do you mind?” “No….I suppose not.”
“Thanks. I think your story is great. Why don’t you prepare your food and when you’re done we can talk a little more.”
Oren looks at the multi-million dollar yacht tied next to the town dock. It must stretch 70 feet or more. “Boats don’t even look like boats anymore. Why would you get a boat like that unless you want to show everyone how wealthy you are? The world has changed a lot in my 89 years.”
I move my position as he takes a seat in the cabin. I’m leaning into the companionway.
At first the cabin looks messy, but that’s because there are many things in there. But closer inspection shows that the food, the water, the cooking necessities and sailing paraphernalia all have an order, all in easy reach. He gets out a foil pouch of dehydrated food, popular with campers.
“This is made for two,” he says, “but I find it just right for me.” “You look well stocked.”
Oren moves around down below. He says a few things in between his preparations for his dinner. But often I just watch while he prepares his meal.
“I like jazz,” he says.
We have a brief discussion that includes the growth of jazz in Greenwich Village, Marian McPartland, Django, and Stephan Grappelli.
The alcohol stove is just inside the cabin on the starboard side. Oren takes off the covers to reveal that the stove is nearly empty. He begins the process of filling the canisters with fuel. His hands have difficulty prying off the top of the fuel can, due to a safety device that requires a turn and a pull. He eventually finds a flat piece of metal to pry it open, then fills both canisters. In no time, a tea kettle is steaming on top of one of the burners.
“Alcohol will burn at 50 below zero,” he says. “Butane won’t burn below freezing.”
I watch while he cooks. “Maybe I’ll read the directions,” he says. “We’re having Turkey Tetrazzini,” he laughs. “It’s not bad. In your notebook there, write down REI, inc. That’s where you can get lots of camping supplies for a long trip.”
The water begins to boil, and he carefully lifts if from the stove and pours it in the foil
I look at the tin pot that he has on the stove. “I was just wondering,” I say. “Why do you
cook in the bag and not in the pot?”
“I don’t have to wash the bag,” he replies.
“People at the club are in admiration of your trip. There’s a few who like long trips like the one you’re taking.”
“I’ve always wanted to do some night sailing. I’m an insomniac, so staying up doesn’t bother me.”
“Have you always lived in Vermont?” I ask.
“No. Everybody on the east side of Vermont came up from New Jersey. Everyone on the west side came from Connecticut. I’m on the east side.”
“This is only my third year of sailing,” I say. “Oh yeah? I built my first boat when I was 8.” “Did it float?”
“Went down like a stone,” he says. “But the next day at low tide I fished it out and it floated.”
Oren sits in the cabin and eats from the foil packet. “They always try to cram as much protein and carbohydrates in as they can.”
“Are you leaving tomorrow?”
“I was going to go over to Northport, but the club has said that I could stay until the end of the month. It’s not easy to get here other than by car. I drove down with as many supplies that I could bring. But I’m going to drive home again and return with a friend and a few more supplies. My friend will drive the car back. I should be leaving on Tuesday for Portsmouth.
What’s today the 11th or 12th?” “Today is the 16th.”
“It’s a terrible drive to get here from Vermont. It took 8 hours. I took the Bridgeport
Oren is having trouble opening a small bottle of seltzer water. I offer to open it, and
twist off the top for him.
We trade back and forth some of our teaching experiences.
“I only made lesson plans when I was getting observed,” he says. “My mother taught school in upstate New York. It was a one-room schoolhouse. She taught 12 grades to the whole school. In two languages, German and English. I went to school during the depression.
Watchung, New Jersey. There was nothing in the town in the way of employment or money. Only 700 people lived there. People would come and go. Maybe 40, 50 kids. Maybe one time 60 kids. When I taught, the principals that I had were interested in kids who were learning, not happy parents.”
“How did you teach if you had no lesson plans?”
“Petty quick in the morning, someone would ask a question. That’s the lesson for the day. It didn’t matter where you started. Given enough time, you could learn everything in the world.”
For a moment, we silently inhale scenery. The boats, restless at their moorings. The sun, descending behind the trees for an overnight nap. The light makes a laser show on the polished white hulls of boats.
“My first significant job is when I was 15. I was a chef. It was a resort hotel in Lake George. It was owned by some friends of my father’s. They gave me a job. I worked as a groundskeeper, cutting grass. Acres of it. I was thinking the place needed some cows or goats. Then the person who took care of the boats quit. I became the harbormaster and the groundskeeper. Unfortunately, not an increase in pay. Then the kitchen helper quit. They needed an adjunct dishwasher. The dishwasher was a little chubby old guy, like St. Nicholas in German postcards. He had a model A Ford, but took the rumble seat out. It was painted black. He replaced it with a case of ale. Then he’d park it in the sun. When he was done with the noontime dishes, he’d say ‘Would you care for a beer?’ And we’d go out, and the damn thing would explode, but it was a good time.”
“But you said you were a chef.”
“Yeah! All of a sudden one day the chef quit. The hotel people were in an absolute panic, asking everyone if they could cook. I said, ‘yeah I can cook.’ They said, ‘You’re the chef.’ I said, ‘fine. What does the chef get paid?’ They didn’t like that very much. I told them I was happy enough as I am, a dishwasher. Anyway, they gave me the job.”
“One of the nice things about the job was hearing the first real music that I remember. My mother played the piano. She liked Schubert. I got to hear a lot of his music. We were living in rented houses, and we got a place with an old windup Victrola, along with some Red Seal records. One had Caruso on it. And Louis Homer, who had a beautiful voice. Sure enough, one of the guests at the hotel where I worked was Louise Homer, long after she had retired from the Met. Every day she would practice. At 6 o’clock in the morning. If you didn’t wake up naturally, Louise woke you. She was actually wonderful. That was one of the most touching times. She made music with her soul. That was around 1943. I was born in 1928, April 1st.
Sunday’s child is full of grace. I was born on Palm Sunday.”
Oren continues to eat out of his pouch. “If it wasn’t so wet, I’d read the label. But there’s healthy stuff in there.”
“I joined the club three years ago,” I tell him. “I went through a terrible divorce. I had bought a sailboat about 10 years ago, but had to sell it because of the divorce. I never really got to sail it. I had put the sails up once with my son. He was about 8, but he went into a total panic. Here it is 10 years later, and I’m giving it another try. My son is still not a big fan of sailing though. How did you learn to sail?”
“My father liked the ocean. He loved to swim. I hated to swim. He rented a place in New Jersey one time, right on a lake. There was a guy next door who had two boats. One of them was a Snipe. Do you know what that is? It was a 15 foot sailboat. He spent 20 minutes teaching me how to sail. But sailing is the easy part. Piloting and seamanship is what takes the time.” He shows me a book called Chapman Piloting and Seamanship. “This is what you need,” he says. “It’s beautifully written.”
I look at his copy. I write the title in my notebook. “Are you leaving tomorrow?” I ask.
“No, no. I’m going home tomorrow. My boat is staying here. Next time I come down, I’m sailing back. But there’s no port and starboard navigation lights. I’m trying to figure out if it ever had them.”
“Did you used to sail with your wife?”
“Now and then. We’ve had a lot of motor homes, and have done a lot of traveling. We traveled in Canada a lot. A couple of kids with us. I was doing a PhD in education at one time, but I never finished. I ran out of money and ambition.”
There’s some pauses in our discussion. We look around. We breathe. There’s just a hint of night in the air. The gulls caw in the same rhythm as my breath. Boats are slowly shifting, as the tide and wind compete.
“That big boat over there has been tied up at the marina. Looking for a mooring. A hint of some threatening weather.”
“That’s a big boat. Seventy feet, do you think?”
“I don’t know. Another thing that I have is double vision. Where do they get the money for something like that? What crime did they commit?” he asks laughing. “You could drive that across the Atlantic.”
“Did you ever own a motor boat?”
“No. I never did. I never had any interest. I always wanted a sail plane. A beautiful, beautiful glider.”
“Looks like a cool night tonight,” I observe.
“Good. It doesn’t really get that hot down there, though. Quite cool. As long as you ventilate it.”
Our pauses begin to lengthen.
“Are you able to plan a voyage of great length?” he asks.
“I haven’t yet. There’s cruising clubs around here. It would probably be a good idea to plan with other people. I sail with my girlfriend. That has to be all coordinated with schedules, work and everything else. Soon, I hope.”
“It’s race night at the club.”
“Yeah. They told me about that. Bob told me.”
“Hey, do you mind if I sneak a picture before it gets dark?” “No. Go ahead.”
I point my phone and click. I’m hoping to get one of him smiling, but it’s no use. I smile at him, but he maintains his stoic expression.
“Well. It’s been great talking with you,” he says. “Yes, You too. I hope to see you before you leave.”
I get in my dinghy, and Oren slides back down below. It’s the last I see of him.
I hear a story that he had fallen out of his dinghy and needed to be rescued. I hear a story that he damaged a member’s boat.
A hear a story, much later, that he made it to Portsmouth. Every life has many stories. I wonder how his wife is doing.