passageways2

Passagemaking

By

The boat comes out of the water, lifted from above. Airborne but steady, she is cradled by slings, wheeled forward from water to land by the lift that hoists her. Her belly is wide and flat and red, freckled with algae. De-rigged and mastless, stripped of her billowy white sails, she is nearly all steel—but not without grace. Her bowsprit juts forward as if her neck is craned, back arched, looking ahead. A wingless bird.

Megan Jones looks on, hands tucked into the back pockets of her jeans. She is focused and alert but smiles often with ease. Her chestnut hair is wrapped in a loose knot at her neck. She wears no makeup and is beautiful. This boat, the Frances, is hers.

Her steel hull drips with salt water, puddles forming under her keel and rudder. A man in orange rubber overalls starts power-washing specks of sea life from the hull. It is October, and the sailing season in Maine is over. The boat is returning to land, where she will hibernate patiently through the winter, propped on stilts, wrapped tightly in a cocoon of white plastic.

***

At forty, Fred Darcy Hannover was all coarse blonde hair, smiling green eyes, and charm. He was wild in the best sense of the word: free, driven, passionate. He’d grown up on Maine’s coast with his parents and three brothers and was named for Elias Fredrich Darcy, a merchant and shipowner of the mid-1700s. Fred avoided burning fossil fuels, ate local organic food, and exuded natural brilliance and eccentricity. His environmental consciousness and intelligence about food made people say he was of the earth, but truly he was of the water.

The Frances was the second boat Fred would build with Wally Soule, an old friend and master woodworker. From four years old, the two spent their boyhood summers on boats. A carpenter, Wally built houses but also knew steel from working as a bridge builder across New England. Why Fred wanted to build a boat that would take black-soled New York vacationers on tours of Casco Bay—and be subjected to answering their ding-ding questions about sailing—was beyond Wally. But he had no hesitation in joining the project. Fred had a vision for a unique vessel; Wally had been there to build the first boat, and he’d be there for the Frances, too.

And Megan. After graduating from Bates College with a degree in geology, Megan moved to Portland. She’d grown up sailing in Maine during summers with her parents and younger sister. In Portland, she started an apprenticeship with a sailmaker. Sails, she thought, were beautiful. The sailmaker had taken a look at her and asked what a young girl just out of college was doing there. “You’ll be gone in a year,” he’d said, “but I like you.”

At the sail loft, she met Fred. He arrived like a ship, full of presence, filling the moment with warmth. She connected with the old soul she saw in him, feeling that it echoed her own. He was of another time. Megan was captivated. They would spend the next two years together, sailing.

The coastal sailing Megan knew with her family was not the sailing she came to know with Fred. With Fred, she took her first long sailing trips, lived aboard the boat, sailed night and day. One October, on Fred’s 35-foot fiberglass boat Alina, they set a course, analyzed the tides, provisioned food and clothes, and set out from Portland through the Cape Cod Canal down to Newport, RI. They left at night, in the cold dark, because the weather was right, and Fred knew what the wind and sea spoke, and knew when to leave. It was the first time Megan stood a watch, alone on deck at the helm while Fred slept. She drove the ship, kept course, and corresponded with other boats. Her heart swelled with adventure and life. They were in love. They would build a boat.

***

passageways3Fred set up a drafting table at his home in Falmouth and spent months stationed there, drawing and calculating. Using ship curves, he penciled swooping lines from bow to stern, masthead to keel. Fred was naturally brilliant, held a degree in engineering, and had gone to boat-building school. But he was also dyslexic, and calculations required intense concentration and review by Megan. When the plans for the boat were approved by the Coast Guard, Fred radiated with youthful pride. It was the second year of their relationship, and Megan was living with him. The couple had a dog, a Jack Russell named Duffy.

A new energy ignited within Fred while he was planning the Frances. Megan witnessed something come alive in him; he was full of an artist’s intensity and focus. It seemed that maybe Fred was slipping away from her. Maybe his passion was something with which she could not compete. And maybe, if she looked inward, she saw that she was still so young, just out of college, and in a relationship with a man much older, a man who already had a daughter—the Frances was named after her—and who, maybe, did not seem capable of settling down, even now. Perhaps, for Fred, building the boat was not only about the desire to design and build and start a company but also about the lure of the sea and its constant motion, its endless passageways.

Three months before construction began, in the cold of winter, Megan grew sick. Fever and nausea came and went for weeks. Finally, when she arrived at the hospital, the doctor told her that her appendix had abscessed weeks ago; it was collecting bacteria and spreading infection inside her. He did not know how she was still alive. She was rushed into surgery. Days later, she couldn’t break her fever, returned to the hospital, and underwent a second operation, this time spending weeks there. In nearly two years, it was the first time Megan’s and Fred’s parents were in the same place at the same time. Fred’s mom asked him what he thought he was doing with this young girl; there was nearly twenty years between them. Everything wrong finally demanded attention and could not be ignored. The romance ended.

But the boat project had been planned for months, and Megan wanted it. It was an opportunity to learn and to be part of something. This was her plan, too, and she would not let go of it now.

***

Fred, Megan, and Wally began building in February in a warehouse by the water—building #7 of the old Portland Company complex.

In the mornings, around seven, Fred would pull up to the shop in his car, and Wally would arrive in his. The sun at its morning slant filled the still world with orange and illuminated the sparkling frost. Megan would arrive and let Duffy play outside before starting work; she’d taken ownership of the dog when the relationship ended. The men would sit separately reading the paper in their cars, Fred The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, and Wally The Portland Press Herald. When Fred opened his door, Wally followed suit, and they would go inside and begin building.

The vast, echoing warehouse where the construction of the Frances took place was dark and dirty and without heat. Wally and Fred constructed a flame-retardant wall before welding could begin. Eight-by-five sheets of raw steel arrived: thick, heavy metal—unrefined and brown. They built an I-beam crane to move the steel, along with other tools, using brake presses and large steel benders to curve the pieces and shape the hull.

***

passageways1Fred’s vision was to build the Frances in the style of schooners used for fishing and local trade that flourished at the turn of the 19th century along Maine’s coast. In the mid-1800s, boat building in Maine grew, along with the demand for trade of larger quantities. Two-, three-, and four-masted schooners became popular and were known for the speed at which they could slice through the treacherous waters around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. But with the advent of railways and steam engines, the age of the schooner for trade ended. By the 1930s, schooners were repurposed as windjammers, used for pleasure cruising.

A traditionalist, Fred sought to reincarnate the legacy of Maine’s windjammers with Frances. She would be an engineless sloop, the type of sailboat where one mast bears the mainsail, a traditional 70–75 feet in length. Her hull would be steel, resilient and durable. She would have a push-boat to steer her on and off the dock instead of a diesel engine.

***

They worked eight-hour days, starting early and finishing up in the late afternoon. South Portland’s 98.9 WCLZ played alternative and classic rock in the shop, shallow hums between the movement and noise of metal.

The steel and the tools required to move, bend, and weld the boat loomed like cold beasts in Megan’s new world, unfamiliar and intimidating. Her first job was to use a plasma cutter to cut pad eyes from the metal that could be welded to the sheets as a way to move the heavy slabs. Once they were welded on like handles, ropes were pulled through, and the steel could be lifted by crane. With each task, she worked seriously, proving herself.

The floor became slick with water from rain and melting snow. Since she was the smallest, Megan often welded the bottom of the hull, crouched down low. She wore layers of old clothing, flecks of metal embedding themselves in the cotton. More than once, while she knelt on the damp floor, the welder sent a shock of electricity through her. She wore gloves up to her elbows, gripped tighter, leaned in, and kept working.

At the end of the day, in a hot shower, soot would pool at her feet, washed from her hair and skin. Tissues turned black when she blew her nose, despite wearing a respirator all day. Her knees and back ached from squatting, lifting, and kneeling. While her classmates from Bates worked office jobs or backpacked through Europe, Megan built a boat.

Fred orchestrated each task, giving direction, Wally and Megan following. If working each day with Fred was an emotional strain for Megan, she tried not to show it. It was not easy joining this team: Fred and Wally had a lifelong friendship and had already built a boat together; Megan was a novice, a woman, and years younger. Fred, in impatience or frustration, was not always kind. The two had moments, times when he was hard on her, an argument sparked, and Megan left. But within hours he would call—Come back, we need you—and the project continued with three. They realized if they were going to finish building the boat, if they were going to start a day sail company, they needed each other. Fred needed Megan to hold up the business end, and she needed him to bring the boat to life. With time, their love settled into a loyal friendship.

The months passed from April to May to June, and the weather began to warm. As the hull took shape, the warehouse building seemed to grow smaller. It was twenty feet wide; the hull was eighteen. But it went smoothly—slow and steady. Fred’s meticulous calculations were spot-on; when the hull was completed in October, the amount of excess material left in the shop fit in the bed of his truck.

***

passageways5Fred saw the boat in his dreams. Wally understood through Fred’s drawings. Megan had seen the sketches, but the day the boat come out of the damp, dark shop and out into the sunlight, she was seeing the thing, really seeing it, for the first time. The Frances was immense and elegant. Dozens of family and friends came, and people walking by stopped to see Frances go into the water for the first time. Her cabins were empty; she was all shell. The boat floated like a leaf atop the water. Fred called her perfect.

Over the winter and into the next spring, Frances filled out and softened with oak and spruce. Fred, Wally, and Megan worked to build the mast and bowsprit, her cabinhouse, lazarette hatch. They built the push boat, affectionately christened “Pushy.” Sails were stitched; Frances was rigged. By summer, she went out for her first sails. Megan and Fred made preparations to start their day sail business the next summer. They would call it Maine Sailing Adventures. The Frances was ready for passengers.

***

Fred swelled with pride seeing the boat he’d dreamed into life become part of the Portland waterfront. They sailed the boat three times every day all summer long, sharing the beauty of Casco Bay with her passengers, young and old, from Maine and from away.

To hoist Frances’s sails and drive her through the bay, Fred and Megan needed a crew. They hired some crewmembers who had never sailed before and taught them how to run a boat, making it fun. Frances became their summer home—more like a place to gather with friends than a job. Deckhands returned year after year, bringing their siblings, too, working together like swallows. The bonds between crew made the boat a success. They became a family.

Megan and Fred worked together each day from May through October, dedicating themselves to the success of the Frances. Their relationship was at once strained and stable, grounded in trust and commitment but tested by the stress of running a fledgling business. Their personal lives weaved in and out of the constant of sailing. They dated other people. Megan was in a serious relationship and living with her boyfriend. Megan remained Fred’s confidante, meeting him for coffee if he wanted to talk, listening to his thoughts and ideas. In stress or anxiety, coming back to the boat was what grounded him, but running a business did not provide the same creative outlet as designing and building did. Eventually, Fred started drawing up plans for another boat. He wanted to build something bigger than Frances, a vessel that would be seaworthy—one that could sail beyond the waters of Casco Bay and could make passage at sea. But the plans never came to life.

***ŸŸŸ

Megan stands in the Portland Company building for the second time in a matter of days. It’s early March, the day of the spring boat show, and by some mystery, some inexplicable madness, she is here at the Maine Sailing Adventures table without Fred, and Fred will not be here again, will never stand here with her on this day, not next spring or the one after. And her chest has ached for days; it feels at once crushed and hollow. Waves of excruciating impossibility and quiet numbness pass over and over, tides of grief, moons of emptiness, beginnings and ends and ends.

Fred’s brother called days earlier on a cold February morning. Megan was skiing with her boyfriend and could not get reception on her phone at the top of the mountain. They always went skiing during blizzards when the snow was new and rich. Under the gray sky, through the white powder, she skied to the bottom, wind in her face, and called him back. Fred was gone, he told her. He passed away last night. It was sudden. The snow fell all around her.

Now she stands at the boat show, just days after his memorial service was held in this building, in this same spot. In a twist of universes, a folding inside out of fate, she is here again but in a different condition and with a new purpose. Fred’s mom has painted a sign that reads Maine Sailing Adventures and shows the boat as Fred sketched it early on, his penciled strokes peeking out from under her soft lines of paint. People smile gently, nod knowingly. Megan breathes.

Frances becomes a church. In the following weeks, the routine readying of the boat for the summer sailing season transforms into a ritual of togetherness in remembering Fred. Friends and family come to help, pray, bring gifts, tell stories. Frances is made anew: the floor is ripped up; they disassemble the interior, remove rust from inside the bilge and hull, the main salon, the lazarette, the forward galley—remove, recover, reseal, repaint, reassemble.

By June, Frances returns to the water. Family and friends take her out into the bay in the quiet fog to scatter Fred’s ashes. The ashes release into the air, fluttering softly like feathers, settling gently in the black water. The fog lifts.

***

Megan carries the business that summer. The weight of responsibility is unbearable and yet it catalyzes her healing. Each morning, she comes to the boat, goes through the motions, and works and works. She captains the boat more than ever before. For the first time, she is consistently responsible for sailing the Frances on her own, for making decisions and managing the safety of the boat’s passengers. Frances cooperates. There are times when the boat sails so smoothly it’s as if she knows. In moments when Megan steps away from the helm, Frances continues to sail straight.

One year trickles into the next. Slowly, the dull ache and sharp pangs of grief begin to fade, and the delirious fog of anguish that seemed to hang over everything dissolves. Megan works twelve- and fourteen-hour days. She goes down to the pier shed to open up for the day by 8:30 am. She spends mornings on the phone, responding to emails, talking to potential charter clients, and selling tickets. The crew arrives at eleven, and they wash down the boat and provision for the day. The first sail leaves at noon.

Depending on the day, Megan captains, crews, or stays shoreside. She plans catering and hires a bluegrass band to play during sunset sails. She organizes educational sails for school field trips and junior yacht clubs. She arranges Coast Guard inspections and licensing through the city and state. She is responsible for hiring crew and for their payroll. She does the accounting, taxes, invoicing, marketing, and advertising. She maintains the website.

Sailing is the simple part. Out on the water, the world melts away. It goes like this: In the wind and sun, passengers cluster around the Maine Sailing Adventures shed, waiting to board. Megan greets the guests, checks them in, and answers questions. Conversation rises like a song amidst the sound of the wind and gulls. The harbor surf is rough and choppy, lapping against the boarding dock persistently, splashing over, retreating, leaving patterns of damp peaks and valleys on the wood. Frances’s port side bumps against the rubber buffer of the dock, squealing and groaning rhythmically with the friction of each lurch. Everyone boards.

passageways6Leaving the dock, the deckhands move to their stations on either side of the mast, ready to pull up the mainsail. Megan helps, laughing with the crew as they go. The captain gives his cue, and it is like a race—hands fly up one over the other, yanking the rope down, bringing the sail up, quickly, steadily, using bodyweight to reach, pull, reach, pull. The jib is set free, and it too inflates with air. The deckhands smile with flushed faces. Suddenly, Frances is sailing.

Megan does this every day from June 1st through October 15th and spends the rest of October and November winterizing Frances, then works through April and May readying the boat for the next season: rigging, resurfacing, revarnishing, grinding, painting, taking apart, and putting together. The plumbing needs to be redone. The rot in the mast needs to be carved out and repaired. Wally wants to replace it with an aluminum one, but Megan isn’t sure. What would Fred say of aluminum on his traditional sloop?

The pages of the calendar fall away. The Frances is a living creature. Sometimes she is unrelenting in her neediness; other times being aboard her is like spending time with an old friend. She fills Megan’s days and months, one day’s tasks overflowing into the next. The demands of maintaining the boat and running a business prevent her from keeping a relationship, from pursuing other jobs, from going to graduate school, from making other plans. This is not how she envisioned it. But here it is, a blessing and a burden. An obligation and a gift.

***

The memory is like a dream now. Fred and Megan spent their first summer together sailing up Maine’s sunken coast. They passed lighthouses, fishing villages, and rocky cliffs, navigating around offshore islands. Their hair curled at the ends in the salty breeze, the air full of the sounds of seagulls, lapping water, fluttering sails. North of Monhegan, the boat’s rudder became caught on a lobster buoy. The sea was quiet with no other boats in sight; it was the end of the season, the autumn chill rolling in. Anchored backward to the lobster pot, the seas started coming in, filling the cockpit. Even with the strain of the boat against it, the lobster gear would not let go. Fred and Megan found a knife from below and fastened it to the gaff. They cut themselves free.

***

As each sailing season closes, Megan reviews the books and reflects. She tells herself she has to be realistic. If she sells the boat, she wants Frances to remain part of the Portland community. Maybe it could be used by a youth sailing organization. She believes Frances is at her best as a teacher, used as a space where the tradition of sailing can be carried on. It’s what Fred started and always encouraged: a community, a simple community out on the water without distraction or hassle, where nothing trivial matters. Where the crew and vessel are at the mercy of nature but cooperate with her and cooperate with each other. Where there is just sea and salt and the gulls, the jagged oak-ridden coast, the islands emerging at every turn like fingertips reaching up from the earth. Where the Frances is a tiny vessel making passage in a palm.

In the winters, Megan goes to sea on other boats, making passages out into the Atlantic. She travels south, leaving Maine’s brown November coast retreating in the distance. But it isn’t always a clean break. Her steps away from the boat are countered by a pull that brings her back. In the days before her most recent trip south, Megan ran into Fred’s mom at the gas station. She told Megan how much she appreciates all she does to maintain the Frances, to keep the business running, to carry on a dream. She wipes away tears, saying how being on the boat reminds her so much of her son.

Out at sea, everything is blue—or saturated in red at sunrise and sunset. There is nothing to see except ocean and sky. Megan is small, a tiny fleck floating on the waves. There’s no coast or bird or island in sight, but she is not afraid. The horizon pulses with the heartbeat of the planet, and she feels it, the water and salt and sky coursing through her veins. She breathes in, her lungs filling with memory. Her heart swells with adventure and life. She is home.

***

Now, in the boatyard, Megan sits alone on Frances’s deck, working to winterize the boat for the season. With needle-nose pliers, she undoes the shackles that were seized in the spring. The shackles are connecting links that hold parts of the boat together, like block pulleys to rigging. It’s a job she and Fred used to do together each year. As she disassembles them, labels them, and puts them away, she wonders whose work she is undoing, whose hands were on them last. Someone who came to help on the boat? A deckhand? Wally? Megan herself? The momentum carrying on the seasons flows like a current now, has a pace and rhythm that moves forward. A life continues in so many ways, she thinks, and packs the shackles away.

***

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Kelly Shetron is a writer and multimedia storyteller living in New York City. She received her BA in English and economics from Muhlenberg College and studied nonfiction writing and multimedia storytelling at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She wants to hear your story. Follow Kelly on Twitter. More from this author →