The Sea is a Harsh Mistress
Harbortown is a small village located on a remote island. The people are like people anywhere else. Maybe, a little more self-reliant, since the ferry only comes once a week, but, other than that, they’re pretty much like you and me.
Times had been hard lately. The cannery, the biggest employer on the island, had cut back wages and then cut jobs. Quite a few people needed help to get by. The unmet needs of their neighbors bothered many islanders. One day, some of them got together to find a way to help.
At the meeting, it was soon clear that the most pressing problem was hunger. Harbortowners are known for their independent spirits so it was no surprise that they had a harder time agreeing on what to do about it. In the end, they settled on the most obvious solution. They were surrounded by the sea so they agreed to pool their money and buy a fishing boat. It would be staffed by volunteers with an elected captain. The catch would be given to the hungry. Everyone felt better about the situation as they left the meeting.
The band teacher, because of his organizing skills, was given the task of recruiting the volunteers. He soon had enough to gather the crew to hold a vote for the captain.
Choosing a crew turned out to be a lot easier than choosing a captain. Finally, after much debate and acrimony, the field had dwindled to two. By the time they had settled on one, several of the volunteers had left in anger vowing not to return. Those that were left pressed on with the project.
Meanwhile, the three people tasked with finding a boat weren’t having any better luck. They found two likely boats and then argued for days over which one would be best. In the end, two members overrode the other’s objections and decided to purchase the more expensive boat. The other member was so angry he dropped out of the group and took his money with him. His departure forced them to buy the cheaper boat he had wanted them to buy in the first place. The group agreed that was less important than the fact that they had a boat. Things were back on track.
The captain was an experienced sailor, although he had never been a fisherman. Being a wise captain with a firm grasp on his own weaknesses, his first act was to appoint their only ex-fisherman to be his first mate. His second act was to gather his crew for a shakedown cruise.
It was a fine morning when they set out on their first cruise. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for that independent Harbortowner spirit to show up amongst the crew. The first argument to erupt was over the crew positions. One crewmember was adamant about being on the net crew. The first mate explained that the assigned men were the most qualified on the boat. One was a lumber jack and the other had worked construction. They both had extensive knowledge of ropes and hauling gear. When the first mate wouldn’t change the assignments, the angry crewman demanded to be returned to the dock. Rather than set sail with a crewmember in that kind of mood, and since they were still in the harbor, the captain complied with the volunteer’s request.
The boat turned around quickly once they had dropped off the disgruntled sailor and they were soon headed back out of the harbor. Unfortunately, their troubles weren’t yet over.
The boat was still in the harbor when the next complainer made his presence known. He made the mistake of challenging the captain over the speed of the boat. He thought they were moving too slow. He was a busy person. He had things to do. The faster the boat went the quicker they’d be able to return. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable request to him.
The captain saw it differently. He finally ordered the crewman to drop the matter. The angry sailor then demanded to be set ashore like his recent crewmember. The captain refused, but offered the boat’s inflatable raft. That would leave the crew with the four-person dinghy. The boat and its recent passenger were soon headed in different directions.
The captain took the wheel when he felt the boat’s bow lift as it encountered the stronger swells near the mouth of the harbor. His recent anger dropped off of him as he felt more into his element. Once past the rocks near the harbor mouth they would be on the open sea.
The other three crewmen went below to study the charts for leads on where to fish. This proved to be the most acrimonious dispute of the voyage. Before it was done, they had resorted to name-calling and, in one instance, nearly to fisticuffs. The crew had fallen apart.
They raged at each other until one of the men said he was going to take the dinghy and leave. The other two immediately claimed a seat. As far as they were concerned, this trip should never have happened. The one thing they all agreed on was that Harbortowners were just too damned independent for their own good.
They came up the aft stairs, which were out of sight of the wheelhouse. Not one of them had the nerve to tell the captain they were leaving. He would figure it out eventually and turn the boat around and come back in. All that mattered now was getting off this damn boat.
They reported they were about a quarter-mile from the boat when they heard its engine cough and die. They also reported that the day was so quiet that they could hear the captain calling for the crew. They even reported his words.
“Get a sea anchor out! Ready the main anchor! First Mate, check that engine!”
Jump to it or we’ll be on the rocks!”
This all happened long ago. The Harbortowners say you can still hear his plaintiff cries if you are near the rocks when the wind blows a certain way.