by Whitt Birnie
With Ship’s Papers, those documents needed when moving a small ship from port to port, secure in hand, I opened the door to the harbour-master’s office. He sat looking up from behind a large desk. The small room had a wide, open window overlooking the wharfs, but I only had time for a quick peek at the memorabilia covering the walls before he brought me up short with “Yes, may I help you?” and a smile.
Now, port authorities can come in many humours and attitudes, and their power over a mariner’s life is far-reaching. Inhabitants ashore live protected behind legal barriers unavailable to sea captains – his vessel and papers, crew and cargo must be in proper order at every moment. It’s a make-it or break-it stop, so it’s with due respect that I approach these disciplinarians. “Yes, thank you,” I replied, quickly trying to sum him up by looking into his face and searching for that smile. He was a wee bit round, bright white teeth, and with a skin color of a warm tan that I’d frequently noticed on native island girls, but was surprised to see on him. With my mind already drifting, I quickly added, “I’ve come for clearance.”
He wasn’t smiling now, and I felt a slight tang of worry. ‘What’s wrong,’ is what I was thinking, but I had enough smarts to say, “After our papers are in good order and when we’ve been cleared, for how long is the document valid?” That probably convinced him I was serious and offering him the respect he deserved, and a different but quizzical smile returned.
“Before answering that,” he went on, leaning back in his chair and glancing out at the quay where vessels were bobbing in their moorings, “why are you leaving?” He was looking at a framed picture on the desk, so I started scanning the wall of nautical memorabilia, and without really connecting to the moment, lost in some vague future plans, sputtered forth, “Oh, we had a month-long passage and we’d like to rest up on some deserted beach.” That brought a jolly, rolling chuckle from him.
Getting up from behind the desk, and drawing himself up to full height, a very impressive, proud and strong individual, he placed his hand near the wall and said, “Come take a look at these.” Foreign flags, prize ribbons, lines knotted in fancy decorative work, nameplate inscriptions, reproductions, buttons, scrimshaw; I grew light-headed as I felt history wash over me. Pointing to a signed photograph of the Star Flyer he said, “Where have you been all your life, on a desert island? These tall ships are arriving next week, by sail, no less. What is so pressing that you want to miss Race Week and the regatta?”
He was right. I’d been living on remote islands most of my life, and I wasn’t attracted to crowds at all. But this native harbour official, the ‘Port Captain’, with just a few words, had shaken my resolve to leave. I felt that wonderful no-man’s-land sensation of change, the warm blush that comes when you realize you’ve made a silly mistake, and want to correct it, when you’re awash with the consequences of tacking your ship, changing your course, overcoming inertia and indecision. Here was a guy I’d never met before, but he was speaking with pride for his native island, and, in fact, extending an invitation.
There it was again, that deepest joy of traveling, receiving hospitality, that rush you feel hearing local people extend their welcome to a visiting stranger, the gesture of friendship abroad, the host wanting the visitor to feel at home, the relaxed people of the tropics, sharing something warmed by life in the sun. “You’ll always regret it if you leave now.”
I was more than giddy with embarrassment. “I thought it was mostly for the élite and their super yachts,” I advanced hesitatingly, then went on; “We’re doing this sail very simply, on small budget.” But I knew I’d lost the argument, I was finished, he’d won.
Wagging his head slowly by now with laughter. “No problem. So much goes on here. Yachties? You might never even see them. There’s good crew ashore. You’ve got the time, you’re staying. You’ll only get clearance in an emergency. Is that okay with you?”
“Great!” So I left the kind Port Captain’s office in an excellent mood, with no clearance, but with a big prize in store. The pictures of the tall ships you see here are thanks to him. I’d be extremely pleased to learn he found a spot for them in his office of nautical souvenirs.