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And a Star to Steer By

“In every age, in every time, there have been those who are not content to settle down. They miss the kick of the wheel, the wail of the wind in the rigging, the exotic sights and smells of a harbor half across the world, the roar of engines cutting through the slipstream, and the powerful, body-shaking thunder of the jets. It is to these restless men with the wanderlust that the human race owes a priceless debt as he wanderers push the horizons out to the stars—”

– G. Harry Stine

“I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”

– John Masefield

It’s June now and we’re all coming out of our holes. The sun is shining and our skins drink up the solar radiation that’s been denied to us for so long. Brooklynites are throwing barbecues on their rooftops, cyclists are whizzing by through the park, fair weather joggers have returned. It’s a great time to be in the city.

But I feel a familiar prickling in my thumbs, what Herman Melville called an irresistible urge to start knocking people’s hats off their heads. I find myself more and more on the Brooklyn Promenade, smelling the harbor air and watching the tall-masted sailboats launch their voyages, with a wistful eye.

I seem to get like this every year, once the weather turns right, and I fondle the edges of my passport, which always seems too new and unused to me. I start doing silly things, like researching entrance requirements for the US Merchant Marine Academy. I considering stowing away on the first ship I can find at the Naval Yards. I habitually examine the departure times at JFK for random locales: Marrakesh, Moscow, Beijing.

Have you ever heard the Voyage of the Scarlet Queen? Click here to listen to an episode from 1948. Scarlet Queen was a radio show about a 78-foot-ketch captained by Philip Carney and his trusty first mate Red Gallagher. Every episode begins with soaring orchestral music “Prepare to make sail!” screamed in the background by a deck hand, the sound effect of wind howling, Carney saying something to the effect of “Log entry, the ketch Scarlet Queen, Philip Carney, master. Position — three degrees, seven minutes north, 104 degrees, two minutes east. Wind, fresh to moderate; sky, fair…” Then they’d head into some exotic South Asian port where Carney and Gallagher would get involved in international intrigue and have to punch their way out of trouble, race back to the Queen, who was always speedy and yar, and they’d make for the next port of call with their cargo in the hold, maybe a few dollars richer, maybe poorer.

Chinese Junker in the East River, Bound for Singapore

I don’t know that this kind of life ever existed, but I know for fact it doesn’t anymore. Hopping a 777 to Berlin just doesn’t have the same thrill as hopping onto a ship. Instead of bracing sea air, you have to contend with the stale airport atmosphere, slack-jawed TSA employees and screaming babies. You stay or go based on someone else’s schedule, and you might not leave at all if a volcano’s erupting in Iceland.

But oh…what I wouldn’t give for a ketch of my own. Universe, you can keep whatever else you might have had in store for me, a wife, kids, golden retriever named Sparky who’d fetch my slippers, a comfortable old age, supportive family, fame, fortune, my novels published, my spot on the New York Times Best Seller List. You can keep it.

Just let me have the Scarlet Queen. Let me sail to parts unknown. Let me make new friends in foreign lands who want to rob and cheat me. Let me see mermaids. Let me feel the rigging move through my hands. Let the ocean’s spray cool my brow and let the waves rock my to sleep in a hammock at night.

All I ask…

All I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by.

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