Secrets behind the 7 Wonders, Titanic’s Shoes, Captain Sisson’s Gold and Amelia Earhart’s Wedding
By Lisa Saunders 123 pages paperback
Shortly after she and her husband Jim moved to Mystic, CT, Lisa Saunders was inspired to create the “Mystic Seafarer’s Trail,” a not-too-difficult hike through the historic seaport and neighboring villages of Noank and Stonington. While exploring with her faithful beagle/basset hound mix, Bailey, she decided that the trail would visit a yet-to-be-determined “Seven Wonders of Mystic.”
With a keen, self-deprecating wit, Saunders tells the tale of each of the 7 Wonders, beginning with Wonder #1, the whaleship Charles W. Morgan. The Morgan is currently being restored at Mystic Seaport and will be relaunched next year. “If I’m not needed as a deck swabber or some other low-skill sailing job, perhaps I could sneak on as a stow-away,” she writes. “Now that would give me a chance to write the next Moby Dick!” Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14: “Plump Writer and Blind Sailor Defy Foul Weather, Scurvy, and Temptation to Eat Useless Crew Members.”
Excited to have a chance at earning a spot along the Mystic Seafarer’s Trail last winter, I was thrilled when my husband Jim and I were invited to join Jules, a blind sailor and psychotherapist, and her career Navy fiancé, Neil, on their sail from Chesapeake Bay to Mystic, CT. Although Jim and I had never sailed before, and Jules and I had just become friends, I imagined that even if we were swept out to sea and our men succumbed to some weird, incapacitating illness, she and I would endure any hardship together to get them safely back to Mystic. Our adventure would be titled something like, “Plump Writer and Blind Sailor Defy Foul Weather, Scurvy, and Temptation to Eat Useless Crew Members,” and it would get published in the next edition of Life Books’ The Greatest Adventures of All Time -right next to Amelia Earhart’s quest to circumnavigate the globe.
In preparation for any possible disaster on the trip, I attempted to learn something about celestial navigation. Knowing celestial navigation was how Mystic’s Captain Thomas Wolfe was able to negotiate through enemy territory to the north when he and his comrades escaped from a Confederate prison. Given that we were going to be very close to Confederate territory at the start of our trip in the Chesapeake Bay, I had better take the time to learn celestial navigation—at least some of it.
When Jules and my sailor friend Kate and I met for coffee at Green Marble Coffee House to discuss our trip, Kate asked Jules, “With the erratic winds in March, you’re not tempted to sail through Hell’s Gate, are you?”
Alarmed, I asked, “What’s Hell’s Gate?” Kate replied, “It’s one of the most treacherous passages on the eastern seaboard. It’s a tight channel in New York City with a rocky shore in the East River—it’s actually a tidal strait connecting three major bodies of water. You can get sucked into a whirlpool or smashed into Execution Rocks if you make a piloting error or misjudge the wind and tide.”
At home, I looked up Hell’s Gate on the Internet, and found that it’s officially called Hell Gate. It has been the site of some deadly maritime tragedies.
Jules doubted we would be attempting Hell Gate. But what if Neil wanted to risk it to save time? What if foul weather held us up earlier in our voyage and he had to get back fast to go off and fight in another war or something? It’s also tempting to take it because it means less time out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Later, Jules and Neil came over to our house with large nautical charts and laid them out on our dining room table so we could study our intended course. Seeing we would be sailing about 10 miles out from the New Jersey Shore to avoid waves and other currents, I realized I wasn’t going to be yelling “ahoy there” to anyone crazy enough to be sunbathing on the beach. At 10 miles out, would there be rogue waves to contend with? Pirates? Although Neil was a trained fighter having served in two Middle East wars, I decided to pack my own knife.
What about sudden squalls? Normally I liked that word, but I sure didn’t want to be caught in one in the Atlantic Ocean. Jules and Neil assured us that the weather station would be on at all times, and that the Coast Guard could easily be reached by calling 16 on the radio. (Note to self: learn what the radio looks like, where it is, and how to use it.)
As we discussed our course around Manhattan (much to my dismay, Neil said we would be sailing through Hell Gate to avoid the Atlantic), Jim noticed we would sail through a place called Gravesend Bay. He said, “I’m sure that name is just an exaggeration, right?” After reading how Hell Gate got its name, I didn’t want to know how Gravesend Bay got its.
I did, however, finally work up the nerve to ask Jules what a sailing harness was and why my neighbor suggested I borrow hers. “Actually,” she replied, “that’s not a bad idea. It’s a way to tie yourself onto the boat’s lifeline to prevent any erratic waves and wind from knocking you overboard.” The truth was finally coming out—there was just a little more risk to this trip than microwaving popcorn. If I accidentally fell overboard, would my first worry be drowning, freezing or shark attack? (Note to self: bring an even bigger knife and keep it in my boot.)
Next, Neil showed us a YouTube video of people sailing a boat similar to theirs. It looked fun to hoist a sail up and down. When I asked what they taught their Special Olympic sailing athletes, Jules replied, “We teach them how to work the jib.” I asked, “Can you at least teach Jim and me how to work
the jib?” Suddenly sounding very Navy, Neil declared, “Oh you’ll be doing a lot more than working the jib! We are going to be sailing 18 hours a day, so there will be a lot of work for everyone. We will be drinking hot tea all day and night to keep warm. We must stay alert and ready for anything.”
I had been shanghaied! Gone were the promises of leisurely dinners at marinas, movies and cheap wine. Would we be swabbing the deck from dawn till dusk? If Jim and I weren’t up to snuff, or deemed lazy, would we be flogged? Was keelhauling still legal? How does one stage a mutiny?
What if the sails tore and we ran out of gas—would we be set adrift in the Atlantic? If we were starving, would we resort to cannibalism? When I asked Jules who would be eaten first, she replied, “The least useful.”
Thank goodness I was about to make myself useful by taking a four-hour coastal navigation course. It was just going to be a brief overview of a very complicated subject, but at least it was something. Poor Jim, he just didn’t have time to become indispensable before the trip.
I kept my family and friends up-to-date on our preparations: Blog post: Thursday, March 8 Jim’s been complaining that I’m buying us a lot of gear for what was supposed to be a free vacation. So, when I bought myself a headlamp, something you’d see a miner wear, I didn’t get him one. “Hey,” he said, “If you get to have one, then I want one too.” So, I went back to the store. He tried his on yesterday morning while eating breakfast. He finally admitted that it does come in handy. “Now I can really see my cereal!”
Since learning how to spot unexploded depth charges on nautical charts, I thought I should move on to study the survival books I’ve collected over the years. The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook was great for showing me how to jump into a dumpster from a building, but it only had a page on how to fend off a shark attack or treat frostbite. My US Army Survival Manual featured mostly how to survive on land—from jungle to desert— but it did have a chapter on sea survival. Well, I’m off to the bookstore now to find out how to live for months on the open sea without resorting to cannibalism. Jim shouldn’t complain about that purchase…
Editor’s note: Lisa Saunders is a speaker, writer and publicist, and a winner of the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations Gold Medallion. She is the Congenital CMV Foundation parent representative and a member of the Mystic River Historical Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, and Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. Mystic Seafarer’s Trail and her other books, including Ever True: A Union Private and His Wife, Ride a Horse, Not an Elevator, and Anything But a Dog! The perfect pet for a girl with congenital CMV (cytomegalovirus), are available at amazon.com/author/lisasaunders.com. Her own website is authorlisasaunders.com.
Lisa Saunders will be signing copies of Mystic Seafarer’s Trail at the West Marine store in Mystic, CT on Saturday, May 18 from 9 am to noon. The store is located at 14 B Clara Drive in Mystic, and the phone number is 860-536-1455.