The time with the Ancient Mariner

On this humid third day of summer, the air was heavy, the skies threatening, the bugs, bugging. So what better way to spend a day off than to take the tin can out for a shake down splash in the local waters of Ipswich Bay. One problem though, this shaky skipper was nursing a bum shoulder, and wimp that he is, didn’t want to press his luck hitching up, pushing off, and hauling out. So a call was made to the Ancient Mariner.

“Up for a boat ride?”

A thoughtful pause precedes a skeptical query, “Today?”

“Sure, why not. Hot day, flood tide, weekday traffic at the Wharf. I’ll even spring for a sandwich.”

“Beer too.”

“Okay. You gotta help me with the trailer though.”

“Add a cookie. When do we shove off ?”

“Oh nine thirty hours, or thereabouts.”

Now the Ancient Mariner knows a thing or two about boats. We both grew up on the river of course, but unlike this land-based flat foot, the Ancient Mariner earned his bread piloting The Howard Fitzpatrick – the celebrated  Massachusetts Port Authority Fire Boat. He spent years cruising the turbulent waters of Boston Harbor and its environs, dousing pier fires, trawling for former close associates of James Bulger, and escorting political wannabes’ through the choppy seas of Bay State politics. Such experience, to say the least, has provided the Ancient Mariner with an uncanny ability to accurately read the waters and thus avoid the treacherous shoals of life.

To prepare for our journey, I keep my promise and pony up accordingly at Ipswich River Provisions. One TCBLT (no onions please) a six-pack of Lighthouse IPA (the Ancient Mariner has expensive tastes with other people’s money) and a ginger snap safely stored with water and sunscreen. A final scan of the skies as the trailer clanks onto the hitch, and we’re off on the quarter-mile journey to the boat ramp.

We’re greeted by the ever popular Dock-Master Ed Walsh, and my heart swells to see him wearing an Ipswich Police Association ball cap. Ed knows me well enough to mention that it’s always a good idea to install the drain plug and ignition key  before backing down to test depth. But I’m on my game today and managed to do these things independently. The ramp is quiet today, so we will avoid the intense scrutiny of other trailer-backer-uppers. The Ancient Mariner is expert at this and in seconds, the Lund is in the water, it’s forty horse Mercury purring like a kitten.

We cast off and make our way down river, passing the milestones of our shared youth. Carl Nordstrom’s old home, lovingly restored and cared for by Barbara Ostberg and her late husband Dick. The flat rock where we would dive into the multi-colored waters of yesteryear (depending on what industrial material was released upriver from the Sylvania plant) and the final resting place of the Nancy II.Things have changed in the last fifty years, but much remains as before.

I’m distractedly fiddling with the cable to the depth finder when the Ancient Mariner casually suggests a course correction to avoid striking the rocky end of Nabby’s Point. I take his advice and bear to starboard. There’s plenty of water, so who needs a depth finder anyway? With a wave to the Green Homestead high above the riverbank, we clear the no wake zone, steer through the short cut and in no time enter Plum Island Sound.

The light wind and calm surf makes a run to the outside irresistible. A curious seal marks our progress along the beachfront. Cape Ann glimmers through the morning haze against the deep blue of the ocean. Clouds roil above, and turning past the spit, we enter the Essex River.

“Hey, I finally got the depth finder to work,” I exclaim.

“Good. Try not to hit that Boston Whaler in front of us,” chides my elder.

Another seal bobs along the surface, this one with white markings on his head.

“Grey hair, like us,” observes the Ancient Mariner.

We back down for the mooring area and glide slowly through Conomo Point. Passing a small charter boat bearing a half-dozen anglers trolling for strippers, the Ancient Mariner ruefully observes the slackness of their lines.

“Amateurs,” he chuckles between bites of his cookie. “Who else would pay good money to go fishing so close to shore. Just stand on the dock and do it for free, for Crissakes.”

We power up, continuing  toward Essex Harbor. The flood has drawn floats of marsh grass into the river, requiring sophisticated and repeated maneuvering on my part to avoid fouling the prop.

“You got trouble going in a straight line?”

“I’m taking reasonable preoccupations to avoid a catastrophic failure of the engine.”

Noting that the sun was crossing the meridian somewhere, the Ancient Mariner helps himself to an IPA.

“Not bad,” he observes.

Essex Harbor swells with power boats of all description.

“If you fired up all these oversized outboard motors at the same time, the noise would be deafening,” I’m told.

“True. It would likely draw all the water out of the river as well.”

We turn and glide downstream. I relinquish the helm to the Ancient Mariner and try an IPA.

“Agreed, these are pretty good.”

“Why don’t you break out that sandwich,” he suggests.

“A splendid idea.”

As we jointly rave over the culinary talents of Chef Markos, the Ancient Mariner suggests a course correction.

“Let’s go through the creek behind Hog Island.”

“They call it Choate Island now.”

“Who said?”

“I don’t really know for sure. The Trustees, I guess.”

“Why the hell do some people think they have the right to change everything? No one ever asked me what I thought. I’m not sending them any more money. Screw em’.”

You send them money now?”

The silence is deafening.

Observing the effect of the flood tide, the Ancient Mariner notes, “It’s hard to find the channel when you can’t see where the sea grass is.”

Looking over the side into the water below, I mention that I can see the grass very clearly.

“Oh, shit. You’re right. The depth finder says two feet, two inches. Guess we should get out and push us clear.”

“We? You gotta mouse in your pocket? You’re the one who put us here.”

“I thought the channel was to the left of the Osprey nest.”

“I think you are wrong. And I’ve heard that the Osprey kill wayward boaters and feed them to their young.”

“Hope not. There’s one circling above us now. But it looks deeper over there. We’ll just ease it slow,” he says as he trims the motor.

We eventually wind up where we belong, but not without an invasion mutant gnats from hell.

“Jesus. What are these things? You can’t slap them fast enough. Get us in open water and make full steam,” I plead.

Finally, we break out into the Castle Neck River and leave the gnats to the couple struggling on their SUP’s.

Recovering our stoic composure, we find the entrance to Fox Creek and slip under the road Argilla. The Castle looms ahead, the marsh a pastel of emerald greens, the egrets and herons magnificent as they volplane to grassy landings.

Noting the obvious, I say, “Funny, we never strayed too far from Ipswich.”

“Look around. Why would you want to.”

“Your right. For the price of a couple of gallons of gas, a beer and a sandwich, it’s a little bit of heaven.”

“That’s what I just said.”

“Okay. You get the last word.”


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