We slipped (quietly as was possible when you motor) out of Marblehead harbour. It was 4am and we were fuelled by hot tea and enthusiasm. The sky did a spectacular show of stars – not that we needed them. Nick’s boat has instruments, unlike the Daily Mirror kit boats I sailed at school. Instruments to show you how deep the water is, and how fast you are going. It can even drive itself, though I’m not sure it can detect huge ferries or buoys in the water, or even boys in the water. There is room below deck to sleep six very friendly people, to pee and cook. There is a fridge for the wine and I believe you can shower in the loo, sort of. As we passed out of the harbour, into open waters, Jane pressed a button, and hey presto a sail unfurled, Nick killed the engine and we locked onto the wind. The wrong type of wind.
Seasickness can be more or less controlled if the boat dips and dives up and down. You know what’s coming next, and with eyes fixed on the horizon it’s doable. Pitching side to side is also doable. (I once survived a rusty tub in the gulf of Thailand that did this, disappearing between enormous waves.) What I couldn’t cope with was a combination of those movements making the boat do a corkscrew motion, despite wearing a sea-sickness patch behind my ear, acupoint wrist bands, and popping homeopathic pills. The earl grey tea churned in my stomach. I tried to put a brave face on it, if not a pink, healthy one. ‘Eight hours’, I kept thinking, ‘eight hours and there’s no escape’. ‘There better be bloody whales’, I thought. Eventually ‘I’m going to be sick’ predominated.
By 7 am my bladder dictated the course of events, just after I’d tentatively enjoyed a bowl of muesli and felt a tiny bit better. I may be very close to Nick and Jane, but not close enough to pee in a bucket in front of them, though it was kind of them to offer. Besides sitting on a bucket in the small space between benches, where, because I’m short, I could barely steady myself against the opposite bench, seemed an impossibility. I don’t think even a penis would have helped. (Yes, yes, I have penis envy. How could I not with four brothers boasting about how they could make their pee foam?) ‘Down below’ was where the worst of the churning happened and I’d put off the moment for three hours. Things were already banging about in the cabin, and I joined them reluctantly, zig zagging my way down to the loo at the bow end. There’s that moment when you think, shall I sit on it, or put my head down it? And then there is no choice.
Crashing into my berth, clasping the bucket kindly presented by Nick, I wanted to die. I’d been looking forward to this? Nevertheless I shouted up “I’m coming up” heave “if there’s a whale” heave, “I don’t care how bad I am, call me. Bleauch”. My vision of a quiet sail in glorious sunshine, lolling on the bow in my cozzie, taking the occasional dip and coming up laughing couldn’t have been more deluded. I was right, I wasn’t much use on the boat. In fact I must have made the trip very unpleasant for them too.
After what seemed like hours, Nick called down “we’re just about at the Stellwagen Bank”. This treasure of a marine reserve, just north of Cape Cod is apparently one of the best places in the world to watch whales. Protected by a submerged shallow bank, where mastodons once trod, whales now feed in the abutting deep waters. If there was a chance of seeing Humpbacks, this was it. Excitement is surprisingly reviving. So is fizzy orange juice and cheesy goldfish biscuits. My eyes haven’t worked so hard since I lost a contact lens in the main square in Marrakech. I scanned and scanned the sea around us. Jane sang whale songs. Nick used his binoculars. Hope was palpable; possible disappointment, the other large mammal in the boat. The tension was unbearable, though fortunately the sea was much more bearable. We had the right sort of wind at last. Then I had an idea. My father, dead some 48 years, regularly finds me parking places. I wondered if he did whales too? And he did! Right by the boat. Two of them. They can’t have appeared for more than a few seconds, but believe me that is enough. It’s the hugeness of these mammals, when most of the time you just see gulls on the sea or the odd fish. To know they are there. That they exist. It’s impossible not to be awed. We couldn’t positively identify which whales we had seen, maybe Minkies, maybe Finbacks? Whatever. I could die happy.
We sang more whale songs and celebrated our luck, scanning all the while. “Fin” I shouted. A large black fin, unmistakable in its pointyness, but surprisingly floppy cut through the waves right beside the boat- a basking shark, passing us and passing us, and passing us; meters of the thing. (A basking shark can grow 14 meters in length.)
The sight of it made me very glad that I wasn’t having a little dip. Even though they don’t eat people, I didn’t relish the idea of meeting a thing that big swimming along with it’s mouth agape. It might just want a proper meal for a change. Plankton doesn’t look particularly filling, it’s hard to believe it can nourish a creature that large. However it was satisfying to imagine entertaining my grandsons with tales of the great-big-enormous-shark by the boat.
“There’s the tower” said Nick. Most Americans get the answer wrong when asked where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World in 1620. Those who have visited Provincetown can’t fail to clock the 252 feet high Pilgrim Monument that marks the spot. It also marked our final destination. We’d taken just over 8 hours and put 55 miles of heaving sea behind us. There was Provincetown, Queen of the East Coast, or should I say ‘Drag Queen’.