WE LIVE ON A SCHOONER: By Elizabeth Jay Etnier

Stephen Etnier aboard schooner Morgana

(From the September 1934 issue of The Atlantic Monthly)

Tuesday, October 31, 1933

I sat on deck sewing as we went through Hell Gate, feeling very much the schooner house wife (Stephen called me ‘Tugboat Annie’). We anchored off the New York Yacht Club at 26th Street, and Lucius came on board for lunch. He picked up a china plate to see the trade-mark on the back, noted the silver dishes, the candlesticks, and all other appurtenances of elegance, he tried the electric lights to see if they really worked, and departed–not without noticing that there was a slim volume of his own verse among the books. He asked me where we had found our steward-sailor, and I had to explain that he was the carpenter’s son, that he had never cooked or been on a sailboat before, but that we had engaged him because he was so nice.

We continued down the East River, hugging close by the Battery, the New York sky line towering above us tremendous and impressive. There were boats passing in all directions, tiny little tugs maneuvering great rafts of railroad cars. I marveled that there were not constant collisions. We passed Governors Island, where I had been as a child to see Dad receive his Distinguished Service Cross. On that occasion I wore a new hat with blue wool flowers crocheted upon it, and I remember that I had great difficulty in deciding whether to choose blue for infantry or red for Harvard.

The sun set behind the Statue of Liberty. In the dusk we anchored on a shallow place half a mile from Gravesend between three barges and a big full-rigged ship. A large and brilliant moon had risen early, giving the scene a dramatic quality. Stephen and I sat on deck a long time after dinner. Ferryboats kept passing by us and we could hear the music of popular songs and ‘O Solo Mio’ played by accordion men who collect nickels and dimes from the passengers.

In the middle of the night I sat up with a start. Then I heard it again–a long cry all on one note, ‘Hey, on board the schooner,’ repeated over and over. We were dragging anchor and about to collide with the full-rigged ship, whose watch had wakened us. The moon was still full and bright, but a wind had sprung up. It was strange, stumbling on deck from a sound sleep, to see the other boat looming so close.

November 2

Last night we ran aground off Atlantic City. It was horrible and I did not like it a bit. We had been sailing since five o’clock in the morning, arriving off Atlantic City about 10.00 P.M. The shore was so thickly sprinkled with lights, including many colored ones, that we had difficulty identifying the red and green light buoys marking the channel. Then, with no warning, there was a grind, a crash, and another crash. We had hit the hard sand bottom. The motor was thrown into reverse, then full speed ahead. For one suspended half second I thought we might get off. Then again that pounding crash, crash, crash; then an interval, and again crash. The whole boat shook and quivered so that it tore one’s heart, and her stern was lifted up. We sent off all the Very pistol cartridges and some twenty Roman candles that were left over from the Fourth of July. It was not comforting to see waves breaking on a sand bar a hundred yards away. Stephen said, ‘Well, I guess this is the end of this boat.’

There was no danger to ourselves, for it was a still and beautiful night, but many silly things kept flashing through my mind. I wondered which of the books I should try to save first. I thought with a sort of sad despair of the hours I’d spent on my hands and knees making a paper pattern of that very irregular floor space so that we might have a new red rug that would fit exactly; of how Stephen and I had decided to consider the Morgana our home; of the fun we had had making her habitable; of the fights over what things to take on board; of the morning the carpenter sat so patiently while Stephen and I argued about which bunk should be torn out to build a double bed; and I thought I had better put all my jewelry into my pocketbook so that it would be saved when the time came to desert the ship. After what seemed like hours, but was actually, Stephen tells me, about twenty minutes, the Coast Guard arrived and, with one of their seventy-five-footers, pulled us off without much difficulty. We rolled around by the green light buoy at the channel entrance, waiting for leaks to develop (surprisingly, none did), while the Coast Guard asked us questions. They said the sands had shifted, but that the buoys had not yet been changed, and advised us to proceed to Cape May.

We ran under power. The moon was full and very luminous; the calm, unruffled sea was like liquid Monel metal. We talked quietly together. About 4.00 A.M. the Delco seemed unusually low, so I turned out the binnacle light and steered by moonlight. We strained our eyes trying to pick up lights. At five o’clock we anchored at the entrance of the channel into Cape May. Going below, I sat down for a minute and immediately fell asleep. I woke up at 6.30 when I heard the anchor being taken up. It was quite light. Fishing boats, long strings of them, passed us going out. Cape May harbor is completely landlocked–mostly sand dunes–a barn-like airplane hangar–not very pretty. We dropped anchor at 7.10 A.M. and everyone went to bed.

November 3, at CAPE MAY

The stepson of the owner of the wharf at which we are tied up came to dinner. He arrived respondent in a blue uniform with much gold braid and brought with him a girl and a basket of boiled crabs. He was young, not a bit shy, and delightfully ingenuous. One of his remarks concerned a lady who had recently been killed in an automobile accident: ‘Of course we were all very sorry she was killed, but at the same time we were sort of glad that something had happened to a Cape May person.’

November 10, ANNAPOLIS

Yesterday I had intestinal grippe and felt very sorry for myself, but today I am sitting up in bed with the door open so that I can listen to the talk going on between Stephen and the man who is aboard to fix the Delco. As usual, he is tearing everything apart. They all do that, but the one before last could not put it together again. If I had my way this would be purely a sailing vessel and we should burn oil lamps. All engines are so completely incomprehensible to me that I feel they are purposely perverse and malicious, with wills of their own.

Occasionally I join in the conversation and it is very cheerful. The electrician says that he thought the play, Fata Morgana, was better than the book, but is glad that the name of our boat has no connection with either. Before the war he was in the German air force, from which he was discharged for dueling. He joined the U.S. Navy and was one of the seven men with Commander Rodgers when his plane went down in the Pacific. They were adrift nineteen days. Three of them then went crazy, jumped overboard, and were eaten by sharks.

Later.–Our electrician has just left. When I called out that since I felt so much better I thought I would take a bath, he jumped up. ‘Lady,’ he said, ‘dear Missus, I beg of you–it is most dangerous to bathe before forty-eight hours. If you will allow me to make you a nice cup of tea…’ So we had a tea party–Stephen, the electrician, and I in a pink wrapper. He told us that he had been in so many airplane crashes that he was held together by platinum wires. I am surprised to remember how much we told him about ourselves.

November 25, MOREHEAD CITY

A disreputable little yawl called the Astra–two men and a woman aboard–is anchored next to us. We have been watching them curiously all day, for the men wear black flannel shirts and have shaggy beards that grow surprisingly high up their cheekbones. In general appearance the trio is what escaped Bolshevists should look like. This afternoon the little man, who is very clumsy, was fixing something on the bowsprit when one moccasin fell off. As it floated by I fished it up and called, ‘Would you three care to come to dinner with us to-night?’

So they will be here in another hour.

Later.–When the Astras came down into the cabin they immediately commented upon the Mangravite still life and admired the John Carroll water color, adding, ‘Never saw a water color of his before–thought it was a Marin at first.’ Then they fell to discussing rigging and sea anchors for the rest of the evening.

December 17, CHARLESTON

10.00 A.M.–A warm day, the sky very deep greenish-blue, the wind southwest. I am sitting on deck. Stephen is ashore painting.

The night before last, just at sunset, we were watching the big hermaphrodite brig Intrepid, which had lain in here the past four days, sailing out with all her sails set and the slanting rays of the sun making her brass blaze like fire, when we noticed a small boat rapidly approaching. Something about her looked strangely familiar, as did the antics of the figure on the bowsprit taking down the jib.

‘That’s the Astra all right,’ said Stephen. And a little later we were greeting the P—s as though they were our oldest friends.

Later.–Boat populations being very transient, we are beginning to feel like the proprietors of this place. Whenever a new boat comes in we run along the wharves and stand critically watching while it docks. Then we saunter back to the Morgana and go below, knowing that, as soon as they have tied up, the newcomers will make a tour of inspection of the other boats. In the beginning, Stephen picked up everyone and asked him to dinner. Lately, however, he has developed a more discriminating method. He sits in the cabin with the skylight open while Ellison, who is usually working on deck anyway, engages them in conversation. If they sound interesting, he pops his head up and says, ‘Hello, won’t you come down and have a drink?’

The annual trek South is still going on, and every day new boats come in and others leave. In this year of depression there are countless people doing just what we are–living on a boat for economy. A pathetic number know practically nothing about sailing except what they have read about it in books. They plan to explore every one of the South Sea Islands and talk vaguely of ‘writing,’ but their boats are obviously unseaworthy and they have come this far entirely by inland waterway. They ask us where we are going and I am tired of explaining that we are not going anywhere until we feel like it; that we like boats and this one happens to be our home; that, besides, my husband has a certain amount of work to do, as he is having his fourth one-man show in February.

This afternoon, coming back from Meeting Street, I stopped over by the Astra. Mrs. P—, a towel round her head, was washing up the whole place.

‘Do you know,’ she said, ‘this is the second time I’ve been moved to do this. The first evening we came on board the Morgana I felt inspired; and now that I’ve been over there on the Imp, when I came back I said to myself: “Well, a palace like the Astra should be kept up like a palace!”‘ I agreed, and she went on, ‘He’s rather a character. I felt kind of sorry for him, so I had him to dinner this noon.’

I wandered over to see the man on the Imp. The boat was about eighteen feet long with a nine-foot beam and was actually a yawl, for a crooked little stick stuck up on the very stern. The owner asked me to come on board if I could find a place to sit down. The deck was taken up by a curious superstructure and a great pile of old bits of iron, rusty hoops, crowbars, links of chain. He had been three years coming from New York. He nourished a mania for making everything himself. His steering wheel was an old Pontiac hub with the Indian head still in evidence. If he needed a new mast he anchored by a wood for a few days till he had cut and made one (he indicated his latest–the little jigger-mast). Whenever he walked along the street he kept his eye out for things that ‘might come in handy sometime’ (he waved his hand at the pile of iron). I felt like Alice talking to the White Knight, and indeed there is a strong resemblance between the two kindly old adventurers with their odd array of ‘my own inventions.’ He had no money, but he had no expenses. His engine pushed the boat at two miles an hour.

When I got home I told Stephen about him and about the P—s having him to lunch. I said sadly, ‘The P—s never ask us to meals, but we have them here often.’ Stephen laughed and said that harbor etiquette demanded that the bigger boat always ask the little one; when we are in port with the Four Winds, it is always the Harrises who ask us to dine. Then I told him that the man on the Imp was not the last of the line. He had picked up a man who was cruising South in a rowboat.

Painting by Elizabeth Etnier
Morgana at Charleston/Painting by Elizabeth Etnier

January 17, 1934, CHARLESTON

We have decided to go to Bermuda. I was surprised to find that it is about eight hundred miles from here, farther than it is from New York or from Portland. Stephen has sent for a professional navigator, since we shall need another man for the trip at any rate.

January 19

I have been provisioning the boat, having made out long lists of food that run down three big sheets of paper. Mr. L—, the navigator, has arrived. A thick fog is shutting in, which is exasperating; we are all getting fidgety.

January 23

We are flying the Blue Peter. Ten ten-gallon cans with extra gasoline are filled and lashed to the deck. The rugs have been rolled up, the brandy and wine glasses and my blue glass jar all carefully stowed. The ceiling of cloud, cracking momentarily, gives place to great patches of blue sky, and the wind has at last shifted from northeast to west. We have had a telegram from Washington with a favorable forecast: ‘West and southwest winds. No storm areas visible at present.’ The coal, after delaying us for over an hour, is this minute arriving, carried in bags on the shoulders of five Negroes. They make a slow procession.

We cast off at 12.15. When we were clear of the dock I headed the boat into the wind while the men got up the sails. It is seven weeks and two days since they came down. I relinquished the wheel to Stephen as we approached Fort Sumter. The sun is very warm, the wind light, and I have put on my Boothbay straw hat. I looked back at Charleston. I saw the white steeple of Saint Michael’s, the red steeple of the new church, the steeple of Saint Philip’s–thin spires against the tranquil blue sky. I saw the huge and hideous Fort Sumter Hotel rising above the trees of the Battery Park, and glimpses of white buildings and red tile roofs. It looked mellow and picturesque and full of romance, very much as it appeared to us the day we sailed in here when our knowledge of Charleston was based solely on Porgy.

An oil tanker passed us in the channel. The skipper called, ‘Good luck!’

4.00-5.00 P.M.–My watch. We are already well beyond sight of land. The sea is calm. Mr. L— and Ellison have lashed the tender and stowed the anchors. Stephen went aloft to fasten the hoops more securely to the stays–he looked like Queequeg on watch for a whale. The color and clearness of the water are marvelous after the muddy yellow of the harbor.

7.00.–Supper. Paper plates already seem natural. We are becalmed.

8.00.–Stephen and I take the long watch (8.00 to 12.00). There is moonlight. We have brought the small radio on deck to play. We relieve each other at the wheel every hour.

10.00.–A fresh wind has sprung up from the north, quite contrary to all weather predictions. We gather speed and are soon making about eight knots. There is a continuous gurgling swish and the moon catches the bow wave whitely. It becomes increasingly rough as we near the Gulf Stream.

12.00, midnight.–We are relieved by Mr. L— and Ellison.

January 24

3.45 A.M.–Everyone on deck to take down the jib, which has torn. A big wave soaked me before I could get into my slicker.

9.00.–Breakfast. Beverly is sick, so out of bravado I cooked. Nothing would stay in place on the stove, and I had to brace myself to stand up. Feeling giddy once or twice, I quickly stuck my head out of the galley hatch. There on the ladder is one of the pleasantest places to stand, for the little hood protects you from spray and wind, yet you can hear very close the crash of the bow wave. The water is indigo blue, with bits of Gulf weed floating by. The wind is still strong.

The boiled eggs turned out hard, but I blessed a strong stomach and ate mine anyway. Below-decks is in its usual disgusting, unbelievable mess–even worse than usual because of wet clothes everywhere.

Later.–The rip in the sewing had grown so much that the four men took down the mainsail and set the storm-trisail. The sea was confused and the wind strong. I became exhausted by taking the wheel from 11.00 AM. till 2.00 P.M., fearful all the time that someone would slip and go overboard. Everything got rather uncomfortable.

Ellison and Mr. L— had the 8.00 to 12.00, midnight, watch and were hove to in a heavy sea.

Stephen is very discouraged. We lay in bed without bothering to undress, barely able to keep in. We went on watch at 12.00 midnight, still hove to.

January 25

At 3.30 A.M. Stephen saw that the foresail had torn clean across. The log read a hundred and eighty miles. The sea was very nasty and it seemed foolish to go on now that we could no longer trust the sails. I realized regretfully that my presence was largely responsible for his decision. Without waking the sleeping men, we quietly turned ship and started the motor. We decided to go to Savannah.

4.00.–We retired.

6.00.–I relieved Mr. L— and Ellison. I let Stephen sleep, as he needed it badly.

The day seemed pleasant once the light came. The boat was steady enough for everyone to eat breakfast–scrambled eggs on deck. It is wonderful how one’s spirits rise with the coming of day. Circumstances appear at their worst at night. I am no longer exhausted, but feel it would be possible to continue indefinitely. This is partly because I have learned to relax completely whenever I am off duty even for an hour.

We have had a strong south wind all day, which calmed the Stream, but is hardly favorable for making Savannah. Stephen fished for dolphins with a lamb chop, but desisted when I said they made a very human cry when killed. We saw only a few porpoises and one enormous monster (possibly a small whale) which rose several times very close to the boat.

Very rough, and rain squalls beginning about 6.00 P.M. With three ships in sight, we lit the masthead light despite the fact the Delco must be running low.

8.00-12.00, midnight.–Stephen and I on watch. Occasional rain squalls and the wind more in the west. We passed very close to one ship, which seemed not to move for some time, probably confused because our port running light was not burning.

January 26

4.00 A.M.–I went on deck and sent Ellison below. Mr. L— is casting the lead every ten minutes. When Stephen came up he made several attempts at star sights, but each time a big wave drenched him in spray and blurred the sight. The boat is moving fast. The moon is visible, very brilliant, for short intervals, always to be covered quickly by scudding clouds.

The bilge is sloshing terribly. The pump apparently will not work. The whole place looks increasingly horrible, but I do not care any more–I can hardly remember that it ever was different.

6.00.–I retired, but all the men stayed on deck. Mr. L— is still heaving the lead. He is indefatigable and a superlative sailor.

I came up again much refreshed at eight o’clock. There is the usual lift in everyone’s spirits with the break of day. I took the wheel for two hours. The sea is calm. The gas in the tank has run out and the motor stopped. An astounding peacefulness lulls our small world. There is no land in sight anywhere, but many little land birds have been blown offshore during the night. Two sparrows died on the boat–their poor little bodies so pathetic when the feathers are stuck to them.

Stephen came on deck with a dish of apricots and we joked at our plight. It is now a west wind. At the moment our position is uncertain–where should we go, to Savannah, Morehead City, Georgetown?

11.00.–The pump is now working. Extra gasoline from the cans has been poured into the tank and the engine started, for it has just been announced that we are probably twenty miles off Charleston–this being our fourth day at sea. Even now this expedition has its elements of humor, and, for the discomforts, some marvelous compensating moments. Such small blessings, like the sunrise, a calm moment to eat, an hour to lie down, are intensely appreciated. Then, too, from this trip I have learned a lot about what one feels like eating in unhappy moments: dry, tasteless crackers and unlimited coffee come first, then hot soups or mushy platefuls of milk and shredded wheat. Liver, nuts, and raisins are apt to disagree. No one feels like eating lettuce.

I have also acquired a more than nodding acquaintance with the Gulf Stream. While out at sea among big waves I constantly thought of the accuracy of Rockwell Kent’s pictures. People who see the horizon only from the decks of steamers may think of it as a straight line, but from a small boat, where the eye is only a little above water level, it always appears irregular, jagged, punctuated with high peaks. Its nearness and mountainousness change continuously as the boat goes up and down the slopes of the waves.

2.30 P.M.–The lead has shown ten fathoms, now it shows eight. I have the horrid dread that we may go on shoals. No one is certain of our position, but I have been praying that we may end up any place but Charleston. I could not stand seeing that Ideal White Swan Laundry man grimacing around again.

4.00.–Stephen has identified our position as Winyah Bay. We are now, therefore, running toward Georgetown, which is nine miles up a river.

6.30.–We passed long stretches of sand near the entrance, but lately the channel is rather winding, with trees on either side. The river is perfectly still. There is no longer a vestige of motion. It now seems incredible that not many hours ago my whole life centered on how soon I should be relieved at the wheel; that I could look forward to nothing farther ahead than when I could next stumble below and lie down. Those days in the Gulf Stream are already beginning to lose whatever unpleasantness they had, for that is one of the curious things about sailing.

I have spent a charming hour scrubbing the single stateroom rug, having removed the worst grease with a knife.

6.50.–The anchor chain has just run out. I popped up to take a look at Georgetown. It is dark, but my impression was of an attractive, friendly water front of a small old town.

Very quiet and still.

Ashore to telephone our families.

February 6, GEORGETOWN, S.C.

It rained all day, but nothing leaked, since we have put glue in the cracks. Stephen painted me in the cabin. It was not a success, for he caught a frozen expression on my face. I had read that if you kept absolutely still for the first half hour you became numb and could pose indefinitely; so I thought I would try it.

February 7

7.15 A.M.–A glorious day. We could tell it was fine from the patch of blue we see through our skylight, but on deck the early morning sunlight is dazzling, the colors of everything extra fresh and newly washed. I started to do exercises, the ‘hop-scrabble-hop’ Dad used to make us do on the lawn before breakfast. All the rigging is frosted white. Our bare feet have made footprints in the dew on the deck.

3.00 P.M.–Lunch at last. Stephen was ashore painting all morning. The picture is really of the Cornwallis (the miniature ferryboat), but he has painted also the quality of this still clear day.

Painting by Stephen Etnier
Painting by Stephen Etnier

February 8

11.00 A.M.–Lunch. Stephen went ashore to paint directly afterward. He is working much better here than in Charleston, where he was continually irritated by the self-conscious picturesqueness of the place.

2.00 P.M.–Mail has arrived that has wandered from Maine to New York, to Charleston, to Bermuda. There is a reproduction of Stephen’s ‘Cocktail Hour’ on the cover of Art Digest.

I have been reading Sir Edward Grey’s Fallodon Papers. He lists gardening as one of the highest forms of pleasure. Although he does not say so, I think that is true because you make and improve something with your own hands, then stand back and admire your creation. In a minor way, it must be the same satisfaction that an artist feels. Ellison experiences it, for this morning when he rowed me ashore he said, ‘I always go all the way round the boat after I have been working on her to see how much better she looks.’ (He has been painting the stays.) Certainly it is a peculiarity of both boats and gardens that you willingly go grubbing on your hands and knees for them and take a most passionate pride in the results.

Living on a boat, you can never quite take things for granted, and it keeps keen your delight in the most ordinary occurrences–baths, and candles on the table, for instance. When a storm howls outside, the snug safeness of a small harbor seems incredibly dear, and after we have been fog-bound we put to sea again as though it were the most exciting thing that ever happened. To know the kind of day is always interesting. Being with Stephen has made me aware of what I see–two colors together, a strong straight line in opposition to a delicate curved one, the rythym in railroad tracks or telegraph poles. There is a faded purple stucco store with an old awning striped turquoise and white, a bunch of bananas in the doorway with a small but brilliant red tag, that I have seen him look at each time we go by.

5.15 P.M.–Stephen returned. This week he was painted five pictures; four as good as anything he has done, but he is very depressed. He feels, What’s the use, when painting is no longer a living art functional in people’s lives (as possibly it was in the Renaissance)? People don’t look at pictures; they either buy what they consider Georgian pictures to go in their Georgian houses, or keep the same ones until they are as meaningless as part of the wall paper. A picture should be changed once in a while or hung in another place to give it new life. I made him a cocktail to try to cheer him up a bit.

Painting by Stephen Etnier
Painting by Stephen Etnier

February 14

They have made a big crate and all the canvases are packed in it. Since we have no suitcases, we packed most of our town clothes in on top of them, which I think will be a surprise to the gallery.

There has been such a disheartening accident. As Stephen and Ellison were lifting the crate from the tender to the wharf, it slipped and fell in the water. Every single canvas was soaked. I cried, but Stephen says that after a little restretching no damage will have been done. Thank goodness!


11.15 A.M.–Stephen is ashore painting. I am so glad we can stay at anchor; we had to get special permission from the harbor master. There is no privacy tied up at a dock. Loafers gather, cross their arms on the big fat posts, and gaze down on us from only a few feet away, so that I hardly feel like reading on deck, to say nothing of skipping rope or doing exercises. They even watch us eating in the cabin when the skylight is open. Our present position gives us a feeling of dignified seclusion, yet is a conveniently short row–barely a hundred yards–from shore. And from here we command the whole water front: from the little Coast Guard station, cupola on top, painted gray with white trim, to the old brick clock tower with its belfry and gold weather vane. In between stretch low flat-roofed buildings, some of extraordinary colors, and, instead of a sidewalk or back yards, a long broad wharf. Sometimes when I go ashore at low tide I have a very hard time climbing up because there are no regular steps, but a large fat Negro cook always comes running out to help me, with wide grins and many exclamations.

I am settled in the cabin. The Delco is not running. Ellison and Beverly make no sound but the quiet slap-slap of their brushes as they paint the Morgana‘s sides. I have been thinking of all our early struggles with the various mechanical parts of the boat and of how, as Stephen said, they really made us love her more. Just now everything looks so nice. The sun coming through the open skylight lies in a crooked strip across the red rug and the blue chintz couch, jiggles over the yellow cushion in one corner, and goes in a flat broad band up the white wall. I have some corn bread in the oven, but the day is so calm I doubt if it will be a success–the heat of the oven has some mysterious relation to the direction and velocity of the wind. Once I had to cook a brown Betty for five hours.

1.15 P.M.–Stephen and I had a glass of sherry before lunch and remarked to each other for the thousandth time how pleasant life was, here on our boat.

Afternoon.–The Mayor’s wife sent me out a basket of pink camellias, which please me very much.

Dinner early (shad), then to the movies. It is very warm. I wore my blue linen dress.

March 27

Breakfast, 8.15.–I finished Upstream, one of the best things I’ve read lately, and started Cabell’s new book. Went ashore to buy food for 12.30 lunch (shad again, since we leave here so soon).

Stephen’s Uncle Ott, whom he had not seen in six years, turned up this afternoon. He stayed to dinner, so of course we had shad again. It is our prize dish–Beverly cooks it to perfection and it is caught here in the river only a few hours before we eat it. Stephen gave Uncle Ott a big cocktail, we had Rhine wine for dinner, brandy afterward, and he became quite loquacious. He is an amazing person, and, I thought, charming. Apparently he spends all his time driving about the country by himself, visiting graveyards. As a side line he has been tracing down the Etniers and has decided, to his brother Carey’s disgust, that they were of German, not French, origin. He told me very seriously that he had ‘gotten over seven hundred, but there were two or three good ones he just could n’t lay his hands on.’ (Etniers, he meant.)

March 28

Uncle Ott came down to say goodbye.

We were planning to go down to the mouth of the river in the afternoon and leave for Southport to-morrow morning, but at noon Stephen telephoned Mr. L— to come at once and help us make New York in one jump from here.

2.00 P.M.–We had a letter saying that it is still very wintry and cold in New York.

3.15.–Stephen telephoned to Mr. L— not to come till next Thursday. We both immediately began feeling very restless.

Stephen went to bed at 8.30. I stayed up two hours and finished Smirt.

March 29

Our restlessness continues. Stephen finds breakfast the most exciting time of the day–there is the paper, and the uncertainty of seeing what the day is like. I did accounts and answered letters. When I went to mail them, the postmistress, without making any bones about it, sorted out all the postcards, put on her glasses, and read them.

March 31

It is warm, drowsy, sunny weather. I sat on deck all morning, and after lunch went with Stephen to paint. I noticed that the usual idle crowds that gathered were at one time all blacks and at another all white, never mixed. One fat man stood in the offing for some time, then said, “A cat may look at a king.’ Stephen, oblivious, went right on working. The man repeated louder, ‘A cat may look at a king, I say.’ Stephen jumped, and the fat man, stepping forward, smirked, ‘May I see?’ Stephen can paint undisturbed by any number of onlookers, and I have often heard him envied this ability. Once, on a busy street corner in Bermuda, an obliging policeman had to restrain the crowd from pressing completely around him and cutting off his view.

It is impossible to buy meats in this place, but I found some fresh corn to amuse Stephen. I also bought him an Easter basket at the ten-cent store.

April 1, Easter Sunday

Stephen consented to have a boiled egg for breakfast, and the basket was a success. I am sitting on deck now. It is one of those glorious God-given blue days. We have put our mattresses out to sun.

About three o’clock a south wind sprang up. We deliberated for half an hour, then Stephen decided that it was too good to miss. We frantically telegraphed Mr. L— not to come, that we would work north gradually by ourselves. We wrote hasty notes to the post office to forward mail, to one or two stores that we were not fleeing our bills, and were off by 3.45. As we passed the big lumber schooners one captain called that he envied us and that it was only a new boom that was holding him up. It is unbelievably thrilling to be off–the bustle of getting underway, the hasty business of stowing the numerous fragile knick-knacks that we always accumulate during a long stay in one port, and the uneasy movement of the deck beneath your feet again.

We reached the mouth of the river and left the light buoy at 7.00 P.M. The breeze dropped somewhat. Stephen and I took the 8.00 to 12.00, midnight, watch. It was very calm. A full moon came up–orange at first, then white and bright in a cloudless sky. We moved slowly along.


To-day I could sing a hymn to Maine. It would begin with the uneven-measured music of the names: Merrymeeting Bay, Monhegan, and Seguin; Cutler, Ile au Haut, and Frenchman’s Bay; Cutters Nubble, Christmas Cove; the Cranberry Isles, Vinal Haven, Tenants Harbor. On a chart the coast of Maine is shreds–long-fingered inlets with vistas between many islands out to sea. All winter long I have sat in other harbors and thought of the summer when I would sit on deck in Boothbay. People say the coast of Maine is grim and forbidding. They are wrong. It is firm and strong, with jagged reefs and rocks that would pierce a boat as sharply as the jagged outlines of the tall black spruce pierce the blueness of the sky; but everywhere it breaks up into safe, welcoming harbors. There are trees and grass and deep water. The Southern coast–unending stretches of sand, no harbors except where occasionally a channel has been dredged through a sand bar, no tree or rock or hill or tuft of green grass to break the monotony–that is my idea of an uninviting and forbidding shore line.

The people we have met in other places we have compared unfavorably with Maine people. I know this is an exaggerated example, but in New York we saw a play, Tobacco Road. It was about the struggle of a man, against overwhelming circumstances, to save his land. Every character in it was highly staked. Their fates were as unhappy and wretched and miserable as fate can be. But, although intensely interested, I was not moved by their disintegration. Suddenly I remembered the old Greek notion that tragedy should deal with kings or princes, so that the fall might be great. And I thought: You could write a tragedy about a Maine man, however poor, because there is an internal dignity in him that would make the spectacle of his fall great and moving.

The Northern spring is more touching than any other. All the way up the coast I have watched the spring coming to different places. In Georgetown it came slowly, luxuriously, lazily, taking many languorous days. In Maine the snow melts and leaves in its place drifts of tiny white wild flowers across emerald grass, while the air still tastes like a drink of ice-cold water. The light in Maine is different from the light anywhere else…. But I must stop now because Stephen wants me to take the wheel.

Later.–Stephen has set the balloon jib and a small, high fisherman staysail that we have never had out before. It is another glorious day.

This morning we were under way at 7.45–a light southwest breeze which seemed to be strengthening in puffs. Little silver crescents chased each other across the blue water. It was like a field of tall grass when breezes travel over it, bending the tops of the grasses so that the sun catches the stems and causes fleeting shiny patches. On the sea it happens more frequently when the water is a pale smooth silver and the puffs ruffling the surface make darker patches scudding over it. Now it is eleven o’clock. The wind is steady, so that all the sails are filling beautifully. We are having rum slips on deck.

1.15.–Lunch. Paper plates unnecessary, the boat is so steady. We have passed Cape Porpoise. Cape Elizabeth is ahead. Ellison has seen a whale spouting.

3.30.–I have had the wheel the past hour. With every sail on the boat drawing, she is running as dead before the wind as she can go, precariously near the jibing point. There is a long following sea. Every now and then a wave, lifting up the stern, gives us an even greater impetus forward, then sizzles along the side. Halfway Rock has been in sight for some time. I am beginning to recognize the islands–Green, Hope, Jewel. I remember how proud I was, when I was first married and came to live in Maine, because I learned their names so quickly. Great Chebeague, Brown Cow, Bates, Ministerial. Farther ahead is Haskell’s Island, and, off the other bow, the unmistakable humped back of Whaleboat. I can even see Ragged Island, way off toward Small Point, which marks the top of Casco Bay as Cape Elizabeth does the bottom.

All day I have been noticing this peculiar Maine light. In No More Sea Wilson Follett describes it, saying that the ‘high clouds, flat as marble slabs on their under sides, turned a kind of refulgence downward, investing’ the landscape ‘with an inexpressibly beautiful and strange distinctness’ till you felt you were ‘seeing new-created colors, so limpid and tenuous was this cloud-refracted northern air.’ There are none of those high flat-bottomed clouds to-day, but the islands are invested with a quality of radiance and distinctness I have seen nowhere else. Perhaps the sun’s rays striking at a sharper angle makes the light in Maine different from that of places more in the middle of the world.

Stephen and I have climbed out to the tip of the bowsprit. From there you can see nothing but canvas–sail overlapping sail; the great belly of the balloon jib, the small high fisherman, the foresail out one side, and the mainsail, straining forward with the full brunt of the wind, out the other. If you put your head way back you can see, above everything, the home-coming pennant streaming forward against the sky.

We are passing Eagle Island. The forward sails are flapping so that I hold my breath for fear of a jibe, but they will fill again as soon as we round the buoy off Flag Island.

I can see Ellison’s house sitting in the little semicircle of bright green grass at the head of Tide Mill Cove. I have never seen such variousness of green–the young leaves of the birch and oak and other non-evergreens in vivid chartreuse streaks through the dark mass of the pines. Soon we shall have passed the point. We are going fast and still carrying all sail. Ellison, his eyes dancing with excitement, says, ‘Keep it up, Steve. Let’s run her right up on the mud at the end of Ash Cove.’

The Merriconeag is almost abeam. I remember once last summer, coming back from a cruise, we came through the Gut just at dusk. It was quite still and the boat seemed moved forward by some invisible force. We were going through a school of sardines. In the dark water they looked like a whole lot of silver quarters that you had thrown overboard. We stood in the bow and I thought that this was what coming into heaven might be like–at twilight, in the bow of a ship moving mysteriously. Then the funny old shape of the Merriconeag Hotel would come into sight and you would recognize where you were….

Morgana anchored at Gilbert head

At this point Stephen thrust the wheel into my hands and ran forward calling directions. The sails came down with record speed and efficiency and everyone silently congratulated himself, for an audience had gathered on the side of the hill, holding up an American flag to welcome us. Feeling very proud, I swung the boat in as big a circle as I dared and headed her into the wind. She hung there motionless, the mainsail flapping. Ellison and Beverly stood ready to trip the anchor; but Stephen, calling ‘Wait a minute,’ dashed below. He was back in a second, shouting ‘All right!’ As the anchor dropped, he fired a Very pistol cartridge into the air. I watched the pale green light shoot upward, then fall slowly into the water. In daydreams one always stages such things as home-comings beautifully. Actually, they seldom come off in their full perfection. It happened that this one did.

We rowed ashore, landing on a seaweed-covered rock. One of the wind-twisted apple trees has been winterkilled; the white lilac by the studio steps should be in bloom in another two weeks; I must start working in the garden. It will be strange to live on shore again for a while.


Editor’s note: This story, written by my grandmother on my mother’s side, may be the only cruising story ever published by The Atlantic, but given how long the magazine has been around (since 1857), it would take some work to confirm this as fact. About the time it came out, my grandparents shifted their attention to fixing up a house on a small island across the Kennebec River from Popham Beach, and my grandmother subsequently wrote a book about that experience, On Gilbert Head (Little,Brown and Co., 1937), in the same journal format, that sold quite well at the time, though it is long since out of print.

Painting by Stephen Etnier
The house at Gilbert Head/Painting by Stephen Etnier

My grandparents divorced not long after the end of World War II. My grandmother remarried and did not often speak of my grandfather, but she did often refer to her experience aboard Morgana. She always prided herself on her ability as a helmsperson. After my mother died last year, I came into a set of engraved highball glasses from the boat:

Morgana glass

And also a model that my grandfather commissioned, which is sorely in need of cleaning:

Model of schooner Morgana

I have no idea what became of the boat itself and would dearly love to hear from anyone who does.


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2 Responses
  1. Wally Moran

    Ah Charles…was talking to a mutual friend today, if only I had read this wonderful quote priort to that – “Stifled by magazine editors and publishers for much of his career,”…
    Loved this story, no idea where you found it but it surely demonstrates the French phrase ‘plus ca change….’.
    Now that I’ve found your literary pied a terre, I’ll come haunting frequently.

  2. Cathy Fullerton

    Hello Charlie,
    I don’t know if you remember us, but we lived on Lilac Lane, Weston,and knew you and your family just before you went to Pakistan. Our sons are Dave, Roger & Steve.
    I have read this account of the “Morgana” with interest. I never knew your Mom was so “pedigreed”. What a heritage! So glad you are interested in the background of your parents. You are living in a beautiful part of our country (Portsmouth NH?). My family spent a summer when I was 3 years old south of Bath. I remember very little of Bath, but remember my parents talk of its beauty and ruggedness.
    I just wanted to tell you how I enjoyed reading about this boat. Our best to your family.

    Cathy (and Charlie) Fullerton
    Gaithersburg, MD

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