Together, alone among the crowds

Each spring, Maine Maritime Academy’s training ship, the State of Maine, chugs out of the picturesque mid-coast harbor of Castine on an eight-week cruise to ports of call in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, or the Caribbean. It’s 500 feet long, displaces over 12,500 tons, and is pushed through the swells by 10,000 charging horses.

On board are some 300 students, the academy’s Regiment of Midshipmen, split evenly between engineers (who keep the big ship’s propulsion and power systems operating) and deckies (whose job it is to navigate and handle overall ship operations). Although there is a small paid staff (captain, cook, etc.), it’s freshmen and juniors who make up the crew, with the juniors (who were on board two years earlier) charged with teaching the underclassmen everything necessary to run the ship properly and get it to its destinations safely. Barring a true emergency (where the captain would step in), the kids do everything: it’s a giant, floating, hands-on classroom, powered by diesel, coffee strong enough to float a hammer, and Dramamine.

On a brisk spring day in 2004, my son Jeremiah (the engineer) was among the happy hundreds preparing to weigh anchor and chug off into the rolling, white-capped blue. Off to learn his trade. To see the world. To set his dreams a-sailing and see where the tides would take him. We were there to see him off, and to hope and pray that the tides would bring him safely home.

Castine is a tiny town seemingly plucked out of the 1800s, with big, white, federalist homes and stately trees; a place of seagull screams and the deep moans of buoys; a place where the air smells of salt and all roads lead steeply down to the sea.

On that bright morning, my wife, daughter, and I, walked down Main Street past the Castine Variety Store (“Best Lobster Roll in Maine”) onto the teeming dock and into a throng of families and well-wishers so thick that a ravenous seagull wouldn’t be able to reach the ground to snatch a stray French fry. In front of us, gleaming in the sunlight and so big you had to look almost straight up to see the fo’c’stle, was the State of Maine, and along its top deck, from bow to stern, stood a single row of young men and women in their dress whites — beacons reflecting three-hundred futures. They gleamed so bright it was hard to look at them.

Oh, how we strained to find Jeremiah in that endless line! Finally, Karen saw him. “There’s our son,” she said excitedly, pointing. I followed her finger, but I couldn’t tell — they all looked so painfully alike. And then a young man tipped his head just so, and I caught his eye. And I knew. “There’s my son!” I shouted. And I jumped and waved and yelled and he waved back.

Just then the horns blew and the tugs roared and the big ship began to move. I elbowed my way harshly through the crammed shoulders and legs, without so much as a pardon me, until I stood at the very edge of the dock — as close to my son as I could get without falling in.

And as the big tugs pushed and the ship slowly spun and the fantail swept by in a mountain of foam, I looked up and saw Jeremiah. We locked eyes and yelled, but couldn’t hear.

So father and son raised their hands toward each other, connected beyond words, while on the crowded decks and all along the mobbed waterfront, there was not another living soul.

Peter Lewis resides in Bridgton.

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