Travel Stories: Cullen Thomas considered his mission -- joining his mother on a perilous sea -- a noble one. But he presumed too much.
02.05.09 | 8:54 AM ET
In mid-May, one day out from the Virginia coast, the State of Maine ran into 100-knot winds and 20-foot waves. In his digital log Captain Wade kept a brave face: “Weather is horrible. Swell came around to almost port beam and the vessel rolled more and more. Pitching, rolling, shipping seas ... we have it all.” Under “Today’s Activities” he’d written, “Hang On!”
The more than 200 cadets on board were tying everything down with rope, but they missed Mom. My white-haired 68-year-old mother was getting thrown around her room on the third deck. She was terrified; it was her first time at sea, the poor pollywog.
“I was never interested in the water!” she exclaimed later when I told her that I thought she’d at least been sailing as a kid on Long Island. And yet there she was, ship nurse on the State of Maine’s annual two-month training cruise, out in the dark of the Atlantic, the floor of her room sliding out from under her.
In her emails Mom told us she was homesick, disoriented and bruised from the storm. She was counting down the days, drawing lines through them on her calendar like a convict. Her favorite part of the mariner’s manual she was given in preparation for the voyage stated that being at sea is like being in prison, only with the added possibility of drowning. The family was worried about her. Five foot three, the mother of four, close to 70, she should have been retired, we thought, at home, resting on her couch with a drink. I’m the traveler, I fancied. She needs me now. I would meet her in Santa Cruz, on the Canary Island of Tenerife, I decided, the State of Maine’s second port of call. It was a noble mission, I thought—to bring her moral support, a familiar face, to rescue her in her time of need.
We were amazed to see Mom visited by this late-life wanderlust. She’d been to Europe once during college but had never traveled much otherwise, certainly not abroad. But she’d recently gone from the Castine Health Center to a job just up the street, at the Maine Maritime Academy, where the bug had gotten into her. She began talking excitedly to me on the phone about the nautical charts and maps in the school’s offices, the bracing spirit of the young cadets. On a friend’s recommendation, she’d started reading Patrick Leigh Fermor. “Most of the time I don’t know what he’s talking about, but the way he does it, I’m hooked,” Mom told me after reading A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople. And then there was the stalwart blue and white State of Maine itself, which was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in the 1980s, given the cover of “oceanographic research vessel,” equipped with sophisticated sonar and put to sea to sound out Russian subs. Reborn as a training ship, the State of Maine rests in Castine’s harbor, almost at the bottom of Mom’s street. It looks like it came straight out of a Tintin adventure. When I asked Mom just what exactly had led to her to sign on, she said, “You can’t look at that boat every day and not get ideas.”
At the pier in Santa Cruz the sun had just risen above the low clouds to the east, over Gran Canaria and, past it, the edge of Africa. Shadows moved across a ridge of sharp mountains jutting into the sea, sheltering Santa Cruz to the north. The port was intimate, Spanish, palm-dappled. I held my hand over my eyes straining into the sun. Indistinct shapes inched along the horizon. In my pocket I carried a letter from Captain Wade announcing to anyone it may concern that I’d be coming aboard. At last, there was the State of Maine’s navy-blue stack, coming up slowly to Santa Cruz from the south, a pilot boat guiding her in. A welcoming party of one, I waved my arms wildly from the promenade.
Fortunately there had been no emergencies, except for the older merchant marine who’d gotten chest pains right as they were about to leave the pier in Castine (he was taken away in an ambulance). Since then, for Mom and the doctor there had been mostly just a variety of hand wounds to contend with: big kids complaining of cuts to their fingers, blisters from sandblasting, a nail torn off while working the winch. This was a far cry from the story of the cadet who at a stop in Portugal years ago got in a bar brawl, fell or was thrown into the water, and drowned. The State of Maine was federally regulated, under strict rules now. There were random Breathalyzer tests every night of liberty. Nonetheless, Mom and I were off to get a drink. She’d just crossed the Atlantic after all—11 straight days at sea—the hard and ancient way.
The doctor held down the fort while Mom and I went out and walked Santa Cruz, under the palms and through the cobblestone plazas, my hand on her shoulder, pulling her out of the narrow streets. We drank red wine and Dorada beers. The strain and stress of her trip were slipping away. “I mean, who would have thought of this,” Mom said excitedly, “you and I in Tenerife!” The Spaniards I spoke with understood. This is my Mom, I would tell them, and I’m here to visit her on her first big trip far from home. And wasn’t I sweet to do that? Wasn’t I the good son?
In her room, I got the top bunk, which had a hatch that looked out onto the sun-splashed port, whitewashed homes dotting the steep hills. At night, when Mom went to sleep early, I stole off the ship and out into the lighted town. Excited teens scrambled over the streets on their hands and knees, creating elaborate murals from bags of multicolored salt: a goat; the cup of Christ; images of Jesus’ face. The night before I’d come upon a procession of a candle-studded float bearing a black statue of the Virgin Mary. Much of the town walked behind it, solemn, well dressed, holding red roses. I was swept along with them, my eyes fixed on the Holy Mother.
At breakfast the next day, the cadets wondered who the stranger was: all this way to see his mom, the nurse? In the passageway near the galley, in front of too many passing cadets, Mom asked an older lieutenant if he could spare not one—I desperately tried to stop her—but two extra blankets for her chilly son. She doted on me, jumping up to get me juice, extra fruit. She kept trying to give me money (thankfully she didn’t have any euros). She kept saying that she would do my laundry. I was cringing. What would these salty merchant marines think? I could have been 12 and back home, before I’d seen any of the world.
I played basketball on the scorching top deck of the ship. Mom joined me for a game of HORSE. Rebounding one of her missed shots, my back gave way and left me hobbling. In no time she helped me downstairs and into the top bunk, then dashed down to sick bay and returned with a heating pad, Ben-Gay, Gatorade and ibuprofen. As I lay there helplessly, I began to laugh at myself. This wasn’t the way I’d imagined it. I was supposed to be taking care of her. Wasn’t she old enough now—and at 37, me, too, for that matter—for our roles to have begun to shift? But I had presumed too much, and underestimated her. She didn’t need rescuing. It was a humbling realization. I took out my letter from Captain Wade. It might as well have read, “Cullen Thomas will be coming aboard ... SO HIS MOTHER CAN TAKE CARE OF HIM.”
On the morning of the State of Maine’s last day in port, the sun was burning off the clouds—another gorgeous day in Tenerife. The cadets mustered at quarters on the 03 deck. Mom and I were saying goodbye when I realized I’d forgotten something in her room and went back to get it. I paused in the stillness there, with the ship humming again, and around me Mom’s books and uniforms and polished shoes, her calendar with the days that she hoped would pass safely at sea, and on her desk, the pink cactus flowers I’d picked for her in the dry hills above the port. She was dreading the 19 straight days at sea before they threw off lines again. They were headed south for the equator, where Mom, a pollywog no longer, would take part in the proud rite of crossing the line and becoming a shellback. She was told to wear crummy shoes and clothes. Apparently, part of the ceremony involved having garbage thrown on them, dumping them in icy water. Hearing this, I felt a pang of worry, that same protective instinct—then I caught myself.
Mom was the second-oldest person onboard, one of the few women. She looked tiny waving goodbye to me at the rail of the 02 deck as the State of Maine pulled away from the pier, even smaller as the pilot boats pulled her through the gap in the breakwater, out into open ocean. She still had quite an adventure in front of her, but I felt at ease now. As I watched the State of Maine for nearly an hour as it shrank and finally disappeared into the horizon to the south, I had no doubts about it. That ship nurse was still one tough mother.