The World’s Largest Christmas Tree
Editor’s note: When he was a younger man, Crash Barry spent two years working as a sternman on Matinicus, Maine’s most remote island. This is another of his true stories.
The phone rang just after I snorted the third long line of cocaine. It was Captain Bert calling. We were supposed to have the night off, but an unforeseen ship was heading out to sea, and it was our job to pick up the pilot who guided the massive freighters and tankers to and from Rockland and Searsport. All the big merchant vessels fly foreign flags, so they’re required to bring a local captain aboard. Because Matinicus is the closest place to the buoy marking the outer reach of Penobscot Bay, the pilot company had my boss, Bert, on permanent retainer. For decades, he served as their offshore taxi driver and innkeeper.
My job as “lee captain” was to stand on the bow of Bert’s boat, The Dotted Eye, as we pulled alongside ships. I held the bottom of the ladder steady while we picked up or dropped off the pilot. When the transfer was complete, we’d turn around and head home. For this, I earned 50 bucks. Great pay for less than an hour’s work, especially for a long-haired, big-bearded sternman eager for cash who didn’t mind the slight risk.
We usually had a day’s notice, but on this foggy and moonless night a week before Christmas it was a matter of minutes. Bert had telephoned earlier to let me know a freighter was headed our way, but I missed the call because I was at a buddy’s fishhouse, buying cocaine. If I’d known a ship was enroute, I would’ve skipped the blow and settled for a mellow puff of reefer and a nip or two of cheap Canadian whisky. Instead, I was flying. The cocaine was fine and the lines I’d razor-bladed in my shack on the wharf were gigantic.
Bert wasn’t ready either. He’d already enjoyed a tall glass of Scotch when he was notified of the surprise ship. Bert wasn’t a lightweight, but he was out of practice. I could hear the slur in his voice. Scotch was a rare treat for him, since he’d gotten emphysema and heart troubles and had nearly died a couple years before due to a lifetime of cigarettes and booze.
Aboard The Dotted Eye, feeling no pain, we headed for the rendezvous. It was warm, for December. The winter fog engulfed us. Looking straight up through the shadowy mist I saw a million stars. Engorged with cocaine, my brain absorbed the beauty, then turned paranoid. What if we have an accident? The Coasties will conduct tests and discover Bert is drunk and I’m speeding out of my mind.
The 600-foot-long ship was out there, not far from us, hidden by the night vapor, invisible but for a large green blip on Bert’s radar screen. As we got closer, Bert motioned for me to take my place on the bow. The sea had a slight chop, two- or three-, maybe four-footers. Nothing I hadn’t handled a thousand times before, but enshrouded in fog, and worried by cocaine, the ocean loomed unpredictable and dangerous.
The sky above the fog banks suddenly caught fire. Giant balls of light flared like those old camera flashcubes, blinding me. The ship’s crew had energized every lantern, lamp, kleig light and searchlight — from the main deck to the bridge, up the mast and into the glowing crow’s nest — a triangle of luminosity that transformed the vessel into the world’s largest Christmas tree. I instinctively raised my right hand to shield my eyes and, in doing so, let go of the safety rope just as the sea surged, pushing the lobster boat hard, rolling her heavily to port. My body pitched toward the churning waters between us and the ship.
Everything went into slow motion. I knew that just a hundred feet astern a pair of larger-than-man-sized propellers were turning quickly, ready to slice, dice or drown me. Luckily, an instant later the lobster boat rolled back and I regained my footing. My right hand involuntarily grabbed the safety line and didn’t let go.
The pilot, a salty 75-year-old elf of a man, clamored down the rope ladder hung from the gunwale of the large ship some 50 feet above. He skipped the last five rungs and jumped, dropping himself onto our boat, landing with a thump. Safe and sound. Bert turned us about, into the dark, foggy night.