the city of cats
Last summer the ship moored for the night in a little harbor town in Germany notable mostly for the fact that if one is so inclined one can climb the grain silos there (I wasn’t, and didn’t). As it happened some friends of the first mate sailed into the harbor that evening, a radiantly wholesome Dutch couple who had met on our same ship some years prior during the annual tallships’ sailing-race, when he was the only guest on board who would climb the mast with her while the ship was under sail. They went on to fall madly in love and buy a sailboat of their own and live aboard it sailing about and looking as magnificently fit and attractive as persons in a müsli commercial. “What a coincidence!” he said to her when he caught sight of us in that tiny harbor, “Let’s go ask if we can climb the mast, for old times’ sake.”
Except of course it wasn’t a coincidence at all that that they had moored alongside us! but in fact the culmination of an elaborate plan he had constructed in collaboration with the first mate over the past week to pretend to happen upon our ship and then propose marriage to his beloved at the very place from whence their union had blossomed. At that point in the evening most of the guests had gone off the ship to wander about (I don’t think any of them climbed the grain silos either), but everyone else aboard was in on it. The first mate had earlier caused a great store of champagne to be laid in in the walk-in refrigerator and got out a bottle of fine whiskey for good measure. (“If she says no we can have him very drunk very fast,” remarked the first mate whilst overseeing these preparations; Germans are a pragmatic people. “Then what the fuck will I do with all this fucking champagne?” asked the head of service; Polish people, even more so.) The whole crew was practically vibrating with the effort of keeping this tremendous secret, and trying and I am sure failing to pretend we were not watching the young lovers’ ascent with breathless anticipation.
It takes a pretty long time to climb a 31-meter mast if you aren’t used to it, so we had to wait a while. And then at long last came a great shout from the heavens: She said yes! and the crew cheered and the guests aboard cheered and the guests ashore coming back to the ship saw that something exciting was happening so they cheered also, and the captain blasted the ship’s horn, and the first mate climbed the mast like a monkey with an IKEA bag of champagne slung over one shoulder, and when the happy affianced came back down they were both shaking with joy. “I had no idea!” she kept saying. “I was so mad he insisted on coming here! I wanted to sail to England! ‘But we have to climb the grain silos,’ he said! and I said 'who the fuck cares about climbing grain silos!’”
Whatever one might think of heteropatriarchal norms in general and the institution of marriage specifically, it is difficult to remain unswayed in the face of a terribly picturesque sunset proposal of marriage in the crow’s nest of a century-old whaling vessel. The guests sobbed openly; the newly affianced couple wept and hugged and wept some more; the captain himself was teary; yes, I cried too. Even the first mate, a fellow ordinarily not much given to the healthy expression of sentiment, and with whom I would in fact later that evening get in a screaming fight regarding the role and treatment of women in the charter-tallship industry (I would like to report that I acquitted myself admirably during this exchange but must admit that I distinctly remember bellowing “I am RIGHT because I am OLDER and SMARTER than you,” a statement that, while factually accurate, may not have been one of my finer rhetorical moments) had got a bit misty-eyed in the midst of all the Romance. The champagne went around, as did the whiskey. I don’t think much of either ended up in the nice Dutch couple, but I had more than enough of both to find myself dancing joyfully amidships with one of the elderly guests. Later I jumped off the deck with the deckhand and went swimming, which is something you only do in a harbor if it is dark and you have had rather a lot of champagne, because in the sober daylight it is clear just how disgusting the water in harbors generally is. But the guests found this anticry mightily amusing, and I am sure there are photographs of me and the deckhand shrieking with delight and dripping wet in our underwear all over some random German tourist’s Facebook page somewhere.
Some days later we moored for the evening in a little harbor town in Denmark notable mostly for the fact that it has been a fishing village for several thousand years. Or so I assume; a burial mound nearby dates back to 3300 BCE, and there is not much else to do there but go fishing and walk around. I don’t know anything about fishing, so I walked around. There were no fisherman about. In the grass and over and under every corrugated-tin fishing shack and ramshackle dinghy lounged cats: cats rummaging through piles of fish heads, cats with fish tails in their mouths, cats sunning themselves in patches of gravel, cats skittering through hedges and glaring out with big round eyes. None of the cats wanted to be my friend; they were content in their own society. I felt rather lonely and sorry for myself about it, if you want to know the truth.
Fig. 17. None of the cats wanted to be my friend.
When I got back to the ship the sun was low in the sky and the deckhand was waiting for me. “Sarah!” he said. “I take you up the mast now, before I have my beer.” I had been making noises all week about climbing the mast and now I had to follow through. Have you ever climbed a 31-meter mast? I hadn’t either, before that. You put a harness on, unless you’re the first mate, which means you can’t fall off, but it’s still a bit of a daunting project. I always want to be braver and tougher than I actually am. But the first part is easy; it’s like going up a ladder. Getting onto the lower platform is a bit dodgy, and then you’re in for the scary part, where the rigging narrows all the way up to the second platform, and you have to climb over that too.
Fig. 18. Climbing to the second platform.
And then there you are, standing on the roof of the world in Denmark, a big yellow sun going down in a big blue sky. From up there the whole horizon curves, but I didn’t take any good pictures, because my hands were shaking enough to make me worry I’d drop my phone. Real sailors get used to it, but I never did. We looked at the sunset for a while. “I have to poop now,” said the deckhand, so we went back down. Everybody made jokes about our engagement, and the deckhand was bright red until after his second or third beer. You never do know what will make a sailor blush.
Fig. 19. And then there you are.