By the time you read this, I’ll be out in Penobscot Bay on the schooner Olad to see the solstice sunrise. This is play, an anniversary party that starts at 4 AM. I’m usually awake at the first glimmering of light, so this is no big deal for me. However, it’s tough on my husband, who likes to sleep in until 6 AM or so, the layabout.
Sunrise is at 4:52 today, but twilight starts almost an hour earlier, and the Olad—like me—wants to get a jump on the dawn. That’s why I was up at 4 AM last Monday on the American Eagle. Crew member Chris Pederson had told me that if a sunrise splashed out, it would be through the rigging of the Isaac H. Evans. When the show was a no-show, I painted riprap instead.
There is a legend that JMW Turner had himself lashed to the mast while painting Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842). I don’t believe it. There is a lot of equipment around the mast that would get in the way. The view is not the best from the centerline of a boat. And even if one could stabilize one’s footing, there are brushes, paints, and other impedimenta to fly around. Captain John Foss and his crew were awfully patient with my tools and paints rolling around their deck. It’s a fine crew who can sail in a stiff breeze and not sacrifice a single one of your brushes to Neptune.
It was not until we went out that I began to understand the challenges of painting from a boat under sail. I needed to brace myself against the main cabin to paint at all. That often put me in the crew’s way. The motion also meant that I did not have the control to draw rigging or anything else in detail. Furthermore, a ship creates what I call the Norman Rockwell problem, because he used it as an effect in his illustrations. There are foreground objects set against far distant objects, but nothing to create mid-field perspective.
Eventually I realized my focus was going to be the sea and the sky. I would come to realize that was a blessing, but at the beginning, it seemed limiting. That first day was a struggle, and I think my paintings reflect that. Everything I did was experimental.
The wind meant that the schooners who met up at the Fox Island Thoroughfare—I believe there were eight of them—couldn’t raft up for their gam. (This is a word that seems to range in meaning from a meeting to a bull session, depending on who’s talking.) As the sun set, various small vessels started circulating with visitors and musicians. The sky had been angry and overcast all day, so I tore down my kit, only to have Captain Foss point out that we were, in fact, getting a sunset, albeit a rather anemic one. I sketched it in watercolor.
I asked First Mate Justin Schaefer whether the distant hills I was seeing were in the town of Northport. Surprised, he replied that we were looking at Isle au Haut. I’d been so focused on painting that I had completely lost track of where we’d gone.
Captain Foss is in the habit of reading bedtime stories to his guests, and he’s an excellent spinner of yarns. These included a story by John Thomas Gould. This dry, razor-witted Yankee humorist wrote for the Christian Science Monitor for many years. I’d never heard of him, but I plan to rectify the oversight.