When A Woman Takes The Helm By Emily Parry

WHEN A WOMAN TAKES THE HELM

By EMILY PARRY

 

After the bottom fell out of the clamming industry, my husband, a clam digger, had to find another job.

 

“I’ll sell the boat before winter,” he said.

 

“No, not yet,” I said. “We’ve spent too many good hours on that old boat, and who knows how long it’ll be before the clams come back.”

 

“But I’m not a young man anymore,” my husband responded, and he was right. He had clammed year round for over 15 years, and during the summers – when we wanted to get away from the children, the telephone or the doorbell – I’d hire a sitter and spend the day on the boat, talking with my husband while he worked. I never ran the boat myself, although once in a while he would suggest it.

 

Ours is a 20-foot wooden boat with an eight-foot beam, one that easily accommodates four to six people for a pleasure trip and provides plenty of room for even two men to rake clams. When my husband wasn’t working, we crabbed off it, fished from it, swam near it or treaded clams over the side.

 

Granted, I was only a fair-weather boat person, but I could remember special days out there even when the sun didn’t shine. Cloud covers, smoky gray, making the bay silver. Sea gulls, terns and other waterfowl flying about the quiet weekday bay.

 

“I’ll keep the boat on one condition,” he said. “You’ll have to take charge of it. That includes running it, bailing it, being responsible for it. Now it’s your boat.”

 

I had a new feeling of independence. After all, I had never seen a woman running a boat by herself.  Always, her husband or boyfriend or father was at the throttle. Women packed the lunches and held children in life jackets on their laps. Men ran boats.

 

It had often occurred to me that most of the pleasure boats were docked throughout the week. No matter how beautiful the weather, only on weekends or when the men were on vacation were many boats away from their dock spaces. But on weekends, the bay resembled a watery Long Island Expressway, with boat wakes churning up the bay.

 

During the week many ocean beaches are similarly deserted, with the exception of those served by public access roads or ferries. The National Park Service beach across from our South Shore home is a deserted South Sea island paradise on weekdays. And these are the very same beaches and docks, so crowded on weekends, where one often has to drop anchor and wade ashore for lack of docking space.

 

For a variety of reasons, relaxing on a boat is superior to relaxing at home. Most important of all, nobody can reach you. Out on the bay there are no unexpected guests and few amenities that you haven’t chosen to observe for yourself. For example, a knife and lemon from home and some freshly treaded clams make lunch on the bay a gourmet’s delight. One experiences a sense of relief and freedom that comes only with leaving one’s usual surroundings.

 

Just the other day, as the children and I were coming into the channel, the wife of our outboard repair man passed us. She was at the throttle of a fine new fiberglass boat, her two children strapped into life jackets. She had a bright smile on her face.

 

“Sure beats keeping house all summer,” she yelled.

“You better believe it does,” I said. I glanced down at our pails of crabs, clams and snappers. I may not be keeping house as much, but my dinners have certainly improved. Although my husband never has renewed his clamming license, he did renew my life.

(a version of this essay was published in the New York Times Long Island Opinion section on October 5th, 1986.  Permission is herebygranted for use in this competition.)