Today, Captain Neal Parker is a writer and model boat maker in Maine. Click here to check out his resume of 40 years of sailing. From his first sail on the Pioneer and Pathfinder, captain at age 20 on Schooner Richard Robbins Sr and his first car, a 1969 Impala, and skipping along to 1983 when he owned and captained the Sloop Francy in New York Harbor [Loved the picture of the Towers in the background]…. in total over a dozen schooners and traditional craft that he skippered over the years.
Neal Parker tells of how his two weeks summer sail on the Pathfinder was the start of his 40 year career on the water.
Here is Neal in 2003 aboard his schooner Wendameen “just to show you can live your dream”. And back when his sailing career started, Neal aboard the Pathfinder in Jul 1972. Then and Now.
Captain Neal Parker provides the following excerpt from his memoires. He accompanies it with a picture of his shipmates on the Pathfinder one blustery day that same summer of 1972. The picture goes well with the story of that storm.
from I becomes a sailor… by Capt. Neal Parker writen 32 years after my “voyage”.
During which time I becomes a sailor…
“Oh god please let me die.” So came the plaintiff cry of a 16 year old living his dream. I lay in the scuppers of the brigantine Pathfinder as she plunged unsympathetically to windward. My stomach rudely emptied of all the hotdogs, ice cream and sodas that seemingly brought it so much happiness only hours before. The festival at Kingston, Ontario had been a welcome break for the crew. It was our first shore leave in a week, and the 18 or so trainees and I ravaged all the junk food we could find. Now I was drenched with the spray from Lake Ontario, which mercifully washed the mess off my foul weather gear. Lunge and roll was the order of the afternoon and into the night while the sixty-five foot square-rigger trained me to be a sailor in conditions a tenth as bad as the ones I had enjoyed reading about. “Oh god please let me die and I will never trod a deck again I promise…” I did not finish my prayer. I leaned my head over the side again as my stomach rummaged around to expel anything it could have possibly missed. Nor was I alone by the rail. Half the crew was with me, a veritable congregation praying much the way I was.
Then came the moment when the wind’s fury was too much for our press of sail. The Pathfinder wrenched her deck under water as an explosion came from aloft. The big squares’l had burst its seams. Had the fabric not given way there was every chance that the brigantine would have met with some sort of disaster. You can curse a blown out sail but the alternative of being pressed into the sea is worse.
An almost a gleeful cry came from the quarterdeck. The mate called starboard watch to furl the exhausted remains of the fore-course. Though there was urgency in his voice I could tell he was delighted to have us poor sick kids go aloft. I was as well read as any sailor could be and despite my ailment, clear headed enough to climb the weather side of the rigging. The shrouds are tight to weather so more secure. If I did loose my grip the wind might help keep me against the rigging. So aloft we went, the whole sick chorus.
The brigantine plunged and shuttered and though we were 40 feet over the deck the spray still managed to reach us. I was first to the foretop and so first to layout. I groped my way across to the yard and set my feet securely on the footrope. Sliding sideways towards the end of the spar I found myself feeling alone with nothing but volumes of angry water beneath me. Waves hardly visible in the dwindling light. I heard orders shouted below as the port watch worked on the now seemingly tiny deck. “Let fly your sheets and tacks! Haul away the bunts and clews!” The port watch brought the ragged sail up to the yard. Now all we had to do was gather up the flogging mess and secure it as best we could. The sickness was gone for the moment as we fisted the canvas atop the yard and secured the gaskets. I was quite pleased with myself and kept hearing in my head the line from an old sailors ditty, “…every finger a marlin spike and when I spits I spits tar!” Then above the roar of the wind I heard the din of the mates voice again. “Ready about! Helm’s a lee!! I clutched the spar for dear life. The sturdy Pathfinder started to come up into the wind as the order to “let go and haul” was called to the crew on deck. “Dear god no!” I thought as they began to brace the yards around.
The change of course was a frightening moment. There is a certain rhythm to working aloft even in the roughest weather. Now with the brigantine coming about, my wood, wire and rope world started to shake unpredictably. She came up into the wind as the yards braced around to starboard. Sails and gear slammed and banged in wild mayhem, mixing with the shrieking wind…and then sails started to fill again. The Pathfinder brought to her new tack settled down to her sickening but predictable motion.
With the wind blowing from the other side I now found myself on the low end of the yard. In the dark I could hear the seas rushing up threateningly beneath my feet. I looked toward the mast to try to see how the rest of my watch was doing, but couldn’t see a soul. The fisherman stays’l was pressed firmly against the yard blocking both my view of, and path back to the mast. I secured my gasket and after reveling a moment in the confusion all around me, battled my way up towards the mast. Punching between sail and spar I grabbed hold of the futtock shrouds as the last of my watch jumped to the backstay for the long slide down to the deck. I knew I would be pleased with myself if I survived, so I quickly followed suite.
For the rest of that miserable night I kept focused on my moment aloft. The blackness brought a strange relief for we could not see two feet past the rails of our little vessel. Not seeing the watery confusion beyond our sailing roller coaster helped my sense of security. Of course I was not responsible for navigation, but what the heck.
That was over 30 years ago. My advice to any young sailor now is to keep a log on all your voyages or else when you write your memoirs you will end up with some very short chapters…