MY MARBLEHEAD FIRST TIME: Exploring a new kind of wilderness

I have been fond of saying since I arrived in Marblehead that I don’t know the difference between a cement truck and a sailboat. The place where I grew up is the dead center of the country, as far from one ocean as from the other. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood remains the first time I saw the ocean. I couldn’t quite believe all that vast blue stretching out into nothingness. I was also 14 by then. Old enough for my feet to be awfully firmly planted on terra firma, where they’ve generally remained ever since.

Heading off into the wilderness of Salem Harbor. CURRENT PHOTO / COURT MERRIGAN

This, however, did not stop me from signing up my son for sailing classes. More on that in a moment.

The other day I was standing at the top of Abbott Hall talking with one of my fellow Cranks (volunteers who crank the clock there). He’s read my column on Steer Swamp, and noted my remark about the paucity of wilderness in this long-settled portion of New England. He said to me, “But we’re surrounded by wilderness. Look over,” and pointed out to the ocean.

For Christmas, my daughter got me a T-shirt highlighting “The Sharks of Marblehead,” which I gathered from the garment are not only tracked, but named. Now, it’s true that in the deep wilderness of the Wyoming mountains there are bears and wolves and camp provision-pilfering chipmunks. It’s equally true that great white sharks patrol the waters off Marblehead. Neither group of large animals has much interest in me, as humans are generally considered non-delicious in predator circles. But mathematically speaking, there are great white sharks closer to my house in Marblehead than there were grizzly bears to my house in Wyoming. My fellow Crank is correct. The wilderness is right over there.

But predators aren’t really the gravest risk we all face. Life presents many hazards. Take the weather. Back home, you don’t want to get caught out in a blizzard or a tornado. Out at sea, the storms can turn deadly in a hurry. Particularly if you are on a wooden fishing schooner in 1846. My first visit to the Marblehead Museum brought me face to face with this. The excellent collection of J.O.J. Frost paintings there includes a rendering of the Great Gale of 1846, in which 11 vessels were lost. Sixty-five men and boys went down into the deep, leaving behind 43 widows and 155 fatherless children.

Frost captures this calamity with a folksy straightforwardness: men thrashing in the water, debris tossed about on foamy waves, unconcerned seabirds alighting to scavenge. The everyday way he depicts the hull breaking up and the water rushing in connected me to my own experiences of loss. The information in the museum read that when Frost himself went to sea, he experienced a similar storm and survived.

Then he never went to sea again. Can’t say as I blame him.

The exhibit also features a preserved stern board of the Warrior, one of the ships that went down that day. I can imagine the widows and newly fatherless children gathering to that piece of sea-beaten wood like a talisman. Touching it, perhaps, as remnant and reminder of their lost beloveds.

Naturally, I did my best to keep my mind off all of this as I delivered young Waylon to Stramski Park for the first day of sailing camp. The lad is a Marbleheader now, and the language of Marblehead is the sea. At 12, he can learn a new language with ease. Off he strode with new life jacket in hand to start learning the lessons I learned on the farm and in the mountains. Hard work, teamwork, discipline: the skills that will help you move through any wilderness.

At the end of the week, he unfurled his new lexicon: stern, jib, square knot, rudder, bowline. He also had found the balance he and his shipmates needed to keep their vessel afloat. In keeping with this, he’d learned how to right and climb back aboard a capsized sailboat. I told him that perhaps it was best not to capsize in the first place?

He rolled his eyes at my landlubbing snark and said, “Dad, sometimes the sea doesn’t give you a choice.”

Indeed, son. Best to know how to right yourself, climb back aboard and sail on through any wilderness you face. And the wilderness that surrounds us here in Marblehead is a fine place to learn.

As always, if you’ve got an idea upon which I can embark for a Marblehead First Time, drop me a line at

Court Merrigan
+ posts

Wyoming transplant Court Merrigan is a new Marblehead resident. His column “My Marblehead First Time” appears regularly in the Current.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: