Shannon Clarke raised a family and worked waterfront jobs in America’s oldest seaport. Her childhood dream to become a sea captain is revived when her long-lost seafaring uncle Patrick visits with a salty tale of their maritime family ancestry of pirates and privateers. He shares recovered family letters and artifacts from the Golden Age of Piracy. They take to the sea in Patrick’s brigantine to follow the siren song of their ancestors in quest of destiny, truth and treasure. The voyage is fraught with raw forces of nature, past traumas and present day sea robbers, as their talents and beliefs of family, identity and purpose are shaken to the core.
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GLOUCESTER SCHOONER FESTIVAL
Shannon Clarke sniffed the cool briny air and winced. Another Cape Ann summer gone forever. She was in a stealthy blue mood and decided to fight back with a bit of mischief.
It was Labor Day weekend, and summer's last hurrah in Gloucester was marked by its annual Schooner Festival. Shannon giggled like a schoolgirl at her planned hijinks, even though she, at forty-six, was old enough to have two children in their twenties. No matter. She felt youthful and daring again, and recruited her three best friends as accomplices.
Marcy and Gael joined her to drag sea kayaks across a small cove on Rocky Neck to the water's edge. Standing with their paddles set in wet sand like tall spears, they gazed beyond tiny Ten Pound Island and its lighthouse in mid- harbor, to the horizon where the massive granite Dog Bar Breakwater guarded Gloucester's deepwater port. The sleek local schooner Vega sat in strategic position to welcome arriving historic vessels. By nightfall, visiting sailors would gather in taverns and bars as they had for more than 300 years.
Shannon drew strength from her troupe of women friends, who rowed competitively for years in pilot gig boats and kayaks. Her brawny Sicilian pal, Marcy, was a no-nonsense registered nurse who never spared criticism when deserved. Shannon and Marcy shared teenage years as single moms in the same tough neighborhood. Their friend, Gael, a laugh-at-life Irish comrade, was a dockmaster and winter marine mechanic at her father's boat basin. Shannon worked there to ready and store boats in spring and fall.
Shannon bumped Gael with her elbow. "Where is Allegra?"
"On her way from the gym."
"We don't do late," Shannon said, and marched back to fetch Allegra's red kayak from the jumble of skiffs, paddleboards, and rowing shells tethered to iron rings on a granite wall that framed the narrow path to the street. She set Allegra's kayak next to her green one and nudged it with her foot to space it with the rest at the waterline.
Shannon had been like a big sister to Allegra when the girl got sideways with parents, teachers, and a married cop. At thirty-six, Allegra worked days at a garden center — by night, as a sassy bartender with uncanny ability to attract males.
Shannon's attention returned to the Vega as she pulled her red mane back with a blue-green stretchy neck scarf that matched her eyes. She respected the local boat captains who still made a life in Gloucester. The reserved but gracious Captain Bill Davis of the Vega was no exception. These were family men who loved the sea, men you could count on.
"What's up?" asked Allegra, bounding toward them in vibrant blue sports tights, with her blond hair swinging in a ponytail.
Shannon waited to answer, and cleared her throat. "We race around the red buoy by the paint factory, then out to Ten Pound Island."
"Not much of a contest," Allegra said.
Shannon raised her hand. "I propose a biathlon."
"What?" Allegra asked.
"After we paddle to Ten Pound, we swim to the Vega. First one to climb up the anchor chain and stand on deck wins."
"That's dicey," Gael said. "Never done it." "None of us have," Shannon said.
Marcy adjusted her black thermal riptide top. "Should we?"
Allegra rubbed her hands together. "I like it. What are the stakes?"
Shannon stretched out her arms, rolled her wrists, and yawned. "Ten bucks each for the kitty. First place takes the cash."
Gael gave a sardonic glare. "You took all the prizes on my boat during July 4th weekend. You won 'First-fish,' 'Most-fish,' and 'Biggest-fish.'"
Shannon bit her lip with a half-smile. "Nice keepers."
"You rubbed it in all summer," Allegra said.
Shannon opened her palms. "Hey, if I don't win today, I make us dinner."
The friendly rivals paddled in a convoy of brightly-colored kayaks around lobster pot markers and rocking vessels at their moorings. Allegra stroked fast to take the lead, with Gael flanking her. Ten minutes into the race, Allegra and Gael were first and second to make the turn at the big red buoy near the old paint factory slouching on its rotted pilings.
Youth was winning — Allegra and Gael kept a frantic, splashy pace. Shannon and Marcy stroked long, smooth and steady, with tight turns around the buoy. Onshore headwinds bashed them all with spray over choppy waves as they punched their way toward the stout lighthouse on Ten Pound.
Marcy's strength and Shannon's paddling technique got them within three kayak lengths of Gael and Allegra. The hundred-foot schooner American Eagle crossed their way, forcing them to navigate left through its wake. Allegra was first to the island but miscalculated and shoved out of her kayak too soon. Knocked over by a wave, she scrambled in hip-high water to pull her drifting kayak up on the gravelly beach. Gael had beached hard, sprinted to the far side of the island and dove ahead for the Vega. The rest followed suit.
Boisterous currents made for an arduous 200-yard swim to the Vega. Shannon and Marcy stroked ten yards behind Allegra. Shannon, only five feet tall and the shortest of the bunch, swam like a trophy fish. With her indifference to water temperatures and preference for green bathing suits, some still called her by her childhood nickname, "Mermaid."
Male friends on the working waterfront affectionately called the four women "Sea-Tramps." Third-generation-plus daughters of fishing families commanded respect in Gloucester, especially from boat captains. Without a nickname, you were a nobody.
All four approached within thirty yards of the Vega. Shannon kicked into a sprint, and Marcy used her power and reach in steady strokes like a large, dark sea creature with braids of jet-black hair. Shannon and Marcy closed in to make a churning pack on the port side of the Vega, whose bow bobbed on the waves. Cheers rose from the far, starboard side of the vessel, and cannon salutes thundered.
A young boy, alone on Vega's deck, watched the women fight for holds on the vessel's undulating anchor chain. The boy swung his arms and shouted, but the wind stole his words.
Gael was first to scramble up a few feet on the thick, slick, mossy chain. To climb aboard a tall, sleek schooner from under its flared bow was no trivial pursuit. Gael's hands were strong and the race now hers to lose.
At the waterline, Allegra timed her climb as the Vega dipped in the waves. With the upswing boost of the bow, she made three fast pulls up the anchor chain, grabbed Gael's ankle and clambered over her. Allegra's foot landed on Gael's wrist. Gael shrieked and fell into the water. Shannon muscled up the chain and swung over to grab the rigging under the bow.
She looked down. Thankfully, Gael was okay, and Marcy had dropped back into the water to help.
The sole witness, Boy-on-deck, cheered.
Allegra reached for a trailing rope but slipped several links down the anchor chain. Shannon swung her leg up from the head rig, without success, to reach the deck of the vessel.
The boy yelled, "Over here. Swimmers are boarding." Passengers turned their attention to the improbable event with mouths agape. A woman reached for the boy. In a motherly tone, she said, "Stand back, Robert. Give them some room."
Fueled with adrenaline, Shannon pulled herself up the rigging with Allegra by her side, using knots as steps. Shannon swung her leg up with enough force to maneuver over the gunwale. Both women flopped onto the deck. Allegra was first to spring to her feet and raise her hands in victory. Shannon straightened up beside her, expressionless.
Allegra shifted in her stance.
Shannon reached out to shake Allegra's hand. "Congrats, I make dinner."
"I'll bring champagne," Allegra said.
The boy stepped forward. "Wow — better than WrestleMania." He glanced back to his mother, and then looked up to Shannon. "Hi, I'm Bobby." With his face beginning to redden, he added, "I'm from Lexington, here for my birthday. I'm ten."
"Happy birthday, young man. I'm Shannon. This is my friend, Allegra. Let's see, a good Glosta nickname for an able seaman like you would be 'Wobby.'"
"Wobby, definitely," said Allegra.
"I like that," he said, throwing his shoulders back. He stared at the playful dolphin tattoos on Shannon's arms. "I love dolphins, Miss Shannon. They're really smart."
"Wicked smart, Wobby."
He smiled with a major overbite.
A crewmember tossed flotation devices down to Marcy and Gael. He motioned for the boy to help lower a rope ladder. Gael scaled up the anchor chain without a slip. Marcy gave a hearty laugh and climbed up the rope ladder instead.
In a few moments, the four swimmers stood on deck wrapped in large towels, surrounded by crew and guests chatting about the dare.
The boy basked in their attentions. Vega's guests, including a Gloucester Daily Times photographer, took photos of smiling Wobby amid the tattooed Sea-Tramps. He held a round flotation device marked Vega tight to his chest and stood proud as a soldier in front of Marcy with her big hands on his shoulders.
Shannon stood to the boy's side with a Cheshire Cat smile.
Flinty-eyed Captain Bill Davis was not amused. "What now, Shannon?" "We swim back to Ten Pound."
"Nobody dives off this vessel," Captain Davis said. "We finish our sail and take you women to the harbormaster's office. Do you have a clue, the freakin' paperwork for unauthorized boarding, Shannon?"
"Sorry, Bill ... won't happen again."
Gael congratulated Allegra on the win with a slow crushing handshake. Allegra groaned.
Marcy snugged her hand behind Allegra's neck with faces close, and sneered. "That was foul. Be glad nobody got hurt."
Allegra shrugged. "Let's not get all swamp-ass."
Captain Davis stroked his beard, covered a smile, and called to a crewmember, "Get these invaders some hot tea."
The Vega headed back into port. The passengers waved to the harbormaster, who motored past them in festival tradition to welcome each inbound schooner and sailing vessel with pineapples and fresh baked loaves of semolina bread from the local Italian bakery.
Captain Davis used marine radio to contact the harbormaster to meet later. After his guests disembarked, Davis detained the swimmers with a bit of scolding and spiced rum.
Later, Jack, the harbormaster, silently reviewed the details of the incident while the infamous four sat in suspense. With large forearms folded over his barrel chest, he said, "I've known your families for years. This stunt in the middle of a field of vessels and coasties showed little respect or concern for safety. Swimming one hundred feet or more offshore in a non-scheduled, unregulated swim event is a finable offense. Considering today's activity in the harbor, it should be double. Captain Davis can take the illegal, unannounced boarding further."
The women apologized — and flirted. Gael teased out her long black hair and summed it up: "You have the whole world out here to worry about, Jack, and the world needs good men like you."
He blushed, rocked back and scratched his neck.
Shannon cleared her throat. "Would you consider a day of public service from us?"
Jack weighed that. With a bemused smile, he said, "This building and equipment could use a good straightening up."
The women nodded.
He looked each of the four beauties in the eye and tilted his head to Gael with a raised brow. "And a tune-up for the launch boat."
After he wrote out a warning and waived the fines, he said, "Let's schedule that service day for late September. I'll take you all to Ten Pound to get your kayaks." With a grin, he added, "You women sure know how to put the 'fest' in a festival."
* * *
That evening, Shannon made dinner at her rustic shingle-style cottage. Allegra popped open bottles of brut champagne for starters. Gael set out ingredients for Irish Car Bombs — each with three-quarters of a pint of Guinness stout, a half shot of Bailey's Irish Cream and a half shot of Jameson whiskey. Shannon made her signature lobster bisque. Marcy held back a rebuke for Allegra's aggressive surge to win the race. They all savored the bubbly before imbibing rounds of Gael's mixology.
Gael made a trip to the kitchen to refresh everyone's drinks and noticed a marked-up script on the table. "Eh, Shan, who's Rachel Wall? You got a new part at Gloucester Stage?"
"Yeah, October," Shannon said as she took the script back from Gael. On her way out the kitchen, she added, "Bring a pitcher of water and cups."
Back in the living room Shannon shook out her wavy red hair and looked over her friends as if a large audience. Using her best gravelly pirate voice she said, "You fish-bait know I'm always cast as a witch, a pirate, or a prostitute."
Her friends chuckled and leaned in to hear more. "What's it about?" asked Allegra.
"Pirate Rachel Wall, a thief who ran away from her strict religious family in Pennsylvania at sixteen and married fisherman George Wall. They came to Boston. She worked as a servant on Beacon Hill, but George had a get- rich-quick scheme. They moved up this way to Essex to become pirates."
"Never heard of her," said Marcy.
"Rachel Wall was the only American-born female pirate, and the last woman hanged at Boston Common." Shannon plopped on the sofa and downed another shot. "John Hancock placed his seal upon Rachel's death warrant in 1789." Shannon held her friends in rapt attention.
"Here's the thing," she continued. "Rachel was a seductress and thief. George was a murderous thug. He'd borrow a schooner and head north for the Isles of Shoals as a storm passed. George and his men would hide below deck while Rachel pretended to be alone and adrift, calling out for help with a torn blouse. When another vessel came to her rescue, George and his men would ascend on deck to plunder the other vessel, scuttle it, and drown the crew."
"Bastards," Marcy said.
"Ah-ha," said Gael. "No suspicion when ships didn't return from storms back then. Give us more of Rachel's lines."
"Get me another drink, and I'll give you her words from Boston court records."
Shannon stood with one hand holding the script and the other placed over her heart. She took a deep breath and spoke in a nasal voice, "Your Honor, I swear to acknowledge myself to have been guilty of a great many crimes, such as Sabbath- breaking, stealing from sailors as they slept, lying, disobedience to parents, and almost every other sin a person could commit."
She paused for their chuckles to settle and took a sip of her drink. "I have not lived in the fear of God, nor regarded the kind admonitions and counsels of man."
Gael said, "Bad girls have all the fun."
Shannon stood sullen, bowed her head, slowly raised her eyes, and leaned forward. "In truth, Judge, I was there when each of twelve ships were pirated and sunk, but I never murdered anyone."
Shaking her finger at an empty chair, she added a raucous tone. "And I certainly did not meet or attack that Boston woman, Margaret Bendar, or take her bonnet."
Her friends tittered.
"That's the charge of a petty crime they dragged her into court for, and connected her to the piracy," said Shannon.
"More," said Marcy.
"Okay, Rachel's last words." Shannon felt her neck as if to test the hangman's noose, and put her hands behind her back. With her chin high, she said, "Into the hands of Almighty God I commit my soul, relying on his mercy ... and die an unworthy member of the Presbyterian Church, in the twenty-ninth year of my age.'"
Shannon downed a full glass of water. "I'm wasted. Time for me to hit the sack."
Gael made the final toast of the night. "Gloucester got the tall ship Bounty for the festival, but we were the entertainment out there today."
"Can't wait to tour the Bounty tomorrow," Shannon said. "Saw that ship in the Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty, and the more recent pirate movie, Dead Man's Chest. She's an aging star with a history."
"We all got a little hard-won experience here," Gael said, slurring her words.
"From what I hear, Allegra, you are quite experienced," Marcy said. Allegra flipped Marcy the bird.
Marcy stood. "I'm driving you drunks home."
"Joy go with thee, sisters," Shannon said. "Our wakes will cross again."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beyond Beauport"
Copyright © 2018 James Masciarelli.
Excerpted by permission of Köehler Books.
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