Before Old Stormalong’s ship passed under the moon, he climbed the tallest mast and brushed his fingers against the stars. Stormy smirked as stars shot out, turning an emerald Elmo’s Fire green, leaving bright streaks across the sky before dying on the far horizon. The ripples his hand caused spread along the night sky, and a few constellations rearranged themselves. One of the Pleiades tossed her hair, giving Stormy a flirty wink.
He landed on the deck, swinging down on a line thicker than a man’s torso, his footsteps shaking the timbers of the boat as he went to the fo’c’sle. As he walked, he heaved on the line that controlled the hinged masts. Counterweights slowly rose, and white canvas sails billowed as the masts drifted down like fog, allowing the Tuscarora to pass under the moon by inches.
Stormy looked towards the stern, watched his ship create a wake that would swamp Boston, and clearly heard the steamboat not ten knots behind him. Wasn’t that the thing? The age of sail had passed, and old Stormalong’s time was passing with it. Already his crew had gone, turning into fleet-winged sparrows, souls intact, flitting home to loved ones. The team of Arabian horses he kept to travel from the Tuscarora’s bow to stern had jumped overboard nigh on ten years ago, golden manes turning to foam, legs becoming waves, their last whinnies a sharp breeze that launched the bark thirty feet into the air, keeping her skipping above the waves for three hours.
The moon behind him, he let the counterweights go with a flick of his wrist. The masts shot up with a streak of lighting, catching onto clouds. Stormalong took a deep breath, salt air filling his lungs, the currents of the ocean pulsing through his veins. He could feel the waves against the shoreline of the Cliffs of Dover, the Mississippi rushing down, her silt building up New Orleans. In the patterns the salt left on his arms he could read the winds that raged along the Tierra del Fuego, the monsoons that were building in the Indian Ocean. He knew it, as he knew his hands, as he knew his ship.
He felt them too, the engine-boats, the steamers, the New Age. Sailing was just a sport. A pastime. Sailing had fallen with grace in a more brutal era. It fell under wartime and gunpowder, fell under the spades of coal-shovelers and the watchful eyes of admirals.
On the Tuscarora, sailing from Charleston to Lisbon, the era of sail was passing under the old hands of Stormalong, the last of the sea-giants. But wasn’t he the man who had thrown the Kraken into the whirlpool the Tuscarora had made after she turned ‘round the Cape of Good Hope? Wasn’t he the captain who had needed to soap his scuppers to pass through the English Channel? Didn’t the Tuscarora, after the borealis was spotted high on the horizon, lift herself out of the ocean on her own will to sail on the rivers of light and stardust? Hadn’t Stormalong teased Triton himself and won the god’s own crown for the Tuscarora’s figurehead in a pearl-diving competition?
He was all that, and still he passed. The noise of the steamboat that was chasing him to Portugal assaulted his ears. Stormalong’s bones ached like dead coral snapping in a strong current. His tanned skin was cracking, drops of sea-salt blood leaking out. If the steamer could make it across the ocean with one man, so could the Tuscarora.
Stormy faced east again. The breeze favored him, coming fast over his beam. He tightened his hands on the spokes of the greatwheel, watching the spray come up over his bow and turn to diamonds in mid-air, landing with a chime on the deck.
He would go the way of John Henry, he knew (he felt it all leaving him). If he turned his head to the left and squinted through his blue-eye he could see the coast. He was tired. He was old. His hair had long ago turned white. But damn his eyes if he wouldn’t beat some uppity steamer across the Atlantic. This would be the last voyage of the Tuscarora and her captain, A. B. Stormalong. He faced the bow and laughed, and laughed, and laughed. His boat creaked and shuddered. Sharks danced like dolphins by the bow. Albatross dipped through the rigging. The Tuscarora sailed on.