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Dragons, Mermaids, and the Pajama Islands  

by Ingrid George

A wonderful, touching story about childhood memories and families aboard the sailboat Aerial.

The smell of diesel and wet varnish intermingled with the briny scent of rotting vegetation at low tide—how strange, that such an odoriferous combination could evoke pleasant memories, a sense of security, and comforting thoughts.  As I have stood at the water’s edge in many a boat marina, be it in Honolulu, coastal towns of New England, on the island of Guam and Vancouver Island, along the rocky coasts of the Pacific Northwest and California, or at any of the many marinas I have visited along Florida’s coasts, I am taken through the same trip along the halls of my memories to my earliest days. 

Wet varnish brings to mind my uncles applying another coat to her mahogany railings.  With one whiff of diesel, I see my father and his father working tirelessly, in the darkened belly of her hull to coax her into purring like the lioness they knew her to be.  The pungent smell of brackish water fills my nostrils and I remember laying belly down on her coarsely painted, skid-proof decks, my head hanging over her side to watch the iridescent needle fish as they cruised close to the surface.

Her name was the Aerial, affectionately known as “the boat” in our family.  My grandfather had purchased her on a whim with dreams of sailing her to the Caribbean with his three sons who had only just reached adulthood.  This was the same adventurer who had packed his family-- wife, two young daughters, son, and two more infant sons-- into the family station wagon and had driven them from Florida to Mexico for a family vacation in the days before bottled water, in a time when banditos still roamed the dusty land in search of prey.

She was a thirty-eight foot double-ended sloop and from my perspective, the most grand lady in the marina.  Much of my early childhood was spent aboard the Aerial.  Some of my fondest memories of those days include being huddled in her cockpit with my older sister while we sipped grape sodas from the marina vending machine.  I can still feel the vinyl seats scorched from the pounding rays of the Florida sun, hot on my thighs through the terry cloth of my shorts.

It was also from her cockpit that I watched in awe as my father’s teenaged brother hoisted himself to the top of her mast in the boson's chair, his legs dangling as I squinted to see him in the glare that reflected off the metal spars.  It was from inside the cockpit, below the mast that the most intriguing part of the Aerial was revealed.  I would have been content to spend my time on her sunny decks, but with the turning of a combination lock, as I waited in anticipation, my father would unlock and open the varnished wooden panels of her hatch that led below decks.  Here was the heart of the Aerial, where everything happened and my imagination could run wild struggling to envision what it would be like to take her into open water.

I’m certain that I must have made the same exploration each time I visited her, as the journey through her interior is so vivid in my memory.  I'd first turn around to back down the steep gangway, as my legs were too small to allow me to race down the ladder facing forward as the grown ups were able to do.  In secret, however, I would attempt this daring feat, on occasion, praying to the heavens that I wouldn't fall flat on my face to the inner deck several feet below.  The closet with the black seated commode to the left was comical in it's efficient size.  A row of seats to the right I had to mount, the cabinets above with the spindled shelf holding maps, charts, flashlights and any other necessities that were small enough to be stowed in the narrow recess required thorough inspection, each item to be turned over in my small hands.  When my curiosity concerning each nook and cranny of a row of drawers had been satisfied, I'd hop back up onto the cushioned seats to peer through each of the portholes along the Aerial’s starboard side, trying each wing nut, weathered to a green patina, to see if I would be able to pop open one of the round windows.  Down to the end of the bench I'd race, the musty smell of the fabric of her blue, antique map printed cushions, varnish, diesel, briny air, all comforting in their own way.  Finally, each drawer below the chart table had to be explored-- matches, more flashlights, writing implements, charts-- completing my perusal of her starboard side.

I'd then turn to the Aerial's dining alcove where my father would invariably be placing a bag of ice into her built-in ice chest, along with cold drinks and fresh shrimp wrapped in newspaper, purchased on our way to the marina at a local bait shop for afternoon fishing.  To continue my journey I would hop up the short stairway to explore the shelf above another cushioned bench, this one running along her port side.  Always, I would lift the folding table that my father and his brothers had made and cleverly hinged to the spindled half-wall that framed the small dining area, letting it fall back against the wall with a bang, when my efforts were no match for its weight.  When my attention was drawn upward to the spindled railing of the dining alcove, I'd climb the half wall like a spider monkey, sidestepping my way along its length, feet slipping between each spindle to back toward the galley, though I had been told dozens of times not attempt such a dangerous undertaking.  Back to the blue cushioned bench, I'd climb; more portholes, corroded wing nuts.  The bronze and glass hurricane lanterns affixed to the bulkhead on swiveling brackets had to be wiggled before I was content to continue my investigation.

Next, the galley with its small cupboards; one held a blue enamelware pot, another a box of instant pancake mix, coffee, and percolator.  My analysis of the sink with its pump faucet was never complete without listening for the “squish” sound it would make as I maneuvered its lever up and down.  How I longed to turn the knobs on the gas stove which I knew produced the most brilliant blue flames, but without fail, this temptation would be replaced with excitement, as the door to the right of the stove that was the entrance to the Aerial's only cabin would draw my attention.

Knowing the cabin was mine to explore, I'd wriggle up the side of each bunk, testing the mattresses for comfort, then pausing a moment to imagine how it would feel to be rocked to sleep by the Aerial while she was being tossed about at sea.  Skylight, mast above, reaching into the blue sky, were my view.  I would continue my exploration of the cabin by opening the cupboards built into the bulkheads behind each bunk: rope, seemingly miles of it, fishing gear, oars.  The sink basin next to the door had to be tinkered with on my way out of the cabin.

My little legs would then take me back through her interior and up the ladder into the blazing sun where I would swing under the boom, the smell of warm canvas and paint now mingling with the others.  Up her deck, cable in hand to steady myself, I'd carefully make my way to the bowsprit.  Though I could see the hazy, green water far below, I would balance along the metal spar like a tightrope walker to the end, placing one rubber soled sneaker in front of the other.  This was the Aerial and she was my favorite playground.

Like a loyal friend she waited dockside for any opportunity to spread her wings and fly over open water.  Though her outings were few and far between, she remained a family retreat to her small crew in exchange for their caring ministrations.  She was always available for fishing trips and dolphin and manatee watching, picnics, or just as a respite from day to day city living.

I will never forget the night that I was allowed to sleep in one of the Aerials cozy bunks and, indeed, be rocked to sleep by her lilting sway.  Though she remained moored on that overnight visit I will always remember having dinner in her cozy dining alcove as the sun lowered over the horizon.  I can't forget how, as we sat huddled around the table, my father told the story of the origin of the hush puppy and how a sailor created them after tossing bits of fried fish batter to his whining puppy, urging, “hush puppy” with each toss.  The comforting illumination of the running lights and lanterns of other boats in the river beyond the marina as they swayed in the gentle waves are still fresh in my memory.  The haunting sound of the Aerial’s cable gently clanging against her mast throughout the night, the blue flames illuminating her galley as pancakes and coffee were prepared the next morning will stay with me, always.

When the time finally came for a voyage and preparations were finalized for her seafaring crew, the Aerial did not disappoint, but safely carried them down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, through Port Everglades and across the Gulf Stream.  I recall being told that my father, his brothers, and my grandfather would be gone for two weeks on a trip to the Pajama Islands.  I wondered if the people of the Pajamas actually walked around in flannel and lace, slippers and nightcaps.  Indeed, it seemed like a mysterious enough place to journey on an adventurous sea voyage.  I couldn't wait to hear what stories our men would bring home.

Though I have no memory of much of their absence, I will never forget the day the Aerial returned them to the safety of the marina after giving them the adventure of a lifetime and bonding them, father and sons, in a way few family members have the opportunity to experience.  On the evening of their scheduled return, we waited anxiously at my grandparents’ home for the arrival of our men from sea.  When they did arrive, I was surprised to see stubble furring their usually clean-shaven faces.

Even more amazing was the treasures they beckoned us to the front porch to see.  Fan corals, their skeletal structures a subdued lilac, lay displayed on the concrete porch steps alongside a seashell bigger than my head.  My father informed me that it was called a Conch and in it’s natural habitat contained a slimy sea creature that the local residents of the Pajama Islands ate with abandon.  My curiosity concerning these strange, pajama wearing, island inhabitants only increased with this bit of information.

After Aerial's crew finished showing us the interesting finds, the stories began, stories that continue to this day.  There were tales of the Sargasso Sea where the cobalt blue of its waters serve as a backdrop for the mustard-colored seaweed that floats within it and for which it was named.  We were told of flying fish that would leap right out of the water to glide across the surface before re-entering the blue-green depths.  My favorite story was the one they animatedly told of the curious “whop” sound that disturbed the Aerial’s crew one, still evening.  The strange sounds, as it turned out, had come from a school of stingrays soaring up out of the water, then belly flopping onto the surface before diving below.

Stories were relayed of their novice seamanship.  Others of how they had proven their skills by successfully navigating back and forth across the Gulf Stream while waiting anxiously to see if their calculations would prove correct or if the swiftly moving waters would carry them off course.  Aerial’s crew told us of the turquoise waters of the Pajama Islands, so clear you could see to the sandy bottom twenty feet below.  It wasn’t until I was much older, as I heard these stories recounted that I realized my “Pajama Islands” were actually called the Bahamas.  I have never minded, though, when my father, in his teasing, has continued to call them the Pajama Islands while giving me an affectionate squeeze.

Though I was far too young for voyages through the infamous Devil’s Triangle to the Pajama Islands, I was allowed on one occasion to accompany our seafaring men on a trip down the Indian River.  My grandfather was moving the Aerial to another marina and had decided to make the trip an adventure for the entire family, as well as for some close family friends.

Her sails would remain strapped to the boom for her journey, wrapped in an azure canvas cover, the boom secured to her decks, but I didn't mind as this made a perfect perch in which I could lounge in the bright sunlight as her crew motored the Aerial to her new home.  After years spent on the Aerial’s decks and down below in her cozy interior while she remained stationary, her lines lashed securely to the cleats fastened to the docks of the marina, it was even more wonderful than I had imagined to be underway as she sped through the water free of her restraints.  Though I longed to see her gliding over the sea, sails unfurled, the voyage of that day would suffice until I was old enough to join my father and the family crew on another trip across the Gulf Stream. 

After hours of cruising and the exhilaration of feeling the Aerial moving as she was meant to move, the excitement grew when I realized we merely needed to honk the Aerial’s horn, traffic on the causeways would stop, and whole bridges would open to allow her passage.  Many times, I had waited with anticipation in the family car behind orange striped drawbridge gates as we waited for a bridge to open to allow a ship to pass through, the bridge’s warning bell echoing across the water.  Actually watching from the deck of a vessel, while cars on the bridge above waited, gave my young spirit a sense of power.  Behind her helm, I knew, was a weathered gray button that, when depressed, would sound her horn.  As children, we knew better than to tinker with this contraption when the Aerial was docked, but I had always wondered what her horn would sound like.  It gave me a thrill each time it sounded on our day cruise, once again reminding me that this day she was able to do what she was meant to do, and I was being allowed to share the experience with her. 

Continuing on our way, the Aerial contentedly zipping along, a commotion on her port side, suddenly, drew my attention.  As I was sitting in the shade of the boom, I was only able to catch a glimpse of a blue motorboat passing by, but the raucous on board the Aerial's deck continued as laughter ensued.  When I asked my mother, who was sitting next to me, what all of the excitement was about and why everyone was staring at the passing boat she rolled her eyes and muttered in reply, “mermaids.”  I could not understand her disdain as I arched my neck, leaning to port, straining to see the beautiful creatures, the shimmering scales of their lustrous green tails, searching for a glimpse of the long hair I was sure covered each to her waist, but to my disappointment, all I could see was the blue stern of the boat as it sped quickly away. 

Mermaids!  I couldn’t believe everyone on board the Aerial had been able to see the fabled creatures, but me.  My seven year old mind could hardly fathom having missed such an opportunity, and I was even more bewildered by my ten year old sister’s snickering.  It wasn’t until a few miles further along on our voyage, that my mother declared, after much grumbling from me, that it had been a boat full of brazen, topless women lounging on the deck of their boat and waving to each passing vessel, not actual mermaids that had drawn the attention of the Aerial’s passengers.  My disappointment turned to repugnance at the audacity of the women, but just as easily, my attention was diverted as our journey continued.

After hours of motoring along, I was disappointed when the river began to narrow and the Aerial's crew announced that we were nearing the end of our voyage.  I was fascinated by the large homes that lined the river, envious of the owners who merely needed to walk down sidewalks and pebbled paths to the seawall that bordered their perfectly manicured lawns, but sad that our trip would be coming to an end.

Very close now, to the entrance of the canal that would take us to the marina that would house the Aerial, my melancholy was startlingly replaced with absolute disbelief.  As we neared the tip of Merritt Island a green, scaly back, luminous in the afternoon sun, came into view.  Though I was perplexed, I was certain they were not the scales of a mermaid's back as I had imagined the Aerial's passengers seeing earlier in the day.  My eyes grew large as we neared the hulking form and I realized it was the green body of an enormous dragon that sat motionless on the southernmost point of the island, as if guarding the row of expensive homes we had cruised past.  His tail curled over his bumpy back.  His front legs poised as if he were ready to crawl into the water for a swim in the lagoon that spread out before him.  I stared in fascination, my pulse racing as I searched for any signs of movement from the life-sized reptilian creature.  As we motored past, however, I soon realized that he was indeed merely a statue, as I had first suspected, but remained in awe of this unexpected novelty.

I was never able to journey with the Aerial to the Pajama Islands, or even see her in the open ocean under full sail, as I had longed to do.  I never, again had the opportunity to motor aboard her along the Indian River or a chance to see mermaids and dragons from her deck.  When I was ten years old, the youngest member of Aerial's crew, tragically, died, taking with him his fellow crew members' desire to again cross the Gulf Stream.  Father and sons' hearts were so shattered by the loss that no plans were made for another voyage to any location. Even the Aerial seemed to miss my young uncle's presence, seeming to wait for his return to her decks, while she lay berthed in the marina.

As needed, she would be hauled out of the water, the barnacles that infested her hull scraped away and a fresh coat of paint applied, only to be returned to the brackish waters along the Indian River.  We still fished from her decks and visited her often, but eventually her crippled crew realized there was no use in keeping her.  Though we, the children and grandchildren of her owners, begged them not to sell the Aerial, knowing soon we would all be old enough to take her on voyages of our own where she could sail free, frolicking across the waves, they insisted that she would be too much for any of us to maintain.

I was twelve when the Aerial sold and have missed her every day since.  I understood that after losing a son and brother who had been so passionate about his love for her, the remaining sailors of the Aerial could not bear the thought of going to sea without their most beloved crew member, but in losing the Aerial it was if we had lost a second family member.

There are only a few pictures of her that I have seen, but recently, while going through some old photo albums of my grandmother’s, I found a photo of my deceased uncle smiling broadly while riding at her helm, her hull tilted far over to port, water splashing over her decks as she raced along under full sail. As there is no land in sight in the photo, I realized it must have been taken on the renowned voyage to the Pajama Islands.  The image remains engrained in my memory along with the visions of mermaids and dragons that the Aerial has given to me.

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