Gold Award in Cruise Story: Flying Dutchman

By Catherine Watson

I’m startled, now that I am writing this, at seeing the many links to the sea in my life. And to exile.

When I was eight, my heart’s desire was to run away to sea and be a cabin boy on a clipper ship. There was a lot wrong with this plan – gender and history, for starters – but I was too little to know. I spent that summer trying to memorize the names of every sail – a daunting task, given that a clipper with all sails set might be carrying enough canvas to smother half a football field.

Okay, you didn’t ask, but here they are in order, from the bottom of the main mast to the uttermost top: Mainsail, main lower topsail, main upper topsail, main lower topgallant, main upper topgallant, main royal. The topgallants were my favorites.

There are more masts, each with its own canvas hierarchy, but I gave up before I got to the names of the lines that worked them. The lines were even more daunting than the sails: Square-riggers might carry upwards of eight miles of rope.

The inspiration for my seagoing fantasy came, without doubt, from my father’s wooden model of The Flying Cloud. She was the fastestclipper ship ever, and her record around the Horn – 89 days from New York to San Francisco – was set in 1854 and not broken by another sailing ship until 1989. It didn’t hurt to know that she’d had a woman navigator.

My father made the model when he was 13 and won a prize for it. He had carved the sleek black hull out of pine; fashioned the sails out of thin cotton and varnished them for stiffness; crafted the tiny blocks and tackles out of bits of balsa and rigged them with black thread, tying the knots with a needle, the way a jeweler might string pearls.

When my parents died, and we children gathered to divide up their possessions, the Flying Cloud was the first thing I asked for. It had been one of the two truly sacred possessions in our family. The other was my mother’s china figurine of a lady in a long blue dress and a powdered wig, holding a yellow fan. We were never allowed to play with either of them, and even now – when both have come to me and their owners have been dead for nearly 30 years – I still hold my breath when I have to dust them.

It was dusting, after all, that wrecked the Flying Cloud – some relative’s misguided attempt to get the dirt off her rigging by taking a vacuum cleaner to it. The accident happened somewhere in my childhood, when the model was already half a century old. Too fragile to take the strain, the thin black threads of her rigging snapped. They have hung down, ever since, like broken spiderwebs. I used to imagine re-rigging them someday, but the spars are dry and tooth-pick brittle; they could never sustain the tension.

Derelict now, the ship sits on one of my living-room shelves as if in miniature dry-dock, more Flying Dutchman than Flying Cloud. It belongs there – a private symbol for what became my own Flying Dutchman life. I’ve never sailed on a real square-rigger, but I know something the Dutchman never learned. My journeys taught it to me: You do not need an anchor to be happy.


Catherine Watson?s travel dreams took flight in grade school, when she and her best friend discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs? Tarzan books. Long family road trips and two student exchange programs ? American Field Service to Germany in high school, and the Minnesota SPAN Project to Lebanon in college ? only made that passion stronger. Trained as a journalist, Catherine became the first travel editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) and continued as its chief travel writer and photographer from 1978 to 2004. Her work has taken her to 115 countries and won numerous awards, including the top two in her field: The Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the Society of American Travel Writers Photographer of the Year. She has been published in more than a dozen anthologies and is the author of two collections of travel essays, ?Road Less Traveled?? (Syren Books, 2005) and ?Home on the Road?? (Syren, 2007), both of which were Minnesota Book Awards finalists. Catherine teaches workshops in travel writing and memoir in the U.S. and abroad, and divides her home time between Minneapolis and the historic village of Galena, Illinois.

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