We passengers walk across decks and down hallways as though lost in the embrace of drink. The swells of the Caribbean as we traveled from Antigua to St. Barthélemy shift me from side to side, back to front, a spherical motion that I haven’t quite mastered yet.
This is what Aunt Helen felt in 1934 as she embarked on one of the greatest adventures of her life. She was hired as French tutor to Nedenia Hutton, the daughter of E. F. Hutton and his wife, the former Marjorie Merriweather Post. Back then this four-masted barque was the largest of its kind, powered both by sails and diesel engine; today it seems diminutive next to the (comparatively) monstrous cruise ship moored at the adjacent pier in Antigua. Helen, my godmother and my father’s aunt, traveled on this boat from Miami through the Panama Canal to the Galápagos Islands, Tahiti and finally Honolulu, Hawaii. It was, I think, one of the greatest moments of her life.
This morning, as our plane climbed into a leaden sky above New Jersey, puddles of silver-gilt, mirrors of sunshine where clouds broke, gleamed on the Atlantic. We had risen at three, caught a flight out of Baltimore at six, and by then were six hours in transit. As we began our descent I peered through clouds catching traces of the brilliant turquoise that marks reefs and shallows around Antigua. Suddenly I could see the Sea Cloud. Next to the Silver Spirit at the adjacent pier, though, she looked impossibly small. We would not be on a floating city; we would be on a sailing boat.
The Sea Cloud was not always the Sea Cloud; originally she was called the Hussar V. Marjorie claimed her in the divorce; she and the next husband, Joseph Davies, gave her the new name. Helen’s Hussar was not identical to our Sea Cloud; restoration and refitting in 1981 added enclosed areas and the hull is white rather than the original black. But what Helen saw—the masts and rigging, the ornate prow with its gilded eagle and the acres of wood paneling are much the same. Coincidentally, both of us received a postcard showing the boat under full sail as a souvenir when we sailed.
The afternoon of January 12 in Antigua was warm, almost sultry and a glass of chilled champagne tasted especially good. Soon enough we were motoring into the night as chef and his staff laid out a buffet supper. The air off the aft deck—where Helen lay wrapped in blankets eighty years gone and gazed up at stars—was cool in the dark. The waxing moon shone brightly; few stars were visible. Jupiter glimmered low in the sky. Below the moon, a little to the south, I could just see Orion, first his belt, then his broad shoulders. I listened to the waves break and the boat’s motion soothed me. I wondered if I could stay here forever.