At Large: Home from the sea

The ports: Casablanca, Odessa, Piraeus, Naples, Rio, Recife, Durban, Togo, Abidjan, Monrovia, Dakar, Manila, Da Nang, Rotterdam, Cameroon, Panama, Haifa, Saigon, Borneo, Singapore, Midway, Taiwan, Cadiz, Lagos, Hamburg, Yokohama.

The ships: S/S Austral Patriot, S/S Gibbes Lykes, S/S African Dawn, S/S Flying Clipper, S/S Gulf Queen, S/S American Leader, S/S American Reliance, S/S African Sun, S/S Mormactrade, S/S Export Buyer.

Bernie Holzer of West Tisbury has sailed into and out of all these seaports, and many more, many times. He has sailed over oceans on these ships and many more over more than 60 years. Of course, he’s been many, many times to Vineyard Haven, Woods Hole, Hyannis and Nantucket, as purser on the Steamship Authority ferries. Bernie is an able seaman, retired from the sea and Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds.

His record of achievement, besides seeing the world from the decks of freighters and tankers, includes painting precise, faithfully rendered pictures of seagoing vessels – most of them historic Vineyard and Nantucket ferries – and gracing his wide circle of friends with his visits. His attentions to his friends were not scheduled, because who knew when he’d get paid off an oceangoing ship or when he’d go looking for the next one. But they were orderly, dependable, and delightful, every one – genuine pick-me-ups for the visited, genuine gifts each time.

When Bernie dropped in on the new mothers in his circle, he was cautious. A confirmed and devoted bachelor, he held out until Simeon (Simi) Denhart, a schoolteacher, tamed him after his oceangoing days ended and while he was working on the ferries. There never was a more devoted partnership.

In his seagoing days, Bernie dropped by for coffee break. He might stay for lunch. He’d hold the baby, but he drew the line at babysitting. “I got to go,” he’d say, if the air seemed pregnant with a possible request from the mom to look after baby while she made a short trip to the store. He had other stops to make on his friendly rounds. And, as excuses go, “I’m shipping out from New York the day after tomorrow” always did the trick. After years of shipping out, from Boston, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and elsewhere, when Bernie wanted a ship his seniority meant that the choice of berths was his, and his name went to the top of the board. So, if he needed to clear out, nothing stood in his way.

Bernie grew up in Toledo and began his lifelong trade on lakers, the Great Lakes freighters that carry bulk cargoes in and out of the Midwest. It wasn’t his plan exactly, but his father saw a chance to improve Bernie’s fortunes, and he took it, as any father might.

The career path for 16-year-olds in Toledo at the time was narrow and discouragingly steep, and Bernie didn’t mind that. He and his buddies, he will tell you, were having a lot of fun doing the things that city teenagers enjoyed. His dad persuaded Bernie to apply at the union hall where seamen waited for jobs. And, the day came when dad hunted Bernie down to say that he’d had a call from the union hall. There was a berth available if he wanted it. Bernie told his dad that, of course, he certainly did, but to get it he’d have to make a drive of a couple of hours to meet the ship. Bernie, who had no car, said it was a shame but he had no way to get there. His dad said, I’ll drive you.

Approaching 80, Bernie, trim and fit in his seagoing days, is slight now, his blond hair is white, and the tone of his voice cackles more than it did when he welcomed passengers aboard the old Islander. A great reader of history and biography, his sight has dimmed a bit, so he listens to books on tape, despite some hearing loss common to members of his family. His is still the familiar voice you once heard and never forgot, telling you that you couldn’t smoke (“For the next 45 minutes, you don’t smoke.”), that you couldn’t have a beer until the ferry left the dock so you’ll just have to wait, that your pets needed to be kept off the seats and out of the lunch counter area, and that, before you disembarked from the ferry in Vineyard Haven, you needed to be sure you had all your belongings, including the “rug rats” or “curtain climbers” you’d brought along. The passengers, most of them, smiled when they heard this.

He was also the purser who befriended the 7 am troop of Falmouth Academy students from the Vineyard on their way to Woods Hole and school. And, because he was friendly with most of their Island parents and nearly every other Vineyarder who traveled with him, he made time to shoot the breeze with many of them and keep the students’ parents up to date on whether the kids were doing their homework on the boat, or not. Sometimes, he kept the truth to himself if he judged it prudent to do so.

Bernie found his way to the Vineyard with the help of Lambert Knight, a mariner of some considerable accomplishment. He and Bernie met in the West Indies when Bernie shipped as crew on a small yacht. Sort of a seaman’s holiday. The two crossed paths and became fast friends. Later, at the Knight house in Vineyard Haven, Bernie never refused a meal made by Lambert’s wife, Sally, a celebrated cook whose specialties, including extraordinary chowders and soups, arrived at the newly opened Black Dog Tavern in 1972, in the passenger seat of Sally’s sporty little roadster, with the top down.

When he came ashore — or rather when he left the deep water life — Bernie and Allan Miller built a little house at the top of a hill in West Tisbury. Since Simi joined up, the place has grown and become less simple but handsomer. Bernie’s done a lot of work on the place himself, tutored by boatbuilder Ross Gannon, who lives nearby. Now, he tells me, when they’re doing woodwork, he and Simi share the job. She lines up the wood on the table saw, and when she runs it through, he helps guide it off the saw.

Bernie still goes to sea regularly, although it’s alongshore not deepwater. He goes lobstering every Saturday with Bill Austin, Tom Reynolds, and John Christensen, in Bill’s boat. The four, friends for decades, get a few lobsters every time, although Bernie admits he doesn’t like to eat lobster. What he likes are his friends, and he tends those friendships, even if lobster is involved.

What you want in a shipmate is a lot like what you want in a friend. On freighters, tankers, lakers, ferries, sailboats, Bernie is the perfect shipmate, cheery, helpful, standing his watch, never complaining. I have a photograph of my son Matthew, Bernie, and me, sailing in a fall gaff riggers’ race out of Vineyard Haven. The weather was snotty and dead ahead, the current against us on both legs, and Vineyard Sound came over the rail repeatedly on the windward stretch to soak us thoroughly. For Bernie, it was just another damp day offshore.