Years before I cruised the inland waters of North Carolina with the Skipper, I attended Paul Green’s The Lost Colony in Manteo, the longest-running (since 1937) outdoor musical in the United States. Green’s speculative tale has contributed to the legend, but what the show lacks in authenticity, it makes up in proximity: Whatever happened happened right here, on this forested island in the Pamlico, some 400 years ago.
In envisioning the Lost Colony for ourselves, we began with a map (in life with the Skipper, one begins most everything with a map)¿in this case, the 16th-century rendering by John White, the artist/cartographer who would become the colony’s governor and grandfather to its youngest inhabitant, Virginia Dare, the first English child born on American soil. White’s map is benign, even childlike, in its generality and proportions. Its waterways spring up like buck antlers; outlines peter off or vanish entirely in the uncharted interior; the path of a river curls as predictably as a snake. Characterized as much by unknowns as knowns¿with freestanding trees representing undocumented flora¿the map takes on a certain poignancy in light of the fact that, at the time of its creation, White didn’t know he was mapping out terrain that would soon be inhabited by ghosts.
Elyse is a sailboat amenable to ghosting; in that respect, she and I are soulmates. My favorite parts of the journey entailed meandering along the coast in light air; Elyse doesn’t like being bullied into meeting a schedule. When the Skipper had her beating to windward for the better part of one morning, she pitched him in the oily drink, dockside, at the end of the day. She’s possessed of an uncompromising spirit and fiercely intolerant of inessentials. Thus, she delighted in disrupting my application of makeup and mischievously fed to the depths a cherished tankini drying on her lines. (“Always clip stuff on,” said the Skipper in one of his frequent, and frequently retrospective, instructions.)
To fully appreciate Elyse, you must live on her terms, by roughing it, gracefully. This includes devising strategies for attending to the body’s more unrefined details as well as taking part in such seductive activities as drinking red wine out of tiny French yogurt jars, an experience that can’t be replicated on land. In short, Elyse imposes on those who sail on her a shift in perspective.
In the case of our Lost Colony sail, this shift made all the difference. Our journey at times yielded a sense of what White might have experienced during that first cartographic expedition and of what those first colonists, more than 100 strong, must have felt upon arriving in that new land. After sundown, at anchor, the deepness of the night and the watchful black outline of the shore reinforced that 400-year-old spell and placed us among the spirits of the lost colonists, who are still trying to tell their tale. The Lost Colony, as an historical event, is shrouded in mystery, as evasive as the yellow sulfur butterflies whose migration coincided with our sail. To approach its site from the water is to take part in that mystery, to see these ghosts.