Ocean-related Writing

THE CAPTAIN

I was thinking about the Captain again yesterday.  He’s probably dead, since I’m the same age now as he was back then, some twenty-five years ago.  About ten years ago I tried to phone him after hearing from his ex-wife that he was working as a rigger at a big South Florida boatyard.

“Quit,” said the manager.  “Quit me on a Tuesday, sailed away on Wednesday.”

“When?”

“Months ago.”

That’s what the Captain does, I could have said.  He never did fit in on land.

I was looking for just such a person him when I first met the Captain.  I hadn’t grown up around sailboats; there had been powerboats, but I didn’t want to fish anymore, and I wasn’t diving as much as I used to.  I wanted to go to sea in sailboats, but I lacked experience.

He showed up on the dock for a Wednesday-night race at the City Island (New York) Yacht Club, but the guy he was to sail with had gotten stuck in traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway.  So the Captain asked if we needed crew.  We didn’t but we took him instantly.  This guy was a sailor; anyone could see that.  It was weather-etched on his face.   His hands were outsized, bent, layered with calluses like no amateur’s could be.  He was lithe, ascetic, assembled from spliced cables, with a scraggily beard, salt-stiff hair, and only one eye.  (One of the images I recalled yesterday was of him peering at some distant object through the right lens of his big Steiner Commander binocs, never bothering to remove the left lens cap.)  If the Captain played a sailor in a movie, you’d take it for heavy-handed casting.

I gave him my spot as mainsail trimmer, and he was good at it—decisively, actively, wordlessly adjusting traveler position and leech tension—not unexpectedly better than me.  The race over, he asked us to drop him at his boat anchored just beyond the mooring field.   He was working as a rigger for a boatyard in Manhasset Bay, and instead of driving over the Throgs Neck Bridge and through the Bronx, he had sailed across the narrow strip of Long Island Sound in his Bristol 34, Cerulean, for the color of her topsides, aboard which he lived summer and winter.  Still today I can’t see a hue of blue even close to cerulean without feeling a sharp bite of nostalgia for the Captain, that boat, and what, once, they had meant to me.

As we drew alongside Cerulean, I said, “Look, if you’re going somewhere and want a green crewman—“ I passed him my phone number.  He gave me a monocular glance up and down before he stepped aboard his boat and fended us off.

I had assumed I hadn’t passed muster when he called that October.  His boss had an Irwin 52 that needed delivering to the Annapolis Boat Show, and if I wanted to go be on the dock at 1700 Friday.  He’d pay $150 and food.

There was supposed to be a third person aboard, but for some reason I don’t recall, he didn’t make it.  The Captain and I underwent a miserable overnight run down the Jersey coast in sleet, a bothersome beam sea, and more wind than we needed.  The Captain didn’t like the boat’s behavior.

“Why not?”

“Party boat.  Belongs at a dock.”

He passed the watch to me with the Atlantic City loom in sight, and went below without another word.

By dawn, we turned the corner at Cape May in dead calm and motored all day up Delaware Bay, a gray and tedious body of ship-busy water.  In full darkness, driving rain, and no wind we cleared the ship canal into upper Chesapeake Bay.  We were motoring at a good clip (“That’s what party boats do well,” said the Captain) when he again passed me the solitary watch, saying, “Keep the greens to starboard and don’t wander out of the channel.  Call me if anything makes you nervous.  If not, call when you have the Baltimore Bridge in sight.”  Halfway down the companionway, he turned and muttered, “Good job so far.”

Nervous?  What could make me nervous?  I hunched behind the wheel, cold and sweaty at the same time, trying to see the green flashers through the rain so I could keep them to starboard.  Why was he leaving this to me?  Hadn’t I told I was fucking destitute of experience?  There had been nothing to hit last night in the Atlantic Ocean, but now I had to keep the greens to starboard and stay in the channel…. At least the bottom was mud.  I still remember the tension-pain in the back of my neck.  My eyes were shot, anxiously searching for the next green light through rain-streaked glasses, so it took me a while to identify the strange string of glimmering lights high over the black water as the Baltimore Bay Bridge.

Limp with relief, I leaned into the dark cabin, and in phony calm said, “We’re here, Cap.”  I then assumed an insouciant pose behind the wheel.

We saw the tug and barge entering the bay from a wharf on our left; it wasn’t a failure of vigilance.  We had observed and remarked on the pertinent fact that the tug was showing three vertical white lights at her masthead.  That meant she was pulling the barge, and therefore we had room to cross her bow.  We could have sworn we’d seen three vertical white lights.

I hadn’t put this party boat on the bottom.  I was still savoring that fact while neatening the furl in the mizzen when the Captain shouted, “Barge!”

It’s inexplicable why time elongates in the face of fatal reckoning.  I looked up and took note of the glistening-wet, jet-black wall of looming steel—the tug was pushing, not pulling.  We did not have room to cross its bow, yet I had ample time to consider alternatives.  I could dive off the elevated afterdeck. That, however, would not be a desirable option because, flotationless, my foul weather gear and boots would drag me straight to the (mud) bottom.   No, that option had to be dismissed.   But was there… another?

The Captain, I noticed in a detached sort of way, was diving, a yellow-slickered blur, for the throttle.  We accelerated.  We could hear above the guttural roar of their engines the tugboat crew shouting oaths and accusations as the barge’s bow wake squirted us out the other side with nothing to spare.  The Captain fumed and muttered while I trembled at the mizzen like an orphan in a hurricane.  Neither of us ever looked back.  And we never did figure out what happened that night, when both of us saw three lights but there were only two.

We traced and retraced the near disaster over tots of rum sitting around the settee table, the Captain and I, safely tied to a boatshow dock.  Party boats are nice below.  After a tot  or two, we waxed fatalistic, laughing in the face of catastrophe.  “Fiber glass dust,” the Captain kept saying.   After the next round, he evinced a sensitive, cerebral side.  He said he liked to read books, so I told him I was writing one.  He told me about his unrequited love for a woman let’s call Beth, and he extolled her virtues with such extravagant adjectives I grew suspicious.   At some later point, long after I’d heard enough about Beth when I wanted to hear about boats, the Captain picked up the bottle, tapped its base on the table and said, “Wanna go?”

“Go where?”

He pointed at the label; I squinted.  It was Bermudan rum.

“On what boat?”

“My boat.  Cerulean.”

“When?”

“Next month.”  He was sick of winter, and he was going to quit.  He had a job interview in Florida.  So it made sense to him to sail from New York to Bermuda for enough easting to clear the Gulf Stream, then reach comfortably down to the Bahamas, play in the Exumas for a few days, then nip across the Stream to West Palm Beach.

“But, Captain, next month is November.”  (And Cerulean was 34 feet overall.)

His eye sparkled with infectious enthusiasm, not merely rum.

We didn’t make it that November.  The Captain couldn’t leave his love, so he lived aboard, pining, during a memorably harsh winter.  (I never discerned whether the Captain didn’t mind discomfort or he sought it out.)  But we sailed quite a few miles that summer, a series of short cruises and longer deliveries, some of the former with Beth aboard sucking the air out of the sails.  I’d never witnessed in close quarters a more miserable relationship, not the sort of experience I was seeking.

Cerulean was impeccably maintained, the essence of ship shape.  If you didn’t know the design, you’d never guess she was twenty-five years old.  The lines were new.  The deck was clear of anything extraneous.  Everything always worked aloft and alow; there was no indication that someone lived aboard.  And the Captain moved about her decks with the ease of a young dancer, quite unlike his shambling, head-down shoreside gate.  I observed his skill trimming or steering or anchoring, and I picked his brain like an ambitious graduate student.  “Feel the boat,” he kept saying. “The boat’ll tell you what to do if you listen.   Most people don’t.”

Wind was his other theme.  “You only need to think about wind at first.  This whole thing—“ a wave over the sails, mast, and rigging—“makes no sense without wind.  Keep paying attention to wind until you don’t have to remind yourself to pay attention.  I got to deliver this wooden ketch to way-the-fuck-north Maine next month.  I can pay $150 a day.  You want to go?”

“Yes.”

I came aboard on the scheduled departure day to find the Captain lost in despond.  From the look of him hunched in the starboard settee, I concluded that Maine was off.   Someone must have died.

“She ended it.”  His voice cracked.  “She ended it.  She just ended it flat.”

“Why?”

“She said she wanted someone stable.  But I know that’s not it really.”

“What is it?”  We should be celebrating.

“It’s a matter of class.  She thinks I’m too working class.  Her former husband was a CPA.”

The Captain grew up motherless on his father’s chicken farm, but some avian disease swept through the flock and wiped out every last chicken when he was barely a teenager.  He and his father bought Cerulean with the deluded idea of chartering her, a business, not a yacht.  But of course that didn’t work out, Cerulean being only 34 feet overall.  Then his father died.

“She always thought I was a boat bum.  Always.”

“If you’ll excuse me, skip, that relationship had some problems.”

“I know, I know, but a lot of couples have problems.  Maybe she’ll come back, maybe she’ll think better of it and come back.”  He stared for a long time at the blank bulkhead.  “I mean, maybe this is like a trial separation.”

I had an ungenerous reaction of which I gave no sign.  “Sure, maybe.”  I didn’t want the Captain to be like this.  I consciously recognized that I wanted to cling to the myth of a Captain, simple to the point of idealistic abstraction, not necessarily a person with an actual identity, certainly not one sick with the blues because his gal done left him, especially that gal.  I knew it was selfish.

“Want to go?” I asked.

We left an hour later, a moonless night.  It was the best thing for him to do.  He told me that when sailing inshore at night to ignore land lights.  “Don’t even look at them.  They’ll just confuse you.  If you know where you’re at, if you plot your position—actually make a mark on the chart—then you don’t need to give a shit about what you think you see in land lights.”  It was certainly best for me.

That November, only a year later that he’d planned, the Captain sailed away.  I went with him as far as Bermuda.  Everyone has heard of the malice in the Gulf Stream when the wind blows hard against it.  Even so, I never imagined such violence.  The wind sustained itself around 40 knots, with higher gusts, for most of four days.  Our quality of life diminished to abject primitive, but Cerulean showed no signs of weakening.

However, the Captain had some nautical eccentricities.  He rejected as undependable nearly all laborsaving devices on sailboats.  He didn’t believe in roller-furling.  No, his headsails were hanked on.  So to put up the storm jib, I had to crawl forward on hands and knees—walking upright was out of the question—pull down the larger sail, un-hank it from the headstay, lash it to the lifelines, and reattach the halyard—while on each wave the plunging bow left me airborne.  My moves unpracticed, I was getting pretty beaten up.  I didn’t exactly like it, but I didn’t hate it either, and the Captain noticed that.

He had some other nautical eccentricities.  He didn’t believe in electronics—any electronics; he didn’t even like to turn on the cabin lights.  GPS was not in wide use then; Loran was, but he didn’t trust Loran.  Besides, he kept saying, “Loran craps out halfway to Bermuda.”  He’d gotten a single sun sight with his lovely, white Fryberger sextant before the dirty weather blew in.  And with no other fix, he dead reckoned the remaining 100 hours—despite the weather—right to Kitchen Shoals light.  I thought it a masterful performance.

His other nautical kink was that he never wanted to stop.  He was contented at sea; even the proximity of  land made him edgy.  “Bermuda’s real expensive,” he said.  “And it will be a nice port reach—we could be in the Exhumas in a week.  Have you ever been to the Exhumas?”

I had a plane ticket and obligations, I explained with a pang of regret for a beam reach to the Exumas.

He went on alone and afterward took delight in telling me what a fine port reach it was, never touching a sheet in 1,000 miles.  But he didn’t immediately accept the Florida job because of Beth, who in her absence was making him even more miserable than when she was present.  So he flew back to New York to ask her one last time if she’d accept his hand in marriage, make him miserable forever.  Nope.  This man so forlorn, so masochistically lovelorn was different from the man of buoyant spirit in 50 knots of wind, seawater running through his beard.

Rejected, dejected, he took the Florida job, and we fell out of touch for a time, during which he met and married a fine woman named Linda who loved him truly.   Trouble was, she owned a nice little house that she also loved near Stuart at the north end of Palm Beach County.  “She wants to live ashore,” he said when he called to tell me he was married.  “In a house.”

“You mean as opposed to a 34-foot boat?”

“Yeah.  And plus, she wants me to mow the lawn.”

Her lawn, I later observed, was no bigger then Cerulean’s mainsail.

But he had a strategic plan.  He’d take her on an extended Caribbean cruise after which, he actually believed, she’d see the nautical light, sell her house and her lawnmower and move aboard his boat happily ever after.  Anyway, he wanted me to help him and Linda sail the first leg from West Palm Beach outside the Bahamas to San Juan, about 1,200 miles.  “They call it the Thorny Path,” he told me.  He said there would be another couple aboard because they were willing to help pay for provisions and things.  “Teri—that’s her name, Teri and Frank—Teri’s going to do all the cooking.”

The Gulf Stream subjected us to its usual hostility, and NOAA was predicting worse, 35 knots after midnight.  Teri, the stalwart cook, took a gander at those seas and vanished below—for the next two days—a difficult thing on a 34-foot boat.  You have to be committed to disappearance.

“Well,” said the Captain, “that’s why they call it the Thorny Path.”

We told ourselves that if this northerly held, then we’d have fair wind after we’d cleared Northwest Providence Channel and turned southeast for San Juan.  No, the wind veered southeast and stayed there right on our nose.  And then came the succession of squalls, three a day, some packing 40 knots and more, some with only heavy rain.  But we couldn’t tell which it would be, so we had to strip off sail every time another black mass bore down on us.  We beat on under skimpy sail for a week, getting almost nowhere, and gradually, as morale bled away, we turned weird.

Nobody said much at the change of watch.  We hardly spoke at all, and when we did, talk was mostly about bodily functions, specifically their absence.  The Captain went weirder than the rest of us.  He took to hiding his charts under his bunk cushion, and extolling his lost love’s charms in front of Linda, who cringed visibly.  But then one moonless night we sighted a flashing white light some unknown distance (we had not gotten a reliable fix since Great Isaac Light in the Bahamas) away on our port bow.  The Captain went below to study his charts in  secret.

“That’s an island sure as shit,” said Frank.  “I bet they have rum swizzles on that island.  I want one.”

“Yeah, but I know the Captain,” I said.  “He won’t want to stop.”

“Then we’ll kill him.  Not a jury in the Bahamas would convict us after we tell them about this fucking trip so far.”

The night before I had missed a handhold in a savage lurch and sat flush on the poor bastard’s face while he was sleeping.  Frank had been wearing sunglasses when I sat on his face.  Only desperate, dangerous figures sleep in their sunglasses at night.

“If he calls this the thorny path one more time, I’ll kill him anyway.”

“That’s San Salvador,” said the Captain definitively as he came topside.

“I bet they have rum swizzles on San Salvador.”

“Oh, yeah, but San Salvador’s real expensive, and we still have a long way to….” He took a look around at the faces in the cockpit.  “Okay, you want to take a short stop?”

It was at that moment I decided to have my rum swizzle in the departure terminal at the San Salvador International Airport.  I could be home in, what, five hours.  Nothing goes to windward like a 747.  The seas seemed to relax; I could almost smell the airline food.  But what would I tell the Captain?

I was the only other person aboard with a shred of ocean experience.  Frank, overweight with bum knees, had announced the first night out that he didn’t feel comfortable leaving the cockpit.  I needed a compelling lie.  My son had been kidnapped by a fundamentalist cult, and I needed to be there for his deprogramming.  No, he knew I had no son…. But I had a wife.  I had a wife, and she was sick, not sick sick, but really unwell.  I’d phone home from San Salvador and learn that the poor dear, weeping, required my soothing presence at her bedside.  All I needed was an appropriate disease, malady, or injury.  Linda was a nurse, but I couldn’t very well consult her on this matter.

The Bahamian customs official suggested we complete formalities below out of the sun, until he got a whiff of our living quarters.  He seemed to believe that we only smelled like public nuisances, and cleared us into the bar—where I’d make my move.

Uncharacteristically, the Captain bought us rounds of swizzles, and by the third I had nailed my wife’s disease.  Pleurisy.  I’d had pleurisy once, intense chest pains, debilitating, but not fatal.  Pleurisy was perfect.

I bided my time, chatting with the scuba divers at the bar who thought us the saltiest figures they’d ever seen.  “You were out in that?  In a 34-foot boat?”

The Captain was as happy as ever I’d seen him ashore, ebullient by his standards, eye twinkling.  But I hardened myself.  Guilt, away.  “Well, I guess I’ll call home.  Make sure everything’s okay, you know.”  The pay phone near the head was out of order, but I couldn’t let details stand in the way of escape.

When I returned, a fresh swizzle and a plate of mozzarella sticks waited at my place.  “For my first mate,” proclaimed the Captain with a clap on my able-bodied back.  Then in full voice to the rapt scuba divers, he added, “I’d sail anywhere in the world with this guy right here.  Anywhere.  So, how’s Genie.”

“Fine,” I squeaked.

Wind and seas were worse still out on the Thorny Path.  We were sailing through a tropical wave, we later learned, and it never relented.  We never saw a celestial body and the horizon at the same time, so we couldn’t know where we were, but we knew that the Silver Banks lay somewhere down to leeward.  We’d search anxiously for breakers during daylight, and tack away during the night, essentially going backwards.  We seldom make good more that about 75 miles a day.

One night, the ex-cook let out a soul-chilling scream from below (she had emerged from the forepeak, but never cooked a meal).  She had been slathering ointment on Frank’s salt boils when the boat heaved up at a terrible angle, hung there as if to forestall the inevitable, then slammed into the tough.  Teri and Frank went down in heap, he on top, snapping her tibia like a pencil.

“Don’t worry,” the Captain consoled after we’d carried her, screaming in staccato bursts, to a berth, and Nurse Linda had applied an inflatable splint, “We’re only two days from San Juan.”

How the hell could he know that?  Captain Cook couldn’t know that after all the tacking we’d done, all the leeway, even if he hadn’t kept his charts hidden under his berth.  But, then, the Captain had been right before, and with guys of his experience and sea sense, instinct and innate feel for the speed of advance couldn’t be dismissed.  Linda had fed Teri enough industrial-strength Valium to calm a surly rugby team, and the Captain seemed certain of our position.  It felt good.  We wanted to believe.

But the next day I asked him flatly.  Was that just bullshit to console Teri?  Or were we really only two days out?

“Tomorrow.  I can’t be sure, of course, but I’d say tomorrow.”

The next day, noontime, a smudge appeared on the horizon and began to resolve itself into land.  The Captain had done it again, and I was moved with admiration.  That’s exactly what I’d wanted, someone to teach me how to be a real seaman, not only a sailor.  I recognized the blatant psychological implications, father figures and so on, but I didn’t give a shit.  The Captain had done it.

As we drew nearer, I studied the island through his big Steiners.  I could clearly see a palm-lined, seemingly unbroken beach, and I reported that to the Captain.  “It can be confusing,” he said.  “It’s because of our angle of approach.”

I see.  Still it seemed funny.  I had never been to San Juan, but one would expect hotels along the shore, buildings of some sort, traces of an urban area.  While he was on watch last night, I’d snuck a look at the chart of the north coast of Puerto Rico with a San Juan inset.  On Punta del Morro, there was a 180-foot-high light visible for 24 miles.  I couldn’t see it.

Teri moaned fitfully in oblivion.

No airplanes either.  There was an airport, but no airplanes to be seen….

When we could discern individual coconut trees with the naked eye, it became clear that we were not approaching a big-city harbor from any angle.  But the fact was, still unsettling as I recall it, I just didn’t care.  I was dead with fatigue, too many sleepless nights, too many waves and steely squalls, too much sustained violence.  I wasn’t anywhere near ready to quit the sea, but I was done with this trip.  And here was someplace that wasn’t water.  In fact, it was beautiful, a glinting white beach rising in a gentle slope to a stand of palms, a vision of tropical bliss rich in rum swizzles.  The sun was out, for Christ’s sake.

Breakers!” the Captain bellowed.

I looked astern and up 45 degrees at the curling crest of a turquoise translucent wave.  It broke over the cockpit.  It wrenched her stern around, leaving her beam-to for the next, inevitable beach wave.  It broke over her side, and the deck went vertical.

The Captain scrabbled to the wheel, shoved the throttle to the stop, and spun the wheel, almost inducing her to point at the next wave, while I watched as if an audience member.  The wave broke over her starboard bow, knocking her back to that fatal beam-on attitude.  The jib was aback.  That could be a problem.  That must be what the Captain was referring to, screaming and pointing at the jib winch.  I threw off the sheet.  Cerulean seemed to pivot more than turn, showing her bow to the next wave.  It threw us up at a hideously unnatural angle for a boat, and there we hung, waiting.  Teri howled.

When Cerulean plunged into the trough, the shrouds went visibly slack as the deck-stepped mast compressed the cabin top.  But uninjured, she took us out of the wave set into flat water.  We really appreciated that.  Soaked and shaken, the five of us sat rigidly in the cockpit.  No one spoke.  I stood up and sheeted in the flogging jib, then glanced back at the Captain.  He looked so small, a little boy whose chickens had all died.  In a flood.

“Jesusfuckingchrist,” said Frank about six times.

Linda slid over to the wheel, put her arm across the Captain’s shoulders, and he touched his head to her collarbone for just a moment.

That sparkling palm-fronted beach turned out to be Cape Samana on the Dominican Republic, not even the right island.  We sailed all that day and through the night across the Mona Passage to the nearest town with an airport, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.  We parted dockside.  I hugged him, then Linda.  I glanced at his boat, his home, never assuming that this would be a final parting.  But it was.  I never saw the Captain again, Cerulean either.

Years later, I did a reading at the public library in Stuart, Florida, and before it started, a woman with lovely eyes came up and said, “You probably don’t remember me.”

But I did.  It was Linda.

The Captain had sailed out of her life “oh, ten years ago now, more.”  She said she’d been angry for a long time, but not now.  She spoke of him with softness in her voice, as if about a troubled, haunted figure who couldn’t help it, certain that I would understand.

Then she said, “He has Parkinson’s, I heard from somebody.”

I couldn’t look her in the eye without weeping right there beside the dais, not what the library members want from their occasional speakers.  I embraced her instead.  Her back felt frailer, bonier than last time on that industrial dock at Mayaguez.  Maybe she thought the same of mine.  I strained to pinch off the veins of sadness, of the Captain stuck ashore, shaking, and of passing time.

He’d meant distinctly different things to Linda and me, but I think we both understood what he meant to the other and that both of us had been unrealistic.  I had conjured the Captain as if in a dream.  And having a captain to watch over me, all I had to do was hand, reef, and steer, rich in guidance, sublimely free of responsibility, a beautiful childhood.  It wasn’t the Captain’s fault I’d invented him in a dream or his fault that I woke up slightly off Cape Samana.  Linda imagined he’d mow her lawn.

But the Captain always knew one thing for certain.  I don’t remember him articulating it, but he didn’t need to.  It was implicit in his being the recognition that life at sea is far simpler than life ashore, and that’s good reason to go to sea.  And likewise good reason to come ashore again, though I suppose the Captain would disagree.  But I don’t want to go all runny over life lessons, not after all this time.