A low pressure system has stalled over Florida and it’s been raining for three days. We haven’t even left the harbor and everything I own is damp and smells like a locker room. With seven men on a 47-foot cutter for the next week, it’s starting to dawn on me that this isn’t going to be any Caribbean charter featuring comfort, sunshine and Mai Tais with umbrellas.
No, this is going to be a full-on blue water expedition and decidedly short on comfort. Our captain is sailor and author, John Kretchmer (http://www.yayablues.com/). John has an affable manner, fine sense of humor and is to the point. After reviewing safety procedures aboard Quetzal, he makes the point that to be happy on board, one must get back to the basics – eating, sleeping and sh…processing. Alrighty then. The women in my life would be so horrified at this point that they would demand an airlift. I just smile as I try to picture Captain Stubing giving this talk to Julie McCoy, Doc and Gopher.
Our trip is scheduled to depart St. Augustine, Florida and take us offshore 100 miles, then 600 miles north to Chesapeake Bay. Our first night offshore, I wake from a fitful sleep to take my watch at midnight. I am aware that the groggy feeling that I am experiencing is not so much sleep deprivation as it is sea sickness. Donning my damp clothing in the pitching and rolling darkness, existential questions swirl in my head: “Why did I sign up for this? What am I looking for in life? Why are the Steelers world champions when no other country has an NFL team? Did I just put my pants on backwards?” An unexpected pitch and roll slams me into the bulkhead and out of my circular thinking.
Pinballing off the sides of the companionway, I’m reminded of something Joseph Campbell once said: “The serendipitous adventure you find yourself on may be tough at times, but by God you know you’re alive!” I whisper to myself, “damn right” as I assess whether I would make it up on deck in time to offer last night’s dinner to King Neptune.
My watch-mate, Chris, and I have been content to sit in silence in the wee hours while listening to the wind, waves and creaking hardware. With a double reefed main and jib, and 25 knots of wind on the beam, Quetzal is bounding through the waves and heeling hard. Our complacency is suddenly shattered by a violent flapping of the jib. The wind has changed direction; we decide to hold course and winch in the sail.
We surf the Gulf Stream at a consistent 10 knots of speed. The amount of power the 30,000-pound vessel harnesses is both breathtaking and frightening as we accelerate into the darkness. Still, the darkness isn’t just foreboding and empty. Above, I see clusters of brilliant stars and the Milky Way. Below, I see the bio-luminescence in our wake – dancing in the waves like hundreds of fire flies. Disney and Pixar can come up with all the special effects they want, but it will always be a pale imitation of the real thing.
Three days later as we approach Chesapeake Bay, I notice that the “locker room” intruder has departed my clothing. Or maybe I’ve become one with foulness — it’s hard to tell. In any case, it’s captain’s hour, the sun is shining, the beer cold, the spinnaker flying and the crew in good spirits, as are the dolphins frolicking off the bow. I feel fortunate and amazed.
Our conversations during the passage range from jokes, boats, women, food, politics, work, marriage, kids, divorce and sailing destinations. Nothing too personal or revealing is offered, no trite pearls of wisdom given. Just a fellowship of men sharing an adventure – and that is enough.
Though I didn’t notice for a while, something else is speaking on the boat. It could be heard in the whoosh of the waves, swirling salt air, rhythm of the swells, and creaking teak. Powerful and primordial, it has been speaking to man for millennia. A sacred voice that disregards the scattered and trivial concerns of the mind and speaks directly to the soul.
To label it is to cheapen it, to listen in silence for days, a panacea. It’s why young people squeal in its froth until they resemble little prunes and old people sit content for hours within earshot of its surf. It can only be hinted at by the likes of Conrad, Melville and Slocum and will never be able to be packaged, marketed and sold.
I admire our captain for having the wisdom to give the crew space and let this process unfold. I also admire my fellow crewmates for just making it on the boat in the first place. Our culture likes to label such pursuits as irresponsible, self-serving, juvenile and the result of a mid-life crisis. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Life can be complex, and I don’t want to minimize the pressures we each face. Yet I do believe that each of us must find a way to balance our responsibilities while keeping that “by God I know I’m alive” flame burning bright in our lives. We don’t have to risk life and limb or, for that matter, even go to sea…it’s all around, all we have to do is notice.
I notice this spirit in my family. My older brother is pushing 50, and he and his wife recently welcomed their first child. As a teacher of 16-year-olds by day and writer and doting father by night, he’s been tired – yet I could hear in his exhausted voice the echo of something profound and joyful as he spoke of diapers, formula and vomit. And my niece, Laura, recently relayed how she wanted to pinch herself as she sat cold, wet, and tired in her rowing skull inches from the frigid Thames as the moon rose over the London skyline.
Life has its seasons and I know that I won’t be able to go to sea forever. Perhaps years from now my “by God I know I’m alive” moments will be when I discover that I forgot to put my teeth in and went shopping in just my robe. Until then, with a little grace and luck, you’ll find me on the water, listening to the wind, waves and creaking teak.