Moment of Sententia

He was a stone cold killer. Well, he was a stone. A two pound piece of Dolomite. Only moments earlier he had been part of an overhang on a dirt bluff. The weather had changed abruptly, turning cold and threatening rain. A little squirrel had scampered in for shelter. A rivulet of rain water along a fissure had opened a crack, which released him from his bondage. Neither of them had seen it coming.

There was nothing for him to do but lie there, slowly sucking the heat from the squirrel’s body. It is a vicious coincidence, he thought. And frustrating. How he wanted to move. How he wanted to give the squirrel back her life. But, being a rock, one learns a great many things, having so much time for contemplation.

Time moves slowly, but Life moves fast. One cannot wait for the other. He would have thirty years to rest upon this squirrel. The blink of an eye in geological time. The little body would stay fairly well preserved for a while. Not that this would do the squirrel much good. Her last thoughts were just about used up. But more on that in a moment.

That the Dolomite think about Fate, and Faith, and this fleeting Life that always scurries about, so much the opposite of eternity. Yet Life believes in its own endurance.

The Dolomite sit for a thousand years without a consideration for itself. Instead, he revels in the constant and wondrous change occurring around him at such a fevered pitch. Where do they think they are going? Is it so vital a journey that it often ends in the same dust in which it originates?

The Dolomite not understand it, but he was jealous none the less. He had hung in the bluff for a long time. A LONG time. Trees, fields of flowers, deer, mice, children, had all come and gone. They moved freely and quickly. And vainly, he hoped. Yes, he was jealous.

In thirty years a hard rain would undercut him, having previously removed the squirrel and much of the dirt and pebble. He would eventually feel himself loose in the stream, yet at a glacial procession. How he longed for a more rapid change. To follow a rabbit across the meadow. To chase a leaf in the breeze. How he wished these things belonged to him. But they did not. So his days were filled with the rapid movement of his mind, fast out-pacing his sedentary station. On fly the wren, on crawl the slugs, away blew the fur and flesh of what once was a squirrel.

What of the squirrel, you ask? Well, let’s tread carefully. These thoughts we seek will run quick, even as the squirrel is freshly pinned to the earth. At first there is confusion and hurt, as there always is in death. But the squirrel had an interesting tug of war with Death. The startling realization of her predicament caused a brief panic. I will not see my friends again. My children will worry. I have only the faintest taste of the perfect acorn on my tongue. It is fading fast. And I will never have it again. It is a shame.

But then the squirrel slipped towards a dream. She moved slowly into a relaxed state. The breath she thought she needed did not convulse her chest in agony, desperately trying to inflate her lungs. Instead, the rock sat upon her, quite animately relieving her of those concerns. Her ribs and diaphragm did not move. The effort had been removed from them. Mechanisms in her body deadened the pain, or blocked it altogether. She entered a fuzzy sleepy state where worry departed.

She moved on. This time with a slow geological mind. She saw with different eyes the uselessness of her body. She saw how time kept moving even though she could not. She sensed the movement around her. The slow settling of the rock as her body decayed. The bugs and animals and bacteria that enjoyed her last gift. Some of them had been with her all along. Now was simply their opportunity.

Her memories became less personal, yet somehow survived chemically at a small level, stored in their essence, but not in the recognizable form of a personality. She saw the smallness of who she had been, and yet felt less alone. What if all the rocks and dirt and sand, and loam and plants and carrion were filled with similar memories? What if these memories mixed and filled the flowers and the grass and the acorns. Oh, what if…

The taste came back to her now. That perfect acorn! It tasted fresh and powerful and full of so much potential for life. She was so happy now. Not to be dead, but to see what life really was. Its cycles and its secrets. It was, after all, not a god that makes us eternal. It is the most basic indestructible part of ourselves that makes us part of something so big that it seems like God. As if it were the sum of all of us. All of us who are, who were, and who will be. We are born into our bodies and feel like individuals. Our thousands of little memories scream in tiny voices that we are just part of something so much bigger. Sometimes we busy our lives scurrying about and don’t pay attention. We don’t listen to our own voices because we are busy experiencing the World.

We remember a beautiful day in Autumn. We had buried the last acorn. Okay, not buried it. Eaten it, because it was so delicious. It was the perfect acorn. It wanted to be eaten. It was calling to be eaten. The rain had started falling and we were happy that all the other acorns would probably grow. They now had a better chance of becoming giant Oak trees. Homes to birds and ants and squirrels and Spanish moss. And this one squirrel was tired and happy and sure that she had done her part to bring this all about. She huddled out of the rain under a beautiful outcropping of red spotted Dolomite, uncovered only recently from the rich red soil by an Autumn rain. The sun was still warm as the day was dying. It blazed a fiery yellow one last time, then winked behind the clouds.

And night fell.

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Why We Eat Fish on Friday

Happy Valentine’s Day! She read the letter again. It was from far away. It was from her Grandfather.

He had been a fisherman. He had lived in a little town in Washington, called Poulsbo. She didn’t remember much about him, except he always made salmon jerky and gave her strips of it when she was little. Her mother was nervous that she ate it in such big bites, but let her have it. She had liked the salmon. It was salty, like the ocean, but sweet like honey too. There had been a hint of pepper, but it wasn’t hot. She had never had fish before. Hadn’t eaten much at all. But loved her Grandfather’s salmon jerky.

Yes, she had liked the taste. But mostly she liked it when her Grandfather laughed while she ate. Like she was telling a joke that only he understood. She liked making him laugh.

She read the letter again. Her Grandfather sent it when she wasn’t even ten yet.

He had wanted to tell her a secret. He had been told that the girl didn’t eat enough food as a baby, and was getting sick. His daughter, the girl’s mother, didn’t know what to do. The doctors didn’t know what to do. They brought the girl to her Grandfather’s house because they thought she would not live much longer, and the mother was sad and didn’t want to be alone.

The girl still didn’t eat much. She was only two them. She ate saltine crackers with a little honey, but not much at a time. Her Grandfather saw this and had an idea. He took the salt and honey and soaked some salmon in it, and then smoked it. He didn’t smoke it too long. He wanted it to be moist and chewy. While he cooked, he let the little girl ride on his boots. They were the same boots he wore on his fishing boat. They made the girl smell like fish. Her clothes were soon lined with scales. She loved riding on her Grandfather’s boot, and soon thought that fishy smell actually came from him.

When the first batch of jerky was done, they gave some to the girl. They thought she would lick it like candy. But she devoured it! “You’re a little salmon shark,” her Grandfather laughed. She laughed back, copying his smile.

Her Mother worried she would choke on the jerky. But the Grandfather held his daughter’s shoulders. He said, she’ll be alright now. The Mother cried tears of joy into her Papa’s shoulder. She liked the fishy smell too.

Many years later the Mother would tell many stories about the Grandfather. They both laughed at the funny things they remembered. They tried not to be sad when he died. They remembered the good things and his funny laugh and his smelly boots. And she remembered what he said when she was two and she ate salmon jerky for the first time.

He patted her tummy and said, “Now I’ll always be with you, just like the salmon.”

And then she bit his finger.

Sailing Under

Into a sea of blank stares he flung the words.

“The Franklin Method is a basic additive or subtractive way of determining gyro error. You simply add or subtract degrees to your bearings until your triangle becomes a pinwheel.

“By definition this means your true position is somewhere outside the initial triangle. As a quick reference we use the center of the triangle as an assumed position because we do not know the direction of error.”

A hand went up. A survey of the eager face earned the attention of others. Another arm reached up and dragged the hand back down. “Shut up. You wanna be here all day!”

Snippets if knowledge, collected from centuries of sailors, were cast adrift. Ranges, bearings, all aspects of emergency navigation, were broadcast. Dead air. Training was over.

The charts and books and antiquated instruments were quietly squirreled away. The locker secured. The key hidden. All was safely stored.

He hated to admit it but he loved the next part. Those “uncaring” souls were rolling out the hardware for a cold wet adventure.

While each man kindled a passion for his individual specialty, they all burned for their joint venture.

The vast, low deck forward of the house was a mysteriously ordered realm designed to mark those unmarkable waterways. Shackles, chain, cement blocks. Hammers, torches, Pelican hooks, and paint. Buoys nine feet in diameter and thirty-six feet long, the boom and winches worthy of the load, the crude work bench sheltered under the overhang of the forecastle. This was their faeryland.

A small group of seamen readied the inflatable boat. They loaded no special equipment. The coxswain tucked a tin of Skoal into his jacket. The quartermaster was armed with handmade maps and directions. Their only other gear, large fragments of reflective dayboards.

The boat and crew were launched. A couple spare seamen were brought along for the jobs no single man was capable. The cox’n pulled the outboard to life. The seaman in the bow took the painter in and pushed off. Away!

Nearing the first rocky crag jutting from the water, the QM consulted the notes of previous years. “At low tide, approach to the west. A rock shelf dries with a short climb to the trees. USC&GS mark is on the next rock east.

“At high tide, approach directly.”

The QM checked his watch, the copy of the Tide Tables, and scanned the mussel encrusted rocks for the shelf. He leaned over the bow and looked into the cold clear water. He signaled blindly for the cox’n to slow. The motor quieted in response.

The seaman on the bow swung his legs out, taking cues from the depths of water. His boots landed in six inches. He shuffled his feet to find a hold as he steadied the boat. The cox’n popped the engine into neutral and came forward.

They formed a chain up the rocks with dayboard and tools. When the cox’n was last in the boat, the seaman pushed the boat away and joined his shipmates ashore. The boat hovered nearby.

The QM picked his steps cautiously. He carried the directions in hand, but the real answer lay in the rocks under his feet.

“Here it is,” he said. “Pass me the dayboard.” A seaman brought the big red triangle along. A small bronze disk, the size of your palm, lay embedded in the rock. Hammer and bracing amplified the little disk by propping the board above it.

The sailors surveyed the board, standing taller than themselves, and the buoy in the distance their ship would shortly wrestle. Satisfied with their work, they hauled their gear back to the landing. The cox’n idled in, butting against the seaman ankle deep.

The quartermaster consulted his papers. He scanned the distant shore. As the boat backed away fully loaded, the QM pointed his pencil. “Next one’s over there.”

The bow swung around and headed for a low grassy point. The QM turned to the boat and smirked. “Graveyard Point.” A lazy voice answered back, “Fuck you,” in acknowledgement.

They tied the boat off and the crew came ashore. The tussock grass made walking tiresome and deliberate. It thinned near the tree line, yielding a trail that led to the next marker.

The outcrop on the other side of the trees faced out on the bay. It was a scene not obvious from their landing. South of east was Ouzinkie Narrows, the channel that would take them back to Kodiak. Nearer was Hog Island, the day’s previous stop. Stretching away to the right was Whale Island. They were looking south.

They had passed a couple houses, and a car far from any road. No one need tell them, they’d left civilization far behind.

After setting up a third marker, having followed their maps to the last bronze disk, they settled into the Zodiac for the ride home. “Sedge, Sedge 3.” Sedge 3, Sedge.” “Last marker set. On the way back.” “Sedge 3, negative. Buoy ops in progress. We’ll call you when it’s clear. You have about two hours.” Sedge, Sedge 3, roger.”

The cox’n backed off the throttle, the ship only fifteen minutes distant. “Hey, Crummett. Go over there,” pointing off to the west. The cox’n looked off in that direction. “Last year there was a little waterfall over there.” “Whale Island,” the QM asked, “or the Afognak side?” “I don’t know. Just get me close and I’ll find it.”

The cox’n swung the bow slowly away from the ship, then brought up the speed. The crew members looked for a towering cliff and a cataract’s plume. Instead, Mole and Crummett were steering them into sheltered hook before they’d noticed the soft rumble of a falling stream.

Mole was stripped down to his boxers and letting the water fall on him before the boat was even secured. Mole had earned his name from his short thick stature, the exposed teeth of a curled lip, and weaselly thin whiskers. He looked more now, in this aquatic setting, like a sea otter.

Truth be told, the weaselly look was fairly common in the fresh beards of young seamen just out of high school. But most had the good sense to shave away the evidence of their age. The saltier hands didn’t care. They were hidden away in the northern reaches of the planet, far from the eyes of society. Free to their feral state.

With the engine raised and the boat pulled well above the tide line, the rest of the boat crew stripped down for a rest. The windless August afternoon was approaching 90 degrees. A quick rinse and each claimed a basaltic slab in the lingering sun for a nap.

Soon enough the radio crackled. “Sedge 3, Sedge.” Crummett answered without moving from his rock bed. “Sedge, Sedge 3.” “Buoy ops complete. Pick ’em up.” The group slowly gathered their uniforms and Mustang suits and headed for their boat. Floating it, they slid in quite dry, hardly betraying their terrestrial roots.

This routine repeated itself for days, weeks, rotating through the crew. The ship worked its way through Kizhuyak Bay, Kupreanof Strait, around Seven Mile Beach.

Crummett found himself at the tiller again, ferrying the same quartermaster and seamen along the shores of Shelikof Strait. The QM was nursing a sun and wind burn from a careless outing on the flying bridge. The seamen were a bit more seasoned. And the sea was a bit less forgiving.

Shelikof Strait stretches fifty miles to the Alaskan Peninsula. The cold Summer wind blows twenty knots in all directions. Shallow gradients on the weather charts give no indications of storms. Swells wrap around the point, refracted, feeling the shallow water near the beach. The waves don’t break, but roll higher than your eye while seated in a Zodiac.

Heading back to the ship, Crummett steered along the edge of the swell, trying to surf its face. “Slow it down,” someone warned, “Gill net.” Ahead, a lone fisherman was tending the net from his boat. The net stretched from the beach to the right, across their bow to the left. The fisherman waved them over.

Crummett idled the Zodiac alongside. “Hey, you guys want some fish?” the fisherman asked. “Sure,” the crew agreed. Four large salmon flew from boat to boat, landing with a thump. Enough salmon to feed the ship. “Thanks.” “No problem,” the fisherman said haltingly. “Hey, you weren’t going to board me, were you?” “No,” the QM said without concern. “Buoy run.” “Thanks again,” someone said as the outboard roared.

The Zodiac skirted the gill net and worked back towards the swell. The tool bag was tucked under the spray skirt. The fish lay unattended on the rubber floor, staring at four pair of leather boots with dead eyes. The engine noted the height of the swell with the whirring pitch it raced down the face.

“Hey, Crummett,” the QM said, “If you get up enough speed, we’ll start planing.” Crummett twisted the throttle as the next swell lifted the stern. The speed increased. The bow wave grew. The QM smiled aft. The Zodiac hurried into the trough and burrowed into the water.

The quartermaster made dismal efforts to pull the skirt above the water as the ocean poured into the boat. The two seamen corralled the dead fish as best they could. The coxswain backed off the throttle, the only true solution, as the swell raced on ahead.

Everyone bailed with whatever was at hand. At a slow bell, what was left drained through the boat plug. The fish made no attempt towards freedom. Most faces showed shock and relief, having been so recently released from the sea.

Mole strung a leader through the gills, averting true disaster. He turned his face up quizzically. “Tell me, Mister Quartermaster, what do you call exceeding hull speed in displacement mode?”

Tectonic Movement

A notebook is in my pocket.

I carry it with me, a talisman to otherwise forgotten thoughts.

I flip through the pages now and then to reassure myself. Doodles, lists, sketches, cartoons, fictions, histories, and essays. They are still there.

There too are the scratchings of rock, petroglyphs from those who had accompanied me. A short lyric by Eric Carson. “The F Drill” by Isaac Cohen. The political cartoons of Daniel Evans. They lie in the strata, barely discernible in the geological record.

If buried under a layer of mud, would it survive. The inch thick, 30 year old cellulose would be wetted, pasted, and slowly eaten away. What it holds of a life would surrender to the weight of time. Only reprinting these words would lead to their afterlife. The book dies, but ideas last forever.

In its pages are also sketches, and fragments of stories, of lives that were never lived. Lives that only live in these words. Would it be murder to destroy them without giving them light? Did they share the breath of a thousand lives, left unrecorded? Would it matter, in the long run?

I flip the pages without reading, knowing every word. Old smells waft up from the paper. Memories of a locker on a ship, long since cut to pieces. Mountains traversed on the top of the world with rock and wet moss under foot, the sting of Devil’s Club still fresh in my hand. Buttered popcorn in a Quonset hut movie theater with uncomfortable chairs and too much salt. The waxy air of a kerosene heater in an airplane hanger. A moonless walk down a long muddy road during a cold Alaska summer.

It weighs in my pocket, tugging, reminding me. There were days, it says, yes there were days when you were young and scared and foolish. There were days when you prayed to a god you didn’t know, and days when you cursed his name. Those days are gone, but they will not go away.

I refuse to live in the past. But I still carry it with me.

HMS Rose

I went ashore in December of 1989 after five years at sea. It was an attempt at college life that didn’t take. I’d like to say those five years matured me beyond the recent high school graduates who were my classmates, but that’s a lie.

Midterm in my third semester, I noticed some bad habits. I hadn’t registered for one class that started before 1:00 pm. A bicycle, instead of my motorcycle, was my mode of transport, just in case I found reason to drink. When the Treasure Island Tour Train came by at 10:00 am, telling me again that the mantle in the Bishop’s Palace was made of solid onyx and cost Walter Grisham $10,000, it was always an appropriate time to turn the garden hose to the street.

In short, it was time to head back to sea. Otherwise I might find myself, like Ismael in the opening of Moby Dick, tipping other people’s hats.

Twenty-five Christmases later, I am in the middle of the North Pacific. If Thanksgiving was any indication, there will be a feast. Pig, goat, lamb, and rabbit are all on the menu. That doesn’t stop the complaining though. “My prime rib is medium instead of rare.” “These vegetables don’t have the right amount of butter.” “What, no whip cream!” And wait till you hear what my shipmates have to say.

In April 1991, I dropped all my classes and left college. The First Gulf War was winding down. Africa was just getting over an Ebola scare. All the excitement had gone out of living. What was there to do? I signed aboard my first tallship, “HMS” Rose.

I won’t bore you with the details. Like boarding other boats, climbing the rigging on the USS Constitution, or firing off an original Paul Revere bronze cannon one drunken evening. Instead, I’d like to tell you about our cook.

It’s true that the trip started with Suzy Barnes manning the galley. Don’t let anyone tell you different. But she had a restaurant back in Camden, Maine, to tend, and away she went after a few months of dedicated service. Instead, I’d like to tell you about Rob Campbell.

Rob was a blacksmith from Mystic, Connecticut. How he got harangued into cooking is anyone’s guess. (And we took a lot of guesses that summer!) But Rob, among other things, is my go-to guy when someone wants to tell stories about bad cooking. And I haven’t been beaten yet.

Rob started as a deckhand. I first noticed him one day in the rig. I was aloft on the mizzen. He was in a boatswain’s chair tarring the lifts on the main course yard. To keep the bucket close, he clipped it to the lift. The course yard is a horizontal spar with the mainsail bent on. The lifts are the wires that hold the weight of the yard. To explain what happened next, I just want to say one thing: Triangle.

Rob’s bucket of tar, with a slow swing, walked itself down the lift. The lift had been wormed, parceled, and served, so added just enough friction to prolong the humor. Every time it swung outboard and bound up, he would reach for it, just in time for it to swing inboard and slide another six inches beyond his reach. It was a subtle humor, made all the more pleasurable by Rob’s expression of despair and helplessness. But I could not “roll on the floor laughing”, because the “floor” was sixty feet below.

On another occasion we had rigged a line from that same yard to swing out over the side and drop into the harbor. Yes, it was fun because we were all current on our Tetanus shots. To entertain ourselves when we’d had a few more drinks, we would push out and swing back to the ship, prolonging the mystery as to our next plunge. If the push wasn’t hard enough, however, there was no force to keep the pendulum going, stranding you over the water and mandating a swim.

To keep the skin on your hands, and to keep from getting a Daniel Craig to the ball sack, one had to push away and let go, committing to the water entry. Well, Rob had commitment issues. He didn’t swing near hard enough for the return trip. No amount of toe stretching could salvage his situation. He held on like a trooper, though, until the line came to a complete stop. Again, he equivocated and dropped a foot to test the brakes. Unfortunately, that was all it took to peel the calluses from his paws. Letting go, at that point, was involuntary. And the line made a loud “thwack” as it familiarized itself with his genitalia. Even the seasoned sailors winced at that one. When we next saw Rob, he had ten red badges of courage to wave at us. The medical kit was depleted of bandages, from the looks of it.

Mere hours later we settled down to our dinner. It was a simple course of hamburgers. Rob had, by this time, taken up the cooking duties. In the gloom of the mess, someone noticed that Rob’s raw fingers were no longer sporting their coverings. “Rob,” someone asked, “where’s your BandAids?” Someone else at the table, half way through their burger, offered, “Here’s one.”

Rose was similar in design to Bounty, another square rigger sailing the East Coast. And by that I mean a round-bottomed pig boat that rolled like a bastard. Unlike Bounty, when a hurricane loomed, our captain valiantly kept us at the dock, free to explore Long Island for another day. Good thing, because THAT hurricane became the “Perfect Storm”, the doom of several ships, including the schooner Anna Christina.

But that did not save us from foul weather, or its effects. It is a good cook that can crank out a hot meal when you are feeling low. And Rob Campbell was up to the task. Rob didn’t feel so good himself, but he persevered.

In the heavy weather, some containers of battery acid spilled in their compartment and had to be cleaned up. Access was behind the galley. Rob plugged away at lunch while we poured baking soda around the battery boxes. I wasn’t feeling well and excused myself to the deck a couple times. Rob was making soup in a 5 gallon pot and never left the galley. “How do you do it, Rob?” I’d asked. “How do you keep from getting sick?” “Uh, One,” he answered, “I’m as sick as the rest of you. And, Bee, as I throw up into my mouth, I just swallow it back down again.” Umm. Yummy.

We neutralized the last of the acid just before dinner. I got a drink and sat at the table, watching the master chef. He was in the home stretch. He stirred the pot with a big wooden spoon. Then his body convulsed and his cheeks puffed out. He swallowed hard and kept stirring. In a few minutes, it happened again. His body shivered. His cheeks puffed. He swallowed hard. What a seaman! The pot boiled. The spoon stirred. His body shook. A sole finger pinched his lips. His cheeks puffed. And little streams of liquid issued from the corners of his mouth right into the 5 gallon pot. I excused myself and spread the word that we were having peanut butter and jelly for dinner. (Don’t get me wrong. Rob served the soup!)

I do not mean to disparage the man, but, for the sake of disclosure, you should know that Rob and I had a tenuous relationship. It started on mashed potato night. We passed through line, receiving our generous portions. Just before sitting, I noticed something amiss and returned to the galley. “Where’s the gravy?” I’d asked. “Huh?” “Where’s the gravy, for the potatoes?” With a business demeanor he said, “There is no gravy.”

I accepted this answer without much dissension. But every night potatoes were served, I would inquire. And I was met by increasingly stern looks. Finally, after going home for Thanksgiving, I returned to the ship with a new vigor. The season was almost over. The crew was thinning. I was less concerned with Rose than my plans for walking the docks of Brest, France, in the Spring of 1992. In this air, Rob found me. “Where were you!” he demanded. “Uh, when?” “Over Thanksgiving?” “I went home. Thanks for asking.” “I made gravy!” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry?”

I liked Rob Campbell. Some will tell lies about him. He snorted baking powder. He dressed in women’s clothing while off watch. His arms were on backwards. It doesn’t matter anymore because he’s dead. How did it happen? Rob met his end the way all blacksmiths do. In a horrific horseshoeing accident. If you don’t believe me you can go to Scotland and see his grave for yourself.

As for the Rose, she met a more horrible fate. She was renamed and used in a blockbuster movie. She got dolled up, goes by “Surprise”, and sits at the dock at the San Diego Maritime Museum. If you’re really lucky, like me and my family were the last time we visited, you’ll get to spend some quality time talking to Al Sorkin. Boy, does THAT guy have some stories!

The Northern Lights (from the “Sold, Scrapped, or Sunk” series)

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge on Lake LeBarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

from “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

by Robert Service

It is the end of October 2015. I find myself on a ship in the East China Sea. With internet aboard, questions arrive about US war ships harassing Chinese sovereignty around man-made islands in the South China Sea, hundreds of miles away. On board we are discussing the World Series and what we’ll wear for Halloween. We are worlds away from anything going on back home. Some might say, reality.

And yet, this month started out differently. News came early to those in this industry. Familiar names began to appear on news feeds. Storms, islands, and ships were all mentioned in one breath. Armchair sailors were quick to postulate theories and blame. They have already drawn their conclusions, while the rest of us waited to hear evidence of what might have been our own fate.

It reminds me of a story.

In 2003, my life as a seaman was coming to an end. I had milked the Seafarers International Union for all they were worth. The Union had failed to give me all the classes necessary to sit for an Unlimited Tonnage license. But I had finished the classes elsewhere, with $10,000 coming out of my own pocket. By July the only thing I needed from SIU was 81 sailing days. That would qualify me for health benefits the next year while I searched for a Mate’s job.

The country was also rapping up Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Don’t get me started!) The consequence of this was a flurry of shipping jobs. Companies that had simply collected checks for years as participants in the Maritime Security Program, were now called upon to put their ships into service. One such ship was the SS Northern Lights. She belonged to TOTE Marine Services, and had previously run between Tacoma and Anchorage.

She was in Beaumont, Texas, stocking up for the round trip to Shuayba, Kuwait, to pick up gear. The permanent crew was taking vacation, almost to the man. As a result, the majority of jobs for this trip were filled in the Houston Hall. Some of the faces were familiar. Others, no.

Our first day out it was obvious that the air conditioning hadn’t been used in years. The compressors, just across the passageway from my cabin, short cycled the entire voyage. Despite their ceaseless running, however, cold air remained just a bedtime story.

I was a Day Man. It was a civil life, work hours from 8 to 5. I performed maintenance under the supervision of the Boatswain, a guy it turned out lived just down the street from me. During the TransAtlantic passage, I was chipping and painting on the bridgewing. The lookout pointed out an object and asked me what it was. It was almost a mile behind us before I saw it, and it disappeared with every swell. It had looked like a brown upturned boat hull. The Watch Officer called the Captain, who ordered the ship turned around. We spent 45 minutes backtracking just to find a lone Sei whale cruising slowly along the surface.

My nights were spent reading, playing cards, watching movies in the lounge. We had a contingent of Puerto Rican National Guardsmen on board for security. They were an endless source of songs, haircuts, and elicit alcohol. We got along very well.

The ship’s mess brought all of the personalities into close proximity three times a day. The electrician spent every hour bragging that he had never finished a tour on a ship. My fellow day man was trying to impress the Bosun with surf knowledge. A group of AB’s and Oilers discussed their pornography collections. The Steward’s Assistant was telling everyone who would listen that he had gotten a draw of over $1,000. The Chief Mate flashed around a letter of acceptance to some Pilot Association in Florida. And on and on.

We stopped for fuel in Crete, transited the Suez Canal, and continued on to Fujairah, just south of the Strait of Hormuz. We were going to take on more fuel at anchor, then stand off the coast until called. We were provided with a launch to take us to shore. There was a bar inside the harbor compound, and a town a short cab ride away. The Steward’s Assistant jumped in a cab for Dubai, quite a drive across the peninsula. Four of us went to town. But most just headed for the bar and stayed until the last launch would take them home.

I was back on the ship just after sunset. A second launch pulled up while I chatted at the gangway. The passenger list included the Chief Mate, the Electrician, and the Steward’s Assistant. An argument was already underway. The Electrician had gone into town after a short but studious stop at the bar. He had acquired some local garb and wore it back to the ship. The Chief Mate was yelling something about the bearded man resembling Jesus. The gangway watch radioed a request for the Watch Officer’s presence.

By the time the Watch Officer arrived from the Bridge, the altercation had gotten physical. The launch driver was demanding they both climb onboard the ship so he could be rid of them. The Chief Mate, three sheets to the wind himself, claimed the Electrician was drunk and should be arrested and taken ashore. To punctuate his statement, he picked up the backpack at the Electrician’s feet and hurled it towards the beach, maybe ten feet, and into the harbor. The Steward’s Assistant suddenly lit up. He clawed at the launch driver to retrieve the back. HIS bag. Filled with over $1,000 in gold. The Watch Officer shook his head and called the Captain.

While the launch driver fished out the SA’s bag with a boathook, the Captain barred the Electrician from the ship, remanding him into the custody of the ship’s agent. The Chief Mate was taken directly to the Captain’s cabin. We later found that he had been given a breathalyzer test and the results sealed in an envelope. The Chief Mate’s relief was due in Kuwait. If he couldn’t keep it together that long, the Captain had threatened, the envelope with the results would be forwarded to the US Coast Guard.

Once underway, the threat was a moot point. We would have no more shore leave. The Chief Mate had a newfound freedom. He divvied out as much overtime as we wanted, this being before the advent of Work/Rest hour enforcement. The entire deck gang turned to painting the cargo holds until 2000 every night. We were told to write in to 2300. We were never redlined. Northern Lights turned into the highest paying AB job I’d ever had.

We were finally called into the Gulf. We raced to our berth a couple days away. Arrival was 0Dark30. The temperature was over 100 degrees. Not a lick of breeze was blowing. We waited to position the cargo ramp, praying that some breeze would relieve us of this heat. Well, the sun came up and with it the light morning air. We prayed for it to stop! It felt like a hair drier. As the sun got higher, the temperature neared 120. The humidity was less than 50%.

Not a hundred yards away sat pallet upon pallet of bottled water, in the shade of a conveyor belt. Much nearer was a dumpster overflowing with water bottles still half full, the water deemed much too hot to drink. Indian longshoremen in white kafkans lay in the shade under the same conveyor. American soldiers wondered back and forth between air conditioned insulated tents. A young lieutenant with a true thousand yard stare, talked to us about loading his vehicles. These were the images from Conrad’s modern Heart of Darkness.

After a few days, we were loaded, lashed, and ready to go. We marveled at the damage our cargo had sustained: bullet holes, RPG burns, but mostly collision damage. Most of the casualties, someone told us, were from vehicle accidents. We didn’t care. We were going home.

The trip home was largely uneventful. Our last fuel stop in Crete brought news to the permanent TOTE employees that their ship was being transferred to the Sea Star Line on the Puerto Rico run. It also brought news of a 20% pay cut to the AMO Deck Officers. They were none too happy. I could only imagine the reaction of the crew returning in Savannah.

Leaving the Med also brought news of a hurricane developing south of our trackline. It was slow moving, not well developed yet, and predicted to strengthen and start a North Atlantic curve. The question was, when?

Messages flew fast and furious between the ship and our weather routing service. The Captain, on this his first command, started declaring his knowledge of the weather and his disdain for the routers in their stuffy little cubicles. Their recommendation was to slow down and wait for the storm to turn north, then alter course to the south and put on steam for our destination. The Captain wanted to pour on the coals now and attempt the top of the storm, hoping to outrun it and make Savannah a couple days early.

The crew didn’t care. Getting in early meant an earlier start to vacation. Getting in later meant more money and more sea time. We were going to bitch about it one way or the other. But the Captain took it as a personal challenge. He drafted up an email letting the company know his plans to ignore the routing service and bring the ship in early. Before sending it off, however, he paraded it around the ship so everyone would know how big his balls were. That made it all the more embarrassing when he received the company’s reply. We pulled back on the stick and waited.

We made Savannah not far from schedule and turned things over to the permanent crew. In their eyes, the ship was wrecked and tainted from the hot weather. No small part of their sentiment came from the fact that their homes were now 3000 miles away from work. I’m sure many of them left the ship and went back to the Pacific Northwest, leaving the jobs to be taken up by the SIU Hall in Jacksonville, Florida.

The Bosun told me that the ship made one more run to Kuwait before settling in to the Puerto Rico trade. We figured that’s when the last of the Alaska sailors left. And somewhere in there it changed names, sometimes considered bad luck if not done with the proper respect and ceremony. We didn’t speak Spanish, so the new name didn’t mean much to us. It was El Faro.

Running Before the Wind

For five dollars a panga would take us to the real world. We had been sailing for almost two months, deprived of news, fresh food, and alcohol. We hadn’t set foot ashore since San Francisco. Now, in Barra de Navidad, a local fisherman was prepared to sell us our freedom for fifteen thousand pesos. We had cleared Customs and Immigration in Ensenada, but this was our first port call in Mexico.

Most people walk cautiously on life’s path, assuming adventure will find them. They’re taught that opportunity lies on the road less traveled. They venture down the dock, but remain one step short of embarkation. How romantic, they all agree, living on the ocean.

“Hold the boat, Greg,” I called to my shipmate. Last week saw to all the deficiencies of machinery and canvas. Every swim call was a hull cleaning, and three coats of paint could only envy the seven coats of varnish. I slipped through the lifelines, from the deck of our pristine fiberglass hull into a wooden kettle of fish.

I was raised on boats. Each day was steeped in sea lore, seamanship, and the menial chores which make it possible to live in such a small space. the only great mystery of life was the fate of all those landlocked passions.

I slumped in the bow, writing frantically as we skimmed the clear blue river Styx. The glorious sunsets, the company of flying fish and dolphins, the watches spent singing under the stars, were fading just as a ship’s wake melts back into the sea. I was ready for my next crusade.

Greg squatted, ready to spring from the boat. “Are you going to see that girl from San Francisco?”

“Andrea?”

Greg cocked his head. “Is there another harpy calling you to your doom?”

“No. Just the one.”

Greg stood as tall as the little boat’s stability would let him, and danced. “Obsession,” he sang. “You are my obsession. What do you what me to be, to make you sleep with me?”

“She’s picking me up in Oakland.”

“Excuse moi,” he said to the fisherman. Greg plopped down next to me and muttered, “Stupid Frogs.”

“Are you determined to spend a month in Mexico?” I wondered.

“Maybe more,” he said, keeping his eye to the white sand ahead. “It’ll take a while to hike to Big Bend.”

“Why do they call it ‘Big Bend’?”

He gave me his tourist face. “‘Cause the Rio Grande winds through there,” he waved his arms, “and makes this big bend—”

The boat grated to a halt. Greg jumped from the panga and disappeared towards town. The fisherman pulled up the outboard and locked down the wheels on the transom before joining me at the bow. We heaved up and rolled the boat above the tide line. And, for the moment, my burden slipped away.

I crawled into the warm afternoon sand. A frame of tree branches and palm fronds stood above me. The fisherman spoke something more elaborate than “gracias” as he walked away. “Di nada,” I said for my hand in hauling his boat.

The ketch had taken its time coming down the coast from Seattle. The original plan would have put us in Acapulco a week ago, farther south. Greg and I were supposed to fly out of Mexico City tomorrow. Greg bumped his flight back. I changed my point of departure to Guadalajara.

Greg Harrelson and I had spent most of our schooner days in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. The thought of getting 30 degrees closer to the Equator warmed our souls. But we worked our way to Mexico for the simple reason we’d never been there before.

This was the beginning of our years abroad, away from the Pacific Northwest. We had earned enough sea time to win berths on East Coast boats for the 1991 season. We would trade up from there for a Transatlantic and begin a slow trot to the far reaches of the globe. I couldn’t wait to see the Middle East and some working dhows, some of the oldest sailing vessels still hauling cargo. Greg was holding his breath for Thailand. He was making a pilgrimage to the last home of Tristan Jones, the eccentric Welsh sailor. Those, if we stretched our vision far enough, were but small pieces of this big blue puzzle.

Mexico was just the end of our first leg. We had hitched a ride with a family of four heading south for the Winter. They needed some disposable help with their Gulfstar 51, and two experienced schooner bums fit the bill. Private boats paid very little, if at all. But that was on par with the schooner business. At $200 a week, it took quite a few paychecks to set us on this new voyage.

“Take a picture of me,” Greg shouted.

My camera was ready before I realized what the subject was. Backlit by the setting sun, the bottle of rum sparkled. He held it high on his lips wearing nothing but a straw hat.

“Where’s your clothes,” I asked, taking the picture.

“I don’t know,” he laughed, passing the bottle. “You gonna send me a copy?”

“I’ll send your MOTHER a copy.”

Greg hid behind the shelter as two young women approached. Just as the shutter clicked, they repeated the words the fisherman had used. I waved and lay back in the sand.

“Hey, Greg. What did those girls say?”

Greg jumped back into the frame wearing a sarong and a woven bag. “You don’t want to know,” he said, taking back the bottle. “Could I borrow some money? I’m a month behind on Christmas shopping.”

“I’m strapped till I get back.” I admitted. “There’s just enough money in this pocket to get this pocket to the aeropuerto.”

Greg eyed me suspiciously. “Just answer me one question, Dave. What are you offering this girl?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Romance, man. I will have traveled vast distances, brought exotic visions and tales from far away lands. The pilgrim will have trekked to the gates of her temple.”

He nodded his head suspiciously.

I rose up to my knees, ignoring the infidel’s lack of faith. Amusement drew across Greg’s face as I bowed to the setting sun. The evening crowd strolled past, and I chanted the phrase that was thrown at me over and over again.

“You really don’t know any Spanish, do ya?”

“No,” casting away his blasphemies. I prostrated myself in prayer.

“They say you shouldn’t lay here because of the scorpions.”

I jumped out of the sand and we headed for town.