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 gils, averting true disaster. He turned his face up quizzically. “Tell me, Mister Quartermaster, what do you call exceeding hull speed in displacement mode?”


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Living on the Gulf Coast, spending recreational time in the bayous and swamps, lends itself to its own adventures. My previous jobs have all slanted my mood away from care. Working search and rescue in the brutal and beautiful conditions of Alaska, delivering cargo  through the Indian Ocean in the age of modern pirates or the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War or the China Seas while both China and North Korea flex their muscles, I concern myself more with showing up to work on time and keeping my department on budget. Gotta have your priorities. We underappreciate how much humor in the darker corners of our psyche.

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