Back Then: Part 1

Kepa II, en route to Central America.

Although I’ve come to suspect that sentimentality may be poison for the soul, and novelty the savior of a troubled mind, sometimes it is acceptable to make note of past experience that is at least note-worthy, if not monumental, before it is lost forever in the distortions of some exaggerated bedtime tale. When there is a temporary pause, a slump, in life’s inspiration, the first thing any self-described masochistic idiot will do is to turn to the past and try to remember a few good times. And why not make a series out of it?  There are stories and scenes, markers in my life, that I fear will be forgotten if they are not written down, or at least passively recorded in cursory notebook style.  So, here goes: the first installment in a collection of notes and events (often thrown together without thought of chronological order or natural process), small stories set in the past, seemingly taken from of someone living in a different life.

*     *     *

My friends, always at the bow.

The delivery of a 39-foot sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean is something that a solid majority of the world would avoid, it is safe to say.  But it serves as a natural rite of passage for someone who fancies himself as working in the marine industry.  And at the marginal risk of my own safety, I decided to fly to Cape Town, South Africa, and spend the next two months with two unfamiliar people, most of it spent in the middle of the sea, on a small catamaran, away from recourse or retreat.

Since I was younger, I have always harbored a healthy wanderlust fueled by the writings of icons of humanity and literature: Roald Amundsen, Susan Butcher, Jack London, Paul Theroux, Marco Polo, Jacques Cousteau, Charles Darwin, Boris Pasternak, John Stienbeck, Nathanie Philbrick, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., John Wesley Powell, Edward Abbey.  In November of 2008, I had just finished a 6-month job with a yacht charter company leading flotilla trips along the northern coast of Croatia, and I had also just finished reading a book called Kon Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl.  So I was at the same time tired and weary of anything boatrelated and still burning with a desire to jump into an adventure.  When I was offered a job as part of a delivery crew on a boat from Cape Town, South Africa to the island of Tonga, in the South Pacific (more than half-way around the world), I jumped at the opportunity immediately.  

First sight of land: The terrifying rocks of St. Helena.

It may be a surprise to learn that sailing across an ocean is really, really boring.  This trip was an overload of monotony, interrupted by the occasional terror and moments surrealism and striking subjective clarity.  There are many hours of solitude, staring into the night, watching for dark storm clouds or quickly moving squalls.   When there is a light that blinks on the horizon, it becomes a full-blown incident, a defcon-4 alarm goes off inside the brain, and the painstaking effort of identification and approach suddenly takes over.  You find yourself scurrying around the boat, alone, in an over-dramatic state of defense.  Sometimes the light is a ship, and one must develop the ability to determine the direction and speed of said ship, otherwise your small, invisible sailboat will find itself under the bow of the giant vessel.  Sometimes it is a Chinese fishing boat, sitting stationary, other times it disappears within seconds.  Still other times the light may never have existed in the first place.  These cargo ships slide through the water at surprising speed, and cruise ships, with their bright ballrooms and well-lit balconies, appear to be giant floating lightbulbs.  When at sea, your shipmates asleep below, alone in your chair, it is also strangely comforting to see a ship in the distance, its captain perhaps drinking coffee from a styrofoam cup and eating a bearclaw, bored with his life and missing his wife.  I often watched the blinking lights of planes passing over, imagining who was inside and what they were reading or what movie they were watching on the back of another passenger’s seat.

Then there is the sea-sickness.  I have always bragged about my immunity to motion sickness, but it had never really been truly tested.  On the first night of our 5-week sail, just off the coast of South Africa, the water was rough but nothing extraordinary, and I vomited my spleen through my ears. It was a miserable night of pain and regret.   That night, as on many nights, the water was filled with phosphorescent algae, the kind that turns bright green when agitated, and as the boat sailed on autopilot, oblivious to my pain, and falling over the tops of the swells, I fell on my hands and knees, sliding around the deck in saltwater, puke, and beautiful glowing green algae, which scattered over the boat like cascading Christmas lights.  Add to this my own clearly defined responsibilities of monitoring the wind indicator and controlling of the direction of the boat. There only two overwhelming desires when a man is in this condition: sleep and death (in either order).

But there are the small moments of pure joy that seem to complement these moments of unbearable hell.  Across the globe, there is the scene of dolphins popping up out of the water just ahead of a moving boat or ship.  I never tire of this sight, especially when viewed first-hand.  At the risk of the always-present tendency to personify animals, I cannot help but think, as they tilt to one side and look up at me with there little eyes, and chasing each other around the water like children in a park, that they have moved beyond the practical, biological routines of the animal kingdom.  They look like they are having fun.

In the dark of the night, almost pitch black, without a moon to illuminate the horizon, I sat on night on the bow of our boat and heard the sounds of frenzied splashing and exhaling blowholes.  As they came closer, I was soon surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of happy dolphins, darting across the bow with alarming speed.  As it was almost completely dark, and I could not see a single grey body of these marine animals.  Instead, there were straight lines of bright green underwater, shooting in random directions, as the their powerful flukes moved the glowing algae; they looked like torpedos leaving tracers of light behind them.  This memory of lying on my stomach, on the net between the pontoons of our catamaran, just above the water’s surface, watching these glowing dolphin trails and listening to them breathe just out of reach, this memory will be with me forever.  Some people have seen this kind of thing so many times that the novelty has worn off, for them nothing more special than watching pigeons in a plaza, but I have not yet spent enough time in direct contact with nature and the open ocean for this complacency to happen to me.

A quiet moment on the island of St. Helena.

This phosphorescent algae is something that can impress even the most jaded and worldly person.   The algae actually emits light when struck, and it comes in all colors (most commonly green).  An experience swimming underwater, at night, surrounded by the glow of these tiny organisms is unforgettable (yes, I’ve seen the movie too).  On yet another lonely watch, far away from land, also late in the night, our boat sailed over a large orb of this glowing light, deep in the water, at least three times the size of the boat itself.  It was a bit unnerving, because something major was happening down below, and one of the advantages of sitting along on a boat in the middle of the night is one’s own uncontrollable imagination.  I tried to take pictures, but they came out as black as the night sky.

Our boat, Kepa II, safely moored in Trinidad.

There were a few times, delirious from sleep deprivation, from hours of being thrown around in tight quarters, and meal after meal of bad food, when I said I can’t do this — I seriously can’t continue this.  But there is no alternative.  There is nowhere to go except back into captain’s chair and the recesses of one’s own mind.  Although there were two other people on this boat, this boredom, this vague loneliness and maddening solitude approached unacceptable levels.  It is interesting, to say the least, where the mind will take you when external stimuli (i.e., distractions) are minimal.  Undoubtedly, monasteries have always been filled with men who intentionally go down this road of reflection, pursuing a lack of desire, a quiet peace and harmony with one’s place in the world.  I’m afraid my subconscious is not as admirable.  There were three distinct nights, in the impossible isolation of the Atlantic Ocean, when I swore I could smell fried chicken in the air.  I had sexual fantasies about Amy Winehouse and my freshman year Latin American Lit teacher.  I thought once that I could hear, playing faintly in the distance, Family Man by Hall & Oates.  I read 14 books, one of which was the children’s book The Golden Compass (and I actually liked it).  My writing was a series of convoluted meanderings; imagine E.E. Cummings after a weekend bender of absinthe and opium (actually I wish it was that good).  Many times I sat and looked out past the stern of the boat, tossed something in the water, and watched it float away, imagining myself drifting away into oblivion.

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.

One of the uncomfortable parts of being in prolonged isolation is the feeling of vulnerability and insignificance. Some people claim to enjoy feeling small and irrelevant.  I can’t say I’d join them on this philosophical journey.  It can’t be said enough how easy it is to fall off a boat, never to be seen again, especially when your shipmates are fast asleep below, the boat situated in the middle of the ocean between two continents with inadequate or nonexistent rescue capability.  There would be no rescue, no search, just disappearance and the eventually acceptance.  During one night of particularly rough weather, I was hurriedly pulled out of bed to help on deck.  I suddenly found myself on a high part of the boat, in only my underwear and a headlamp, pulling lines and exchanging unintelligible yells with my shipmates. After a decent wave crashed into the side of our boat, (it is often impossible to see past a few feet at night), I was thrown up and sideways, and when I landed again, I was on the other side of the boat, near the edge.  It is at such a time, and it happens often at sea, that a man or woman suddenly feels ridiculous and powerless.  (Even after having been drawn to the sea time and time again, there are many occasions when I am convinced that we humans have no business being anywhere near the ocean; sometimes it feels so unnatural and illogical).  Had I landed a few feet in another direction, I wouldn’t be writing this now; instead I’d be having a beer with Neptune.

*     *     *

Now, again in the interest of attention deficit, I’ll give my typing fingers a rest.  Stay tuned for more snippets of fun, including Portuguese Man ‘O War, my first gale, being illegal in South Africa, catching a Marlin, the isolated island of St. Helena, flying fish and Venezuelan pool sharks.

More of the rugged and beautiful coastline of South Africa.

3 thoughts on “Back Then: Part 1

  1. I really enjoyed this one Shawn. A few things I am happy to read “after the fact,” I’m sure you understand. Can’t wait for part 2!

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