In the stillness of early morning the whales are crying in the sea. The mournful calls transmit across this shallow ocean through our resting hull. They call me to sleeplessly ponder them. How far have these telegrams traveled? What do they mean? What lonely songs may be just sweet whispers to leviathan minds nearby. Cradled peacefully in that spot between wake and slumber I consider what stories these long howls may contain. Occasionally a series of chirps or squeaks answers them back. Quizzical, like a child asking a question to an answer already known. I decide they are sentient for sure, and likely beyond what we know. Slipping back from primordial dreams I am again awakened, but now by long exhalations as they wander slowly by the boat in this ‘tween island anchorage. Two, no three, now five long powerful exhalations in the quiet darkness. Pods of these numbers predominate, most often with calves. Now starkly awake, I count their nearby breaths against the faint and distant surf and the lapping at our stern. I know the girls must be hearing them, wide eyed, for the first time.
Moonlight filters through the rigging into my eye. Yes, I am quite awake now. And have been for months or more.
While working, now some lifetimes ago, I was perhaps numbed by success, numbed by the repetition, my wonderful patients, the groundhog days of pleasant interactions. I’d return home to have dinner with my dear wife, then to fall asleep reading to the girls. Occasionally there would be a challenge at work, but largely there were few, and this is neither a complaint nor boast.
But last night our motor was failing yet again along with the wind and the dying light as we headed southwest towards Las Perlas Islands. This circumstance was juxtaposed against a three month, third world mechanical saga: diagnosing an incurable, and then obtaining and installing a new, long block for our quixotic diesel engine. Now listening to the brand new but choking motor I turned my back to what felt like an impending and certain defeat. No sails could help this windless scenario.
Complicating our situation on the eastern horizon, curtains of water fell from an electric sky. Wild arcs of blue and then red stood like cracks in the universe to worlds reprobate beyond. In comparison, other regions’ lightning seemed weakly tame. Here the sky would fill overhead with quaking webs of welding light only a god could cast: of bruised and burning ocher. Then as the arcs found their single oceanic victim, they’d coalesce and stab with a full second of blinding discipline. A crookedly divine finger of atmospheric omnipotence. We watched white faced. I’ve always respected the elements, I’d retreat from a climb if lightning started. We get out of the pool when we hear thunder, but here we had a 72 foot nine iron and no clubhouse. There was neither a building nor a tree to otherwise distract or tempt this god’s attention. Mumbling incredulously between artillery reports, we steered for what appeared to be a small hole in the storm. Watching a single shiplight on the horizon doused by the veil, the pale, remnant daylight receded to black behind us.
We ran tenuously on. As the rain approached the motor would run for a minute or two and then choke to an idle and nearly die. For the uninitiated it is important to know that on a properly fitted sailboat as ours is, there exists redundancy upon redundancy. Multiple GPSes, chart plotters, and failing those, paper charts, compasses and a sextant. We carry seven sails. 3 anchors. We have an auxiliary outboard. Three ways of making electrical power. Spares and spares for those spares.
Food and water for months. A dinghy. And failing that a life boat. 4 EPIRBS. 3 radios. A sat phone. And flares and flares. And gnashing teeth with knives and other deterrents.
We have reviewed and practiced for nearly every emergency.
Perhaps it’s the pessimist in me,but none of these provide comfort when a wall of armageddon approaches. On our boat, we say the difference between adventure and adversity is attitude. And to this end the girls warmed my heart as they went cheerfully below and secured the boat, put cellphones and electronics in the microwave. We turned off the electrics and popped off breakers. Helen tightened slack sheets and secured anything that would or could move, slide, roll or fall. Then with her reassuring smile, she sat next to me wrapped in her stoic pragmatism as we watched the storms wrapping around us. And as I have so many many times on this adventure thanked the Good Lord I have her next to me, I did again that night.
About an hour after passing through the little aperture in the chaos I turned back southwest, now 140 degrees, making our way back towards our earlier, abandoned target. The rains had nearly stripped paint from the deck. The motor found a groove and we continued on. In now a following sea, slowly and faintly on the horizon appeared a small pulsation of light. A pinprick of human warmth, but-to be avoided. We turned further south now to wrap behind this promontory and watched the blitzkrieg pound it’s way on into the western night.
Rounding a headlands we entered the empty bay in darkness, one we knew well from sailing here while the girls were gone. The windlassies went up on deck and with only a minimum of fighting sewed us to a mooring and we killed the engine. After a light dinner we retreated to our bunks and thoughts.
The sun is up now and I’m on deck with it’s rising. A fresh breeze runs slightly cooler from the north. There are dolphin fishing nearby in the bay, an albatross ponders me from the the port rail and bait balls swarm the hull hiding from the jack. Today we must switch to our fixed prop to remove any question propellers add to our equation of propulsion maladies. We’ll test Lilly’s idea of keel hauling these heavy pieces into place.
In this life of sailing and voyaging the austerity of distraction reveals palpable emotions, sometimes alien, just beneath the surface. I more clearly recognize the bas-relief of my feelings, they’re sharper, more proud. Fear more deeply thalamic, joy more exuberant, success celebrated with zeal, peace more delightful, kindness more appreciated, pride more raw, my awe is primal, my love more visceral, our prayers more sweetly answered. The morning sun feels holy on my face.
Why? Am I not the same man? Under different circumstances? Do the circumstances make the woman or is it the other way round as we zealously preach? Has this symbiotic ecology shaped us so much?
I recall Magellan’s acrimonious crew. Five ships, some 280 Portuguese and Spaniards divided by tongue, king and motive had sailed west from Spain through the unknown edge of the world revealing mutiny, starvation and death. Years later, and halfway around the world, they’d survived countless storms and hostiles, lost hundreds of men including their commander. Winnowed to just two ships and a handful of souls, they decided to part so as to increase the odds of reporting their endeavor and achieving what Columbus had never: a westward passage to the spice islands and a circumnavigation. These acerbic men started with knives to each other’s throats but in parting it took three days to separate this cohesive, tribal brotherhood the survivors had become.
Tonight perhaps the storms will return to torment our paradise, as they may always. The lines may creak and strain, the ship may twist on the mooring, but there will be now four light minds counting seconds between flash and boom, eight able hands at the ready to light the engine or drop anchor. I appreciate and can now rely upon them. And tomorrow there will be whales singing to us in the morning.