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At Sea


by Vern Clinton

The first three days of a passage are terrible in any weather and sea conditions.   Whether it’s the first three days of a month long passage or the first three days of a three day passage.   During that time you must adjust from sleeping on a regular schedule to the catch as catch can dictated by the watch schedule, the vicissitudes of weather,   and the inevitability of equipment failure.   You must cope with seasickness, or the seasickness of your crewmates, and their problems of adjustment.

Your sand castle dream of leaving on a romantic voyage to South Sea Islands melts under the thin drizzle of reality after you cast off the last dock line and put to sea,   and something deep inside says, “Now you’ve done it, Turkey.   There are two thousand miles of open ocean out there waiting to do you in.   There are squalls, hurricanes, giant ships that can’t see you, and floating obstacles that can sink you.   If you get in trouble you will be alone, no AAA, no doctor, no mechanic, and no rescue.”   Maybe you don’t admit to having that inner voice, but it’s there.

There’s seasickness for many.   A miserable disease that saps your strength and vitality, but worse than that, drains your will to struggle.   All you want is to be on dry land again.   If you are the fortunate one who never gets seasick, you are still not off the hook. You not only have to do most of the work on board, especially that of cooking and working down below, but your optimism must carry the morale of the rest who lost their own while calling O’Rourke with their head over the side.

With the first touch of rough weather or chop you find that although you think you stowed everything for sea,   equipment and stores will fall, break or spill.    Equipment idle for weeks or months will show its problems now that you are far from parts and expertise.

There will be unexpected leaks to soak your stores and your clothes.   Sleep will elude you, and every time a breaking wave thumps the side of the boat like an eight hundred pound gorilla knocking at Ms. Godzilla’s door, you’ll start awake from your fitful sleep.   When you do finally fall into an exhausted doze, it will be fifteen minutes before you’re awakened to relieve the watch at midnight.

If you are crew, your Captain will seem irascible at best, or cheerfully incompetent at worst for he is coping with his own fears, doubts and discomfort.   If you’re the Captain with the responsibility to bring your crew through this foolhardy adventure alive, you are doubly pressured   with your own problems and with the need to set a good example for the others.   If it’s your first long passage you may be more optimistic than the old salts aboard who know the rarity of uneventful long passages, and the frequency of serious problems.

The first three days of any passage are, indeed, terrible.

Then you awaken early one morning for your watch, and it all fits.   You feel rested not exhausted, exhilarated not apprehensive, hungry not seasick.    You climb on deck to relieve the watch, a fresh cup of coffee in your hand, and you look around.   The sky is an intense black, and the stars are so crystal bright that it brings tears to your eyes, and wonder to your heart.   The rigging sings in the wind, and the sails thrum, and the breeze on your face feels as clean and fresh as a mountain stream.   You relieve the watch, and, when they go below, you have the whole of the universe to yourself as you rush through the night.

The compass glows faintly, but you hardly need to glance at it since the wind and the stars are there, and you think of the seamen who have gone before, the men and women who explored in Viking ships, or Polynesian voyaging canoes.   They used these same stars, perhaps in these very waters not really so long ago.

Wonderful thoughts spring into your mind from deep in your soul as the morning hours pass toward the dawn to come, and you may feel the poet or philosopher in you surface.   You may reflect on the meaning of it all and its relation to you.

You don’t worry about problems of the land, there’s no point to doing so. For the next few days or weeks there is nothing you can do about them anyway. No, you think about the feel of the boat, and the weather. You think about your vessel’s integrity and of the people on board. This is your only world. This is what must sustain you now.

You check the subdued red glow of the binnacle and notice that the wind has shifted a trifle.   You adjust the wind vane and the sails to compensate.   You are in control.   Your shipmates sleeping below trust you with their lives, as you trust them.

The eastern sky now has a faint glow, and, although you anticipate seeing the dawn, you hate to see this night end.   You regret that your solitude, your dominion must end with the need to interact with people once again.   With your senses attuned, you feel the stirrings below decks that tell you soon your watch will end.   As the sun again triumphs over night, your relief climbs up the companionway with a cup of fresh coffee in their hand.

“Morning, how’s it going?”

“Fine,” you say, and that poet inside backs off a trifle, and you hope it will return soon.    You know that the next time someone asks you why you take such chances going to sea, you won’t know how to answer.