She was a marvelous old ship, rigged in the tradition of the gaffed working schooners that fished for cod on the Newfoundland coast: 68 feet on deck and 80 with the bowsprit, 60 tons registered with Lloyd’s, black hulled, cracking varnish on her spruce decks and her two fir masts. Occasional orange ribbons of rust dribbled down the white paint of the cabins.
She was the product of home and hand and heart. Built of steel, Ferralite and polyurethane resin, she was built in a boatbuilding shed that was cobbled together from old telephone poles on the sandy banks of a coastal river in North Carolina. Her birthplace was only a few miles from the open sea she would soon come to know, as she pushed the limits of mechanical endurance.
Captain built her as the ultimate heavy-weather sailing boat, ready for the two stormy capes of the world and everywhere in between. In her magnificent career, she would know intimately the warm placid waters of the Caribbean and frigid seas of Antarctica alike.
Although she wasn’t technically big enough to be called a “ship,” but rather a “sailing boat,” the captain and crew called her a ship in their hearts. She sung on long night watches far out in the Atlantic; the wind that drove her across the sea whistled in the open pipes of her stern railing in a way that was both beautiful and sad.
Captain was a shaman of the sea, and she was a magical ship. Not a hocus-pocus, rabbit-out-of-a-hat parlor trick; hers was the real magic that still exists in the same physical world as you and I. Her magic was found in the influencing force of intangible things, like love and luck—scientifically unquantifiable things we know exist. Her magic resonated in a part of my mind left over from when I was a bright-eyed child who had never known loss.
She sailed well and joyfully, for she had been carved and blessed by her master’s loving hands. In the 30 years he lived on and loved her, Captain labored to craft a floating gallery, a work-of-art in motion, an expression of his ability to create whatever his mind invented. Her interior illuminated with beautifully fitted tropical hardwood, vibrant, polished and alive. Her bulkheads burst with carvings of sperm whales, turtles, genies, and full-breasted mermaids. An ornate oriental dragon guarded the library in the cargo hold. A phoenix swooped down to rescue a sailboat from a maelstrom carved into the pilothouse wall, as a spurned steamship sank into the vortex. Her hidden magic, the blessing bestowed by her captain’s creativity, delivered them safely across the wild oceans of the world.
She and her Captain shattered every endurance record on the books, and followed the noble sailing tradition pioneered by celebrated men, like Sir Francis Chichester and Bernard Moitessier. They embarked on sailing odysseys where their course drew out giant works of art in the oceanic void, sea turtles, whales and enormous hearts. Their ultimate achievement was a monumental chapter in the story of humanity, a voyage of over three years—1,152 days, to be exact—without resupply and without sighting land.
On that voyage the ship became a floating hermitage. The captain grew sprouts. He did yoga. She kept him warm and dry. He prayed. She sailed on, counting miles beneath her keel. Together they discovered the Shangri-La of the sea.
Captain absolutely had no concern with the growing trend in the sailing community: to build faster boats, out of lighter, space-age materials that raced over the sea, from the starting point to the finish line, like skipping stones. Captain wasn’t interested in a pointless race. He found the mysteries of life too big and wonderful—and it demanded too much of his attention to waste time speeding around aimlessly. The ship knew she wasn’t fast, but she had patience. He enjoyed his time at sea and didn’t want to rush it. The ocean was big enough for both types of sailors, he thought.
The racing community, baffled by this seemingly backward progress, never fully understood his goal: to voyage the sea and eternal spirit of mankind, to push the limits of our species and see just how long people could last in the wild barren void of the ocean. The racing sailors may have spent an overnight sail or even a week at sea, but the ship and Captain endured it for three long years. Racers couldn’t wrap their heads around why.
Captain had faith his work would be applicable to space travelers in the future. Analogies easily could be made between the isolated schooner, sailing the void of the open ocean, and a gleaming metal ship hurtling toward a distant planet. Three years is the same time it would take for a manned ship to travel to Mars.
The racing community’s confusion grew to anger and resentment. They began to ridicule Captain. Their delicate egos wouldn’t let them believe anybody could do what he attempted. Some reached out to his sponsors with whispers of “scam!” Trolls who lurked in the dark recesses of the Internet racing forums waged cyberwar against Captain’s website, and spammed his page with death threats.
When his voyage ended, and he stood on land for the first time in three years, a small group of friends and family—and the deafening silence of apathy in a changed world—greeted Captain. His sponsors abandoned him. The public, hearing only the ruckus of the racers, turned their backs. All he had to show for three brutal years of survival were scars on his battered ship, an empty bank account and aching body. Still, she was floating. He was alive. They succeeded.
Captain’s friend, who allowed him to stay at his dock, died during the captain’s absence. He couldn’t afford to stay in New York anymore, so he cast off again, and took his wife and young son with him. They drifted for a while in the void that follows a completed goal; Captain had drifted across the sea longer than any other man had. They sailed up a South American jungle river in Guyana to rebuild his boat and spend time together as a family. They lived happily.
One day the wind brought him word that his mother, Anne—whose lovely and simple name also christened his boat—died suddenly. His father, losing his mind at an advanced age, was left alone. Captain sailed back to the southern coast of North Carolina where he begun his journey many years ago. He docked at a small port city up the Cape Fear River. It was here, in the summer of 2013, I first met him—and our story began.
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.