That evening, the little dot on the chart that indicated our schooner’s position made a wide turn into Northeast Providence channel, into a waterway called “Tongue of the Ocean.” We were threading between the islands of the Bahamas now. Great Abaco island was to our north, somewhere out in the darkness, and Eluthera to our southeast. We were no longer in open water and could feel the difference in wave energy. The islands sheltered us from the limitless fetch of the open Atlantic; the sea beneath us moved with a more subtle motion.
On my watch, under the moon and stars, I felt at home, at peace with everything. The boat was sailing splendidly, steering herself most of the time, the short lines draped across the two upper spokes of the wheel holding her course. Every so often the sail would begin to luff, or the motion of the boat through the waves would change just slightly, but I was in tune with the boat enough to notice these little things almost before they happened. There was nothing else for me to pay attention to; that seed of non-distraction flowered into awareness.
After my watch, I stayed up with the Artist to help her keep a lookout. I was too excited by our proximity to our destination to sleep, and had encountered more ships on my watch than we had seen in the last nine days combined. They were all funneling into these narrow channels to reach their Bahamian ports-of-call, many probably steaming to Nassau like us. Not all the ships were big oceangoing vessels; most were small island-hopping freighters transporting cargo between the scattered Bahamian islands. It was somehow more disconcerting that they were small. It made the threat from collision seem more real.
The Artist steered the ship well. She had learned from our last ten days, as we all had, but the change of going to sea had been more obvious in her. No longer the quiet and reserved girl who feared the wheel coming down the river, she moved with a newfound confidence around the ship, took her watch without complaint, and was the only one of us besides the captain who never felt seasick. The Saint and I had both succumbed to the backwards motion of the galley. But the Artist had taken up our slack in the kitchen with grace and, in that way and in more to come, worked harder than the rest of us.
The night was clear and warm, and the sky sparkled with stars. I pointed out constellations I knew to the artist. “There’s Saggitarius, the teapot,” I said, pointing to the south, “well, technically, he’s a centaur, but he looks more like a teapot to me. And right beside him- see that swoop there, beneath the triangle? That’s the tail of Scorpius, the scorpion.”
“Isn’t one of them Orion?” she asked, while looking up from the compass and into the inky night.
“Yes, he’s up more to the north. Orion, the hunter, who chases Taurus the bull, with his faithful dog, the star Sirius, loyally following him.”
“That one always reminds me of you,” she said. “What’s that one, on the horizon?”
“That one, there. It almost looks like it’s blinking.”
To the southeast, at the water’s edge, a light blinked indeed. In regular intervals. I rushed below to consult the chart. “That’s not a star!” I said as I estimated our position with my fingers, too excited to use the dividers, “that’s… the Hole-In-The-Wall light! That’s a lighthouse! You saw it! We’re getting close!”
With a whoop, I ran out on deck to confirm the light’s relative bearing. It matched what it should have been on the chart. “Land ho!”
It was the first time we had seen any sign of land in nine days. We were getting close to Nassau. It was a bittersweet moment as we realized this would be our last night watch for a while. We had come to enjoy the wild freedom of being out on the open sea at night, that elemental confrontation, stripping away everything that was unnecessary. The stars, the moon, the phosphorescence in the water, we bid them all adieu until our next voyage- for we knew that this one couldn’t be our last. We had become ocean voyagers—a title earned by endurance. We knew that in order to keep this high we felt we would have to sail again, and would never really look at land in the same light as we did when it was all that we knew. We had confronted what lay outside of ourselves and our comfort zone, what lay beyond that wild rolling horizon at the edge of the sea.
With the Artist at the helm I headed off to bed. I have a distinct memory of her, framed in the companionway hatch, looking out over the vast ship in a vast ocean that was now her responsibility; a situation completely beyond anything she had ever before experienced. The look on her face was one, eyes open and looking ahead, of a woman who wasn’t quite sure of herself, but who was going to try. Try her best, as that’s the best and only thing that anyone can do, and keep this new ship steering the course she was on—and would take whatever came at her and try to overcome it. It was a noble look I hadn’t ever seen on her before: a look of bravery, of exploration, and I fell in complete love with her then and there, standing in the pilothouse on my way back to bed.
I knew then that I needed her more than I needed to breathe. I needed her for the rest of my life on this earth or on the sea that surrounds it, the sea where our love had blossomed like a rare flower. I knew my search had ended, and the only person I’d ever need was steering the quiet ship I was on.
I thought about marriage as I headed to bed. At that time it seemed like the ultimate devotion and expression of love, the last unknown. I considered jumping back out onto deck in some grand romantic flourish and asking her then and there, but I hadn’t a ring and there was no way to get one where we were. Anyways, maybe I should ask her at a time when she wasn’t busy steering the boat. But that was the love-drunk instant that I made my choice. Lying awake in the bunk as the gentle motion of the ship tossed me from one side to the other, I tried to imagine our lives together. But I couldn’t, not really, and decided to trust my spontaneous nature and nodded off to peaceful sleep, where I dreamed grand dreams of the future.
The next morning Nassau lay before us. The tall buildings of the Atlantis resort had started as a shimmer on the horizon, like a mirage on a hot day, and as we approached grew more concrete, the only thing in our world that wasn’t moving. I felt a swell of navigational pride; our fixes had been landing exactly on the rhumb line I had drawn on the chart last night to guide us into the harbor. I felt more proud of that little fact, my success in practical application of knowledge, than I did of anything else in my life. We had crossed an ocean and survived, spent more than a week at sea and sailed just under 700 miles. We had arrived.
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.