Over the course of several months, Captain and I became friends through common interests of eastern mysticism and philosophy. In my free time, I worked on his boat, just to listen to his sea stories. I installed a head (marine toilet) for him. I helped him sand and revarnish his deck. I painted his spars; in exchange he taught me how to do real work on boats and kindled the wild spirit of adventure I had been trying to light for some time.
During the summer I was working on a charter boat as a mate and lived on my small sloop with my girlfriend, a student of art. One night Captain invited us both over for dinner. He told us of his plan to sail to Nassau, Bahamas, to run a pirate-themed daysail charter in the harbor where the cruise ships docked. He needed to put his boat to work if he was going to keep her and provide for his family. The sailing world didn’t care about his story anymore, so he couldn’t sell his books. He asked if we would be interested in joining him on the voyage. I had nothing in Wilmington to keep me through the winter, except my girlfriend, the Artist, and jumped at the opportunity.
The Artist, who had never before worked on a boat, bravely swore if I was going then she was signing on, too. Captain already asked another mate I knew in our small maritime community—a Saint of sorts—to join. He agreed.
The Saint was a tall young man, thin as a blade of grass, yet lean-muscled and taut from years of boxing. His eyes were as blue as the sky and had crinkles in the corners. His nose looked like it used to belong to someone slightly bigger than him. Along with the rest of his face, it was burnt permanently from a life spent outside under the sun. His beard, when he wore one, would be at home on a statue of a Spartan. It was thick and full, copper-colored, with a blond-brown mustache that drooped over the corners of his mouth, permanently set in the most wonderful smile I’ve ever seen.
That smile! I could sail to the ends of the earth and back and never find another so flawless. Physically, it was pleasing: thin lips and strong, straight teeth, like a horse. But what made it truly great was the genuineness of thought it conveyed. His smiling eyes radiated a warmth to cut away all doubt and cynicism—a self-afflicted detached irony that defines many in my generation. Through his smile he said, “Yes, man, I know the real you. Not just the façade that you present to the world. I know you, because you and I, we are both the same, and despite those cool, dark secrets we both share and wish we didn’t have, I love you.”
When Saint looked at you, he saw you for who you were—flawed and human—and he loved you for it, because he knew he was the same as you. It was like he saw us all as unwashed humans on a fragile earth; nothing we ever would do could change that, so why not just be happy about it? What’s the point in feeling miserable? Saint had a healing smile, and if we could somehow nebulize and inhale it directly into the lungs of America, it would scrub away all the xenophobia, racial hatred and jingoism clogging our culture’s alveolar sacs. Then, we’d be free to breathe again. He had a smile that could save the world.
When he spoke he chose his words slowly and carefully—a refreshing change from the bullets of speech filling space on the airwaves. Each sentence seemed a revelation to him, a fresh look at the world. His slow speech pattern was not rooted in stupidity. Rather, it came from a place of deep peace, like the bottom of a still mountain lake. He was one of the most insightful people I had ever known. He was quick to laugh. I only saw the dark shadow of anger cross his brow once.
He moved with a quiet, awkwardly graceful shamble that wouldn’t look out of place on a ranch, under a cowboy hat. Not a modern-day, pickup-driving, fashion-booted cola-fat cowboy, but the hired ranch hands from the days when the West was still wild. It would be the most natural thing in the world to see Saint perched atop a horse, riding through some crazy canyon; it was the part he was born to play. But he grew up on the water and could never leave for the dusty tumbleweed-choked desert.
We all began to work together to prepare for the voyage. There was much to be done. Somewhere, in the months of preparation, the barrier between acquaintance and friend was breached. We became shipmates, the four of us: the Captain, the Saint, the Artist, and me.
It was early December, two days before our departure. We completed the heavy work and purchased the supplies. Our galley was filled with enough rice, beans, pasta, and crackers to feed an army. We had bent the sails on with freezing fingers in the icy winter weather. Electrical problems were discovered by us and solved by Bear.
We took on our final cargo, two more people: a Passenger (a friend of the Captain and a writer from LA, who promised he could help get a book of adventures published if the Captain took him sailing) and another mate, Sinbad (highly recommended from a friend of Captain’s). I immediately disliked him. Pompous and arrogant, he acted as if all the work we did in the last months had been to prepare for his arrival, and he could do no wrong.
It was impossible for Passenger and Sinbad to share our backstory, our history, our inside jokes. They simply did not fit in with the four of us, for a deeper reason, which only became apparent after we already sailed to sea and could not turn back.
Everyone looked at each other in the days before our departure from opposite sides of the world, stuck together for better or worse on this small schooner. The Passenger and Sinbad hailed from the modern era of confusion and noise the rest of us were going to sea to escape from. We must have appeared to them as relics from the past, heading backward in time on an old ship, sailing south across a sea made of hourglass sand.
South! South we were headed, and never back north until we’d had our fill of sun and rum. We’d return from that cardinal direction with a hold full of treasure, and tales of wildness, villains and love that abounds in the blue to the south!
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.