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GOING ALOFT: Chapter 2, The Writer

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Chapter 2 of the serialized fact or fiction, “Going Aloft,” by John Wolfe.

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It is my task to be the narrator of this tale. As this is my first time acting in such a role, I can’t be sure I’m telling it well, because to my regret I can’t both tell the story and hear it with fresh ears. The actor can never watch himself onstage, even though maybe he would prefer to be in a comfortable seat in the audience. But someone has to subject himself to the harsh lights of the boards, if the magic of the theatre is to occur—and so I step from behind the curtain.



I am the Writer.

The only reason I call myself this is because, daily, I take the time to pause the work of my hands in the world and purge the thoughts from my finite mind onto eternal ink and paper. It is my meditation and my challenge. What awakens me each morning is the promise held in an empty page.

I am no different from anyone else except I write. I may have thrown myself into the depths of English literature more than some, and in school I studied writing when I wasn’t cutting class to surf, but the creative urge exists in everyone, no matter where they come from. I listen to that urge; I act on it.

I am inspired by the holy greatness found in everyone, even when they themselves can’t see it. It is my role as a writer to witness and illuminate this corner of their soul. I pass along to the future my knowledge of the great people of the present, which is rapidly becoming the past. Writing is the thread which sews time and truth together.

On the page I strive to capture the light that radiates from humanity. Everybody shines in the darkness. My feelings are the same as yours, regardless of what separates us. When life moves me to dance, you are my partner; when I cry the tears of life’s sorrow, it is your shoulder I rest my head upon. We all know what it means to be alive.

I also seek to reveal elusive truth we hold deep inside ourselves, the one which hides at the fringes of our living. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but, when I turn to look truth in the face, it disappears into the eddies in the river of life. I hope in my frantic scribbling I can sketch a definition of truth; understanding truth is the noblest goal. With this newfound and divine illumination, together, as writer and reader, we can decide and separate that which is true from that which is not.

If it is possible to capture truth, it can only be done by the net cast from our hands. These hands hold rational discussions with each other. These hands seek understanding. These hands work hard and these hands love. These hands know what it means to be bound by finiteness. These hands are wed to this world of rope and wood and water; these hands are calloused and chapped and damaged by the sun. These hands, against all odds, still hold the urge to create.

*  *  *  *  *

I was in awe of Captain before I even met him. Bear—the harbormaster of the little marina where I lived at the time—first told me the story of Captain and his epic thousand-day voyage.

“He’s returning to Wilmington soon,” Bear roared one spring night over a frothy can of beer. “I’m going to bring his ship here, to our marina. I know Captain well; I almost married his niece.”

His story seemed too fantastic to be true, especially in the age of the Internet. I have learned, on the water, the fantastic becomes expected. Surrounded by a cloud of his accomplishments, Captain seemed legendary. Like a still-wild stallion, he could never be lured by the sugar cubes and carrots of modern life.

Perhaps this aspect first attracted me to his story, as I imagined myself running from the same modern life. I thought the modern era’s ever-present smartphones distracted us from realities of nature. I was on a self-induced mission to encounter sublimity on a daily basis—even if that meant leaving the technological world I knew behind. I had read Walden, and wanted to trim the fat from my own life. In my naïve and dualistic manner, I dismissed any wanton manifestation of consumerism as pure evil, and tried to escape out the back door of a landlocked life of perceived opulence and excess.

Of course, I bought a yacht—a battered 26-foot long, 35-year-old sailboat. I had to borrow from a friend $250 of the $500 needed to purchase it. Thoreau inspired an urge for simplicity, and the innocent idealism of youth drove me to exchange a comfortable life in my apartment for a “real” life on the water, living aboard my new boat.

When I appeared on Bear’s dock, with a freshly notarized title for a dilapidated little sloop and not the first clue about sailing, Bear illuminated my way. He took me sailing on my boat for the first time. He taught me about my boat’s systems. He even let me crew with him on yacht deliveries, including a two-week trip on a 75-foot floating palace from the Chesapeake Bay to Wilmington. Those early voyages with Bear planted seeds of confidence in my abilities as a mariner. I was young and idealistic; Bear was experienced, practical and a mechanical savant. He learned to fly airplanes before he started driving boats, and brought to the water the same respect for the craft that a pilot brings to his plane. He still beats me in chess.

Bear was true to his word, and one day a magnificent schooner appeared on our dock on the Cape Fear River, two slips down from my small sloop. Bear strolled down the dock from his houseboat—a grin on his face—and asked if I’d like to meet the captain who held the record for longest sea voyage in history. What other answer can there be but “yes”?

Bear introduced us. I shook Captain’s hand. He was long and lean, permanently tan, with wild sandy blonde hair and piercing blue eyes that saw through everything. He was electrifying. He told me about how, when he was my age, he sailed a home-built wooden catamaran across the Atlantic with an old brass World War II sextant and spent a year cruising the Amazon, where he was captured by pirates. I told him I just graduated college.

I invited Captain on my little boat. He looked around and said I was doing a good thing living this way—that most people never even get to experience this. “People have sailed around the world in boats smaller than this one,” he said.

“I don’t know if I’m quite ready for that,” I responded.

Captain smiled. I smiled back.

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.

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