On the sunny February morning we weighed anchor and departed for Freeport—Super Bowl Sunday, as it happened—I decided I had overcome my lifelong susceptibility to seasickness. I felt like a master mariner after only 10 days on open ocean. I neglected my Dramamine and drank a large cup of coffee instead, which was retched into the sea two hours after departure. I’m surprised I kept it down that long.
I spent the rest of the sail in agony, lying very still on the rolling deck, ready to launch myself toward the railing when the need seized me. For three days I ate nothing except a few bites of plain pasta at night, and nibbled a cracker in the morning. I couldn’t even smell coffee. Being seasick means being utterly incapacitated, and there’s no known cure for it except for sitting under a tree.
My two tasks, despite my condition, were to plot our position every hour and stand watch at night. Navigating was difficult; trying to concentrate on the chart’s tiny numbers made my head feel somehow worse. But I tried my best and got it done. Watch standing—alone on the dark deck, with just me and my turbid, empty gut—was a layer of hell I had never experienced. I was miserable, starving and angry, and resigned myself to sitting slouched in a corner of the cockpit, testily watching the compass and cursing the boat whenever she deviated from her course, as if it were all somehow her fault.
On my second night watch, I didn’t scan all 360 degrees of horizon like I should have; I stared sullenly forward instead. Slowly, over my left shoulder, I became aware of a low and throbbing hum. Its origin was not from our schooner. It was monstrous and mechanical—foreign from the quiet slosh of the hull through the waves, the gentle creak of the rigging, the silent whisper of canvas through air. I sat upright and turned around, and my stomach sank into the bottom of the sea.
Approaching rapidly from behind was the giant hideous silhouette of a ship, which blocked out the stars on the horizon. Pinpricks of her white-and-green navigation lights gleamed as she barreled toward us. It was too close—Jesus Christ, too close! There was no time—no time to call them on the radio and confirm they saw us. No time to change course. I couldn’t tack the schooner by myself to get out of their way—and if I did, how could I wake up the captain and admit my mistake? I was powerless, and stood in silent terror, mouth agape.
The deadly ship surged closer—a hair’s width on the oceanic scale. The terrible throbbing hum of its powerful engine clanked through the silent sea, and grew unbearably louder until finally she slid past us on our port side, and missed us by less than a football field. As she passed I saw she was one of the inter-island freighters which carry cargo— fruit and vegetables, cars and mail—among the islands of the Bahamas.
Had her helmsman seen us … two silent pale dots in an endless expanse of night? She wasn’t a big ship—not an ocean-going supertanker—but she was certainly big enough to have steamrolled and sank our little schooner had we collided. We would not have won that battle; we would have been pushed suddenly and violently beneath the waves. No time to do anything but drown.
The ship receded into the silent night, and I was left alone again, still soaked in the horror of what could have been. The pain of paralyzed panic, of lonely responsibility, replaced my green feeling of seasickness. I’m not sure which was worse. It was a stomach-guilt feeling of deer-in-the-headlights terror, magnified by the power of a thousand because of the hugeness of what was at stake: our boat, our future, our lives.
No one but me had seen it. Nobody else knew how close we had come to dying that night. I kept my silent secret for the rest of the trip, guilt swallowing my speech.
* * * * *
During early afternoon on our third day at sea, we approached the island of Grand Bahama. Freeport, our destination, was on the island’s far western elbow, just a smudge in the distance. As if a reminder of life’s inherent brutality, we witnessed nature gorge on itself: a school of mahi mahi chased glittering cascades of flying fish over the waves, while a magnificent frigatebird, death from the sky, dove at them from above. The black swooping forked-tailed bird undisputed sovereign of the sky over the ocean. It dove into the flock of flying fish, tucking in like an osprey, and emerged victoriously with a sparkling gem in its long golden beak. It was a curious creature to behold: born to fly forever over the polished surface of the sea, oceangoing truly and not landed like a tern or a gull. The frigatebird belonged to the water. With it, the flying fish were fighting a two-front war. We stood on the stern of the schooner and watched the carnage.
I sipped tea and looked out over the land behind the bird. There were visions and signs that my torment was ending. Soon, I would be back in a place where everything was wonderfully still, and I didn’t have to worry about ships running us over in the night. Land could not come soon enough.
* * * * *
We sailed into the tranquil stillness of Freeport Harbor—a working harbor, an importantly-situated harbor, with big oceangoing ships coming in and out daily: cargo ships, tankers, cruise ships. It bills itself as the “transshipment hub of the Americas.” A few container ships were berthed at the western edge on big concrete docks. Giant cranes, which looked like red dinosaurs, unloaded containers, one at a time, and placed them gently in giant stacks nearby—long, lonely rows of cloistered goods.
The water was deep and stagnant, and murky with industrial runoff—not a place to go fishing. At the far end, massive ships sat out of the water in even huger dry docks, and waited for their hulls to be patched and welded, their superstructures painted. Where the engines and deck crews could, for a few short weeks, finally rest from steaming here and there in their global capitalistic dance.
Our destination and haul-out place was a dry and dusty boat yard called “Brandon’s Marine,” on one of the side channels shooting off the main harbor. Rusted hunks of working island freighters, funky wooden boats from Haiti, sleek gleaming white new luxury yachts shared the rows, all large (this place had the largest private boat lift around, which was why we had come here), and in various states of repair. When we arrived, it was late afternoon. Work had ceased for the day, and the place was strangely empty and abandoned … with one exception. As we motored along the docks, searching for the haul-out slip where we would tie up for the night, we passed a luxury yacht, a 120-foot-long glistening white beauty. She had lines of an ex-Norwegian fishing boat—high bow, solidly built to survive the tumultuous North Sea. Leaning on the railing over the water and watching our approach with reserved interest, was a man, short and dark-haired. He wore only a pair of boxers and smoked a cigarette. We waved at him; he waved back in a slow, considered manner, his eyes never left our boat. We passed alongside him within earshot.
“I like schooners,” he shouted, and flashed a thumbs-up, while toking his cigarette. The red-ember tip glowed in the low evening light. Then he turned around and walked inside his boat, as a cloud of blue smoke followed him.
What a strange welcome, I thought.
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.