As the sun went down on our fourth day at sea, the horizon ahead of us darkened more than the usual approach of night demanded. The seas ahead looked greyer, more menacing. Electric flashes in the distance betrayed lightning up ahead.
“Looks like we’re in for our first storm,” Captain said. The rest of us gathered in the cockpit (except for Passenger and Sinbad, who remained in their miserable bunks below), said nothing, only looked ahead at the rapidly approaching darkness.
“I’m going below and putting on my foul weather gear,” Captain declared. “I would advise you all to do the same.”
While Artist minded the helm, Saint and I crept below and put on our bright yellow ponchos and rain pants. We had purchased these for $10 apiece at Harbor Freight. They fit terribly.
“You two look like the Gorton’s fisherman,” Artist said as we walked on deck. She disappeared below to put on her foulies.
It started raining—a steady drumming of drops returning home. The seas had risen to 10-feet high. The bigger waves looked like trains rising up from the depths. The wind howled in our ears. Occasionally, the schooner lit up in a flash of lightning, but mostly she remained a dark shape—the only thing in the ocean that wasn’t the ocean. Captain watched the telltales we tied to the shrouds.
“Looks like the wind is shifting,” he said. “What’s our course?”
We had steered off the wind without paying much attention to the compass. “Looks like 290 degrees by the compass,” Saint said.
“That’s no good. That’s way too far to the north. We’re going the opposite direction from where we want to go.” Captain paused to consider his options. “The wind is nearly dead out of the south. That’s not great. We can’t really sail that high up into the wind—I don’t want to risk tearing our mainsail if it really starts to blow. These sails still have lots of patches in them from when I did the thousand day voyage.”
“What’s going on up here? Are we getting closer?” The fuming head Passenger popped out of the main hatch. The worsening motion of the ship, along with the increasing delay of our arrival date, and the rest of the crew’s apparent lack of concern with getting to Nassau in a hurry, had put him in a sour mood. “How much longer until we get to land?”
“Come outside or go back in,” Saint said. “You’re getting rain inside the boat.”
“We were just trying to decide what to do,” Captain said. “The wind is shifting in this storm and it’s blowing us off course. I think the best course of action would be to heave-to until this storm passes and just drift with it.”
“Jesus, what? It’s going to take even longer? Why can’t you start the engine?”
“We don’t have enough fuel for that,” I said, my patience eroding. “Do you want to paddle into the harbor when we arrive?”
“Hey,” said Sinbad, poking his head up next to Passenger’s, “why don’t you just sail 45 degrees off the wind and just tack back and forth? We do it all the time in Long Island sound. I don’t see what would be so hard about that.”
“I’m not sure you fully understand where I’m coming from here.” Passenger’s voice grew high-pitched. “I really need to get back. I’m sure my emails are starting to pile up.”
If your social life is so important, then why did you come sailing with us in the first place? I wanted to say, but I didn’t want to start a bad feeling—not with the storm coming. I just shot him a glare and said, “We can’t change the weather. All we can do is react to it.”
“That’s all fine if you’re in a modern racing boat, but this is an old gaff-rigger,” Captain explained patiently to Sinbad. “She sails best downwind or on a beam reach and doesn’t go to weather very well. And I don’t want to risk blowing out a sail. If we heave-to for the night, we’ll all have a quiet, easy watch, and we can reassess it in the morning. Hopefully, this storm will have passed by then.”
With an agitated sigh that, in a single, drawn-out syllable, expressed his total disapproval of how Captain was handling the situation let us know Passenger questioned why the hell was he on this wretched boat in the first place. It didn’t even have a hot shower. The now-soaked head of Passenger disappeared again, down to his miserable bunk below, Sinbad following behind.
“OK, let’s start shortening sail,” ordered Captain. “Saint, Writer, put on your harnesses. Let’s go up front to drop the jib. Artist, keep the course.”
Saint and I walked slowly out onto the bowsprit, our harnesses clipped in, our bare feet desperately gripping the slick metal of the pulpit. Below us was the rolling sea, behind us the ship, above us the sail, and ahead of us only the Captain’s carved wooden dragon, our figurehead. The dragon defiantly raced ahead over the unfriendly water and led us through the wilderness of grey-blue. We joined the dragon at the event horizon; the three of us would be the first to know what would happen to the rest of the ship. Everything important was following us now; alone we looked ahead into space and time.
“Ready, Captain!” I shouted.
“Here it comes!”
In the darkness of the rain-swept ship I could see the outline of Captain hauling on the downhaul to lower the sail. Simultaneously, the sail above our heads fluttered like a giant injured bird, desperate to remain flying; its oscillations overpowered the rain-drum with sounds of popping canvas. With two pairs of hands pulling in a mad fury we freed the wounded bird from its half-state and returned it to the realm of the physical world. Saint released the wind from our servitude, that ephemeral spirit of the zephyr bounded away over the sea-tops. We were left with a mound of lifeless cloth bunched at our feet, soaking in the rain.
The sea tried hard to bounce us out of our perch as we lashed the sail to the pulpit, but our bare feet gripped the rails like geckos and we wouldn’t be moved. The feeling bubbled up inside me that at this very instant something had changed. In the driving rain and screaming wind, far out in the middle of the desolate, beautiful ocean, by our actions we had become sailors. We were united in experience with the generations of seafarers who had faced thunderstorms before us and had triumphed. I knew that now. When I stood on a beach and looked out over the sea, I would see it differently.
Suddenly, Sinbad poked his shaggy head up from the companionway hatch.
“Captain!” he yelled, fear in his voice. “We’re sinking! The bilge is filling up with water! I can hear it sloshing around! We’re sinking! We’re sinking!”
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.