The next morning, at breakfast of oats and coffee and apples, we all sat out in the cockpit … even our poor seasick passenger. The rain had ceased on the artist’s early morning watch, leaving puddles and drips that were quickly evaporating in the morning sunshine. The wind was still blowing fresh, and we had to keep a hand on our empty bowls lest the wind took them and blew them overboard.
“God, I’m tired,” I said. “What a night. My arm aches from working the bilge pump.”
“Mine, too,” said Saint. “When I heard all that water sloshing around in the bilge, I thought for sure we were taking it on through a hole in the boat. It sounded like way too much for the amount of rain that we had.”
“Thank goodness it was only one of our tanks leaking,” said the artist. “You really scared me, Sinbad, when you yelled for the captain that we were sinking.”
“You would yell too if you found a bunch of water inside the boat,” said the passenger. “I thought for sure we were sinking. And I was going to die out here in the middle of this wretched ocean.”
“I wasn’t faulting him,” said the artist. “I’m glad he said something. You were the only ones down there when it happened.”
“When I tasted it, I knew we weren’t taking on water because it was all fresh,” said Captain. “It doesn’t look like we lost that much. Maybe one of the hoses came off the top of the tank in all that motion last night.”
“We’ll have to take a look today, I guess,” offered the saint. “It seems like it’s stopped. Anyone want more oatmeal?”
“Yes, please,” said the captain.
“These are some pretty big waves that storm kicked up,” I said, looking out over the rail. The schooner raced diagonally across the crests, and the waves were tall enough that on the upswell we were lifted so that our masts seemed to graze the clouds. After a brief millisecond moment of hesitation, the sensation of weightlessness, then came the plummeting drop into the trough, surging and surfing down the back—and when we were down in the blue trenches between the mountains of water I had to look up and crane my neck to see the foamy white crest of the next one. At the summit of the next peak, I twisted in my seat and saw that the entire surface of the ocean, as far as I could look, was an endless infinite progression of these giant waves, marching on like an army toward the distant horizon. “Captain,”I asked, “what were the biggest waves you’ve ever seen?”
“Going around Cape Horn on the thousand-day voyage I saw waves that were maybe 30 or 40 feet,” said the captain. “One of them, it must have been a rogue wave or something because it hit me from the side and knocked the boat over. She rolled over 360 degrees, and self-righted herself, and even kept sailing the course I had her on.”
“How did you know that she turned over?” asked the artist.
“I was in the galley cooking rice and lentils for lunch,” said the captain. “All of a sudden, the boat pitched over violently. I tried to grab hold of the railing on the galley steps, but it was too sudden and I hit the back of my head and blacked out for a little bit. I was woken up by ice-cold water squirting through the galley hatch. I immediately turned off the stove and ran out on deck to check out what had happened. Well, I was running under just a small storm staysail, downwind, and that was the only sail I had up. It was completely shredded, just torn to ribbons. I knew I had to get it down as soon as possible, because a piece of it might wrap around the forestay and I’d never be able to get it down … at least not until the weather had calmed to the point where I could go up the mast. So I went up forward and wrestled that sail down in the cold rain and gale-force winds—now remember, I was only wearing a light sweatshirt because I had been inside cooking when it happened. I was so cold, man, I could hardly feel my hands. But I kept at it and got the sail down, and just stuffed it down the forward hatch, and said, I’ll deal with it later. Now I need to go back inside before I get frostbite.”
We were all riveted. The captain took a sip of his coffee.
“So I went back inside and I was just worn out, but I knew I had to get the boat sailing again, or else I’d never really relax. I put on another layer and went out again to put up my spare staysail. That took me another hour, including the time it took me to get the boat balanced on her course. When I finally came below I could barely stand. Remember, I hadn’t eaten yet. Then I stripped down, built a fire in the little wood-burning stove I had in the pilothouse, checked my position to make sure I wasn’t near anything I could run into, and then just went and fell into bed. That was about the best sleep I had on the whole voyage. I know you’re supposed to keep a watch at all times, but there’s a limit to what one man can really do.”
“Wait, I still don’t get it,” said the saint. “You never explained how you knew she had turned over.”
“Ah, yes, how did I know. Well, when I went back into the galley after I woke up, my rice and lentils were stuck to the ceiling directly above the stove. There’s no way they could have gotten all the way up there unless she had turned over and then righted herself,” said the captain.
“Makes sense,” agreed Saint.
“Look,” said the artist, and pointed astern. We all turned.
At the peak of each wave, the crumbling crest was lining up with the rising sun in such a way that the morning light shone in directly behind it, backlighting it to the most emerald green color I had ever seen. This, combined with the white breaking sea foam and the endlessly deep, true blue of pure pelagic water, lit up my eyes with the heartbreaking beauty, the incomprehensible majesty of the ocean seen by everyone who has known her in all her moods. It was like seeing colors for the first time.
Out of the ocean’s rage, out of her violence, came this sight, this rare polished gem risen from the depths of the sea of eternity, and I knew then that the chance just to be out here, to experience this furious and sublime beauty, was the most meaningful gift I could ever receive in my life. I was glad to be here in this wave-tossed schooner with my friends, surrounded by the beauty of nature, and silently I prayed to my forgotten God that this voyage would never end.
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.