AND IT OCCURS TO ME THAT MY LIFE MAY IN FACT BE IN DANGER. With the wind slamming us at gale force, we’re keeled over such that I’m sprawled more on the cabin’s wall than the goddamn sweaty cushion. The swells heave us skyward, and with each ascent comes that moment of stillness and suspension, then . . . cacophony. Freefall into the great shuddering explosion of spray and the booming and groaning and creaking, straining, outright protesting of the frame upon which we’re so utterly reliant.
I want to get off this boat.
WHEN I DOZED OFF THAT FIRST AFTERNOON EVERYTHING WAS OH SO FLUFFY. Full sun from an immaculate sky, an easy breeze lulling us gently across the northwestern Atlantic. We’ve just departed from the Turks & Caicos Islands, a British possession scattered to the west of the Bahamas and north of Haiti. Our mission is simple enough: sail a forty foot cruiser, The Drifter, to the British Virgin Islands―due east of Puerto Rico―where it will be dry docked for hurricane season. Roughly nine hundred kilometres, we’re looking at a one to two week sail depending on the wind.
Ship’s Captain is Ken, a prematurely-greyed geologist from Calgary with strange little eyes and a big, busted up nose. Short and fit, he’s gone the color of salmon jerky in the month since he bought the boat in Fort Lauderdale and meandered his way through the Bahamas with his wife. My father and Ken are colleagues, each with their own consulting firms, and we’ve been invited along to round out the crew.
Along as well is Ken’s cousin, Dennis, a retired heavy-duty mechanic from suburban Vancouver. At sixty, he’s a great beast of a man, with a midsection like a rum barrel and forearms the size of a lesser man’s thighs. With three decades of sailing behind him, Dennis is resident expert on just about everything. He’s also an inveterate yarn-spinner, with a bottomless back-catalogue of anecdotes, each invariably resplendent with all pertinent dates, locales, surnames, and at times, even some manner of conclusion.
Dennis has just finished a story about something that happened in the engine room of a barge in 1976. The conversation comes round to golf, or some other middle-aged inanity. I’m suddenly ready for a nap.
When I wake, my shoulders are all burnt to hell.
“Goddamnit. Why didn’t you wake me?”
My father, perched serenely in the shaded rear of the cockpit, shrugs an apology. Paunchy, with heavy, half-white stubble, his ball cap is so incessantly askance it could almost be fashionable. The other two are in their cabins, Ken in the main berth in the nose of the ship, and Dennis more or less beneath us in the other. As for the two of us, we occupy dual-purpose benches/beds on either side of the main cabin.
“How we doing?”
I move beside him and clip in the carabiner at the end of my tether. We all have these self-inflating light jackets that hang off your neck like giant sausage and connect to the stretchy tethers. We’re to always be clipped-in when on deck, ensuring, for example, that having fallen asleep with nobody around and somehow rolled off the boat, you’ll be able to pull yourself back on. Strangulation also seems a possibility.
“Look, you can zoom in on the map.” My father is very impressed with the GPS readout on the autopilot screen.
“You know, we could head out of the wind a little more.”
“Really? How can you tell?”
“See the thingies up there. . . .”
My father has recently purchased a very dingy twenty-one foot sailboat. I’m getting the impression that he still doesn’t really get how to sail.
Our route is taking us through the southern tip of the Bermuda Triangle. One theory regarding its infamous history suggests that eruptions of methane from beneath the sea floor could be at fault. Supposedly, a high enough concentration of bubbles could decrease the density of an area of water to the point of undermining a ship’s buoyancy. How sinister . . . just floating along, happy as a―gurble gurble gurble―sucked right down.
“Not yet,” he says, almost disappointed.
Eventually Ken emerges from below and suggests that I prepare some dinner. Owing to my relative youth and sprightliness, I’ve been appointed galley slave for the duration of the voyage, and so shuffle off to make a salad and heat some soup.
Sunset’s upon us when I bring the food up, a pink shag carpet cloaking the western sky. While I’m eating, a fiendish nausea grows in my belly and moments after my last bite I erupt over the side of the boat. With my shift starting in a few hours, I deem it appropriate to head below deck and writhe in peace.
IT' S THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT AND I AM TETHERED TO THE DECK WAITING FOR THE BOAT TO TIP OVER. The wind is howling and I have both legs braced against the ship’s incline. Moonless and overcast, a perfect darkness surrounds and claws at the boat. Every time that the bow catches I’m showered with a cold spray that confirms the hostility of the abyss around us. I’m certain that a monstrous gust will coincide with the violence of a particularly surly swell, and just spill us all into the ocean.
A sailboat’s pitch in a high wind should intrinsically offend any landlubber’s sensibilities. I understand perfectly the operation of the keel, the hefty fin-like appendage that extends downwards beneath the vessel and serves as a counterweight. I know full well that something like 10,000 pounds of water is acting as ballast in the boats hull, not to mention the drinking water and fuel. While that knowledge is all good and well, to see the fifty foot mast listing before me like a downed telephone pole is an appalling vision.
This is my first shift. We’ve begun a rotating schedule―four-hour day shifts, three-hour night shifts: Dennis, Alex, Ken, me; Dennis, Alex, Ken, me . . . and so on. A shift, it would seem, involves little more than sitting in front of the control board and waiting for something abnormal to happen. Abnormal may include a change of wind direction, a gaseous event, a freak collision with an oil tanker, or, god forbid, a malfunction of the GPS system. One thing we are not even a tiny bit worried about is a collision with some sort of land―this is very much open ocean, (in fact, our trajectory passes along the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic.) As the boat capsizing during my shift would also qualify as abnormal, when I replaced Ken at two, I took it upon myself to point out the alarming angle we happened to be maintaining. He seemed quite pleased with the angle and assured me that my concern was unwarranted.
I’d love to have total and absolute faith in the Captain’s judgement. I truly would. I’d be more confident had he not spent most of our conversation retching through the guide wires. With my own nausea worse with every knot, my feeble attempts to assure myself that we’ll all soon feel better can’t help but falter.
Another factor gives me pause. Of the handful of times I’ve sailed, one of the more recent outings happened to end in the boat capsizing in a small prairie lake. Failure to let out enough sail during a summer storm left us upturned and awaiting rescue in the water. Things came out alright, sure, but it was a lake, not the Bermuda fucking Triangle.
I DO NOT BEEL ANY BETTER WHEN I WAKE . Through the hatch I can see it’s raining heavily, rendering me devoid of any impetus to get out of bed. So I don’t.
My father looks awful when he comes in from his shift at noon.
“You look like shit. You puke?”
“Oh, yes,” he shudders. My father hates to puke. He hasn’t puked in fourteen years.
“How do you feel?” he asks.
“Like a bag of smashed up assholes.”
The cabin floor is slippery and he struggles to undress without plummeting into the wall. He finally gets into bed and sighs a sigh that reeks of disenchantment.
“Fucking sailing,” he says.
“Fucking sailing,” I say.
At some point during the afternoon, Dennis emerges from the head that the three of us share looking profoundly chagrined.
“Did you use the head?” he says to us pathetic neophytes, prostrate and fearsome.
My father is silent.
“Uh, yes?” I venture.
“Well, it’s backed all the hell up. How many times did you pump?”
“Uh, till it was gone, I guess.”
“Goddamnit! You have to give it at least twenty-five, thirty pumps.”
“Oh, I had no idea.”
“We’ll have to open the whole system up when we get into port.”
“Just make sure you don’t foul up the other one,” and he turns and clambers back out the hatch.
“Hey,” I hiss at my father, “I know you shat, too, you rat. You were in there for half an hour.”
“I didn’t know,” my father whispers, shameful like he just backed over the neighbour’s dog and put the carcass out in the trash without telling anyone.
“Well neither did I.”
“Oh, that’s funny to you? Terrific.”
DURING THE NIGHT THE WIND SHIFTS AS IF TO SPITE US. While stronger than ever, it’s coming at us now from the southeast―exactly where we’re headed―within a narrow range of degrees that we can make absolutely no use of. We’re forced to take down the sails and use the motor. Although the boat has a respectable fifty horsepower diesel engine, the headwind and chop we’re facing keep us at an agonizing two knots―roughly three and a half kilometres an hour. That’s less than walking speed.
With the sails down, the boat is even less stable. In addition to the violent up and down pounding from riding the swells head on, we’re now wobbling haphazardly from side to side as well. Combined with the diesel fumes―a considerable portion of which appear to be leaking directly into the cabin―the result is infinitely worse than before.
While my father and I tend to vomit only after we try to eat, what Ken’s got going is something else entirely. I’m surprised the man has any teeth left, or a larynx, for that matter. He’s constantly dry-heaving, his stomach so vacant that there’s literally nothing at all to expunge. Accordingly, he feels no need to lean off the side or even find a sink. Puttering around with the control panel, he’s dry-heaving; passing by me on the way to his berth, he’s dry-heaving; lying in bed, he’s dry-heaving. And not dainty, bulimic noises; we’re talking an intensely guttural maelstrom of gasping, grating, tissue tearing, flesh rending noises. It’s . . . utterly macabre.
Dennis, of course, never flinches. I wonder if he’s ever been sick. Is he a robot? At some point he has the bright idea to cook up something hot and bring us all magically back to life amidst the cold, wet, pukey misery. Just as he’s finishing, the boat pitches sharply. He slips and smashes through the closed door of the plugged-up head. The backs of his arms catch the door frame and his back simply brutalizes the cabinet.
Furious, he lurches up and insists that he’s fine. That nothing is obviously broken or bloody is truly incredible. Let’s hope that he doesn’t haemorrhage.
“Dennis is not to be fucking about in the kitchen,” Ken scolds me.
Oh, so I’ve neglected my duties?
Whatever. I’m negligent because the guy wants to heat up some soup. If he’s not qualified to do that, I think we have bigger problems. . . .
Indeed. What travesty will befall us next? Dennis’ lungs are probably already filling with blood. My father’s about ready for another coronary. And Ken? Well, if it’s possible to vomit to death―which it must be, by the sounds of it―how much longer can he possibly have? What are the chances of someone answering my Mayday call?
What is a Mayday call? Do I just say Mayday over and over?
Christ, I’ll have to sail this thing myself.
It’s alright, I can do it.
Yeah, by myself . . . sure I can.
Sure I can.
Everything will be just fine.
NIGHT OF DARKNESS, NIGHT OF PAIN.
I want off this boat.
Imprisoned in this floating cell, there is absolutely no recourse and no escape. The expanse around us is no less impenetrable than concrete and steel.
I really, really want to get off.
Each pounding of the hull resounds in my skull. The volume is excruciating, deafening. How can the boat possibly withstand this abuse? With every convulsion of the ship we’re closer to annihilation, to destruction and demise in that big, shitty drink just feet from my head.
I’ve felt like my life was in danger before. This is different. There’s an abject helplessness, a negation of even the feeblest prerogative of self-defence.
My thoughts turn to Ken, that bastard . . . he’ll kill us all. I imagine throwing him overboard and heading straight south to the Dominican. Surely we could hawk this fucker. He paid a quarter mil a month ago? I’d wager we could get easily half that with no questions asked. Hell, I’d settle for a hundred large. Dennis would have to be taken care of, of course, but he seems like he’s had a good run. Sure, there’d be questions to answer . . . we’d have to get our stories straight. Hijacked by Haitian pirates? Sounds about right. Shit, happens all the time. And how did we survive? Oh, well, they let us live out of respect for the bonds of paternal-filial love. That could work.
But in the meantime, I want to get off this boat.
I see us from above, an unsavoury little blemish in the horrid vastness; a cartoon sailboat tossed from one Homeric wave-cum-hand to the next. And in the cockpit, so minute and helpless, is my poor father. Sodden, glasses fogged, knuckles whitened on the guardrails he watches the screen of the autopilot and tries like hell to believe that this is a normal thing to do.
THE STORM HAS PASSED BY THE TIME MY SHIFT IS UP. With the sea settled to a far more tolerable tumult, I pull my shit together and lock myself in behind the control panel. A strong sense of self-preservation is at work here. Refusing to take a shift would be unspeakable, disastrous even. The unwavering rigidity of the shifts is the only thing holding this debacle together. However horrid, however loathsome one may feel, the shift is sacrosanct; it is our code, our maxim.
Dawn advances with incredible sloth. Half comatose and hypnotized by the drone of the engine below me, I occasionally notice that the horizon is a tad lighter, that the infinite chop which besieges and menaces us is slightly more visible.
Towards the end of my shift the motor falters. It sputters a moment, before the RPM return to full force. Just as I sit back and unwind my arteries, she up and dies with a single nasty, tubercular convulsion.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
TIME HAS SLOWED TO AN OBSCENE CRAWLl. How many days have we been lying here like this, immobile except for our shifts? I’m surprised we don’t have bed sores.
Forced to motor continuously against the same unceasing headwind, the growl of the diesel has been punctuated only by the fuel filter clogging and stalling the engines every ten or twelve hours. Many theories have been advanced as to why this is, most of which end in vicious condemnation of southern Florida’s fuel quality. Needless to say, we’re running out of filters.
Big news: a cargo ship passed us sometime around midnight. It was almost necessary to change course. Evasive manoeuvres! Hot damn. My father also claims to have seen a bird on his shift, but I don’t think anyone believes him.
We all stopped puking, finally. The last man still at it, silly enough, was Captain Ken. Apparently, he always spends the first few days of a sail in such repose. Twenty-four hours on land is like a hard reset for his sea legs.
A few days, sure . . . but five or six? Five or six days of violent dry-heaving? The fact that he bought this boat in full knowledge of this propensity seems to me an act of spectacular dementia. In his defence, he claims this is the worst seasickness he’s ever had.
Personally, I’m no longer nauseous, but I’m still not right. Robbed of all ambition to be upright, I need stimulation―I need to read . . . but I can’t. The words just jumble and coalesce when I open a page. I can’t maintain focus, can’t concentrate. Actually, all I can manage to contemplate is the need to cut off all of my own hair.
I’m not sure when it started, but I’ve become fixated, obsessed. It might have been when I first caught sight of the scissors in Dennis’ shaving kit. Something twitched a little inside me.
“Those are nice scissors,” I said.
“Thanks,” he chirped, then proceeded to deliver a detailed History of the Scissors in his grand, oratorical style.
My hair, a kind of perpetually frayed ponytail, has entangled itself in one kinghell of a rat’s nest. I can only assume that the Drifter Cocktail is at fault: sea spray, the humidity, an absence of cleansing, the constant tossing and turning. . . . The mere thought of waiting to clean it up upon landing, whenever that may be, is abhorrent. The notion of trying to comb the bastard out on this boat is equally detestable―especially since I suspect that even if I did, the fucker would just be back to where it started inside of a day.
But years of habit resist. The shreds of my rational self call for amnesty on all major aesthetic alterations.
Come now, m’boy, easy does it. This shit here? This too shall pass. And when it does, you’ll surely be wanting that hair . . . you know how naked you feel without it.
And so, with each trudging hour of itching and scratching and fantasizing how marvellous a cropped head would feel, I move closer. I’m Jack Nicholson and my hair is Shelly Duvall, and the only thing that can make things better is murder. That’s right, the sweet, sweet bliss of a fine blade . . . it’s my panacea, my solace, my―
“What a fucking nightmare.”
“How could I have known it would be like this?”
This is new level of exasperation that I’m hearing from my father. Up until now we’ve been suffering in relative silence. But he’s had enough.
“Why sailing? I hate sailing.”
It’s not that we’re uncommunicative in general―just heavy into denial at the moment. Ignore the problem, let if fester some, perhaps it will get bored and crawl off elsewhere of its own accord.
“I’ll never get on a boat again.”
This is a real breakthrough.
“Promise me you’ll sell your boat when you get home,” I say.
“Hell yes, I’m going to sell it. I’ll buy Ken’s pool table instead.”
“Swear to me.”
And it dawns on me. Mutiny
“Do you want to get off this boat as soon as conceivably possible?”
“We’re getting real close to Puerto Rico, right?”
“Will you back me?”
“Just answer the question. Will you back me?”
“Sure, okay. To do what?”
I pull myself up and wander back into Ken’s berth. The bed is a disaster, sheets undone and twisted, clothes, papers, manuals, even his bright yellow rain pants all buggered up in a depraved little seafarer’s warren. He’s lying there in his shorts, absolutely still and staring up vacantly.
“Ken, I need a word.”
Nothing. I can’t even tell if he’s breathing.
“You can’t be ser―”
Slowly, his head rolls toward me.
Jesus. He looks like death.
“We’ve made a decision.”
“We’re heading for land.”
SUFFICE TO SAY I WAS TALKED DOWN FROM THE MUTINY. But not before we consulted some maps, by god.
The truth is that things improved drastically soon after my episode of insubordination. Must have been about day seven when I started reading again. Eating is also a lovely distraction and I made my way through pretty much anything remotely palatable. Mostly cereal and bread.
The weather also shaped up, although we never really caught any wind and had to motor damn near all the way. At least it was fairly calm and the elusive filter problem had been sorted. Upon much belated consultation with the manual, Ken eventually discovered that some cretinous sales boy at the marina in Florida had given him the wrong size filters. We were using 10 microns instead of 40’s, and thus the clogging. Fortunately, we unearthed a stray filter left by the previous owner and it got us through okay.
The greatest boon to my morale, however, was the simple act of composing a little communiqué. It smouldered in my mind for a day or two, encumbering me like some horrible psychological constipation. To finally commit it to paper was profoundly cathartic. It reads:
URGENT PRESS RELEASE: SAILING TRIP UNMITIGATED CATASTROPHE.
TURKS & CAICOS TO BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS 10 DAYS PURGATORY . . . MINDLESS BLUR OF VOMITING, PSYCHOLOGICAL TORMENT AND UTTER BEWILDERMENT. a TWISTED NIGHTMARE OF HELPLESSNESS, POOR HYGIENE, PERSONAL INJURY AND THE FEAR. . . OH GOD THE FEAR. ENDLESS SHIFTS AT THE HELP OF THE CURSED DRIFTER, A VESSEL OF QUESTIONABLE STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY. BEWITCHED AT EVERY SWALE BY A GODLESS 20 KNOT HEADWIND, AN ILL AND INCOMPETENT CAPTAIN AND CREW AND CONSTANT MECHANICAL FAILINGS. GENERALLY UNABLE TO READ OR WRITE. ―NO RECOURSE BUT FITFUL, DEMENTED SLEEP TO ESCAPE THE EVIL MISERY OF WAKING REALITY. TRAPPED IN A VAST, CRUEL SE UTTERLY DEVOID OF VISIBLE LIFE FORMS, TOTALLY POWERLESS TO SPEED OUR COURSE OR DISEMBARK PREMATURELY; A HELLACIOUS ABYSS OF DOOM I'D WISH UPON ONLY MY FOULEST ENEMIES. SUBSEQUENTLY CUT OFF ALL MY OWN HAIR IN A DESPERATE ACT OF SELF-MOLLIFICATION . . .
And as I finished writing, a great calm came over me.
We will get through.
I will get off this boat, and when I do, the people of the world will understand my plight. They’ll marvel at my fortitude and grace. They’ll extol my virtue and vindicate my weakness.
Tied together in a neat little narrative package, I felt both hapless victim and hopeless wimp. Humbled by the boundless cruelty of the sea, my true landlubber colours had been exposed; mariner I am not.
But why can’t I shake this lingering sense of inadequacy? What manner of creature would choose to repeat such an experience? I didn’t know then and don’t know now whether to marvel or scorn the strange race of men who take to open waters, be it for labour or leisure. To tolerate a mistress so merciless surely requires a constitution altogether apart from my own. Is it a disposition of reckless abandon, or some manner of pathological self-destruction? Perhaps, as I am loathe to admit, it is simply a courage with which I am not endowed . . .
And so, from the safety of the shoreline, with feet firmly planted on a surface that neither heaves nor rolls, I’ll squint at the specks on the horizon and try not to feel that I’m missing something.