As a schoolboy I read Two Years Before the Mast, but I was otherewise unprepared for my first Homeric ocean adventure; helping a crew a 37-foot sloop from its winter migratory mooring in Melbourne, Florida, up the coast to its home port on the Chesapeake Bay near Irvington, Virginia.
The other four crew members knew what they were getting into, but they'd told me only of the joy of ocean sailing: the singular sunrises and sunsets, the night watches of star-gazing and soul-searching, the fast trade winds, the vigorous seas, the playful porpoises, the schooling whales, the flying fish, the navigational challenges, the salubrious salts spray, the gin-and-tonic camaraderies, the ships passing in the night . . .
All this I was told would happen. I believed the old salts.
This first sunset -- a rich red diminishing ball bouncing off the points of resting rockets on Cape Canaveral a few miles across the water to our west -- was indeed singular. Or so they said. I didn't actually see it. I was below deck, per the captain's orders preparatory to dinner, swatting flies -- bloodthirsty houseflies, the last thing you would expect out at sea. What other small surprises lay ahead?
A larger view was difficult at the painfully slow speed of about seven miles an hour -- made even slower without passing landmarks to gauge the montonous forward progress after the distant shore had dipped beyond the curvature of the earth, and all had become a watery desert, world without end. That's what maps are for, I soon discovered: maintaining perspective -- and sanity. (I never did learn to call maps "charts," part of the argot that separates sailors from normal people.)
If you look at a map of the Eastern seaboard, you'll see that the Atlantic coast from central Florida to Carolina's Outer Banks swings in an enormous arc, with the approximate apex at Savannah. Thus, setting our first course was simple; tracking almost due north toward Savannah, where we would break the ocean-going voyage in half. We'd initially get disconcertingly even farther offshore as the coastal arch turned away from our magnetically straight course. We bypassed the Bermuda Triangle -- only to get caught in the Arc of Paradox.
Four hours on, four hours off. The two-man watches, despite an intervening decade of conscious attemps at amnesia, brought back those empty, endless hours of guard duty as a Vietnam-era draftee. Other Proustian associations came pell-mell: The hand-pumped heads took on that unmistakable barracks-latrine scent. Also barracks-like, instead of the supposed sea of solitude, were the close quarters of the sweaty and smelly kind. But there was no barracks sick-call to relieve my queasy innards, which seemed to splash with the synchronous waves.
Slave ships, Roman galleys: Now the human meaning became clearer, as my head bumped yet again on the cabin ceiling a couple of feet above the tiny bunk. A semiconscious sleep-starved state seemed to characterize the voyage, both across the ocean and back into time.
Sleep deprivation, most psychologists agree, leads to submissive behavior modification. Sea captains throughout the ages, with their legendary wisdom and balanced judgement (including our own captain and sometime Richmond architect), have always known this. For with sleep and rationality come munity.
Any mutinous fantasies evaporated as we made our way into the Hilton Head marina outside Savannah -- under full sail and without engine, our sunburned and hirsute faces catching the attention of admiring bikinied girls and envious (i.e., ignorant) golf-club-wielding men. It suddenly became worth it all.
A truly romantic picture, but only so long as our admirers remained windward. The smell of the unwashed would have blown away the image.
Long soapy showers at the marina did confirm the one indisputable joy of ocean-sailing: It feels so good when you get off the boat.
The very next morning (happiness is always fleeting) we put to sea again. Something inside, something perhaps akin to a migratory bird's inner radar, warned against departing terra firma. But to have articulated, much less acted on, such a fear would have been incomprehensible to the old salts. I kept quiet.
This second sea leg of the trip that would take us to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, though nautically as long as the first, was subjectively shorter. Was I getting used to seaborne life? They say man can adapt to anything.
There were only a couple more watches before we would cut inside to make the rest of the way to the Chesapeake by the Intra-coastal Waterway, where buses and planes depart for home. Standing watch at the wheel around 3 a.m. only a few miles off the Carolina coast, I was content in my expectations.
Then I looked over my shoulder.
The squall line, which has been pushing us speedily ahead with its southern winds and following seas as if to give us a fighting chance to outrun it, now was upon us.
"Reef the sails!" Out of nowhere came the groggy yet decisive voice of the captain, so prescient I later came to suspect him of conspiracy with the elements.
And when the captain ordered us to lay to, it seemed a sinister plot to keep me rolling, pitching, yawing, surging, swaying, heaving in this seasick sea forever. So close -- yet not actually turning away from land! Was I being punished for my hubris, my critical remarks about the ancient and honorable art of sailing? Or the inadvertent tossing of beer cans to Neptune, although we had killed no albatross?
To the desperate "why?" of a condemned man, the captain's logic seemed nonetheless impeccable: The seas were getting heavier, the winds higher, the rain harder. The weather radio declared a tornado watch, and the Coast Guard apparently didn't hear our broadcast entreaties for a more detailed weather report. Our Loran went dead.
All we knew for sure was that the appropriately named Cape Fear was only a few miles leeward. If we weren't to be dashed against the Cape's equally aptly named Frying Pan Shoals, we had to lay to. Out of the "Pan" into the fire. Hell is no exit.
"Oh Lord, thy sea is so big and my boat so small," goes the old sailor prayer -- learned of too late. We were indeed in God's hands, and that's what bothered me -- the passivity of it all. All hands on deck could do nothing but just hold on for dear life, ride the foaming 20-foot waves, and court the madness produced by wailing, spraying hurricane-forced winds.
Until 24 sleepless, fodless hours later, when the wind calmed as it shifted to the northwest, the seas quieted, the stars came out, and we could head once again for Cape Fear's Southport. Just as the captain had reassuringly said would happen. Only later, on shore, would he and the other old salts admit that they'd had no idea it would take 24 hours, that they'd experienced nothing like it since the infamous 1967 Annapolis-Newport race when masts were snapped, and that, in fact, "the storm jib saved us."
I kissed the North Carolina ground and learned how bad it had been when they didn't even laugh.
A DC-10 would have looked good then, as I said goodbye and hitched the quickest ride to Wilmington Airport. The beer at the bar there was probably the best ever. The worst, if I recall right, was my very first. Now I'm hooked.