Editors' Choice

The Unquenchable Sea

by Matthew Link

The ocean has a peculiar attraction, and is full of lessons.

When we were out at sea on Bungo Rye, we kids always wanted to jump into the crystal Pacific when it was calm. Dad would haul out the sea anchor: the big round canvas tarp connected by a ring of ropes like a parachute connected to the boat. Its drag would stop the boat from moving forward. He lowered it into the water, then the steel ladder that hung just above the water’s surface, dipping into it at intervals as the boat gently rocked with the movements of our bodies. We yelled and leapt into the flat water, its coolness surrounding our unwashed skin and hair that had gone all greasy in the salt air.

But down on the water’s surface, the sides of the bowl rose up completely over our heads, making us feel even more insignificant than usual. Looking into the ocean underneath was even worse. Lines of white sunlight streaked down into the invisible space for miles. It felt exactly like we were up on top of a tall building, ready to plummet to the depths without any support, like in a falling nightmare. We could literally see down forever, and this water was as deep as it comes. We could have all been swallowed up, pulled down to the unknown bottom, boat and all, and nothing would have made any difference. No coast guard would know nor any news organization find a trace. We would become another vague sea myth, another voyage gone into the one-way oblivion.

Dad would stand up on deck as we swam, looking for sharks. He’d have a huge black automatic rifle cocked in his arm. It was kept under the couch downstairs, next to the oversized military fatigues he told us we all needed to put on in case we were approached by an unseemly ship, and the crew needed to look like it was made up of men, not mere children. My father would stand there on deck shirtless, as he usually was. The salt and pepper pattern on his head sneaking its way on to his burly chest. His eyes would scan the horizon like a macho robot, searching for figures coming at him in the water. He was prepared, practically hoping for the worst.

The first time he did this on our inaugural voyage, I heard Dad’s arm cock the rifle as we stood behind him, dripping with pure saltwater from the sea. “Stand back, you kids. I’m gonna do a practice round.”

I saw him cradle the gun like John Wayne, the hero of so many of his favorite movies. His eyes were fixed squarely on that ominously raised horizon. The rifle went off with a huge crack, and it sounded like an ear-splitting echo ensued, although I couldn’t see how in the immense vastness around us. My stepsister Rikki and I were closest to him, and we both jerked back and Rikki gave a yelp when the bullet case flung back at me, hitting me on my bare chest. A bright red mark formed.

Dad turned around with a smile plastered on his face. I looked at him carefully. “Oh, I got hit by a bullet case,” he mocked. “Does it hurt?”

I pretended to be indifferent. He laughed and turned back around, triggering another round into the faraway ocean. This time I made sure to stand back.

Even on our first voyage on Bungo Rye, and I already knew exactly what to be wary of, and it wasn’t Jaws. It was the immeasurable, impassive ocean, and my father when he was joined along with it.

I became a wanderer of the globe at an early age. That’s because I grew up on a sailboat. More exactly, I grew up on my father’s boat. It was his trip, his voyage, his fantasy - the rest of us were just along for the ride.

For five years, from the ages of 12 to 17, I lived on the waves of the Pacific, attempting to keep my equilibrium. There were five of us aboard a 52-foot cutter, the Bungo Rye: My dad’s girlfriend, her two blond daughters who were close to my age, myself, and my father, the captain. We did home schooling, we fought, we swam, we got sick, we met strange and fantastic characters, we were swept up in rough seas, we missed home, we fell into places on a map we never knew existed. We were real sojourners, the old fashioned kind, without a home, without a final destination.

Ever since my dad had grown up hanging around the docks and old ships of Mystic, Connecticut, looking up to the sailors around him rather than his own absent, alcoholic father, he had known that was his calling: the endless, unquestioning sea. Shortly after my mother perished in a flash flood in California, my dad sold his insurance business, commissioned a sailboat to be built in Taiwan, and we all then flew to Hong Kong and set sail.

But who takes off on to a million miles of water, without first contemplating their own death in vivid Technicolor? I guess my father had to find his own soul floating out their somewhere. Between two crests of transparent breaking waves, he would catch the glimpse that is his own life, in its entirety from start to finish. He would then see it for what it was, clearly and evenly and without judgment. Then it would submerge itself again, blending and sinking into the immeasurable oceans of the planet. All the planning, the labor, the willing, the phenomenal backbreaking hassle to get out on to that sea, it would all come to a conclusion right then and there.

And he would be alone out there, just him and the waters that are God. And I hope—I assume—he would at last be at peace. I’m guessing that this is what it was all about in the end.

I could tell you about the several countries we spent time in, how they were all different, the myriad of humid teeming islands a thousand miles from everything with exotic names like Espiritu Santo, Mindoro, Manus, Babelthaup, New Britain. But that would take away from the real star of the picture – the great, mysterious Pacific Ocean herself. My father’s true mistress.

When you have been traveling out at sea for a long time in a small vessel, it feels exactly like you are on a spaceship journeying between two distant stars. No safety net, no explanation. And no uplink to Houston. You are completely raw and open to the planet, and your life is a mere particle flooded by the sea itself. There seemed to be no reference to direction, and no end to anything. You could almost tangibly feel the curvature of the earth unfold in front of you and drop off into empty space. Humans aren’t really supposed to see such things literally—only in dreams. I had the book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis as a child, where a magical boat journeys to the end of the sea to find where the world ends. Oftentimes, I thought I was on the same boat.

The perspective of the open ocean from surface level can freak out even the oldest and saltiest of old salts. The horizon rises up at the seams above you, creating what yachties called “the giant fish bowl.” You are at the bottom of it, nearly submerged. The rim could have been several hundred meters away, or several hundred miles, it was always hard to tell. Sometimes, in the changing light, it appeared quite reachable and benevolent. Other times, I sensed it went to eternity, and the horizon just sat there, eyeing me from a zillion miles away, not paying attention to our plight or our voyage or our lives. Dad told us the horizon was roughly 25 nautical miles on all sides of us, but even with this numerical constraint, it still shifted before my eyes—expanding and retracting as it pleased, without regard.

I would sit at the stern and gaze at the watery trail that Bungo Rye left in its languid wake behind her, expecting to see some sort of breadcrumb trail left by Hansel and Gretel. But like those ill-fated travelers, our own path behind us slowly faded and joined the rippled surface of the rest of the water, as if continually erasing the fact we had ever been there in the first place. There could be no turning back. The earth literally illustrated the fact to me as plainly as it could, right before my eyes. The path was always forward, perpetually ahead, and the rise and fall of the bow of the boat was never ending, plowing ahead methodically, everlastingly, like the pendulum of a cuckoo that refused to ever give up.

I could see my father’s strange attraction to traveling across the space of it, this unquenchable sea. But to me, it felt like a dangerous love affair.

Dad spent a lot of time teaching us the basics we’d need to know if he fell overboard or died at sea. He was strict and serious about it. We had to know how to navigate, how to sail the boat without an engine, how to survive for months out on the ocean if need be. We practiced lifeboat drills and man-overboard drills, and my step mom Sherri made sure we were always tethered to the boat by harnesses and lifelines. We kids knew how to chart a rough course with the satellite navigator, and drew points on a chart and joined them with lines to track our progress, like a colossal game of dot-to-dot across the Pacific Ocean. We knew how take up and down all the sails, and to furl if the winds became strong. We knew what a squall looked like, and how to recognize it barreling towards us and how to sail through it. We knew that channel sixteen on the Ham radio was for S.O.S. There was no fooling around. This was reality in its elemental form.

Strange things happen at sea. Dad would tell us the strangest things happen early in the morning, or near the equator. This was near where we hit the doldrums, which dad had told us stories about—where ships in olden times would languish for months, drifting around the wandering currents, where modern yachties’ motors would fail, and all that would be found of them was an empty boat with no sign of life. Or stories where the husband falls overboard one night, and the wife doesn't know how to sail, so she floats around until someone finds her, and she's half-crazy, a vegetable. And we knew that most of these nautical urban myths were actually true.

Once when we were sailing from Micronesia down to Papua New Guinea, we hit the latitudes of the doldrums near the equator. These were the fated regions Dad had warned us about, where the great sailing ships of yore would aimlessly drift for months without a flutter of the sail, and the crew would slowly starve to death or go insane. We suddenly went from an ocean to a rippleless ice skating rink. The water was so shiny, you couldn’t tell where the horizon ended and where the sky began. It was like living in a seamless, glass world. A languid swell did try to rock the boat, but it didn't seem to have enough energy to care. The only breeze present was from the forward motion of the boat, propelled by the motor - which luckily didn’t break down.

We slowly came upon forms in the water, and as we approached, we could suddenly see miles and miles of what looked like toothpicks in the water. A whole forest of huge logs had somehow washed out to see and ended up in purgatory here. Dad knew exactly what to do and carefully turned port and starboard and port again, weaving our way through the maze of floating hazards. Thank God we hadn’t come upon them at night, or we may have very well hit one and busted the hull of the boat or tore the propeller off. And then what?

But somehow, through all the miles of the ocean and obstacles therein, this is what my father did: He kept us alive.

Sure, we may have felt like accessories to his oceanic dream, like mere crewmembers, indentured servants who were paid in food and board and at times treated with disdain. Like we had been punished for some vague crime by being ripped away from the life we knew, our friends, our family, and set to roam the sea ad infinitum. Our selfish teenage thoughts, our closed interior world being forced to join to an exterior vastness, our need to survive it at all costs.

It wasn’t until years later that I understood this living vision of my father’s, this alien, phantasmal world of liquid space he set out to somehow exist upon, was extraordinary. Not so much that he had actually conquered it, but that this form of ocean was present in the world in the first place. The unending water was a myth that was realer than reality. And I saw that the boy I was, he was a mythical being as well, traveling on a vessel with sails, floating across the face of the planet, touching the empty sky with an outstretched hand.

Whether my father knew it or not, he had given me the great ocean, and he had given me life in its purest form as well.


Matthew Link is a writer, editor, and filmmaker living in Manhattan. The former Editor in Chief of The Out Traveler magazine, Matthew also worked personally with guidebook pioneer Arthur Frommer at Budget Travel magazine. Matthew publishes The Rainbow Handbook Hawai`i, has written for numerous magazines, and has appeared on many television and radio shows. His documentaries have aired on PBS stations and in international film festivals. He has traveled to more than 60 countries and Antarctica, but Africa is his all-time favorite destination, and hopefully future home. This story won the Gold Award for Travel Memoir in the First Annual Solas Awards.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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