A searcher probes the depths of the sea, the psyche, and the writer’s life.
A tramp freighter sails no scheduled route, but wanders the ocean from one contract to the next, when and wherever its owner can find a cargo to carry. The deepwater crossings I made in the Doublestar presented me with some of the stellar moments of my young life: pink and yellow sunrises on a cold, blue ocean, with a trailing albatross hugging the troughs of a following swell; storms during which radios were torn from their mounts and my grip on the great wheel was all that kept me upright to steer it, when the bow would rear skyward, shedding water, and then plunge with a fearful quiver beneath the next oncoming wave; and nights of wind and blackness during which seabirds, drawn by the running light atop the forward mast, swooped and reeled like bright angels, and from time to time struck invisible cables and fell senseless into the sea as though delivered there by the unfathomable hand of God.
The skipper of the Doublestar was brutal, relentless, amoral, and supremely competent, a type that Alaska has always championed. Due, perhaps, to this combination of virtues, he was also a stunning teacher. I learned many things under his tutelage, most importantly to think for myself. Use your head, he brayed at me so often I began to think it was my name.
One morning we were coasting the Alaska Peninsula, whose myriad islands we would shortly leave to cut across the Gulf of Alaska for the Dixon Entrance to the Inside Passage. The predawn was a study in blues. Cobalt, indigo: blues that are all but black. Cerulean, powder: blues that are all but white.
The ocean was chill and flat. The skipper had come up to the wheelhouse for reasons unknown and leaned against a small shelf beside the larboard porthole forward, round shoulders hunched over elbows, in a brown nylon coat, brown trousers that were too short at the ankle, brown shoes, a brown billed cap. As always, his silence was ominous.
After twenty minutes, he turned away from the porthole, checked my heading on the old navy compass in its binnacle, and then walked to an aft-looking porthole opposite. Thus far he hadn’t said a word. He stared out the after porthole, one hand resting on the big Bakelite box of the radio, pointing a finger dead astern.
I turned from the wheel to look. I saw the Shumagin Islands, dimly, in the haze far behind, and the negligible curving of the ship’s trace wake reaching back to them. The skipper looked up at me and unexpectedly grinned, his bad teeth incongruous in his young man’s face. Then the grin faded and the face reassumed its customary sulk.
The impulse that took me to Alaska at the end of my thumb when I was eighteen, and from there out upon a number of oceans, was the first of a long sequence of misunderstood quests that I continue, without regret, to pursue. I was young. I wanted to write.
I had taken a class in the writing of the short story my last semester of high school from a man who wore black horn-rimmed glasses with green-tinted lenses, and who had been employed in Latin America by the CIA until gunfire inspired him to take up teaching. Write about what you know, he had said, blithely conferring on us writing’s essential and most maddening paradox. And in fact that is all of what he ever said that I can still remember: Write about what you know.
But I didn’t know anything. I was just a young, middle class American dumbass with nothing much to say. I strongly felt the need of experience, so I went to sea. It really was as simple as that.
As for the fundamental misunderstanding that sent me out into the world to seek the experience that would make of me a writer…Write about what you know, was the injunction our teacher had laid upon us. But, although What I know is inseparable from my experience, it is not experience itself. What I know is, rather, a faint, fine line, like the trace wake of a ship in transit, leading back—a long way back, now—to my first, uncertain awakening: I didn’t know anything.
And thus, knowing nothing, I had landed at the remote outpost of Ekuk in the belly of a small mail plane, packed in among cardboard boxes and canvas sacks. A scruffy hitchhiker, possessed of significantly less status than the Cessna’s cargo, I had been allowed a place on condition that I did not weigh too much.
Ekuk was a cannery situated at the mouth of the Nushagak River in Bristol Bay. A disused Russian Orthodox chapel perched on a nearby rise. The small, weathered, church, built of whitewashed wood, with gilded onion dome and a few wrought iron crosses tilting this way and that in its unkempt yard, overlooked a desolate beach littered with abandoned fishing boats in various states of disrepair and decay.
As I unbent myself and descended from the plane, a cold, wet wind tore at my hair. The gravel landing strip was the only bit of firm land for many miles around. There were no trees, no hills, no roads, no towns, no people on the soggy tundra, just mud and sedge.
The pilot, who was in a hurry to leave, dumped the mail out of his idling plane. I thanked him for the lift as he slammed the bay doors. Without responding, he throttled up, swung the tail around, and took off into the lowering sky. It started to rain.
I located the office of the cannery’s manager. Inside, it was sweltering. Picturesque travel posters of Hawaii hung above a battery of radios, and hairy little monkeys fashioned of coconut shell lined the ledges of the thermo-pane windows. I explained that I had a job with a ship called the Doublestar on the condition that I could meet it at Ekuk. The manager, a balding man with a mind fixated upon his imminent vacation, only four months away, informed me that she was sailing round from Kvichak Bay and would drop anchor by late afternoon, and that I could catch a ride out to her with a fishing boat. In the mean time, he invited me to have coffee and a donut in the cafeteria. Having hitchhiked up the West Coast, through British Columbia and Yukon Territory over the Al-Can Highway, then just a gravel road in the wilderness upon which it was lucky indeed to see two vehicles in a single day, through Fairbanks to Anchorage, the end of roads, on to Dillingham, and finally to Ekuk, sleeping rough the whole way, I gratefully accepted.
As the cannery manager had promised, my ship dropped anchor off Ekuk in the late afternoon. A friendly fisherman gave me a lift. He held his boat against the Doublestar’s high hull with a touch of throttle as I tossed up my gear and climbed over the bulwark. At that time, I had set foot on a ship—briefly—no more than two or three times in my life. Shouldering my backpack, I walked unsteadily down the deck, looking for something to write about.
In the stern, the ship’s con rose above the gray main deck like a blank fortress wall, topped by the wheelhouse, which was sparely equipped with a broad, flat chart table on the starboard side, a bank of radios in the back, and a radar station to port. A big, steel wheel stood forward in the center of the crowded little room against a row of five round portholes, and before it, bolted to the deck, a plain, tubular binnacle held an old navy compass, to which the helmsman referred when the skipper, leaning over his charts, sang out the headings.
The ship’s funnel rose behind the wheelhouse, emblazoned with the words DOUBLE and STAR in blue paint. To starboard and to port, an empty pair of boat davits would have held the lifeboats, had we had any. Two staterooms lined a narrow companionway in the quarters below the wheelhouse. These belonged respectively to the skipper and his mother, the ship’s engineer, a bulging woman who rarely emerged from the engineroom, and never appeared without her massive wrench and a smudge of grease on her chin.
I bunked with the crew one deck lower down on a folding pipe berth, several racks of which lined our narrow, musky quarters. The six of us stowed our rubber hip boots in one damp pile, and our few possessions in mahogany lockers on whose doors were pasted pinups left over from the ship’s navy days. In the way of sailors, whose lives are circumscribed, we owned little else besides our knives, moldy paperbacks, and warm clothing. On the deep ocean, the books accrued unwarranted value, which inflated exponentially as time passed, Conan the Barbarian being the most coveted, and my copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom the least.
The crew’s quarters opened into the mess room, which was furnished with two long tables, one reserved for the skipper and his mother, the other for the crew, an assortment of young men—boys, really—like myself not long out of high school. The tables were lipped around their edges to prevent crockery from launching into space when the ship pitched or rolled in a seaway. The adjoining galley, containing a sink, a small counter, and a stove, was the exclusive domain of a retired navy chef whom the skipper called “Cook,” as he called all cooks Cook.
Amidships, a vast hatch gave access to the main hold. Nearby, a snub mast rose against the forepeak and supported the butt ends of two canted booms threaded with wire cable, which raked back over the main hatch and with which we shifted cargo. Two diesel engines bolted to the deck beneath the forepeak powered the gear, and their throaty protestations, as they lifted or lowered heavy pallets of canned goods, cases of machinery, ammunition, snowmobiles, refrigerators, outboard motors, and other freight, echoed our own with a mimetic resonance that was especially satisfying.
Dim and clammy and congested with the dunnage she traded in, the hold of the little freighter was not unlike the mind of a wandering writer. Its hatch was sealed with layers of thick planks laid edge to edge and a heavy canvas cover battened around its margins with wedged two-by-fours. To crack it was a laborious task—all tasks aboard ship were laborious. Tie up, cast off, drop anchor, dog the winch and heave it in, shift cargo, on-load, off-load, chip paint, paint and chip and paint again. In its way, the sailor’s roundelay of toil, too, was like the protracted writer’s litany of vision and revision, and it taught me the ethic of work that belies seafaring’s more romantic pretensions, that defines the sailor’s life and, in its way, my life as a writer, as well.
Blankly staring through one of the portholes, I watched a solitary ovoid, like a small white cloud or an errant zeppelin, drift past in the luminous coalition of mist and water. The big engine droned deep in the throat of the ship, its muffled bombilations rising through the deck plating into the soles of my rubber boots, through the stanchions of the mess table and its yellow, lacquered top, and through my elbows leaning on it, their respective, wan hands stiff with cold, agitating the surface of my coffee in a quaking rash. Yawning, I had turned my attention back to the porthole where another zeppelin was sliding across the lustrous, round window like a fish in its bowl when an oblique nudge against the ship’s hull and a hollow boom brought me abruptly to my senses. Summarily abandoning my coffee, I lunged up the two flights of steps to the wheelhouse.
The skipper was there ahead of me, leaning against his shelf, glowering at the fog into which, from a vague point amidships, his vessel completely disappeared. The helmsman stared fixedly at the compass, having no other visual references to steer by. His anxiety was palpable. I checked the radar screen for traffic, but we were alone. Boom. I stumbled slightly against the impact. The skipper muttered a gloomy shit.
To starboard and to port, more white zeppelins slipped past, grown large and menacing as our little ship penetrated the ice pack we had blundered against in the end of the night. The fog bank that surrounded it began to thin, and within moments we could see the ship’s bow, then a glimpse of the shattered ocean, littered with rubble like shards of frozen milk, and finally the horizon itself, and a hard, blue sky. The skipper slowed to one quarter ahead and the helmsman did his best to avoid the larger ice rafts, steering a circuitous course around them.
Speaking to the skipper’s hunched back, I asked, “What do we do now?”
He half turned his head, but then resumed his dismal point of view, and his only response was a low jesus, spoken against the thick, cold glass of his porthole, which hazed over. He mopped it with the sleeve of his jacket and said nothing more.
With the heat of his rebuke glowing in my cheeks, I abandoned the wheelhouse and climbed the radio mast behind it to cool off. The cold metal rungs of its ladder burned my bare palms and the freshening wet wind pasted my cheeks and raided my collar. Far above the deck, one arm hooked over the crosstrees, I turned my head in a slow circle. As far as my eye could reach, broken ice closely covered the surface of the sea. From my vantage in the crosstrees, in stark contrast with the ribbons of deep, black ocean between them, each sugary loaf shone in the sun with a sweet incandescence, except where its submerged margins reflected the sky in shades of azure and pure sapphire. They varied in size from banquet tables to boxcars to tennis courts, and their flat tops had been sanded by blowing snow during the long, frozen nights of winter, then curded by the sun as the days lengthened once again with the approach of spring. Like tiles on the infinitely subdivided board of a vast game of snakes and ladders, the ice rafts shifted ponderously as the wind moved them around, and lanes of passable water opened ahead, only to slam shut behind us like great gates. Boom.
I clung to the crosstrees as another impact shuddered up the mast. I was young and had not had, until then, the vantage of the game, a game whose rules shift with the wind and whose penalty for any ill-considered move is peremptory disqualification, appeal denied, which deftly and finally swallows up objections of gross foul play. As I looked out on the pack, subtly motile yet so unyielding, I felt the elation of sudden understanding, or something like it, rise in my throat, only to fade, uncertain, on my lips.
At that moment, compelled by the tightening pack, the skipper shut the engine down altogether, and as the ship ground to a halt in the sudden, ringing silence, small icebergs accumulated on our windward side where they wallowed against the hull, and a shadow of clear water opened up in the shelter of our lee. Descending to the main deck, I walked the length of the ship, examining the waterline where the ice groaned and grated alarmingly. Crossing to starboard, I leaned over the bulwark, and there, in the mirror of the still sea, I observed my own reflection staring back at me. Boom.
In mid-afternoon, the wind shifted, the pack opened up, and the skipper restarted the engine, which bellowed its displeasure at having been muzzled for so long and belched a sooty plume of diesel exhaust into the pristine sky. As the skipper fed its monstrous appetite, the big engine shivered the small ship from end to end, milling it as a dog grinds a bone between its hard teeth. Beneath the ship’s stern, the ocean boiled.
I had the wheel, and as we leapt ahead I spun it to and fro until, gaining steerageway, the ship began to respond to its rudder. Rapidly, wary of the ice and its capriciousness, we threaded a path among the floes and after long hours broke free and resumed our heading on the open sea.
Elated, the skipper brayed like a donkey. Zipping his jacket up to his chin and pulling down his cap, he stepped with his characteristic rolling shuffle out on the flying bridge to stare triumphantly back along our wake. He looked at me through the open door and squinting against the wind grinned his dirty, little smile.
Toward midsummer, we coasted northward to the delta of the Yukon River where a large scow, the blunt and inelegantPolar Bear, rode at anchor, seasonal home of a half dozen Inuit girls who tirelessly beheaded and gutted fish that theDoublestar had been chartered to carry back to Seattle.
Between the villages of Sheldon Point in the south and Kotlik in the north lay sixty miles of low salt marsh, densely interlaced with channels and sloughs, through which a torrent of spawning salmon flowed from the sea during the short summer months. Durable men who lived in temporary fish camps pursued this remote fishery from high-sided, flat-bottomed skiffs, and four Bristol Bay gill-netters ranged widely in the delta, buying the fishermen’s catch and transporting it to the Polar Bear for processing.
In Bristol Bay, the old Alaska gill-netters had been propelled by oar and sail until 1951, when a prohibition that forbade salmon fishing from motorized boats was lifted for Alaskan waters. On a frigid beach north of Ekuk, I had once seen what was perhaps the Bristol Bay salmon fishing industry’s last surviving “monkey” boat, a small wooden tug that towed gill-netters to the fishing grounds in the days of sail. A derelict, it was hauled to a mud flat the following winter to be burned, monkeys and all. After 1951, the gillnetters evolved radically to accommodate powerful engines, but even so, just twenty-five years ago they were still built of wood. The ones I knew well were constructed sturdily of Port Orford cedar on oak frames.
Since then, metal and plastics have largely replaced wood as standard materials for boat building. And thus it seems as if boats, like people, have become hard, even brittle, but have ceased to be sturdy. Metal and plastics assert a vain unwillingness to be fallible. What I have always liked about the wood from which the old gill-netters were built—and what I have always admired about some people—is its resilience, the capacity to be knocked and to come back.
That summer, the skipper’s mother prodded me awake with the handle of her wrench early one morning saying, with a certain resignation, that the old Kotlik was sinking again. The Kotlik was the oldest of the four Bristol Bay gill-netters employed as lighters deep in the Yukon delta, but—except for those occasional spells of sinking, for which we forgave the boat as Victorian aunts were forgiven fits of fainting—it was a worthy vessel, and we took its salvation in hand.
Stumbling bleary-eyed onto the main deck of the Doublestar, I rigged boat slings under the gill-netter’s hull and fired up the twin diesels that powered our hoisting gear, which worked through a system of blocks and laid wire cables spun on hydraulic spools that moved a big steel hook slung from the ship’s twin booms. Swinging the cargo hook over the side, we dropped the eyes of the slings over it and, applying full crank, I tried to raise the boat. A twenty-six foot wooden motor vessel full of water weighs a great deal, however, and as I reeled in yard after yard of cable and the Kotlik stubbornly refused to rise, the Doublestar began to heel over at an alarming angle. Belowdecks, the boys who were berthed on the port side, all sleeping soundly, were tumbled from their bunks. In the galley, dishes crashed to the floor. Dunnage slid across the deck. But finally the river let the boat go, and the Kotlik lifted into the air. As it came inboard, the Doublestarrighted herself, and making the old gill-netter comfortable and secure with wooden blocks wedged beneath the fat curve of its hull, I went in to breakfast.
Later, when I re-emerged on deck, Joe, who had brought the Kotlik in with the pumps running, lay beneath its dripping hull pounding cotton and oakum into its seams with a claw hammer. He had piloted the boat a day and a night continuously to bring it home, and he still had not been to bed. He looked at me sheepishly, for he had been given the oldest of the four boats because he was the least clever of their pilots, and he knew it. Yet, he shared a certain obtuse, wooden integrity with his boat that demanded my respect. For, while any of the other pilots were capable of bringing back brilliant justifications for losing their commands, unable in his relative simplicity to come up with an equally persuasive excuse, Joe could always be counted on to bring the boat home instead.
With little to occupy his time during the weeks that slowly passed as we filled the Doublestar’s cavernous hold, the skipper joined the salmon fishermen, setting his own gillnets. In the Yukon delta, fishermen customarily anchored one end of the net to the riverbank, the other out in the stream. The salmon, drawn up current by a seasonal shift in their instincts, blundered blindly against the mesh, which caught and held them by the gills.
At fourteen, the skipper’s nephew was the youngest member of the crew. Sometimes the skipper took him along to help “pick” the nets, grueling work the popular wisdom of Alaska avowed would make a man of the boy. Curled up in his rain gear in the lee of a thwart, he lay many mornings in misery with his eyes closed against the icy spray that blew over the bow as the big Evinrude outboard drove his uncle’s fishing skiff through the chop.
One gray dawn, I watched them clamber over the side into the big skiff to check the nets they had set the previous afternoon in a backwater an hour downstream. Even as the skipper opened up the throttle and banked in a wide arc toward the far shore of the broad, shallow channel, the boy was already cringing beneath the bow. His uncle stood in the stern as if planted there, and I could see him, brown cap clamped low over his angry face, mouthing imprecations over the blat of the outboard.
Yet, when they returned at noon, the boy sat jauntily on the gunwale, and as they drew near, the laden skiff low in the water, he stood and waved. Having delivered their catch to the Polar Bear, the skipper told the story:
“We was just coming up on the net when jesus, over by the shore there’s the biggest goddamn king salmon I ever saw.”
He bared his teeth and brayed his donkey laugh. Placing the palm of one hand flat against the back of his skull, he pushed the bill of his cap up with the other and then jammed it down over his eyes again:
“Can’t get his head through the net and too goddamn stupid to go around, so I says to him…” He hooked his thumb over a shoulder at his nephew, who stood smiling broadly, his front teeth wedged over his lower lip, “… I says to him, ‘Hey chumly, go get the son of a bitch!’”
I imagined the dull, brown river flowing fat and slow in the backwater, and the monstrous king salmon thrashing it into a froth of mud and foam against the shallow bank, trapped between the irresistible lure of the current and the net whose mesh was too small for its big head. The sun, a vague apparition in the morning haze, sheds a wan light on the wet mud of the riverbank, which inclines in a gentle rise to the high water mark, and then disappears abruptly into the tall, green salt grass. In the skiff, which is gliding swiftly toward the shore, the boy feels fear twist his stomach this way and that—fear of the cold water and the sucking mud, fear of his uncle’s hard judgment and bludgeoning tongue: the river, his uncle.
As the skiff’s bow rides up on the narrow beach, the boy leaps over the side into the water. It is deeper than expected, and the river pours over the tops of his hip boots, weighing him down. In alarm, he struggles to lift one foot and the other sinks into the mud. He throws his weight to the side, trying to free himself, and falls face first into the river. Choking, head thrust back and arms flailing, he half swims and half crawls to the net and then flings himself on the big fish. It flogs his legs with its tail and batters his face with its great, hard head. From far away he hears the skipper yell, “Up on the beach,” and driving with his knees, he plows ashore, butting and pushing the salmon up on the mud where the skipper bashes in its skull with a wooden club.
“Biggest son of a bitch I ever saw,” the skipper said, running his nails over the stubble of his jaw line. “Ninety pounds. Hell, he was as big as you, chumly.”
A week passed, and then in the middle of the night one of the Doublestar’s young crewman disappeared from his bunk. Contending that he had deserted ship, the skipper sent messages to the scattered Native villages in the surrounding delta asking for word of him, but no one had seen him or was willing to admit it.
Two days later he turned up in a fisherman’s net miles downstream. We convinced ourselves later, based on the evidence provided by an empty tank with an open valve, that he had been sniffing freon from storage cylinders on the Polar Bear’safter deck and when the gas had filled his lungs, suffocating him, he had fallen over the side. The skipper asked for volunteers to help retrieve the body, and still flush with a sense of triumph, his nephew was the first to join the recovery party.
That evening we pushed off in the skipper’s skiff as the low Arctic sun broke like a dinner plate on the hard surface of the cold river. I was sick, apprehensive, wound tight. The skipper was glum. The boy, however, was ready for anything and kneeled in the bow with his hands on the gunwales and his face in the wind like a young dog enjoying an afternoon car ride.
Too soon, we saw the net’s owner standing at the river’s edge, smoking and waiting for us. The entangled crewman wallowed in the turgid, brown water just off the beach, rolling from side to side ever so gently. As the skiff’s bow slid aground, the skipper acknowledged the embarrassed greetings of the fisherman with a wave of his hand.
Reluctantly, we turned our attention to the body. Its face was very white, like low-grade alabaster infused with shades of blue and yellow. The cheeks were puffed out, the lips tightly sealed, the eyes closed, and something in its expression appeared troubled: I have made a terrible mistake.
The skipper prodded his nephew, who still kneeled in the skiff’s bow. The color had drained from his face. The boy rose obediently, but stood behind me on the shore as we unraveled the corpse and, struggling, lifted it into the skiff.
The skipper muttered a word of thanks to the fisherman, who was gathering his net into a damp pile on the riverbank, as I pushed off and clambered over the skiff’s gunwale, my feet turned sideways to avoid contact with the body. I sat heavily on a thwart and tried to remain somehow uninvolved. Yet, as we plowed slowly upriver, compelled by a sense of what I can only describe as obligation, I forced myself to stare into the young face of the dead crewman. I moved the toe of my rubber boot, and as it nudged the corpse, my back flushed hot and an empty chasm opened up inside me. And I experienced for the first time in real life the unutterable dread of death, which is not of death itself, but of all possibility expunged. I turned my face into the cold wind and took a deep breath, and my heart began to pound.
In the fall, having filled the hold to capacity, we made ready to depart for Seattle. The company that had chartered theDoublestar had decided to shut down its operation in the Yukon. Never to return, we hoisted three of the gill-netters onto the Doublestar’s deck, securing them with cables and chain to pad-eyes we had welded to the deck plates. The old Kotlikremained behind.
Sailing southward, we took the Polar Bear in tow, as the old scow had barely enough power to maintain headway. High clouds infused the sky with an ominous, yellow light. Nevertheless, we enjoyed easy—if slow—sailing until we passed Ninivak Island, where we always encountered heavy weather at that time of year.
For two days we clung to our bunks. Any attempt to stand was futile, and even the effort of sitting up soon left us exhausted. Only those with a watch to attend braved the open deck. The cook did not cook. We ate from cans or ate nothing, our stomachs rebelling against our inner ears.
Standing my trick at the wheel in the predawn of the third day, as I resignedly watched the forepeak disappear beneath wave after wave and black water sweep the deck, I received an urgent hail from the Polar Bear. I looked behind us for its familiar bulk, but in that wild ocean I could no longer see the scow, for the impossibly spare thread of the tow cable had just parted, setting it adrift.
I called the skipper and then all hands. The fate of the scow was distressing, but it was not our most pressing problem. The remnants of the tow cable, a laid wire hawser four fingers thick, hung from our stern bitts, threatening the rudder and screw. The skipper had shut the engine down to lessen the risk, but without steerage way, the heavily laden freighter was in danger of swinging round and broaching in the high seas.
With three crewmen, I swiftly gathered all the ship’s heaviest mooring lines and bent them together end to end until they stretched from the stern bitts to the winch on the foredeck. I assigned one of the hands to operate the winch, another to tail for him, and took the third back aft with me, alternately climbing the slippery deck as the bow plunged into a trough and then back-pedaling as the next mountainous wave rolled by beneath.
As we attempted to drag the expensive tow cable aboard, bight by bight, and flake it down on the heaving deck, the thick mooring lines parted several times under the strain, and the cable, cut suddenly loose and drawn by its own vast weight, snaked back over the stern, zizzing and smoking and looping perilously through the air. Wedged into the shelter of a corner or lying prone on the cold deck, I waited for the inevitable jolt as the cable reached the end of its tether, and in the ensuing silence, I became acutely aware of the sound of the deep ocean itself, which spun out a long exhale as if through clenched teeth.
When we had finally coaxed the cable aboard, we resumed the watch and made for False Pass, between Unimak Island and the Alaska Peninsula, hoping to rendezvous with the Polar Bear and refuel at the crab cannery there.
Although I didn’t know it then, in two years I would serve with an Antiguan crew aboard a square-rigged windjammer in the warm Caribbean, but I would never return to the Bering Sea. And although I have visited Seattle’s commercial docks many times since, after I disembarked from her at the end of that season I never saw the Doublestar again except in strange, recurring dreams that fade and are lost by morning.
Memory is like a ship’s wake, receding into the distance, fading into the past. On the old sea charts, cartographers wrotehere be dragons in the unexplored gaps between landfalls. There weren’t any dragons, of course, only the unknown. Very good reasons can be offered up for avoiding dragons, yet for some—in full knowledge that the consequence of meeting them is to be consumed—there is no greater quest than to seek dragons out. Affinity for such experiences is natural in a writer. But I have come to understand that the experiences I seek, and that I once thought would make a writer of me, have served only to mark the passages between, passages leading back to my first uncertain awakening.
The sea, in its way, is unremarkable. Suspended on its surface between the margin of the sky and the great deep, you look out upon it and you see nothing. It is soundless to the horizon. It is empty of defining features. It is unfathomable.
“In all this world,” you think to yourself, “there is nothing at all.” And in that moment a profound understanding begins to creep up on you. You begin to understand nothing.
It is like the illusion of the rabbit and the duck: looked at one way, the flat figure before your eyes appears to be a rabbit cast in silhouette, which transforms suddenly, as your point of view shifts, into the silhouette of a duck. Rabbit, duck. Duck, rabbit. Where once you went to sea believing you didn’t understand anything, you suddenly realize you understand nothing, what Taoists call the Void. You understand nothing. What at first glance appeared to be the insufficiency of your own experience is abruptly revealed—to put it baldly—as your inability to explain what underlies all experience: nothing. And yet, these two points of view are not fundamentally different. The figure doesn’t change, only your perception of it.
Your experience is all there is. For a writer who endeavors to acquire mastery in his discipline, it is a hard lesson, for it divests him of the firm, earthbound security to which he has become accustomed. In a word, it leaves him all at sea, suspended, as I have said, between the broad sky and the unfathomable deep, and all that is left to him is the small, isolated world of his craft, which he must either learn to navigate with the skill of a master or be condemned to drift upon like a castaway.
I have often asked myself why I write and this, for now, is my simple answer:
I write so as not to drift.
And I write because otherwise my oceans are empty. And cold.
Next afternoon, the Doublestar set sail with the tide. Cormorants and kittiwakes swirled like motes of dust, riding the high eddies that rose against the towering cliffs to either side of False Pass and that vanished from view into heavy, black clouds. Far below, stony beaches lined the water’s edge, backed by thin lines of emerald tuft. As we quit the pass, from the sea a mere crevice in a blank stone wall, stout puffins buzzed by, absorbed in their wave-top business.
Early the following morning, coasting the Alaska Peninsula in a blue light, as we prepared to cut across the Gulf of Alaska for the Dixon Entrance to the Inside Passage, which would lead us home, the skipper appeared in the wheelhouse where I was on watch. Standing there in his curtailed trousers and ghastly dentition, he pointed a finger dead astern, and when I turned to look, I saw the Shumagin Islands and our trace wake leading back.
Dustin W. Leavitt is a freelance writer and essayist who lives in Culver City, California.
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 an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.