By Glenda Reed
“When the sea is calm, every ship has a good captain.”
I watched the sleeping ocean from a corner of the cockpit. In the deep darkness, blind waves broke and collapsed in rhythmic, drawn-out hisses, luring me to sleep as they misted me with spray. Even in sleep, the ocean swell rolled forward, constant, like a shark that never stops swimming. I had felt that I could go on forever too, sailing west without stopping across the great expanse of the Pacific.
Then a few hours before sunset, a faint smudge had floated into view amidst the clouds on the horizon. A Marquesan island, hazy through the atmosphere, marked our entry into Polynesian waters. Sighting land awakened in me dormant memories: limitless freshwater, a bed that didn’t move, the quiet pleasure of a walk. Having sailed day and night for three weeks, I’d already spent the time I’d wanted with the open ocean. Having seen land, I was now starved for landfall. But the distant island was not a port of entry, and we could not lawfully stop there. We had to carry on; we still had one more night till our destination. We were headed for Nuku Hiva, a dead volcano thousands of miles from any continent.
I had three hours and twenty-seven minutes before Chet would relieve me from my watch. After dawn, we’d trade places and I’d flop into one of the bunks he and I and Cyrille, the other hitchhiking crew member, all shared, the cushions still warm from his body. In the meantime I stared down the sky.
On night watch, the very real (albeit unlikely) possibility of annihilation is balanced against total boredom. I watched for signs of changing weather or a ship’s light on the horizon. A 900-foot container ship cruises at around thirty nautical miles an hour with minimal crew to keep costs down. On autopilot, the captain literally asleep at the wheel, a container ship could run us down without ever knowing it had hit us.
In the groping dark, inky cumulus clouds were assembling behind us along the eastern horizon. The clouds could have been nothing, an annoying obstacle between me and the sunrise, or they could have been a squall, a localized storm. Without a moon, I couldn’t tell. I could barely see the clouds—gobs of black in an even blacker sky.
A squall could bring strong winds that might tear sails, break rigging. We couldn’t afford breakages so far from help. I turned away from the horizon and closed my eyes to relieve the painful pressure behind them, exhaustion from straining into the night. I just wanted an easy final watch. I didn’t want the hassle of deciding whether the clouds were going to coalesce into a squall. If, in fact, a localized storm was forming behind us on the eastern horizon, the trade winds would blow the squall onto us. Then, I’d need to determine if we could ride it out, or if I would need to wake the captain. And waking the captain was the last thing I wanted to do.
Chet didn’t like to be called “captain.” He’d told me and Cyrille, “I don’t want to create a weird dynamic. We’re all just part of the crew.” Once, after he made some unusually pointed request, I said as a joke, “All right, Cap.” Cyrille winked at me, but Chet cringed and went below without saying anything.
Still, on night watch by myself, when I needed to decide whether or not to wake the one person who charted our course, who rebuilt and rewired every inch of this boat, his boat, the one person ultimately in charge, I thought of him as captain.
For the most part, Chet was right: we were all just part of the crew, though as the newest member, I felt I had to prove myself. I knew Chet trusted me, but he trusted Cyrille more. Cyrille had joined the boat three months and three hundred miles before me. His time on the boat showed; while I milled about gearing up the gumption to ask Chet what needed doing, there was Cyrille coming down the dock with a chipper smile and a cart full of potable water jugs anticipating our need to top up the fresh water tanks before Chet had asked. Cyrille was Johnny on the goddamn spot, a valuable member of the three-person team we had fast become. Still, I wanted to be first among equals.
I had connected with Chet—and by extension Cyrille—through Latitude 38’s online crew list. Other boats had dismissed me, saying they wanted young, strapping (they didn’t explicitly say male) crew to help with heavy lifting. Those boats that did welcome me aboard wanted a cook and a maid, often asking if I would be open to a relationship. One captain old enough to be my grandfather declared himself a balding sex machine. Chet, thankfully, just wanted me to sail the boat. He was impressed that a twenty-six-year-old had a decade of sailing experience. I had a lot more if you counted the years I captained my childhood home, a fifty-foot sailboat, from the safety of my father’s lap. I liked that Chet and Cyrille were only ten years older than me and European; I was hoping to sidestep American bro culture. Chet was a certified skipper, and Sudden Stops Necessary (Stops, for short) was a seaworthy boat—big enough for three people, with a galley, a navigation station, two cabins that were already taken, and a salon for me to sleep in when we weren’t underway. Chet and I emailed, Skyped, and checked references, until there was nothing left for me to do but fly down to Mexico for a get-to-know-you sail. Since that first night passage along the coast of Jalisco, the guys had trusted me to stand watch while they rested below.
First light glowed indigo on a distant edge of the horizon, while the clouds bled into a continuous line. Every fifteen minutes it was time to look again. If I saw a ship on the horizon ten miles away, closing half a sea mile a minute, I would have twenty minutes to determine if we were on a convergent course, devise a plan of action, and alter our heading to avoid a possible collision.
I stood to scan the horizon, and the cloud line behind us, now a fully fortified rampart, startled me with its height and solidity. I leaned closer and looked without blinking, trying to let in as much light as possible. Beneath the cloud line loomed the darkest corner of the sky. Pushed by a following wind and fast approaching, the clouds would soon be on top of us.
I circled my ankles, flexed my calves and checked the self-steering wind vane keeping us on course. Stops was steering itself. All was in order. I took one last look and went below. At the nav station, I turned on the radar as the deck lurched out from under my feet, and I stumbled backwards, disoriented. A large swell rolled under Stops’s hull. I grabbed at the edge of the chart table to keep from falling across the cabin, then leaned back hard in the opposite direction, as the counter-roll tried to throw me into the radar. That was a big one. Pay attention. If I let myself forget where I was, I could break a rib being flung across the cabin.
Embarrassed despite the lack of observers, I shook off the large swell, assuming it to be the tallest wave in the set, and pulled myself toward the radar. I didn’t consider, perhaps chose to ignore, a fact I knew: big waves are often pushed by big winds.
On the radar screen, large green blotches marred with red announced squall clouds with a lot of rain. Since a few degrees north of the equator, we had been skirting around and through the doldrums. The doldrums, or the intertropical convergence zone, are not a place marked on any chart. Between the reliable trade winds, they are a shifting region of low pressure known for days or weeks of windless calm punctuated by squalls. At first we had motorsailed around the squalls, altering course a few degrees to dodge each pregnant, low-slung cloud. Then one afternoon we had come across a squall too big to avoid. Chet had taken the helm and driven straight through the gusty downpour. Since leaving the doldrums we’d been pounding through one squall after another.
North of the equator, I had known to expect a predictable burst of wind and rain. Squalls in the South Pacific, however, had taken on different personalities. Would this squall be calm, almost windless, absentmindedly dripping a wet, persistent drizzle? Or would it have no rain but a lot of wind, or both? A squall could push strong winds and a torrential deluge, a wall of enormous drops that rip into the water like gunfire, obscuring the horizon and shrinking the visible world around the boat. My favorite squalls started thick and close, then eased out, pulling back the curtain of rain to reveal undulating silver hills embossed with braille.
In the last few weeks, I’d sailed through more squalls than years I’d been alive, and still I didn’t know what to make of this one. Sizable lakes of green and red pooled twenty miles wide on the radar screen, but size, as they say, doesn’t tell you everything. We had double-reefed at dusk, significantly reducing our sail area to safely ride out the inevitable squalls. The only reason I would need to wake the captain was if the winds were going to be so strong that we needed to shorten sail even further. The radar, whose radio waves echoed off rain, but not wind, couldn’t tell me either.
The captain lay a few feet from me in the salon and I let my eyes wander over his sleeping body. Chet was curled on his side in gray, checkered boxers, limp on top of his white sheet, unable to tell me what he wanted. The thought occurred to me, Maybe he isn’t really sleeping. If he wasn’t sleeping, I reasoned, I wouldn’t technically be waking him. The steady rise and fall of his white T-shirt, however, confirmed he was asleep.
I sat there at the nav station in the captain’s chair, watching him. A week before, we had sailed across the equator. Crossing the equator, a maritime rite of passage, transformed me forever from a pollywog, a rookie, into a shellback, an experienced sailor. I believed in tests of skill and willpower, and the possibility of arriving on the other side stronger, wiser, truer. Somebody different, somebody new. A person could cross a line that meant she had gained enough experience to know the answers in difficult situations. I believed that I’d already arrived at that other side, and I loathed myself for not knowing what to do now. The squall felt like a test whose sole purpose was to humiliate me. If I were a better sailor, I thought, I would be able to reef single-handed, to handle this on my own.
The waves were gathering force, and to keep from falling, I crawled on all fours back up the companionway ladder. The deck pitched at steep angles. All around me in the dim morning, more night than day, the gray surface of the ocean throbbed rhythmically, the pulse of waves visible only as movement. I couldn’t see their height, but I could feel them growing. Big winds, I allowed myself to remember. If only the squall could wait till Chet’s watch.
As the only girl on board Stops, I didn’t want to sound the alarm unless I had a good reason. I had to divine the true nature of the squall as well as the moment when the captain wanted me to wake him, if it got bad. Too early and I was afraid he’d be angry, lose respect for me; too late and we’d be in trouble.
I could feel the squall’s power even before it reached us. The steady wind speed hit thirty knots and gusts struck with surprising force. The sea around Stops heaped up as the wind tore the foaming tops off waves in white streaks. On land, this wind would throw whole trees into motion.
Adrenaline flaming through my veins screamed bigger winds were coming. I had to wake Chet. How could I have waited this long?
In the muffled quiet below deck, I crept toward Chet, trying not to disturb Cyrille, even as the stiff crinkle of my foul weather gear rustled to a roar. My shipmates’ sleeping bodies appeared dead to the impending squall.
I shook Chet’s shoulder. He pushed up his sleeping mask, “Have we reached Nuku Hiva?” Chet’s instant lucidity made me wonder if he’d been sleeping at all. Maybe Stops’s increasingly agitated motion had woken him, or maybe he’d been lying awake anticipating landfall.
“I need your help.” Chet leapt from his bunk
Back on deck the instrument panel showed wind speeds exceeding forty knots. The wind clawed down the backs of waves with a force that would tear limbs from trees. Though thick clouds blotted out the dawn, the squall was now clearly visible. Massive gray clouds stretched in a formidable front as far as I could see in either direction. Beneath this advancing army, winds beat the sea into a fury a few hundred yards behind us.
Chet’s large eyes widened as he took in the megasquall. The acid taste of imagined insults were on my tongue. What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you wake me sooner? Chet’s eyebrows pursed together, then fell back. He wasted no time squabbling. “Let’s reef. You’ve got the wind vane?” For the captain, only our safety mattered.
With a hand on the wind vane’s thin control lines, I steered Stops into the wind to take the burden off the sails. I braced my feet as the boat slammed headlong into oncoming waves. The mainsail swung close above my head, whipping itself in the wind, each crack of canvas cutting through me like a gunshot. No longer caught in the hand of the wind, the boat’s machinery was a loose flung thing, predictable only up to a point.
Chet threw himself about the winch, grinding down the mainsail even further, then folded and secured the sail. On his mark, I turned us back downwind. The mainsail, now smaller, filled and steadied us in the following seas. We rolled in more of the headsail and Stops’ jerking motion lost its frantic edge. Practice had made us good at this.
Without saying a word Chet took the helm from me, unhitching the wind vane to steer by hand. Then a long, high-pitched cry let loose from the sky, and the squall hit. Strong winds blew seawater skyward and forced rain sideways, slantways, anyways but down. A gust tried to push the boat over, but six thousand pounds of ballast in Stops’s keel kept us upright. If we hadn’t shortened sail, the gust could have knocked us down, slamming the boat on its side, the cockpit pitched vertical, the sails pushed all the way down against the waves.
Chet squinted into the wind and rain. He resembled a wet cat; his rain-drenched hair clumped into random hunks. But most of all it was his long, matted eyelashes, blinking away the water streaming into his partly closed eyes, that made me thankful not to be Captain. Instead, I was safe and relatively dry beneath the spray hood.
Though rousted from sleep minutes ago, Chet stood at the wheel without complaint. It was as if he’d been waiting for this opportunity to prove himself. Chet Against the Squall. There was an assuredness about him that spoke to his years of ocean racing. Here was the sailor who, when Royal Yachtmaster test officials turned off the GPS-enabled, electronic charts in the middle of the night, was able to find his location and pass his exam using only a depth sounder and paper charts to feel his way over the bottom.
I relaxed back into my corner of the cockpit, even as a coiled sense of unease pressed against my chest. Despite my best efforts, I’d woken him too late, though he didn’t seem upset.
“Nice and wet,” Cyrille said, spitting salt water out of his mouth. Standing half out of the main hatch, he had caught the full brunt of a wave. The hollow clinking of winches would have amplified through the hull. That and Stops’s catapulting motion must have woken him.
Cyrille stepped into the cockpit wearing what he’d been sleeping in: swim trunks and nothing else. “You should really have a tether,” Chet said. I’d made that mistake before, coming on deck in weather without the tedious safety gear—life jacket, tether, foul weather pants and jacket—that the conditions required. I was glad it wasn’t me this time.
Cyrille opened his mouth as if to say something, but just nodded his chin into his chest and went below. I knew that feeling; it was hard to be told what to do first thing in the morning when you just wanted to see what the commotion that woke you looked like, and harder still that Chet was always right.
A few minutes later Cyrille reemerged in full regalia. He sat in the small, dry-ish space beneath the spray hood opposite me and flashed a good-humored smile, wrinkling the corners of his eyes—the only hint of age. Cyrille seemed to greet each day with ease. He’d shrugged off the recession that had reclaimed his house. And then slipped out of half-ownership in a restaurant to be an extra hand on a racing yacht. That was two boats and six months ago. Though he was from Brittany, France’s sailing capital, he hadn’t sailed there and was learning as he went. I never caught him looking back, not once. How was that possible? I wished I could live as effortlessly.
The wind fell away and the sky opened, releasing large drops that relinquished themselves to gravity. The rain clattered against the silver surface of the ocean, hollowing out ten million tiny craters. Waves sloshed against Stops’s hull with idle energy left over from the wind. “This is like sailing in England,” Chet said in mock complaint. “You don’t need to go to the South Pacific, it’s rainy, dark, cloudy. Jesus, it’s like the English Channel. Right?” He was playing around; he knew that of the three of us, only he had sailed there. He continued, “Look at this thing. Is it getting bigger, or . . .” Waggling his head, he said in a ludicrous falsetto, “We’re gonna die.”
If Chet was joking around, maybe he really wasn’t angry? We shortened sail in time. The boat was intact. No one was hurt. Then why was I queasy with the thought of what could have happened? Instead of feeling elation for having survived the squall, fear hollowed out a hole behind my solar plexus. I’d made the cut, but barely. Maybe all those other captains who’d dismissed me had been right.
It didn’t occur to me that I’d used my knowledge and skill to make a call that was well-timed enough, considering my exhaustion, my newness to South Pacific weather patterns, the vagaries of the ocean.
From far above, the sun murmured through clouds, raising the ceiling and brightening our morning. Then the rain subsided and the world expanded all the way to the horizon. There, like a forgotten promise, the hazy shadow of our destination floated between sea and sky. “Nuku Hiva,” I pointed straight ahead excitedly. This time there was no question; I identified our barely discernable island with certainty.
“You haven’t seen it yet?” Chet said, that same surety slapping a grin across his face. Apparently, while looking forward steering the boat, he had seen the island ages ago. For him, Nuku Hiva had always been there, poised near the ninth parallel for three million years. With my attention directed back towards the squall behind us, the island had snuck up on me.
~ ~ ~
The sea has amnesia. An hour after the sky had opened up, the trade winds returned and the waves relaxed back into a manageable size. Our bodies and the boat were dry. The only reminders of the squall were a gray ceiling of clouds and a cool, misty morning veiling Nuku Hiva.
Nuku Hiva’s mass and density solidified as we approached. A dark mist on the horizon grew into the sleeping body of a blue-gray whale lumbering on the sea. I had been expecting the startling mountains that Tania Aebi, the first American woman to sail around the world, described in her 1989 book, Maiden Voyage. To me, however, Nuku Hiva at a distance was flat as a tabletop, the island’s gently sloping volcanic rock slouching into the sea.
As we got closer, the island multiplied into a quintuplet of headlands separated by deep bays. One of those headlands marked the entrance to Taiohae (pronounced Tie-ee-oh-hay) Bay. There we would finally anchor.
With Chet at the wheel, I tried to make sense of our satellite position on the digital chart below deck in relation to the actual rock, dirt, and leaves off our starboard side. I was anxious to be the one to find our headland. I wanted to prove—to him and to myself—that I could do something right.
Eventually, Chet lost patience and gave Cyrille the helm. I was crestfallen. After consulting the chartplotter, Chet turned us in the direction he thought Taiohae Bay. Sure enough, the trail on the plotter corresponded exactly with our new heading. We were now aiming for our destination.
Large ocean waves couldn’t penetrate the deep bay. The incessant motion that had rattled my body for more than three weeks began to ease. Standing in the cockpit became easy. I could walk around deck without holding a handrail. It was like breathing deeply when I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath.
“Wanna take the helm?” Chet asked me.
“Really?” I didn’t move, unable to believe that Chet wanted me to steer us into our first South Pacific port, the port that marked the end of our long and successful journey, a port that neither of us had ever seen before.
“It’s an easy entrance,” he said. Chet knew the island was steep-to, sloping downward toward the seafloor 13,000 feet below.
“There aren’t any reefs or rocks to worry about?”
“You’ll be fine.” Chet’s eyes were kind, vacant, expectant. He really did want to give me this honor. Besides, he needed to consult the sailing guide to decide where we’d drop anchor.
In one synchronized movement, Chet stepped away from the wheel and I slid in. I assumed the captain’s stance, back tall, legs wide, hands firm. Though the ocean had emptied me of more energy than I thought I had, my senses sparked to alertness as my hands grasped the wheel. At the helm, my fears receded. I was driving and being driven, captain and passenger.
My hands hold the memory of every boat I have ever steered, though none are held so tightly as the first. From my father’s lap, I clasped the knobby handles of the ship’s wheel on my family’s boat. The open wood grain, weathered in the sun, was smooth and rough in my small hands. I was always oversteering, turning the wheel too far and worrying us off course, then over correcting in the opposite direction. My father told me again and again to look straight ahead, to keep the mast in line with our destination. The fifty-foot sailboat swaggered back and forth as I found and lost and found our heading.
The morning we sailed into Taiohae Bay, I navigated a straight course. Cyrille prepped the anchor, and Chet surveyed the bay for a good place to drop the hook. In a few hours, I would walk the crescent footpath around the bay, waves smashing against the beach, then draining back through large, smooth stones in a silvery clatter reminiscent of rain.
Glenda Reed is a writer, artist and adventurer. She was recently awarded the Minnesota Regional Arts Council Next Step Grant as well as participation in the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series. She is also a winner of The Moth StorySlam. Reed is currently working on a memoir about hitchhiking around the world on sailboats. “The Good Captain” was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Creative Nonfiction, and it tied for the Grand Prize Bronze in the Tenth Annual Solas Awards.