The Captain’s Way

Over twenty-five years ago I started sailing on the ocean with my father. We would leave the Chesapeake Bay in the last week of May and spend five or six days out of sight of land on the way to Bermuda. Some days the weather was lovely. I read The Pickwick Papers on deck during my first trip, lying on the cabin roof in generous sun and a steady breeze. Some days the rain found every gap in the foul weather gear, and every inch of skin wrinkled to a puckered wet mess. There were days when no wind blew, and the foul diesel exhaust clung to the boat like regret, and days when the wind blew too hard to unfurl the smallest triangle of sail.

On every trip save three I got seasick—a miserable thirty-six hours of retching that began during my first 2 am watch on the ocean and ended when the store of yellow bile in my guts was exhausted and my inner ears adjusted to the six-way surprises of pitch, roll, and yaw. If I think hard enough about it, I can churn my stomach while standing on dry land. I chewed ginger, which was tarry and vile. I applied scopolamine patches, which gave me marvelous hallucinations that I used to unlock characters in stories. I went without, which guaranteed predictable suffering. Finally, I settled on an anti-vertigo drug that wrapped my head in gauze but staved off illness.  Only once, when we sailed out onto the ocean in a full gale, and the seas peaked into a landscape of rolling hills, did I avoid either remedy or illness.

I miss sailing.  I miss fighting through unpredictability. I miss sailing upwards of seven knots. I miss storm clouds lit by the night sky. I miss encounters with thousand strong pods of dolphins.  I miss standing watches with my father.

My father rarely complained about anything when we were on the ocean.  He called the weather “shitty” on a few occasions. He swore at the crew once, which has lived down in family lore; “Blanket the fucking jib” has outlived him. He knew that the greatest frustrations on the ocean were not weather, or even illness. He suffered with Parkinson’s Disease when I sailed with him, and except for the times he sent me forward to tie down a loose sail or hold the helm through a storm, he did not express regret about his condition, about what he could no longer do.

He knew that the hardest part of sailing was the proximity of four men on board. It was after I complained about some dreary antics of one of our crew mates that he told me how important variety was.  “If everyone was an orange, life would be boring,” he advised.  He brought his sons to the ocean with him because he knew we would not misbehave.  We laughed. We passed over contretemps with humor; he was the only one who would swear at anyone. He was the captain. But even after swearing, there was time for a scotch and laughter. We may not have all been oranges, but we shared an approach that kept us on course.

I know the world is bigger than a thirty-six-foot sailboat, and so the need to behave well does not always assert itself. People say and do things that would raise the captain’s voice. I realize, as my father must have years ago, that not all families abide with humor, that many live by other means. Years of working with people in school and church have taught me that people bring a variety of approaches to challenge, and that my father’s way is rare. I have also learned that for some, humor is not a balm as it was for us. For some contention and control provide the well-worn ground that makes the world, if not safe, then predictable. And for some, there is safety in that.

I think I gave up on safety a long time ago.  Sailing will do that to you.  You learn to prepare for the unimaginable, and to gird yourself with an attitude that can adapt. In the last weeks of May, I feel the old tug, and miss my father. I long to sail in his affable company again.

The Way Ahead

The way ahead is all clouds, and has been for almost a day.  Somewhere the sun rises, but the day that has dawned is just another shade of dark. From the horizon line straight to the stars, beyond the stars—defying reason and science as they rise as far as eternity—the clouds form a wall.  They neither block the way nor invite us to some hint of a narrow passage—this gap, this lightening in the darkened whole—they simply wait.

My father emerges from the cabin after checking the charts, and notes that the sky behind us is cloudless. “Too bad we aren’t headed that way,” he muses. He is an old sailor and has seen a thousand skies.  When I ask how this one compares, he shakes his head, “We’ll have to wait and see.” He looks at the sails, which bow out in a beautiful arc to transform the wind into perfect forward motion. “We’ll reef in the main at lunch.” I know that he hates to shorten the sails, especially when we are on a reach with the wind crossing us almost at beam, making an honest six and a half knots, but storms have knocked him down before and he will begrudge speed for caution.

When Ralph comes up for air after sleep, he asks, “What did the forecast say?”  The offshore marine forecast broadcast a few times during the day and the computer generated voice compiles findings with forecasts and locates weather events over undersea features: the Hudson Canyon, the Baltimore Canyon, the Hatteras Canyon.  All forecasts point to what our eyes already tell us; when storms come the radio is worthless.  Only during days of extended reckless calm does the radio offer anything like hope.  Somewhere out there must be some wisps of wind to wend us on our ways.  What we see ahead will turn us amphibian.  How fast it does so, and for how long, is a question for men who cling too hard to their most mammalian selves.

My father quietly calculated all night during our watch. He knows that not everyone possesses our raw stubbornness. Some people, even some sailors, are sensible.  The two other men who sail with us have enough experience and desire to head out on the ocean, but they have no need to hazard the dangerous thrills that awaken both my father and me. Because he is older and wiser than I am, and because it is his boat and his crew, he prepares to do the sensible thing: furl the sails and alter course.  “We are gentlemen sailors,” he acknowledges, resigned to doing the right thing.

I cannot help but think of this now, when clouds blot out another horizon.  My mother, who joined us on dry land in Bermuda, but would never set foot on a boat bent for open ocean, is in a hospital bed.  Doctors order tests to discover what has knocked her down. Answers dissolve in the face of symptoms.  If not this, then what has her down?  My brothers and I settle on this and that prognosis the same way meek sailors settle on forecasts.  But we are not meek sailors, we our father’s sons, and we know the way ahead is cloudy.

My father died when he slipped off the dock at a marina, hit his head, and went under the water.  He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a decade, and we watched while he lost the physical ease that had buoyed him on his boats and made him the most reliable hand on board. He slowly changed from a gifted provocateur in conversation to a witness to his sons’ whip cracks of sarcasm and verbal retribution. He hated the stutter that came with his disease. He never told us that he was suffering, and never acknowledged his illness directly.  We knew because our mother kept us informed and because we witnessed him.

My mother hates the idea of loss of control with a greater and more public vehemence than my father ever displayed. She watched illness sap her husband, and before that saw her mother diminish over slow painful years. Fourteen years ago, she survived a harrowing encounter with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, living on her own, in a house she bought after my father died, she keeps a copy of Final Exit in her living room. She has set her limits.

I don’t think there is any other course ahead.  The future looms and the possibility of proceeding as gentleman sailors dwindles.  Maybe there will be time enough to furl the sails, and there may yet be some glorious sailing ahead, but the future will not brook a change of course.

 

The Captain

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My father would have been 82 today. I have been thinking much about him recently, and not only because of the recent addition to my family. I am giving a sermon at my church in a week about the things I learned about being a father from my father.

My dad was reluctant to pass on the secrets of fatherhood. In part this may have been a result of his life with his father–we pass down intentionally or not the raising we received. In part it may have been his general willingness to let us, his sons, figure things out for ourselves, even something as meticulously specific as blanketing the jib (ask my brother about that). In part fatherhood may have well remained a secret to him, even late in life when we were his children and no longer children.

Is there a secret? I suspect my father had some sense of one, and that it guided him the way that stars and winds and currents guided him on the ocean. But he was never one to get mystical about that secret; he happily took up the GPS and autopilot when they became available. His choices were practical and methodical and willful. I think his vision of the big secret was equally practical.

Nonetheless, he liked schmaltzy movies, as well as acerbic humor. He enjoyed the fellowship forged in extraordinary ventures. Something in him bristled against the vagaries of weather and the capriciousness of emotion. Whatever was mystical to him was grounded in a belief that right should triumph, that wit was sufficient armor against nonsense, and that sheer determination not only could, but should lead the way through the various chaotic episodes of life.

So, even though he knew that before heading out to the ocean, he should be able to take apart and repair the Diesel engine “just in case,” he also knew that at some point the ship might fail and that the only thing that would save the voyage was singular, capable, heroic action on the part of a sailor. He had the sense to know that when he could not be that sailor, he found those who could rise to the challenge, and he gladly called on their best when the occasion demanded.

Is that a reasonable thing for a father to expect? Is it possible to teach dogged, determined, and day-to-day heroism? Or does it come from within, or from some other, stranger “without”? Even if he knew those answers, he would have remained reticent (on this matter at least); he would have let us figure it out.