Riding the Waves of a Dark Sea
On a trawler tossed by wild waters, a novice `seaman' gets a look at courage in action
I WAS keeping the mate and my heart company on the trawler bridge. There was the smooth knocking of the diesels under us, the dark sea cutting, and the luminous depth-finder and compass registering our way. The twin dials floating in front of the dark windows reminded me of a line from a poem, "For love - two lights above the sea." Even though the mate consoled me he had left his family, two weeks on and a week off, my mind kept drifting back. My bride of two weeks was many miles of ocean away. I was try ing to be strong about it.
Three months earlier I had made the connection with a Canadian fishing company and got a coveted trip ticket as a one-time observer on a trawler. It was a "coup" for my American resource office. I didn't know the date would fall during the period newspapers like to call "at home with my new bride." The telegram came during the wedding. It just added to the glory and bliss of my life. But she frowned, then smiled. She knew I would have to learn to leave home all over again - but so soon?
Now I was adventuring on the lonely dark sea, this adventure not of easy passion, but of brute will: Until now, no matter where my wife was, I had had the opportunity for courtship. When she was ensconced prudently at her mother's, I had knocked on a window on sleepless summer nights. We talked until her neighbors came out at first light to feed their cows. I liked her for leaning out downstairs, with an occasional look inside for a creak or noise inside. Was her father coming?
I liked her enough to brave these "dangers." I felt in love with her for entertaining my acts of courage. We had perfect glee and bliss - the secret of love seemed to dance happily at the center of our desire to be nearby. And we had married on it only a fortnight ago.
With the knocking of the diesels off the coast of Newfoundland, she asleep on the coast of Maine, I was entertaining thoughts of her as I looked out the window. We may have remarked on the moon, its position, the stillness of night, plans for the world we were entering.
On the ship there were only boys and men. In the galley the comradery was so warm, I hesitated to tell anyone my paleness wasn't "seasick"; it would sound too funny to say "lovesick." It was a good, rough crew. I didn't want comments. I didn't want anyone to put out "my two lights above the sea." I'd take the sadness and keep it to myself. I'd act as I thought a man should. I'd stay interested.
I wanted to talk to the captain. But he had been asleep in his bunk behind the wheelhouse since leaving Nova Scotia. The mate informed me, routinely, it was a "shore ailment" he'd sleep off. I had glimpsed him - an Ahab - railing at his crew at castoff, in a French-Canadian accent. Then he disappeared mysteriously from sight. All the crew in the galley nodded at his sleeping presence with strange respect; just having him on board seemed to give them confidence for the deep. I wondered.
"He's the best in the industry. We always get our quota."
I STAYED up late with the mate, as if my worry could assure this "captainless" boat safety of return. I was waiting for the captain to get up so I could go to bed. What I really wanted was to return to the one person in my life who made me feel not alone in the universe. In the meantime, though, I wanted these men who were daring the empty universe to have a "captain." It was out of my hands, except to worry. His absence was routine, they told me, so it must be all right.
I went below. I awoke to a sound more terrible than an iceberg screaming into rivets. The trawler was pitching badly, throwing me against bedrails and wall. I thought both engines must have blown.
When I got out, the stern was lit with floodlights and the trawling cables were getting mangled by the winches. Sparks flew across the heavy foam. I could feel the cables pulling the steel boat down backward. The stern fishing gate was open and heavy seas swept up and out the bay. How men awaiting the catch stood down there, I don't know.
When the terror of the winches quit, there was one sound louder than wind. With all flash-words removed, what came through the bullhorn was this: "Why didn't you wake me you landlubbing party-loving men with faces like a gutted cod and a brainless lobster before you got that fish-bag stuck on a mountain peak under this tin-can of a freezer-chest boat... ."
The captain ran back and forth off the platform into the bridge, worked the controls, swinging the tossing boat this way and that, then came out to work the winch controls again by hand. I made for high ground, on the ladder rungs, trying not to fall into the sea and add to this troubled boat's problems. I forgot the captain might not remember me, a featherweight on board for public relations.
"Tenez, hold on to this," he yelled at me, as if I were the mate; then I was sure I was when he added a few other gaudy remarks I remembered from French class. I held the wheel where he had put it. Then he revved up the engines and ran back outside to play the winches.
We went in a circle, riding severe coasters of waves. I couldn't tell if we were going down backward or plowing headfirst into valleys that almost exposed the bottom. I felt ill with the fear.
With what seemed like destruction close at hand, my vision shouldn't have been there - it was her, no, not her - but the sea became a blue eider-down comforter. A stupid billowy comforter we had been given for a wedding present. I thought I would never see it again. Or the coast. Or my wife. Riding those troughs, I felt grateful she was at home, out of harm's way. I felt a sudden love for all those men, even the captain, and the living ship that was getting killed by a stuck net. In the face of death, I surrendered to this strange love. The boat suddenly lept forward, out of the water, like a dolphin crashing forward. I waited to see if we were going to float. I think the captain did too.
He came in and stared at me, speechless, trying to recall where he'd seen me before. It was a full three minutes before he said anything. Then in the same overwhelming feeling of love, perhaps a half-prayer surrendering everything in my life, even her, I stepped forward and shook his hand. I, whom he had called a gutted cod and brainless lobster, loved him.
"Voila, fishing!" he said, pulling himself together. "Now you have knowledge of fishing."
After some wild radio talk calling for winch parts around the ocean, the captain decided to call it quits and steam home to Nova Scotia. When things calmed down and going home had settled the crew to a glumness of no catch, the captain rummaged around under his bunk, then came out with a wooden crate. It immediately caught the mate's eye. I would have missed it. He went out and dropped it into the sea. A gull followed it then gave up.
The mate shrugged. "I've seen him do it before. But never the whole case. He only brings the best stuff."
I don't know what his plans for himself were when we got back. But he apologized gently to all the crew one night at supper for an empty ship. When he got out on the water again, he offered to share his cut with them - 20 percent of the catch.
That cheered everyone up considerably. In the atmosphere of confession, I let on that I'd be glad to be getting back as I had a bride of two weeks at home. Was she pretty? A good homemaker? I was surprised how that cheered them up too. Thoughts turned homeward.
One boy talked about his girlfriend, relieving me of those "special domestic" stories that I thought were alien to a male crew often away from home. While they went on about their wives, children, and girlfriends, I realized there was a time and place, even on the roughest crew, to share personal, even intimate, blessings of the universe.
I kept it to myself, though, that if it were late when I got back to our newly curtained house on the coast of Maine, I was planning to find her window and tease her with an old familiar knock - from the time when I thought I knew what courage was.