“In the Doldrums” follows a teenage boy, who believes himself a man, on a trans-Atlantic sailing passage, and through a storm he believes will be his crucible. Nothing stacks up quite the way he expected in the face of the storm, and he ends up finding meaning in an unexpected source.
I finished this short story quite a while back, then revised it and shared it with my dad, a true mariner, for Father’s Day. He was kind enough to offer some technical critique on the sailing terminology and practices – he’s forgotten more about sailing than I will likely ever learn. I’m posting it here in five installments, in part because “short” is a relative term, and at roughly 10,000 words the total story surpasses the time commitment most want to invest in a blog reading.
I will post one installment a day through this week. At the conclusion I will publish it on Amazon – reviews and feedback are appreciated!
In the Doldrums: A short story in five parts
Copyright James Neal 2017
They were two days out of Madeira, with Bermuda still a fantasy across the western horizon, when the storm climbed slowly from their wake. It had built strength most of the day, gradually driving a pleasant following sea that barely crested the height of the sloop’s transom into waves that from the trough seemed to extinguish the sun. The wind kept pace with the growing sea, and by late afternoon a good breeze for a downwind run had turned into a torment, ripping the tops from the waves in a mist of invisible knives that stung the flesh and burned the eyes. It had been exhilarating to him at first, watching the storm build behind them, driving them ever faster towards their destination. This was Dan’s first trans-Atlantic, and he had silently thanked God for the storm when he saw it climbing above the horizon.
He had sailed plenty as a boy – at 16 he no longer thought of himself as such. He had learned to walk with the gentle sway of a sailboat beneath his feet, and had spent every moment since that could be salvaged from school and other childhood requirements alongside his father in any kind of boat they could scrape up. His father ran a boat delivery business, shuttling yachts across every kind of navigable water for people who had more money than maritime skill, and sense enough to recognize their own shortcoming. It was a beautiful way to be a boy, knocking about in boats, with every summer promising the chance to accompany Dad on a delivery. When most boys’ hands were gripping handlebars or joysticks, his were learning the feel of the tiller on a Chesapeake-bound ketch, or the wheel of a sport fisherman headed south on the intra-coastal, or the sheets and lines of any number and size of amazing craft, all headed for new and wonderful places.
Dad taught him early how to tell when a storm was coming, how to read the clouds and the sunset, what it meant when the barometer began to dip, and how to decipher the garbled jargon on the VHF and ham radio advisories. He had learned how a storm could catch a boat helpless on even a relatively small body of water, if those entrusted to navigate her were careless or inexperienced enough to place themselves in the position. He had ridden out more storms than most his age. He’d even weathered a gale off the shoals of Cape Hatteras on a dark fall night, riding alongside Dad with the wind and sea in his face on a sloop carrying nothing more than a storm jib. Dad said he handled that one like a man, a real sailor at 12, and he had felt proud that day as the dark storm gave way to a red sunrise over a rolling sea the color of gun metal.
But, no matter how proud he should feel or did feel – and Dad was always great about expressing pride in him – there was always a nagging question in his estimation of himself. All of the great sea tales he had gleaned from yellowed pages in Dad’s library pointed to one inescapable fact – a man could call himself neither man nor sailor until he had stood up to a storm in the open sea, where the depths could swallow all but the soul.
None of the technological advancements of the last century – not the GPS, nor the ham radio or the life raft in its shiny white case – could prevent the sea from taking what it wanted. Beyond the reach of the illusions with which man surrounded himself on land, the sea remained clean, honest and equally ready to grant life or claim it. He knew it was there he would have to face his crucible, like the many young men in Dad’s books, and only on the other side would he emerge a man.
So, when he saw the black clouds streaked with lightning swallow the eastern sky, he thanked God and shivered with the excitement of knowing he was about to experience one of life’s truly great firsts. He had the watch at the wheel as the storm gained strength, and he braced himself with his foot against the edge of the cockpit and felt pride in the dull pain that grew in his forearms from holding the rudder up against the sea.
“How are you doing out there?” his father called from the companionway, which led down to the main cabin of the sloop.
“I’m good,” he called back. The wind wasn’t strong enough yet to require yelling across the 10 feet of cockpit that separated the wheel and the open companionway.
“Okay, let me know if you need a break,” his father said, granting his son a wide smile from the companionway hatch before turning back to the weather advisories on the radio.
He had no intention of asking for a break from the wheel. “Why would I need a break?” he asked himself. The western half of the sky was still blue, divided somewhat astern of them between serenity and torment. “No,” he told himself, “we just got started.”
He felt lucky to have drawn this watch, which he had just started an hour earlier and would run well into the storm now chasing their course.
“Danny, do you want me to relieve you so you can eat?”
Stan, the first mate in their three-man crew, asked this. At 16 he had more sailing experience than Stan, and he didn’t appreciate Stanley calling him Danny. That was for family. Still, Dad had hired him on to keep the watches down to eight hours each, and he knew he had to show him respect.
“No thanks, Stan. I’m good for now.”
“Okay. Just let me know.”
Stan went back to cooking dinner on the galley’s alcohol range. It was early for dinner, but there would be no cooking on the range once the storm had them in its grasp.
He took his eyes off the compass long enough to survey the storm astern. A black mass of clouds completely obscured the eastern horizon. The sea was just beginning to take on the angry countenance he remembered from that night off Cape Hatteras, with gently rolling waves being driven into sharply crested peaks. The dull blue of the sea ahead merged astern into the color of unfinished steel, cold and gray.
“This is going to be a great one,” he told himself, staring into the clouds astern and relishing the feel of the salt spray in his face. His attention was abruptly brought back to the wheel by the feeling of the world sliding sidewise beneath his feet. In a few brief moments of inattention to the compass and telltales on the shrouds he had allowed the sloop to fall off its gentle balance on a quartering wind and following sea.
He cursed himself silently and spun the wheel to correct, but it was too late. The sloop’s head swung toward the wind and her hull slid down the face of the wave, causing her to roll deep onto her starboard beam. The sound of pans crashing in the galley, and a few guttural yells from below, filled his ears as the starboard toe rail slid under the water. A loud metallic slap and a crash of the rigging answered as the boom smacked the trough of the wave.
He braced himself with his foot against the downwind side of the cockpit and wrung his hands on the stainless steel of the helm, feeling very small and alone as he willed the sloop back onto her keel. God and physics took over where he could not, and spilled the wind from the sails as the spreaders dipped agonizingly close to the waves. With the sails emptied the force of the sea pushed the keel back down, allowing the sloop to answer its rudder and swing back downwind. There was one last crash of the rigging as the wind caught the sails and swung the boom out against its sheet.
He reversed the wheel and settled the sloop back on her course just as his father’s head popped out of the companionway. His dad didn’t say anything for a long moment – hardly longer than the few seconds it took to nearly knock the sloop onto her beam. He just stood there holding firmly to the companionway ladder, looking at the sheepish look on his son’s face.
“Did she get away from you?” his father asked, suppressing a smile.
“Yes,” he answered, feeling the blood rush to his face. “I was just checking the weather, and the stern swung on me.”
“Don’t worry,” Stan interjected loudly, holding a saucepan with both hands above his head, “I saved supper.” Stan flashed him a toothy smile and went back to cooking in the galley. God, he hated that man.
“There will be plenty of weather to see soon enough,” his dad continued. “For now just keep your eye on the telltales and mind your helm.” The smile had flown from his father’s face.
“Yes, sir,” he answered. Father or not, he knew out here his dad was the skipper, and he was little better than a deck hand.
“The wind will be backing out of the east as that storm moves in. We’ll put her wing-on-wing after we eat – see if we can run with it for a while before this sets in.”
He nodded acknowledgment and focused his eyes back on the telltales, using the short pieces of colored yarn tied to the shrouds to keep the wind on the correct angle to the sails.
“Dammit, don’t do that again,” he told himself. He was far beyond embarrassed. He was angry with himself for losing control of the helm and allowing the sloop to wallow and fall broadside to the wave. In a four-foot following sea, like the one that had just bested him, allowing the stern to fall off was the sign of a sloppy helmsman. In a 12-foot following sea, like the one promised to build that night, allowing the 35-foot sloop to fall broadside could cause her to be knocked down, even capsized. And that, he knew, would likely mean none of them ever being seen or heard from again.
“Just focus and do your damn job, before they take the helm from you,” he ordered himself.
He settled into a rhythm with the helm, gently allowing the head to sway just enough as the sloop surfed down the face of the wave, then catching her back on course in the trough – just the way Dad had taught him. The sea began to smooth out the knot that had formed in his stomach, working it out with each rise and fall of the keel, each fill and slack of the sail. He was just beginning to lose his shame in the movement of the waves when Stan shoved his bulbous nose out of the companionway.
“Chow’s ready, Danny,” Stan said, holding up a pan through the hatch, flashing a ludicrous toothy smile at him.
It’s Dan to you. “Thanks, I’ll wait until after my watch.”
“You should eat now, Danny,” his Dad called from below. “There won’t be time later.”
Stan disappeared from the companionway and re-emerged seconds later carrying a steaming bowl of macaroni and stewed chicken, the goofy smile still on his face.
“Here you go, Danny, this will keep you going.”
He took the bowl in his left hand, and for a moment wondered if he could manage to hold the helm up with one hand while eating with the other.
“Well, I think you should let me take her while you eat,” Stan laughed. He hated Stan’s laugh. “Just while you eat.”
He reluctantly turned the helm over to Stan, dutifully reading off the heading, barometer and wind conditions.
“I got her, Danny,” Stan replied, still laughing as he took the helm.
God, he hated that laugh. He stared at Stan, standing there where he should be, at the helm. He still had that stupid grin on his face and the wind was sending his comb-over downwind like the telltales on the shrouds. He forced a smile back at Stan’s pudgy red face, then began forking through the bowl in his lap.
“I’m sure it’s not as good as your mom’s, but it will get you through the night.”
Don’t talk about my mom, you son of a bitch. The thought of Stan even speaking of his mother infuriated him. It made him hot with anger because of the near miss they had back in Lisbon.