This is the second of five parts in the short story of a young man facing his self-doubt in the midst of a mid-Atlantic storm, and finding meaning in an unexpected place. A new part will be up each night through the conclusion, at which time the story will be published on Amazon – reviews there would be appreciated.
In the Doldrums
Copyright James R. Neal 2017
Dan and his dad were out gathering the last of the groceries for the transit when he saw Stan, leaning against the stone wall of some ancient Portuguese house – they all looked ancient. He started to wave and call to Stan, but his dad shut him up and pulled him by the arm down a side street. He turned back just long enough to see what he hadn’t noticed at first: a tired-looking, bone-thin woman in a very short skirt sucking on a cigarette, her body almost entirely hidden from view by Stan’s girth as he leaned in to say something with that damned grin on his face.
His first reaction was to be simply intrigued by the appearance of a real-life hooker, just there across the street. There weren’t any hookers in the circles of society Dad permitted him to see. Of course he knew of their existence – it just wasn’t the kind of thing he expected to encounter while out grocery shopping. But, there she was, talking to Stan. She might as well have been a tiger for the value of her rarity in Danny’s life.
Later, the intrigue of seeing a prostitute in her native environment wore off, and Danny settled into resentment at Stan’s indiscretion. It wasn’t that he was a prude, or that he particularly cared where Stan bedded down, or how much he betrayed his wife and kids. It just seemed like an inappropriately unclean addition to his virgin crossing of the Atlantic.
“How’s the food?”
“It’s fine. Thanks.” Stan obviously hadn’t noticed that he had yet to touch his food. He stared down for a moment at the bowl of chicken and cheap macaroni and then ventured a bite. It tasted like everything else he had ever eaten on a boat – pre-packaged, bland and poorly executed. Still, it was the last of the fresh meat until they reached Bermuda, and he didn’t hate macaroni. Besides, the sooner he choked this down the sooner he could resume his watch at the helm. He scraped the bottom of the bowl clean and handed it down the companionway to his Dad, who was cleaning up in the galley. Everyone did galley work on Dad’s crews.
“How’re you feeling?”
He was grateful to his Dad for asking this quiet enough so Stan didn’t hear. He always wrestled with seasickness the first couple of days out. His Dad reassured him when he was younger that all the great ones had to deal with seasickness, even Nelson and Nimitz. “It’s just your body giving up on the land and accepting the sea,” his father would say. He loved that.
“I’m feeling fine. Can I take back the helm?”
“Eat this first. It will help keep things settled.”
His dad handed him a thick slice of bread they had bought from a street vendor in Madeira and a can of ginger ale. He accepted the bread and began chewing it down, each bite taking him closer to getting Stan off the helm. With the bread in his gut and the ginger ale tucked away in the front pocket of his foul weather gear he signaled to Stan he was ready to resume his watch.
“Well, you must have been hungry. You wolfed that down pretty fast. You sure you don’t want some more time?”
“No, thanks Stan. I’m ready to take her back.”
Stan read back the heading and stepped aside. Dan allowed himself to feel more than a little smug when he repeated the heading and the barometer reading and wind conditions, completing the parts of the turnover Stan had omitted.
“Okay Danny, you got her.” Stan broadened his toothy grin and leaned in close. “Just don’t let her fall off the wind again.”
Screw you Stan. “Okay, I’ve got her. Thanks.”
Dan was feeling pretty good, and pretty good about himself, as he settled back into his watch. The embarrassment and anger he had felt earlier subsided as he got back into a rhythm with the waves, and he enjoyed the feel of the salt spray as it pelted his back at the top of each crest. He didn’t feel any worries until his father emerged from the salon, where the HAM radio was still murmuring a weather advisory. His dad stared up at the sky, then at the sails, then the sky again. He tapped the barometer next to the companionway, then stared back up at sky, his eyes squinting and frown deepening. Dan had seen that look on his father’s face only a couple of times before: when his grandfather announced he had inoperable cancer, and before the storm off Cape Hatteras. Normally his dad could laugh at any setback, any challenge. It was only a really tough fight, with a truly uncertain outcome, that ever made his dad look serious, like he did now.
“Are we still going to run wing-on-wing?”
“No,” his dad replied. “The wind’s coming up too fast. We’d have too much on her, even if we shortened the sail.”
His dad stared back at the deepening blackness astern, then gave a jerky nod of his head. The frown and wrinkles disappeared and his normal, easy grin returned. He had made a decision.
“We’re going to have to bring her around into the wind, Dan. We’ll shorten down to the storm jib until this passes.”
Dan tightened his grip on the wheel in anticipation of the night’s efforts. His dad wouldn’t be shortening sail now if it wasn’t going to be a good storm. The wind gusted, blasting the back of Dan’s neck with cutting spray, as if to agree with his dad’s decision. Dan turned to look into the storm as the sloop crested, careful not to let the bow fall off like it had before. The sky and sea had become indistinguishable, blending into a single blur of shades in gray and black, cut only by lightning above and blowing foam below.
“Dan, you should go ahead and harness up,” his dad said, emerging from below, pulling on his foul weather jacket and carrying a pair of harnesses. “Let me take her while you get your harness on.”
Dan took the harness, two loops of nylon webbing for the shoulders and a wider strap to go around the chest, all held together by a stainless steel buckle that met in the center. He passed the wheel to his father, pulled the harness on and felt himself shiver with excitement as he cinched it tight around his chest.
“Make it off to the cleat. I’m going to need you to stay on the helm while Stan and I go forward.”
He obeyed his father’s order, connecting the carabiner on one end of the five-foot nylon tether to the buckle in the center of his chest, looping and snapping the other end through the cleat on the starboard side of the cockpit.
“Go ahead and start the engine, Dan. We’ll want it to keep the head up into the wind while Stan and I put on the storm jib and shorten the main.”
The Volvo diesel roared to life on command, adding its familiar thrum and vibration to the already lively feel of the sloop. While the engine warmed, Stan and his dad finished putting on their harnesses and made their tethers off to the two thin cable jack lines that ran forward along both sides of the deck. They crouched at the front of the cockpit, ready to move forward and work the sails.
“Alright Dan,” his dad yelled above the wind, “give her full throttle, and when you hit the next crest put the helm hard over to starboard and bring us around into the wind.”
Dan pushed the throttle forward and felt the engine increase its roar beneath his feet. He gripped the cold metal of the wheel in his hands and waited for the right moment to spin the wheel hard to starboard, to catch the momentum off the top of the wave and pivot the sloop on her keel to turn into the wind. The wave caught the sloop on its face, raised to its full height and slipped from beneath the keel just as the hull began to surf. Dan stood there, staring at the gray foam of the wave as it slipped from him, his hands feeling like dead slabs of meat on the wheel.
Stan, still crouched forward ready to move onto the deck, turned half sideways and smiled at him. Screw you very much Stan.
“Alright, Dan,” his father interjected, feeling his son’s embarrassment. “You turn her when you feel it.”
His dad’s words, his simple kindness, loosened Dan’s hands on the wheel, and he was ready for the crest of the next wave. He felt it rise beneath the transom, felt his gut sink as the hull accepted the face of the wave, and spun the wheel hard with his right hand just as the hull began to surf. The sloop answered her helm, balanced on her midships atop the crest with her bow out of the water, and pivoted gracefully as she slipped down the back side of the wave. His dad and Stan worked the main and jib sheets furiously, hauling in slack as the wind spilled from the sails. The propeller caught its full bite on the water in the trough of the wave and helped push the bow through the wind and into the face of the sea. As Dan reversed the wheel the relative quiet of running downwind was replaced by the deafening din of the wind whipping loose sails and rigging, a roar of canvas, steel, wind and water that made Dan stare open-mouthed into the blackness ahead.
“Hold her steady there, Dan,” his dad yelled above the wind. Dan watched his dad and Stan move forward on the pitching deck with the storm jib in its bag, the yellow of their foul weather gear and white of the deck slicing through the blackness of sea and sky with each rise and fall of the bow. The two men managed to haul down the jib and shove it through the forward hatch with an economy of movement that surprised Dan. He was jealous of Stan, being up there with his father, where he thought he should be, and he suppressed a laugh when Stan slipped on the deck and fell, tangled in his own harness. The mainsail skipped being furled and was taken down altogether and lashed to the boom, leaving the sloop’s spars naked until Stan and the skipper moved back forward to set the storm jib.
With the small triangle of the storm jib offering the only sail area the sloop was turned back downwind to run with the waves. Engine noise and the roar of the wind gave way once again to the hum of the rigging and the slice of the hull through the sea. Even as the waves continued to grow, even as the rollers gave way to sharply curled tops, the sloop skidded gracefully along the waves under the steadying force of the storm jib.
Dan stayed on the wheel without a break for the next three hours, enjoying the feel of the hull in its rise, surf and fall, the feel of the wind and spray in his hair, the power of the sea transmitted through the rudder to the wheel in his hands. For a few brief moments, when the movement of the hull, the look of the sky and the feel of the sea were just right, Dan felt insignificantly small and immeasurably great, helpless and invincible, at the cusp of death and immortality. These feelings had only been hinted at in Dan’s daydreams of glory, disaster and adventure. Not even Stan’s fat, smiling face could spoil the elation of staring down a storm that only God could quell.
Just when Dan felt he had surpassed the crucible beyond which there was no self-doubt, the old familiar feeling began to play on the back of his tongue. It started with the taste of cold metal, followed closely by a tingling on the back of his neck and a cold sweat inside his foul weather jacket. Five minutes later his dinner was rebelling against him, threatening to erupt in a very visible display of his weakness. The waves, the wind, the rhythmic movement of the hull – these all had made him feel invincible only moments before. Now each roll and pitch made him feel like he’d been kicked in the balls. Each gust of wind iced his spine. Sweat began to run in cold trickles down his back. He knew it was only a matter of time until his dinner made a return appearance, but he was determined to make it through the rest of his watch.