This is the fourth 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.
Copyright James R. Neal 2017
The sloop sailed on, surfing and wallowing, rising and falling in obedience to the sea. By midnight the hull was surfing wildly on the face of the growing waves, white phosphorescence from shattered wave tops offering the only light under the smothering sky. The skipper knew the hull could surf only so fast before losing control on the face of the wave, and he set about towing warp lines and the sloop’s spare anchor to slow her speed and keep her head safely downwind. Dan desperately wanted to help set the warps, to prove his worth to Stan, to his father, to the storm, to God – to himself.
When his dad crawled forward to retrieve the anchor and rode he made an earnest attempt at getting up from his wet berth in the cockpit, but succeeded only in rising to a sitting position and hyperventilating under Stan’s watchful eye. When his dad returned to the cockpit, carrying coils of chain and line and anchor, he climbed around Dan without offering him a word or look. The skipper continued aft, where he made off the line, threw the anchor into the sea and slowly paid out the full length of rode.
The three deep spoons of the Bruce anchor and the weight of the rode helped slow and steady the sloop on its downhill run. Despite the roar of the wind and the constant pelting of rain and spray the sloop’s progress felt steady and controlled, and Dan began to console himself for his weakness. He was off-watch, after all. He had a right to rest, and the boat was sailing fine. He was weathering the storm in the cockpit, when others might have cowered below. The continued torment in his gut began to take on an air of pride – his green badge of courage. He even stole a few bits of sleep from the storm, and felt more alive each time he woke. This recaptured and fragile satisfaction was blown apart along with the storm jib in the darkest hour of the night.
Dan was ripped from sleep by the sound of the storm jib ripping into ribbons, the suddenly slackened sheets beating against the aluminum mast like a thousand hammer-wielding demons. Sail cloth that had been held tight against the wind now whipped with the sound of countless gunshots. Dan stared into the darkness, mesmerized and frozen. The sloop suddenly seemed very small, fragile and horribly wounded. She screamed defiantly into the night, the bosom of her jib slicing the night like razors. Through the noise Dan became vaguely aware of his father yelling his name.
Dan continued to stare at the shreds of the storm jib. He was snapped back into the task at hand by his safety harness, the firm grip of his father yanking him off the cockpit seat.
“Can’t you hear me? Take the damn wheel!”
“Yes sir,” he managed to spit out. He wasn’t in the habit of calling his dad ‘sir,’ but it seemed appropriate now.
Stan, roused from sleep by the commotion, stumbled out of the companionway, pulling on his foul weather jacket. The two men went forward to wrestle the remains of the sail back onto deck, leaving Dan alone at the wheel. Without the power of the storm jib the sloop was left with only the warps to keep her head pointed downwind, making the rudder, and the hands that now held the wheel, utterly useless. All Dan could offer was to keep the rudder amidships, and watch as his dad and Stan slipped, cursed and fought the wind to bring in the sail.
He clung to the wheel, hoping to find some purpose in his tight grip on the steel, but all he felt was the churning of his gut and gnawing weakness in his legs. By the time his dad and Stan returned to the cockpit he was barely upright, dry-heaving in the general direction of the bucket. His dad took the wheel from him, and lashed the wheel amidships with the mainsail sheet. Having been replaced by a short stretch of line, Dan followed his dad’s order and retired below, out of the way, leaving the men to tend the sloop through the storm. He spent the rest of the night in his foul weather gear on the salon settee, wedged into place by sail bags that had been hastily bundled into the salon in advance of the storm.
He lay there awake, listening to Stan work, talk and swear with his father. He should have been up there, but he had fallen short. He had failed to earn his place up there, with the men. Several times he considered climbing the companionway ladder to join them. By early morning the storm was waning, and his stomach had settled enough he could have easily made the climb and joined them. But something else held him back. He no longer felt like he belonged – not with them, not in the cockpit, not in the company of men commanding a fragile craft on the open sea.
Only hours before he had trembled with previously unknown feelings of anticipation, of rising to the occasion of so many tales and characters – real and fictional – from so many dreams and aspirations of the man he would become. He had felt himself ready to cross that barrier, to stand in the company of those whose example he yearned to follow – most of all his first and present skipper, his father. But laying there in his foul weather gear, too tired and ashamed to shed it, he knew the goal of his own manhood still lay ahead of him.
Shortly before sunrise the storm gave its last gasp and then blew itself out, leaving only gently undulating rollers and a faint breeze behind. Dan had finally managed to drift off to sleep and was wakened by the sound of the mainsail being hauled up its track on the mast. He pulled himself up from the settee, feeling weak and sore from a night of heaving, but settled enough to make himself useful. He slowly climbed the companionway to the cockpit and clearly made out his dad and Stan in the gray pre-dawn hauling the warps in over the taffrail.
“Dan, bring the jib up with you,” his dad said, speaking over his shoulder from the stern. “We’ll need to get some more sail on her.”
Dan climbed back down the ladder, pulled the jib bag from the pile on the settee and dragged it up the companionway ladder. The simple task of retrieving the sail bag put strength back in his legs, and he forgot the dead feeling in his gut as he pulled the sail into the cockpit. He made his way to the wheel, thinking to make himself useful there while his dad and Stan went forward to set the jib.
“Let Stan take the wheel,” his dad said, pausing to squeeze his shoulder with a large, weathered hand. “Help me get the jib up.”
Dan peeled off his foul weather coat and followed his dad forward, grateful for the chance to work with him, and for the 35 feet of separation from Stan. The white jib was crisp with salt, and had to be bent and pushed into place by father’s and son’s hands as they connected the bronze hanks onto the forestay. Once connected, the sail was hauled up easily, with Dan pulling in slack on the halyard and his dad working the winch, and it filled to its familiar taut shape in the early morning breeze.
“Thanks for the help, Danny.” His dad didn’t call him Danny very often. It seemed right, just then, standing on focs’l with the hull bobbing in a pace that felt slow and lazy after the night’s storm. The eastern sky was just beginning to take on the first red tint of dawn, while the sky ahead was still dotted with low-hanging stars.
“Sorry I wasn’t much help last night,” Dan said in a soft voice, his hands shoved deep into his overalls.
“Don’t get down on yourself, Dan. You did what we needed you to do.”
“I wasn’t doing much, except the puking,” Dan replied with a slight smile.
“Everybody has things they can’t control, Dan,” his dad said in a low, even voice.
His dad nudged him with his elbow, and added, smiling, “Puking every time the wind comes up just happens to be one of yours.” He paused and rested his hand on his son’s shoulder. “What matters is how you get back up – right now, the morning after you get knocked down. It’s all in how you keep going.”
Dan nodded silently, and relaxed at the feel of his father’s hand roughly slapping him on the shoulder.
“Can you take the morning watch? Stan and I need to get some sleep.”
“Yes, I can take her,” Dan said, his smile broadening with the faintest warmth of sunrise on his back.
“Good,” his dad said, appraising his son with warm eyes. “I knew you could. Your gut okay?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I’ll go take the helm.”
Dan made his way back to the cockpit, smiling, and turned over the watch with Stan. With his dad’s words, his renewed sense of purpose and the golden glow of the sun just tipping the horizon, Dan didn’t have room left to hate Stan. He was just glad to have the wheel back in his hands, and the feel of a reason for being on board, even if he hadn’t weathered the storm all that well.
Stan and the skipper quickly ate bowls of oatmeal and peanut butter sandwiches, then turned the cockpit over to Dan and retired below.
“Thanks, Dan. Try to eat something. I’ll see you in a few hours.” His dad flashed him one last smile, then disappeared down the companionway.
Dan took comfort from the feel of the wheel in his hands, once again taking pride in control of the sloop’s course in the ocean. This feeling of renewed purpose was short-lived. The ocean, which had spent its fury through the course of the night, seemed determined to give in to rest, just as the men who had turned in below. By the time the sun had risen half its diameter above the horizon the wind had fallen from a gentle breeze to a feeble whisper that left the sails hanging flaccid, the boom rocking gently and the halyards slapping the mast in the remains of the following sea. It was as if the ocean had misjudged her strength, and having exerted herself beyond limit, had no recourse but to lay flat, crestfallen and barely able to draw her own breath.