June 25, 2010
By Craig Spencer
Grebes paddle before the bow as “Phyllis,” my Sabb Norwegian two-cylinder diesel engine, provides the steady thumping pace. Old Hand steams into the channel, giving the south shore sands a wide berth. Once past the red nun marking the southern extent of Tyee Shoal, I head up and raise the jib and staysail before falling off on a port tack, close-hauled into a 12-knot northerly breeze.
Something in us is endlessly departing into the rarefied air of spiritual quest, and the soul is forever receding into mythic seas on courses, set in youth, upon imaginal meridians.
“Ready to come about, Mr. Spencer, and try to keep us off the beach at Yeomalt Point.”
I have a habit of addressing myself like this when alone at sea. But sometimes, between captain and first mate there are mutinies that need be put down with a firm hand.
Call him/me, Captain McWhirr.
Turning to port, I reach through the wheelhouse door to let go the starboard jib sheet and secure the flogging jib on the opposite tack, and we settle into an easy groove with Yeomalt Point looming off the bow.
“Steady it is, Captain.”
Every casting off, no matter how modest the voyage, holds the promise of high adventure. Grand embarkations, like Watteau’s Voyage to Cytheria, show jaded yet frolicsome gentry waltzing down to a moored lugger awaiting passage to Aphrodite’s fair isle. Epic Adieus rings down through the ages. There’s Agamemnon’s dramatic farewell and blood kin offered to the gods for a fair breeze toward the final act on Windy Troy. Oaths hurled into the wind’s teeth bring down the curtain. Soliloquies are delivered in drawn-out scenes at the taffrail, and drawn swords are brandished against a blood-red sky in an ultimate Hollywood departure.
“Prepare to come about. We’ll never make our offing at Yeomalt Point if you don’t stop dreaming and skip lively, mate.” McWhirr is testy this morning.
“Ready about it is, sir.”
Under her gracefully curving genoa, the brilliant-white hull of a classic yawl glides over green water dappled with cobalt blue reflections of sky, as she runs before the freshening breeze toward Tyee Light.
Now we are on an easterly heading toward the shipping lanes and Magnolia Bluffs beyond, to gain easting before the long board past Skiff Point. But the wind is backing to northward and we may not make it with out Phyllis’s assistance.
The wind continues to freshen, and after another tack, Old Hand is pounding into seas made steep by the wild contention of wind and tide, hell-bent on making our offing clear of the rapidly drying shingle on Skiff Point. Through the port shrouds, gulls and herons gather on the mudflats of Murden Cove, only now showing with the fast ebbing tide.
Gabriel stands at the North Wind’s gate, and delegates his power to the spirit of air surrounding the earth. In Virgil’s day, these spirits were called daemons and were counterpoint to the beneficent influence of the Archangel guarding that quarter.
The atmosphere was electric that September morning in Laguna. I stood in front of Dad’s house and looked over the expanse of ocean spreading before a clear blue sky and beheld long lines of swells advancing from the far south. Carrying my fins and kneeboard, I walked down Virginia Way past chicken shacks, bamboo and peacocks strutting in the dust of Southern California real estate, to the steps at the top of the 10th Street break.
It’s the same travail Aeneas underwent in founding the promised land of Alba Longa and begetting the vast progeny that, to this day, rules the occident as decreed by the All Mighty.
On the beach, all was deserted. All appeared benign enough until, far out on the horizon, on a reef I’d not known existed, a deep-blue line approached and lifted to a height that seemed to touch the empyrean’s lofty manor.
Oh, my god.
Huge green walls stood up on Mysto Reef, peeling with uncanny precision from left to left to right, and the shore break was a raging mass of white foam tossing lobster pots and wrecked galleons.
Why must we hurl ourselves into the spume at Neptune’s mercy, when we might be placidly lounging, beer in hand, before the latest remake of the same old sea story, far from even the remotest chance of drowning? There’s something that calls like the siren’s Lydian melodies from behind this storm. A whole cast of characters inform this chubasco, transmitting knowledge from the primal intelligence and crashing in tumultuous fury upon my young person to chasten and reprove.
“Blast it, lad, we’ll have to make another eastward tack to make our offing.”
McWhirr’s hail rouses me from reflection to see his stark profile etched against the sky, grasping the weather shrouds with overly dramatic emphasis. Indeed, the wind backing further to the north is rapidly putting us on Skiff Point.
The horizon darkens cerulean blue with the advancing swell. Waters around me eddy and swirl as the towering face jacks up on Mysto Reef. Lifting its translucent arch skyward, the massive wave breaks like the crack of doom as indignant pelicans take flight.
The following sea bears down like Judgment Day, forever stalled in mid-career; a constant moment leaving me spellbound by its lofty grandeur. I’m lifted high on the watery messenger from Africus’s torrid zone that’s come to break in a crescendo of spume on my hometown beach. Far down the glistening green wall I behold the western realm of infinite light and repose.
Where has he gone, that apparitional self, who looked into the hollow maw of fear?
In a garage sale, in a dream, I found my old copy of the Aeneid among carved wooden heads intoning prophesies from a laurel-shaded altar.
In his wheelchair, Dad held vigil from a South Laguna hill, searching the horizon for whales. A watch held in his once stout heart, vestige of the ancient clan, now closeted amid the holies like an old hat. There, shelves of brown lore lay darkening in the suburbs, now dusted off for our perusal, only in dreams.
On the cover was Baskin’s drawing of Anchises, hoisted on the shoulders of his fated son, fleeing the streets of burning Troy.
“We are becalmed, mate.” McWhirr’s voice seems far away.
“I thought there was always a breeze in Port Madison.” I say.
“Always a memory of one, anyway.”
The boom swings and the mainsail flogs to the sound of pans clattering below. To the north, an abomination of a container ship rounds Jefferson Head, pushing a bright bow wave as it turns southeasterly past the Sierra Foxtrot buoy.
McWhirr, taking his pipe out of his mouth, says, “How about we crank up old Phyllis and motor over to Indianola Marsh and drop the hook?” Ducking below, I release the compression levers and bear down on them again as Phyllis springs to life with a steady, thumping rhythm. Now back on deck, I uncleat the topping lift and drop the main boom onto the gallows before going forward to lower the jib and secure it to the stanchions. Returning to the pilot house to turn the wheel to starboard, I head for the anchorage just off the marsh, passing sodden fishermen tending lines hung over bent gunwales, looking bereft of hope for even an anemic cod.
“Three fathoms. Let go here, Mr. Spencer.”
“Aye Captain!” I send the CQR anchor splashing into the depths and pay out 12 fathoms of chain. Old Hand slowly turns to face northeast.
“The flood has set in already,” observes McWhirr while taking bearings off Point Monroe.
The clouds have lifted to the east where the sky turns violet before falling off to slate gray above the snow-covered Cascade Range. Gulls wheel their plaintive cry overhead, forward of the starboard bow.
“Have I ever told you about the wave I caught in Laguna?”
“I seem to recall the one you didn’t.”
Let it go then. That was another lifetime. Another has signed on as swab this voyage. I was but a nipper who beheld the hollow countenance of Saturn in the form of a towering breaker long spent on a Southern California shore. Just as now, he faces down from the northern black clouds; a stern-inverted profile mirrored on the sea. He’s rough-hewn on the rocky peak yonder, endlessly stumping his sluggish round and enclosing our modest endeavors like the laurel tree’s shadow circling over the household gods, ever counter to the golden sun.
“Guess I’ll turn in. Goodnight Mr. Spencer.”
“And pleasant dreams to you, Captain.”
McWhirr goes below and soon the stillness is broken only by his regular snore.
I hear a rush of air from over the rail. A fine mist shoots up and hangs, dispersing into the black sky, before gently closing over the deep-sounding whale’s back.
It’s a spirit spout beckoning our ship toward far latitudes where the dark isle enfolds my father’s wrack. The whale left this memento falling back into the source this gentle night, calling us to the eminence beyond the eastern mountains. What salvation can we hope for from that quarter? What windy advent heralds vistas brighter for being reborn? I see beyond the blue peaks to a presence shining from the Seraphim’s mansions, an Orient that looms all the more lucid for its absolute inscrutability. I drift off with Old Hand’s easy rocking on the waves abeam.
The night is a vast inter-tidal zone, where I lie aground in dreams until a remembrance intoned, as if from a wooden head inside my own, sings: “Wake from the dream of life and see.”
“Watch yer jibe, ya square-headed flounder!”
Looking up at the lifting boom, I turn the wheel to weather and it settles again to horizontal.
“That’s better, lad, ye’ll be a sailor before long.”
I’ve a mind to tell McWhirr he’s an imperious old stiff. But there’s no call to sulk this fine Spring day.
The genoa blossoms before the following breeze like the sweet buds of May. As McWhirr scans the far horizon, I venture a change of subject:
“Last night there was a spirit spout rising into the sky.”
“Aye, sure as I’m standin’ here.”
“What’s all this about Anneas? Wasn’t he a Roman?”
“A Trojan, sir.”
“And what has he to do with this voyage?”
“I don’t know, Cap’n.”
“Then I suggest you leave off dreaming and mind your course in the here-and-now, old son.”
McWhirr is not given to associative thought, being a gnarly old salt with little tolerance for nonsense, lording it over my left hemisphere.
President Point is abeam and the Kingston ferry can be seen heading east three miles ahead.
“Better get some rest, lad, as we won’t be raising the canal before dark.”
I go below and fall out on the pilot berth.
The porthole admits golden coins of sunlight playing about the deckbeams as I gaze at the weatherglass mounted on the bulkhead. Cloudy vapors churn and strange turbid forms emerge from the glass’s hylic mist-like foam lifted against the windblown sea in a spray of rainbow light. Waves rise and fall with a gentle caress on the ocean’s mirror and the virgin, newly risen from the engulfing flood, floats before me with the elegant symmetry of old Mexican icons. It was her three tears dropped in widening circles on the Sea of Suffering that caused erring sailors to lift their eyes to higher spheres where mercy reigns supreme. She is called Our Lady of the Reef.
Goddess, grant that I may descend the shadowy realm and again take my dear father’s hand. Your tears forever engraved on the waters’ fluid face left this cypher—a testament to your power to guide my pilgrimage. Dad’s image rose before me, drawing me to this quest among these shades. Along the shore his bones still roll with the tides’ uneasy flow. From San Pedro docks he fought to stem the pachuco tide, defending baseball and satanic chemical industry. It is for me alone to give the proper rites that he may rest peacefully in the verdant Elysian grove. It was foretold that his ghostly hands held the last strand in the long thread binding this epic yarn.
I’d driven 60 miles west over arid washboard road, past boojums and datillo in my scoolbus-yellow VW van, listening to 60s surf music and breathing dust. Past checkpoints manned by green-clad boys with machine guns glinting, past bones of donkeys bleached by the unrelenting sun, until the sea breeze cleared my vision and a vast estuary opened on the blue Pacific.
Abreojos is a small fishing village of plywood shacks on the Baja Coast, where grinding barrels break over shallow reefs and the wind howls blue blazes every afternoon, throwing white rooster tails off the backs of the steep waves. The town has a fishing co-op, but their only boat broke up on the rocks when, after a tequila-fueled celebration, a storm caught them napping. Now, the fore section of its big hull lay on the main town playa, a caution to all who fail to keep a weather-eye out for the Chubasco’s wrath. A caution against disunity of purpose among various aspects of someone or something.
Abreojos. The town’s name seems especially apt. It means “open eyes,” and the longer I stayed in the village, the more my eyes opened to its stark beauty.
There’s an old graveyard on the dunes south of the village where gaudily painted tombs hold the remains of dead fishermen. Glass-covered niches in whitewashed sepulchres hold relics of its tenants’ lives—baseball gloves, plastic action figures or a cheap guitar to commemorate their passions and ease their dark journey into the next world.
The clear light of the full moon bleached the strand white as I walked south along the path winding through thorny scrub and appliances half-buried in the shifting sands, to the high-dunes base. The hush of night enclosed my passage to the graveyard gate and my shadow rose before me as I ascended the hill. An albedo moon, washing the night sky clear and charring the hollows blacker than black hung silent in the luminous sky.
The hum of planets whirled above and the wingbeat of phantoms flitted around my head. The air was filled with swirling breezes telling of fishermen’s ghosts hovering among these dunes, mending starry nets and singing the old Mexican birthday song.
In daytime, the graveyard is a riot of color revealed with garish splendor by the high-noon sun. By night, darkness obscures the stoney epitaph and shadows hover over all. By day, the wind-blasted salt flats glare with a cruel clarity burning the eyes. The thousand phantoms the night discloses withdraw in sunlight and take their repose, sleeping peacefully under plastic flowers, a threat no more to pious souls.
What truth do these images reveal? The broken hull, the bleached tombs, the revelation of Our Lady of the Reef? What visible expression of the invisible?
It was your image, come in deams, dear Father, that set my course toward your dark habitation. I long to clasp your hand once more and learn the fate of our future clan.
Three times I have tried to nail this story. Three times its vain words have left me grasping at empty air. Like you, I struggle to find expression of an unamed, ancient rage. Like you, I transmute the leaden ore of misshapen phrases—these avowals of love from the heart’s golden core.
McWhirr rouses me with his loud hail. “Ready to jibe mate!”
“All ready, Cap’n.”
I haul in the mainsheet as Mcwhirr turns the helm, presenting Old Hand’s port quarter to the fresh southerly breeze. We are making a good run past Appletree Point and the fishing boats off Point No Point can be seen five miles beyond the starboard bow. We are rolling wildly now in the wake of a passing ship and from below comes a cacaphony of pots and pans.
McWhirr’s weathered face is a study of angular detail as he looks at the chart.
“We should make Foulweather Bluff by nightfall.”
“Would you care for crumpets and tea, Captain?”
“Does the haddock fly? Make it nice and strong. We’ll need it for this night’s passage.”
On Old Hand, tea is observed with the decorum of high ritual, and to shirk tea duty incurs the displeasure of Captain McWhirr. Nothing better than tea and salt horse as The Ventures regale the crew with sonic arppegios and soaring reverb, while porpoises frolic at the bow.
© Craig Spencer 2010. All rights reserved.
Craig Spencer is an artist from Bainbridge Island, Washington. He lives on his sailboat, Old Hand, and paints what he sees and feels.