The ruts and tracks of life are made early, and mine never led to sea, so I don't know what others lose and find there. The oceans—Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and so forth—which call others like Roland passionately blowing on his horn are, to me, as oppressive as dark rooms full of old, heavy furniture. What can you say about the sea? "High interiors and kelpy bottoms"? Chekhov said that you can say nothing significant about the sea except that it is big. But the sea is also—out of sight of land and off maps—perfectly round. Sailors call it the round locker. Traveling, one remains in its center as though fixed with a pin.
Several weeks before crossing from San Pedro, Calif. to Honolulu on the 55-foot yawl Santana, in the Transpacific race, I was swimming at Key Biscayne, Fla. I wore a reed hat in the water that completely covered my face, the hat apparently floating, like an old bird's nest, on the Atlantic. Its brim, my horizon, was three inches from my lips. I moved within that silent shade, unaware of gain or tidal loss, and it was that way on the Santana. Her horizons were 20 miles off, but her sea and illusory progress were the same. Santana had the broad, variable sky for a hat: after sunset, great fires burning beyond the sea's melancholy rim, clouds and apocalyptic shafts and strokes of light, squalls with black manes of rain, a bos'n bird, its tail a knitting needle, fluttering about the masthead, never seen approaching or noticed departing, more omen than bird.
The sea, too, in itself is quiet. Even in the most remote part of the land you can hear something—an insect's minor progress, a dislodged stone. At sea the noise is from the boat, the junction of the boat with wind and water, sea or rain.
And, to a sailor's purposes, the ocean is empty. This is a catalog of all the living things we saw during our 12 days' passage. One whale blowing dispiritedly, its spout a feeble, windy fountain in its old, soft gray head. Flying fish. One came aboard; it was only an inch long but perfectly formed, its back as blue and shining as the sea it flew wildly out of, its eyes immense, round, blind in its dying, its wings, when we spread them, no larger than a bee's. A narrow, silver fish that washed into the cockpit at night; we shone the flashlight on it, held It speculatively and then threw it back, but it was already dead. A squid. It came in over the weather rail. I fished with it from the stern when the sun rose, but it was quickly torn from the hook. Three bugs; one on the underside of a hatch cover, another vanishing down a cockpit drain, the last in the fo'c'sle. Albatrosses with white faces like clowns. Shearwaters. Little petrellike birds. Bos'n birds. Spots of phosphorescence in the wake betraying anatomies. And one white bird searching like prudent Noah's dove. Many days we saw nothing.
I now sit in a hotel in Waikiki, with green mountains and the roar of air conditioners at my back. The sea is the other way, beyond the wall, but I feel its tug at night; I dream about boats, which I have never dreamed of before, and the bed and carpeted floor tilt like Santana's, decks. It is as if some fundamental remnant of the Pacific still washed in my bilges and responded like the tide. I am back, huddled in the cockpit in the dark with the starboard watch. We sit about it like old men with pale feet in a bathtub, past reflection and communication: all has been said and all seen; they stare at their toes because toes have no meaning. We have said nothing and won't; we are like preserves in ajar. It is an intimacy only of bodies. What have we in common but the heaving boat, a thermos of coffee and dreams of the islands? Of course, I speak for myself here, as always. We were four strangers meeting by convention like a Geneva commission, polite on account of manners or the unbearable consequences of violating, by honesty or rudeness, the equanimity of our confinement, desperately telling jokes one after another as though we were lost and blowing on our last fire, laughing uproariously, giggling, listening to cheap night music, when we could find it, on Babe's radio and, for hours in the cloudy nights, silent.
Babe said it was sometimes just as well not to talk too much. He told of a screwy kid who drove everyone below with his endless, inane chatter, except the old man who hung on grimly at the wheel. Finally the kid was quiet until he saw two sea gulls flying off in opposite directions. "Look at those gulls," he told the old man. "I wonder if they'll ever see each other again." The old man swore, abandoned the wheel and went below.
The jokes; how many did we tell before we ran out—500? All this was when the boat was nearly level, when we were running before the northeast trades, those elusive winds. In the beginning, when we were reaching, the wind blowing on the starboard beam, I sat braced by the weather rail, the seas sluicing under my foul-weather gear, singing, within my hood, all the songs I knew. Babe and Sam sang from time to time, too. Then the Santana was driving, the sea seething like smoke along the lee rail, the bow waves red and green from our running lights, the big genoa, mainsail and little mizzen staysail full and drawing. "Niner. Niner," we cried as the Kenyon, the nautical speed indicator, showed nine knots. I was known as Toots Kenyon, ludicrously got up in flannel pajama bottoms beneath Bermudas as though dressed for a roller derby—all my other clothes were soaked—for my feet were always in front of the Kenyon, that round idol. When we flew—we had five straight days of making more than 200 nautical miles—it brought to mind a photograph of Whirlaway that hangs in New York bars. The caption reads: "FOUR FEET OFF THE GROUND...AND FLYING."
On our fifth day, before the wind turned and squalls overtook us and drove us north, we were fourth in the fleet of 41 boats on corrected time and second in Class B. Then we were stalled in great, slatting flats, listening to the artillery of the sails, wincing at the sudden spasms of gear, jibing, the port watch tumbling out, spreader lights casting wacky shadows on the ocean, the foredeck a hurrah's nest of sail and line as we wallowed, sick with rage, barely making headway. We eventually finished 19th and sixth in our class.
In this discouraging weather Babe, that useful man, was at the wheel above the amphitheater of the binnacle. There the compass rose bloomed, red and strange, floating in glycerine and water. Babe said he expected to see a tiny skin-diver swimming in it some night. When Babe looked up, his cigarette end seemed to be a single fiery eye in the middle of his forehead. Babe, the professional, his full beard the color of beer, strong, knobby fingers shaped like those of one of the great apes, ruins of cheeks caved in curiously like arroyos, eyes the color of his faded jeans, big, soapy teeth, a reliable, proficient and handsome man, quiet—you could hardly hear him on the foredeck—a leader if he chose (but professionals are not permitted to command, and so he patiently endured). By trade a maintainer of boats, he would later sail the Santana home. Painter of marine scenes, reciter of Masefield, singer of Tahitian songs, woodcarver and shoemaker and so forth, he lives with his clever, pretty wife 98 steps up a hill in Tiburon, Calif., raccoons in his attic. People asked him what he did in real life.
Al was watch captain—Alvadore, after Alvadore, an ancestor, after a popular Civil War song, or so he said, Alvadore, My Commodore. Alvadore, Ore. is named after Al. A thick, powerful man with daintily rolled sleeves, he worked for Wally, the Santana's owner and captain, in the oil business. Somehow he resembled the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. Al always said, "Oh, very well. Whatever's customary." He told us he learned it from an Aussie. Too, everyone he has met seems to have turned out to be a "hell of a nice guy." Sam, an Oakland obstetrician and gynecologist', was the fourth member of the starboard watch: big and tangle-footed and the most obliging, accommodating, eager man I have ever known.