Ode to a sailor…
Over the many years in our travels, we have had the pleasure of meeting many different men and women; only occasionally do we meet other families. You see, families aboard a boat are a rarity and always have been. I wonder now, looking back, if that was why I was picked out from the many other boaters? I wonder now, looking back, if that was why he liked me?
It is not to say this old sailor wasn’t a friendly man. He was. I saw him sit on other boats and enjoy a beverage. He would say ‘hello’ to any that passed him by. If you needed an extra pair of hands on a project, he would be there in an instant. But for some reason, this old sailor seemed to take a special interest in me. One day he told me, in his typically quiet voice and cocked smile, “I would like to show you some pictures… when you have time."
‘Time?’ I had a lot of things, but time was not one of them. We were trying to get out of Saint Petersburg. Our window was closing for our run to the Bahamas or places further south. We were pinched between life, reality, and dreams – with each taking a higher priority depending on the moment and the project. Days passed, then weeks. I dare say a month or two went by when one afternoon, while I was hanging upside down from my solar panels, I looked out and saw him standing beside the boat - a picture album in hand.
“Are you busy?” he asked.
“No,” I lied. “Come on aboard.”
This old sailor opened his well-worn album and began showing me a series of grainy photos. He showed me a boat he had made with his own hands. He showed me his wife and his children steering a course in tall seas. He showed me remote islands across the pacific, bananas given to him by a distant tribe, and his kids running along some exotic shore or swimming an uncharted reef… few of which I had ever heard the names of. Yet the old sailor knew them all, especially the tribes and locals that took his family in as one of their own. These cracked pictures were the exploits of a cruiser over half a century earlier.
He did this without a color chartplotter. He did not have a GPS. There was no radar, no watermaker, no IPOD or Satellite phone. He didn’t even have a life raft. There were no such things back then. He sailed across the ocean using the stars and sun to guide him. He read old maps by lamplight, if he had the map at all. He got his drinking water from the clouds and prepared for the storms by studying the barometer. And while this achievement alone was remarkable, that he took his young family with him was extremely exceptional. Why? Because when you go to sea with your family around you, the tiller in your hand holds everything precious in life. There is no, ‘I am sorry’. They pay for your mistakes with you. So a father who takes his children beyond the safety of land must know his boat, he must know his capabilities, and he must know himself. It is a thing hard to explain to those who have not done it, yet he had. Not only had he done it, he had done it in a time and in a way few others dared to try. It is a mark of seamanship beyond the stretch of most of us today. Certainly my pitiful little accomplishments and life raising children afloat did not scratch the surface of what he had achieved. It never would.
Yet, all things come to an end and as the afternoon waned, so did the pages of time. He stepped off the boat and thanked me for letting him share his past – and I quickly corrected him that it was I who was thankful. I don’t know why, but he walked down the dock with a curious spring in his step, as if the conversation had somehow given him new energy or lightened an invisible load he carried. I watched him walk away with a new found respect for the quiet sailor who accomplished so much but spoke of it so little. That was almost a year ago.
A few days back I heard the news: the old sailor, whose cocked smile and picture album I will never forget, had died. He now sails through a sea of stars towards the wife he so badly missed. It is a destination we all make alone, through an ocean whose only boundaries are those of our memories, to an island whose shore is filled with those that went before us. Yet back here, where that sea still rages wild, I wonder how many more old sailors sit quietly by the wayside - their exploits in life spectacular but unheralded? Behind all their eyes is a photo album waiting to be opened. And while their camera may no longer take the same breathtaking shots, I plan to see more of those pictures before they have completely faded.