When a man gets to a certain age, it is time for him to set out on his own, or at least that is what he tried to tell himself as he readied his boat for the journey. He had been sailing these seas with his father since the day he could walk, he knew them better than he knew the land. Of course, where he was going, he would eventually leave his home waters, and that is where the test of his strength and abilities would come in.
His vessel might have been ready but it took a few more days before the winds were right for his passage. It was a warm clear night and the moon had just risen when he was awoken by the thick perfume of flowers in the air, the winds had finally shifted, it was time to go.
This wasn’t her dream. It was his. But cancer took all their dreams in one cruel sweep over the course of a short two month period. She meant to put the boat up for sale and just as she put pen to paper to sign the brokerage deal she stopped. She sent the disappointed salesman on his way and sat alone in the cockpit. Eyes closed, she could hear him whisper to her, “Mariah, this is my happy place. You, me, the open ocean and the stars. Thank you for believing in my dream.”
She enrolled in sailing classes. First with groups, then with a private instructor on their boat. She gained a confidence and strength that she never knew she had but even more so, a profound sense of joy that slowly overcame her grief.
Soon she was solo-sailing. Day sails led to overnight trips between the islands where she learned to rely on her electronics as she catnapped between watches. One year to the day that he died, she cast off the dock lines for good.
A small village of people met him by the water to watch him cast off. The sky was clear and he could see every star echoed in the inky black sea, giving the illusion that he was sailing into the heavens. The moon was creeping higher in the sky, casting a long white beacon across the water that seemed to point the way over the ocean, to the island chain he knew lay out there, waiting for him. As he stole one last glance back at those still watching from the shore, he felt a renewed sense of confidence and smiled to himself before returning his gaze back to the horizon. It was time to focus on the journey that lay ahead.
For several weeks he sailed toward the line where the water met the sky, but one morning he suddenly he awoke to a new sound, an almost imperceptible change in the way the water was rushing against the hull, and he knew he only had a few hours to get ready. By early afternoon his suspicions were confirmed by a wall of dark clouds that had gathered in the distance and were slowly marching across the sky toward him. By the time the sun set the winds had picked up, it was going to be a long night. He secured his boat as well as he could, and by the early hours of the morning the storm was upon him. There was nothing more he could do but hang on as his vessel was tossed across the sea.
There was no bon voyage party. She’d said her goodbyes over the past week and wanted this moment to be hers alone. She had sold their beloved Hawaiian beachfront home, all of the furniture and her car; everything she owned was now tucked into 37 feet of wood and canvas.
Leaving with the outgoing tide meant departing before dawn. The cloud cover was low so not even the stars gave off light. She motored for a few hours wondering if this was a good decision. As the islands disappeared in her wake, the skies cleared to reveal a sun rising in a blaze of reds and oranges. She hauled up the sails and on the freshening breeze was sure she heard her husband’s happy sigh.
Over the coming weeks she developed a routine of checking the weather patterns via the daily reports from NOAA, locating her exact longitude and latitude position from nightly celestial navigation sightings, and marking her course on a paper chart. He had taught her to always have a backup to electronics, just in case. She wasn’t worried. She was right on track to reach Tahiti as planned. So when a sudden “THUD” knocked her from her catnap in her berth below, she raced topside, grabbing her binoculars.
He was awoken by the sun beating down on his face, the storm had passed, but something was wrong, he couldn’t feel the ocean swell beneath his boat. Slowly he opened his eyes to survey his surroundings and was relieved to find he was still surrounded by water. He sat up to get a better look and his heart sank. He was on a reef. It would only be a matter of time before the waves would pound his boat to pieces against the sharp coral; it was too dangerous to stay here. He felt resigned to his fate as he grabbed all he could carry and wrapped it up in a square of torn sail before diving into the clear blue water of the lagoon that lay between the reef and the small sandy island it protected.
She was on a reef. It was definitely not on the charts, nor was the teeny spit of sand with a grove of dense trees a short swim away. One look told her that this was irreparable and she would have to abandon ship. She deployed her life raft and quickly filled it with her ditch bag and as many necessities as it would hold.
Once safely ashore on the tiny island he went about the arduous task of setting up a shelter, this was not a skill he had prepared for. He gathered driftwood from the beach and carried it deep into the jungle, searching for a safe place, protected from the fleeting whims of the ocean. The load was heavy, and occasionally he stopped to take a rest and carve a symbol into a nearby tree, a square curved in at the corners, the mark of home. It would help guide him along this path.
Eventually he came to a clearing, just beyond a stream, where the canopy of trees suddenly parted to reveal the blue sky above. This was the place; he set about building his shelter.
She dragged the life raft high onto the sand and set off to figure out shelter as the tropical rain poured down in a deluge. She came upon a break in the tree line and followed what looked like a path. A carving on a tree trunk caught her eye, a square with rounded corners, then another and another as she wound her way deeper into the thick foliage. She was caught by surprise when the path suddenly opened to a clearing where pieces of driftwood covered in clinging vines formed a small hut. She took refuge inside and found the remains of roughly made furniture and a fire pit. Someone had obviously lived there.
By the time he was done the sun was nearly set and he picked up a conch shell he had salvaged from his wrecked boat, placing it to his lips blew a long low note to honor the end of the day and let the gods know he was safe. He couldn’t help but hope there was someone else out there who might hear it as well.
As the first stars started to wink to life in the night sky he set the shell in a place of honor in his little hut, lay his head down on a mat of leaves, and overcome with exhaustion from all he had been through he fell into a deep sleep. She came to him in his dreams, his new island home, and she spoke to him, and told him that coming here was no accident. He was always meant to be here, he was always meant to watch over her.
The rain stopped and a lone bird took up a cheerful song. She gently picked up a conch shell from the little table in the corner. It was smooth with a hole in one of the points. A sense of calm came over her and she smiled. She poked her head through the doorframe and blew a long, low note to the island spirits in her new home.
Written May 2019 and read June 2019 at Books Inc. for To Live & Write in Alameda’s monthly “Alameda Shorts” challenge. This month’s challenge was a new one: we had to co-write a piece with another writer from our group that we would read together in under eight minutes. My partner, Roberta Anne Robertson, is also a sailor. It was surprisingly easy, and a lot of fun, working on this project! Roberta’s words are in blue and mine are in teal.
If you have a writer’s soul and live in Alameda, feel free to join To Live and Write in Alameda (info available via the link or in the Facebook group)! No experience necessary … members range from those who dream of writing the Great American Novel to published authors. No dues, many free daily/weekly meet-ups, reasonably priced workshops and focus groups and retreats, and tons of encouragement and support. Do it … you know you want to!