I’ve always been at home on the water. Any water, be it a river or a fishing pond, a trickling brook or the vast oceans. While the eyes of many explorers look to the heavens and the far away stars, my heart has always dreamed of the deep places beneath the waves.
As an orphan growing up on the wharves, I wander the dock under the bows at port trying to guess their country of origin by what flies on the jack staff. As the ships roll in, I sit among the barrels and listen to the sailors talk in between the cries of the fishmongers about cockles and mussels for sale. I revel in the tales they spin. They tell me of treacherous sirens and beautiful mermaids, of cutthroat pirates and buried golden treasures. Some are lies, for certain, but those make the best tales. One even claims he saw a kraken. I may be ten, but I am not that gullible. There’s no such creature as a kraken. Some teach me knots while others toss me a tuppence for directions to the nearest ale houses and brothels. I learned my ropes and took many a coin for helping them navigate the town, but I would trade all the knots and coins I’ve earned for a berth on the next ship out. I dream only of the sea.
One particular night, down past the rocky point where the gulls won’t fly because the water roils there with some black evil in the depths, a great storm brewed up. It raged for three whole days wreaking havoc on the local fisherman’s haul. Ships are stranded in port while the sea rages on in unrivaled fury. On the second night, a sloop-of-war hobbles out of the blackness and into my port, her rigging looking a fright after her tempest-tossed lashing from the waves. The captain, a Dutch fellow by the name of Homburg, expertly pilots his battered oaken beast, Hollandia, right to the offing. I’m certain at launch, her lines were clean and her hull ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. This brutal storm, however, has made her a right mess. The sailors debark in a heap of ragged humanity, some vomiting, some kissing the dock as they file off the gangplank and cross themselves like some water-logged priests at an oceanic mass. Their survival is a miracle for sure, and they all credit the captain with saving their souls.
I stand there, my maw gaping open like a cracked barnacle, as the bedraggled men stagger past. Captain Homburg is last off, limping and bloodied at his left eye. The sailors take no notice of me, but the captain does. Even with one eye, he is observant of everything. “You there, wharf rat,” he calls out. I can’t answer. My voice rasps like a weak breeze as the old salt gimps toward me. His remaining good eye looks me over, then he flips me a silver piece. “None among us have the legs left to stand watch tonight, boy,” he growls with a rumbling Jutlandic tone. “See that my Hollandia remains undisturbed ’til morning and there’ll be ten more of those for ‘ya.” Eleven silver pieces! I’ve never seen so much money in my life! I puff out my chest and salute smartly like I’ve seen so many sailors do when addressed by their officers. “Good lad.” He hobbles off into the night as I take my first watch with glee.
The bright streaks of morning warm my face as I stand on the abaft railing facing east to greet the sun. My first watch is a grand success. All supplies are accounted for. Not only did I fend off imaginary bandits through the night, but, in my moon-lit boredom, I also untangled and re-lashed two running backstays. I contemplated climbing them up the mast myself, but decided against it in case my imagined saboteurs scaled the anchor ropes while I was away. Captain Homburg is most pleased with my efforts as were the sailors. Two of them hoist me on their shoulders, parading me around with a cheer as if I am the hero of the day. Soon after, they go about the rest of the work, refitting planks and hauling sails with block and tackle larger than my whole body. The deck is a bustling hive of sailors preparing to go back to sea. For a moment, I am one of the crew. Oh, how I long to be one of them forever!
For two days, I man the bottom of the gangplank under Hollandia as she becomes seaworthy once again. The sailors jeer and joke with me as they pass to and fro, tussling my hair and giving a wink and nod. The ship’s carpenter, Billy Fleet, thanks me for my expert advice on which planks are ridden with woodworms and which are not. I learn all the sailor’s names. There’s Salty Jack, Paul the Butcher, Mister Killingsworth, Hatchet, Helmsman Reed, Bosun’s Mate Peterman, and One-Eyed William Hastings, the scourge of the Black Isles. I have never heard of the Black Isles, but he must have done something terrible there. He is missing a hand and has a patch over his eye. It appears he earned his moniker the hard way. All of their names are as colorful as the men who wear them. Salty Jack enlists me to freshen up the paint on the prow figurehead; a life-size nude likeness of Eirene, the daughter of Poseidon.
“Carved her meself, I did!” exclaims Salty Jack with his jack-o-lantern toothless grin—which is also how he got his name. “With Eirene on the prow, the god of the sea always favors us. Paint her up right, and don’t be touching her breasts now. They may be wood, but I did carve them mighty nice and tempting!” His guffaw turns my face every shade of red in the paint palette. The other sailors join in having a laugh at my innocent expense. It’s all in good fun, however the last laugh is mine. When no one was looking, I gave them both a good squeeze.
At long last, the morning arrives when Hollandia must depart, bound for service off the Spanish coast. Admiral Nelson is assembling the fleet and taking the fight to Napoleon. I listen as Captain Homburg reads the orders to his sailors, that Hollandia will join the blockade forming near Trafalgar in hopes to starve out the French and their allies. The crew cheers at the prospect of action. I look on as they make ready to weight anchor, and I long to haul the rope alongside Mister Killingsworth. I swell with pride as Bosun’s Mate Peterman hoists the Meteor Flag of Old England boasting the King’s Colors at the canton. The banner catches high in the morning breeze, snapping crisp like the gnashing teeth of a lion ready to pounce.
Though my heart is full for the experience, I am saddened to stand at the end of the dock on that grey, foggy morning knowing that was as far as I would ever go to sea. A single tear rolls down my cheek and I steel myself for the hard goodbyes I will have to say. As Hatchet and One-Eyed William roll the last barrels of salt pork and dried fish up the gangplank, Captain Homburg limps to my side. “You’ve done us a great service, lad,” he tells me in a soft voice; softer than I thought possible out of the old seaman. “Your jolly countenance has lifted the hearts of these old sea dogs, myself included. Me and the crew like the cut of your jib.” He places his rough and reassuring hand on my shoulder. “We lost our last cabin boy in the storm that brought us here. Useless as he was at sea, he was good for a shanty and divvying the rum rations, and the men miss him. You’ve got some wits and decent skills with a rope. What say you, boy? Will you join us in his stead?”
An hour later, I am standing above Eirene’s freshly-painted likeness on the prow of the Hollandia while the brisk salty air whirls around me in a tempest. The gulls dive and soar through the sails as we cross into the deep blues and blacks of the channel. The mist breaks, revealing the sun glittered-waves sparkling like so many diamonds adorning the Crown Jewels. Their brilliance stings my eyes with their shimmering brightness. I howl and hoot like a wild dog filled with sheer joy of a fresh kill. There is no sensation to compare with this. The whole world could end after this day and I would not have a care. At long last, I am at sea. I am at home.
By nightfall, my elation is cut to the quick. The gentle rolling waves of my first day turn into the stuff of nightmares as Hollandia goes headlong into the teeth of another raging storm. Captain Homburg has lashed himself to the helm as the roiling black where the gulls dare not fly does it’s level best to take us under. I can hear his laughter through the cracks of thunder. He spits curses and dares the sea to take him. The crew below decks whispers of the ship being overwhelmed, maybe even cursed. They vomit and cross themselves as I saw them do before. Others bail helplessly against the ocean’s onslaught as plank after plank gives way to the icy north Atlantic waters. The salt spray stings my nose and throat. All the while, Hollandia tosses bow to stern and port to starboard, testing the strength of good English oak past its limits. Eirene, in her wooden and naked glory stands her silent vigil as the roiling black swallows us whole.
I still stand at the prow above her from time to time between the coral heads, but now it is the tides that swirl about me instead of the winds. Eirene is my constant companion. Salty Jack would be proud that I keep his wooden masterwork clear of barnacles and seaweed. Even my paint is still visible on a clear day. Sometimes I ask her why her father forsook us to the waves. She never answers. Her visage smiles back at me. Unchanging, wooden and stiff, yet warm and inviting as the day I painted her.
Sometimes I will stand my moonlit watch again on the gangplank and defend my ship against the imaginary saboteurs haunting the depths. Captain Homburg would be pleased to know I’ve kept them at bay these great many years. To my astonishment, I’ve even seen a kraken. That old sailor was telling the truth after all.
I stand abaft on clear days and imagine I can still feel the warmth of that morning sun as it crests the horizon, but the sun and moon appear different down here. The deep is cold. There is no sun here. I pass my days watching the modern metal hulls pass overhead, witnessing the change from sails to steam to ships that now travel beneath the waves. Such a marvel! I’ve even visited a few ships at anchor. I envy those who still sail above me, but I don’t begrudge them. All my life I’ve always been at home on the water, and now the water has become just that. I am home. I am where I belong, and here I will remain. My eyes will look to the heavens and the far away stars, but my heart still dreams of the deep places beneath the waves.
Author’s note: The oceans and the age of sail is a fascinating time that captured my young imagination on the first pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and the first time I read Melville’s opening words, “Call me Ishmael.”
As an adult, that fascination translated into a love for Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series, Gene Hackman’s The Wake of the Perdido Star, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, among many others. Everything about the ocean is a wonder. If I couldn’t sail on it, I wanted to swim under it. I fondly recall the nights laying under the coffee table in my Great-Grandmother’s living room eagerly awaiting the commercials on her console television to finish for the start of the next edition of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I suppose that’s a condition that comes from being born under the sign of Pisces.
I’ve always been at home on the water. While the eyes of many explorers look to the heavens and far away worlds, my heart has always dreamed of the deep places beneath the waves.