My wife and I once sailed on the Mariel Bolton, a Chinese-made freighter with five cavernous holds loaded with lemon peels soaked in molasses, bought from an orange juice factory in Tampa and waiting to hear from someone who could use a thousand tons of the fiber. In the end, Portugal made a bid and the captain told me only goats would like this paper substitute, with a little sweetener to make it go down. The ship smelled like a candy store much of the thirty-day crossing to Oporto. I didn’t mind the smell. It was a bit like some aging punch left over from a fraternity party.
The crew was mainly Filipino sailors, fearless acrobats who swung around on thin ropes tied to the booms, as they painted the towers white. They only ate fried fish while the officers ate steak and chicken and drank wine. All the food on board was getting stale as the cook, a cheerful man named Jesus, rooted around in the back of the reefers looking for stuff to make dinner with. The supplies had lasted two years, and wouldn’t be replaced until they were down to the scraps. There was a huge supply of decent reds in the galley, and bottles of whiskey you could buy for two dollars a fifth. All this was set out in the dimly lit dining room and we sawed away at our dinner while we talked navigation and the hazards one might encounter at sea.
The Atlantic in summer is as calm as a lake; not quite a mirror lake, but the waves were tiny, and the sky was always blue and crystal clear. I sat out a lot on a tiny deck above a storage room, reading or just gazing around. When I visited the bridge, which was fairly often, the captain, a Canadian in his early forties, would be leaning forward over the sill of the raked-back windows, panning the sea through his powerful binoculars. When he took a break, someone else would man the watch and gaze into the grayish terraced wavelets and look for something. What, I asked? “Oh, anything at all. Black smudge, a ring of foam, some object that could get under the keel and break the propeller.” I learned that you can’t stop a freighter like this without incurring a penalty from the leasing company. If I should fall down a ladder and break some bones, the captain said, I would have to be transported back to the nearest shore by helicopter, while the ship waited where it was. That would cost $100,000 if they got underway again a few hours later. “So don’t fall,” he said, patting me on the shoulder.
So the ship rolled forward, yawing slightly, sinking its heavy hull into the soft, parting ridges of the sea as it moved at about twelve miles per hour toward the Azores. Below decks was “Brenda,” our German chief engineer’s pet name for the hulking engine that ate up tons of thick, gelatinous diesel fuel that had to be heated before it could be liquid enough to combust. Brenda was coddled by a crew of three anxious men dabbing all the gleaming parts with oil rags, and reading gauges which they tapped to make sure the fluid inside wasn’t lying. Crates of spare parts were piled up all around the engine room, ready to replace some piston arm the moment it snapped in two. I liked it down there; the logic was as strict as anything Descartes could think up. And the men were trained to perfection. I felt very safe.
Outside the engine room was the taffrail, a plain white fence over the stem of the ship. Below, thirty feet or so, seawater was white and bruised by the powerful propellers. On one piece of rail was a salt water line someone had put out with hooks to catch a bit of fresh fish. I saw a young man step forward and jerk on the line to see if he had a catch. No such luck. It was rare that some sea creature would bite down on a huge hook just for the hell of it. But if one did, the line would stiffen like a banjo string and kind of pluck itself for attention.
I had the run of the place, everywhere but the crew’s quarters, which was just a long room full of hammocks and sea bags. I got a glimpse of it once but that was it. I could smell sweat and boredom and the funk men would sink into after a few months plowing the brine, far from home, from wife and kids. At Tampa, the crew waited patiently for the use of a public phone to call home and to send cash. They were kids, most of them, smoking, thin-armed, with handsome, hollow-cheeked faces that were used to hard work. They would sail for a year and go back to land for a few months and then ship out again. They had no money, and the islands were in a recession. This was the only income they could find, so they accepted it. They were tireless sailors, and loved to swing out from the boom yards and come back again, like bugs flying a hundred feet in the air.
The bridge was always quiet, a place of glowing consoles with gauges pointing in all directions. I took the wheel at the captain’s bidding and spun it a few revolutions. It took a few minutes to discover how far off course I had drifted, and another few minutes to correct it. I could feel the thunder under my feet, the power driving this enormous vessel against the slap and shudder of the waves. We plowed right through the long yellow road cast by the moon, and here and there you could see creatures diving away from the onrush of the bulbous nose of the prow. And all the while the captain would gaze into the sea, panning slowly, trying to read some faintly visible warning sign that wouldn’t show itself with any certainty.
I began to ache for some shape other than the horizon to appear, so that I could worship it with my famished eyes. I had withdrawn from the world for three long weeks and all there was was the flat, trembling prairie of sea water. Once, leaning over a railing on the port side, I saw a sea turtle lying there on the surface, a beautiful creature with a shell as big as a car tire. The sun gleamed off its surface, and the soft, white feet moved very briefly to scoot it out of the way of our passing. It didn’t look around. I think it might have been half asleep. We were fifteen hundred miles from any land, and here was this animal lying there in complete peace and harmony, suspended thousands of feet above the sea floor. It had no worries in this world, unless some great white should need a morsel on its migration. I had to breathe deeply to reassure myself that it wasn’t struggling in such an alien environment, finding it hard to breathe or wondering where it was in all this dreary waste. It was happy, I realized. I was the one who felt exhausted to know there was no solid earth anywhere to be found.
Someone in northern France made queries about the lemon peels, but didn’t offer any money. No one was interested in the Netherlands, where we would be tying up at the end of our leg of the voyage. It was that lone, noncommittal call from Oporto that seemed like it might be the only chance to offload the mountain of brown citrus trash, and that would take days to get onto shore. There were bulldozers in the hold for that purpose, and conveyor belts and cranes to lower into the dark echoing depths of the hold as the mountains of peel came up, and then filled dump trucks. It would take three or four days to empty the holds, but news came the order was for only two of the five holds’ worth. So the emails went out again to buyers, and the kid behind the desk sat there doing busy work, waiting for some little feeler to appear on the monitor.
The captain was a very smart, even astute man, a real son of the sea. He never tired of studying the monotonous patterns of the water ahead of us, and his attention was as pure as any I had ever seen in a man. He was sure some danger lurked out there, some piece of jetsam cast off by a ship that was just waiting to tear the propeller to pieces. So he looked, and he gazed, and he pored over the odd little patterns of the water without yawning, without even reaching over for his mug of cold coffee. He was reading the book of the sea and couldn’t put it down; it was a romance, a mystery story where some unanticipated terror would suddenly strike. He knew it could happen on the next page, the next chapter. I didn’t think there were men like this, especially younger men who were likely to be distracted by all the gadgets people turn to these days. But he wasn’t like that. He was devoted; there’s no other word for it. Devoted, and his responsibilities were like some sacred honor someone had entrusted in him. He wouldn’t take his eyes off the gray, tessellated sea for a moment. I wondered if anyone in government felt that way – some honor and duty to attend to at all costs, some bond with the rest of society that made him or her not flinch, or yawn, but gaze intently out looking for danger, ready to strike back to protect us.