45° NORTH, 125° WEST
WEST AND THEN WEST for weeks and weeks or months and months sweet Jesus knows how long. A lifetime of lifetimes. On the continent of the sea. A pair of shaggy claws scuttling on the ceiling of the sea. The silent She.
West and then west! says Declan aloud, startling the gull sitting atop the Plover's tiny cabin, her feathers ruffling in the steady wind. Onward twisted soldiers! The gull launches without the slightest effort, sliding into the welcoming air. Declan laughs. Go ahead, bird, assume the position, he says, and as if in obedience to the man's command the gull wheels behind and over the stern and hangs exactly nine feet above the boat without even a shiver of her wings. Sweet Jesus, says Declan, I would ask you how you do that, but you know and I know that there are more things than we know, as you know. Onward whiskered soldiers!
* * *
The Plover, out of Oregon, skippered by O Donnell, Declan, no fixed address or abode. Last registered midcoast, in Depoe Bay. Originally a small trawler, much amended and edited by its owner, who installed a mast and rigged the boat for coastal cruising. Wrecked once near Neawanaka, minor damage, repaired by owner. For some years a fishing boat bringing in regular catches, occasional permits filed for charter fishing, one permit filed for whale-watching cruise, a number of gratuitous permit applications filed in last three years apparently for the amusement of the owner: for flossing the teeth of unsuspecting whales, in search of Robert Dean Frisbie on account of incontrovertible evidence of his faked demise in the South Seas, in pursuit of the magnetic West Pole, in search of the names of god in the languages of the invertebrates west of the Mendocino Fracture Zone and east of the Emperor Seamounts, and etc. in that vein. Flurries and then blizzards of permit applications filed in the last six months, each more fanciful than the last. Last seen heading directly west from Oregon coast. Captain reportedly stated that he was going to "glom on to the 45th parallel and ride that sucker right onto the beach of some godforsaken island being bickered over by the Japanese and the Russians and claim it anew for Saint Mary Magdalene while none of the formerly murderous imperial powers were paying close attention." Also heard stating that he was going to "turn sharp left at 150 degrees longitude and snatch a Society island, naming it fresh for Saint Catherine of Siena, why should bold imperialism die ignominiously during my brief lifetime, and there were not enough celebrations of and monuments to Catherine of Siena, fine woman, twenty-fourth of twenty-five children, who are we not to sing her praises assiduously with gratuitous acts of theatrical foolery," and etc. in that vein. Conclusion: no destination known. Coast Guard reports no sightings. U.S. Navy Pacific Command alerted. General marine bulletin posted. To be considered lost at sea pending further information if any. Notice of same sent to next of kin. No estate. Three survivors, a sister of age and two minor brothers. No plans for funeral or memorial at this time.
* * *
What's on board: two hundred gallons of fuel, stashed in every conceivable nook and cranny. One hundred pounds of rice. Magellan survived on rice and so dammit will we. More onions and heads of garlic than a man can count in an hour, as I well know, having tried. A man is like an onion, is he not, a layered and reeking thing? Fifty boxes of cookies, fifty lemons, fifty limes. An enormous tin of marmalade. Fifty oranges. An enormous tin of olive oil. Fifty small bags of almonds scattered variously throughout the vessel so that a man will constantly be discovering a small bag of almonds no matter where he is on board, good idea, hey? Element of surprise, hey? Not that there is all that much board on board, or surprise neither. Twenty feet long by eight feet wide by seven feet deep. The size of a roomy coffin. But few coffins have fifty limes aboard, hey? Life raft, life jacket, foul-weather gear, medical kit, complete set of spare parts for engine, complete set of tools for fixing the fecking engine, complete set of fishing gear. One, two, six, seven, why do I have seven fishing rods? Radio, charts, graphs, sextant, compass, flashlights, soap, baseball bat (Dick Groat model), set of Edmund Burke's speeches, sails, rigging, backup sails, backup rigging, a trumpet, excellent knives, bow and arrows? Who the hell put a bow and arrows on board? I don't remember putting a bow and arrows on board. Am I losing it already? A bow and arrows ... what am I going to do with a bow and arrows, shoot flying fish? Sweet Jesus. Binoculars, backup binoculars, mirrors, sounding lead and string, flares, pencils, batteries for flashlights, sweet Jesus, arrows, I cannot believe I am shipping arrows, is that even legal? Am I considered armed? Can I get pulled over by the fecking Coast Guard and busted for harboring unregistered weapons? What is this, the fecking age of Magellan? Almanac. And, most important of all, boys and girls, your six-volume set of sight reduction tables! Never leave home without it! Because why? Because sight reduction tables are your handy solutions to problems of spherical trigonometry, which is to say problems in observed latitudes, celestial declinations, and computation of your azimuth! Exactly! The azimuth is important! Also do not leave home without Edmund Burke's speeches. Burke is important. Burke is an ocean whose depths are in general unplumbed. Everyone thinks they know what Burke said and wrote and meant and means and no one has the slightest idea what he actually wrote because no one fecking reads old Edmund Burke anymore but I will address and redress this problem. I am going to read old Ed Burke, because I have the time, because I am on a voyage to nowhere, and in no hurry to get there neither.
Bird! says Declan aloud, startling the gull surfing effortlessly above the stern, are you in this for the long haul? Because if so I'll have to edit the crew manifest, and we'll have to talk about shares of the proceeds and stuff like that. Hey, can you calculate sight reduction tables?
* * *
The Peaceful Sea, Fernão de Magalhães called the Pacific, when he wandered into it for the first time in 1520, in his ship the Trinidad — a caravel, a two-masted ship. The South Sea, Vasco Núñez de Balboa called it when he saw it for the first time, in 1513 (and promptly asserted ownership of the entire ocean and all lands encroaching upon it). The Panthalassic Ocean, scholars call the Pacific's predecessor, the ocean of the world when the world was young. The Endless, some early and brave travelers called it, people who sailed by the stars. The Mother, other old cultures called it, in their various languages. It is the biggest ocean on earth and perhaps in the universe. It is about half of the wildernesses we call oceans on this planet. It composes about a third of the surface of the earth. Some parts of it are more than six miles deep. On average it is about two miles deep. It weighs about eighty quintillion tons, an idea represented by an eight followed by eighteen zeroes. In the hundred thousand years or so that human beings have been exploring the Endless, we have discovered some two hundred thousand species of animals and plants living and working in it, which some of us believe to be perhaps a tenth of the actual animals and plants in it, the rest of those beings not having revealed themselves to us as yet. If it is true that human beings in our current form rose in Africa, and then ambled briskly into the rest of the world, there must have been a moment when one human being, probably a curious and mischievous child, peeked through a fringe of forest, perhaps on a high hill, and saw the biggest blue thing on earth and perhaps in the universe. Imagine that scene for a moment: the child's gape, the thrumming roar of the ocean, the child's thrill and terror, the shock and allure of encountering a thing far bigger than the imagination had previously stretched. Imagine that child's wide eyes and sizzling brain. Imagine the message imparted to his mother by the fire that night. Imagine that.
* * *
On this voyage, this particular jaunt, this epic adventure, this bedraggled expedition, this foolish flight, this seashamble, this muddled maundering, this aimless amble on the glee of the sea, we will navigate not by what's in the ocean, which is elemental but really incidental if you take the long view, but by the wilderness of the bottom, which is ... fundamental, so to speak, says Declan to the floating gull, who appears to be paying close attention. In my view the water of the ocean is essentially fascist, trying to dictate all life and action by weight and violence, whereas what is beneath it, the bones, the skeleton, the actual warm skin of the planet, is generally unremarked, unsung, unknown, but, as a population is the foundation for a government, the bedrock, the necessary and patient mattress for what sprawls upon it, so to speak. So a real journey into the Pacific ought to steer by the mountains below; and wouldn't that show more respect for the planet we are actually on, rather than steering by the light of stars we will never actually see? Are you with me here, bird? Why should water have the last word, you know what I mean? Let's take the long view. Let's forget the past and keep an eye on the horizon. Let's think of this as an expedition of inquiry, during which a man, let us say a former dairyman and sometime fisherman, sails west and then west, curious about seamounts and fracture zones, and vast epic valleys into which light has never penetrated since the dawn of time, and caves and intricate wildernesses in which reside creatures never seen by the eye of man or gull, and soaring mountains on which live ancient eels and squid the size of ships, and he conducts experiments into fauna and flora as such opportunities present themselves, and earns his protein with his longlines, dipping into ship's stores only for the occasional lime, doing his best to avoid demon alcohol which has never served him well, and keeping an eye on the shape of his sanity, such as it is, or was, and leery of such things as talking freely to gulls, for example, which may be a sign of incipient something or other. You with me here, bird?
* * *
Neither the Plover nor its master had the slightest initial experience with sails and masts and rigging and wind management, but Declan, having dreamed of a footloose voyage on the ocean since he was the boy who tripped over a ratty rug in the library and fell face first into Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, by Thor Heyerdahl (followed in dizzying succession by Robert Gibbings's Over the Reefs and Coconut Island, and James Norman Hall's Faery Lands of the South Seas and Under a Thatched Roof, and Jack London's South Sea Tales, and Robert Louis Stevenson's In the South Seas, and Joseph Conrad's Typhoon and Youth, and The Journals of Captain James Cook, and Captain David Porter's Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean, and Richard Maury's The Saga of Cimba, and Herman Melville's Typee, and Edward Frederick Knight's The Cruise of the Falcon, and The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss, and then literally hundreds of books about the islands west and south of his muddy tense pained angry lonely home in the rain), had bought the old trawler when he was seventeen, from an old man who built it half-size because he had half the money he needed half his life ago and only used it half the time now that he was half the man he used to be. Declan then used it for fishing the near coast, generally for salmon and halibut; but always in the back of the back of his mind, tucked away beyond conscious thought, was the irrepressible idea of someday heading west and then west, for no particular reason, just to see what he could see; and so he had edited and amended the boat slowly and idiosyncratically over the years, adding a mast and standing and running rigging so as to use the wind wherever and whenever possible, thus saving gobs of fuel, and becoming familiar with such mysterious and obdurate words as batten and clew, and luff and leech, and toggle and tang, and reaching and running, although the Plover did not do overmuch reaching and running, more like shuffling and shambling, as Declan said, not without a deep affection for the old cedar creature. He built a simple hoist for the engine, and a cedar weather box for the engine to sleep in, for when the Plover had sails on, in winds that looked like they might last; and when razzed by other fishermen, and by the weekend sailors in Newport and Depoe Bay who laughed aloud at the little trawler with its mast like a grade-school flagpole and its sails made of old kitchen towels, as a wit from Waldport sneered, Declan thought happily of all the fuel he was not expending, and gave everyone the cheerful finger; his usual digitous discourse.
* * *
And no thinking on this trip, either, he said to the gull floating over the stern. No recriminations and ruminations. No logs and journals and literary pretensions neither. Thinking can only, like the boat, proceed forward. We can only think west. Sweet blessed Jesus. Four days out and I am already talking to a fecking gull. Why are you here, exactly, bird? What's in it for you? Because there's not a whole lot of food available here, my friend. This is a working boat. Everyone on or over the boat has to work for a living. That's why I am fishing for my supper, and no, you cannot have half, although yes, you can have the head and tail and innards. Did you want to be going west and then west? Because that is where we are going until further notice. And what are you doing on behalf of the boat, may I ask? Are you providing some rudderly service that I am as yet not aware of? Are you protecting the boat in some mysterious capacity? And don't give me any of this spiritual crap. And don't get all literary on me either, talismans and metaphors and symbols and crap like that. You are most definitely not a metaphor, my friend. You are a herring gull and this is a boat and I am the guy on the boat. It's that simple. You are no albatross and I am no ancient mariner. I read my classics. In fact I vow that if an albatross ever hangs in exactly the same position you are hanging in right now I will strike myself three times on the breast and intone prayers and imprecations. This I swear. You are welcome to hang there as long as you want but don't steal anything. I cast no aspersions on gull people. I am just laying out the rules. Maybe you are unlike all the other gulls who ever lived and you are the first one who won't steal whatever he or she can at the drop of a fecking hat. In which case we will get along fine. If that is not the case and you steal anything from the boat I will catch your raggedy ass and cut you into filets and savor each and every gullicious bite. Are we clear here? On this boat there are no gray areas. There are no misunderstandings. There are no misapprehensions. There are no infinitesimal gradations of emotions and feelings. No one makes mistakes as regards anyone else. There is no anyone else. There's no past and there's no future. We are stripping it all down here, my friend. No man is an island, my ass. This is an island and I am that very man. You are a guest nine feet in the air over my island. Are we clear here? You can visit any time you like, but don't expect anything from me. We are all islands, my friend. We are all playing it straight for a change on this island. I expect nothing and you should expect nothing. The rules are simple here, bird. No emotional complications can ensue if we lay it out clear as day in advance. We can crash, sink, burst into flames, get smashed by a huge squid or a whale or a cyclone or pirates, or I can die in any number of interesting ways and the boat goes on by itself skipperless, but that's the sum total of possibility, understand? We are stripping things down to the bones here. No more expectations and illusions. No more analysis and explications. We are going to live a real simple life here, my friend, and deal with what is, rather than what seems to be. We have wind and fuel, we have food and water, and we have the biggest fecking ocean on the planet in which to putter around, and we are damn well going to putter around until further notice, is that clear? Are you with me here, bird? Hey?