“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
“These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.”
— Psalms 107 KJV
I am not a sailor.
I have sailed. Even owned a small sailboat once. But a lowlife stole it from me, which is another story.
Uncle Bobby, a hero gone from this earth, was a sailor. More than that, he was a “shellback” and had kissed the royal baby’s belly. I sailed with him a bit, and what I know about sailing he taught me. It wasn’t enough to initiate me into the fraternity.
But it was enough to cause me to pause and watch when someone handles a boat under sail, which was what I did the other day.
Radar showed a morning storm forming in the Gulf of Mexico and coming our way. So I went out to watch it.
I like storms. I sympathize with the tourists who come to the beach for sun and fun and end up crammed together in a condo doing what they could have done just as well (and cheaper) at home. However, if storms come in, there is nothing to do but enjoy them.
Some storms put on a light show.
Occasionally, one will kick up a waterspout.
But mostly there are just wind and waves — which can be, and usually is, enough to convince anyone of the power of wind and waves.
Especially if they are out in it.
Which was where someone was the other day.
Reaching the top of the stairs leading down to the beach, I saw the squall-line a mile or so offshore, moving in from the southeast. It was an awesome sight. Dark clouds roiling, flashes of lightning, sheets of rain riding that first burst of wind that announces that more wind and rain were coming.
And out in front of it all was a sailboat.
It was a sloop — single mast, mainsail and headsail — that much I could tell with the naked eye. Wanting a closer look, I briskly walked back to the house (my running days are over), got my binoculars and went back to watch.
Getting focused, I could see the struggle going on out there as the sailor (or sailors, for there may have been more than one) fought to bring in the headsail and take up as much of the mainsail as they could to keep their craft on course without capsizing. And while they were working, I was reminded of an old Kingston Trio sea shanty:
“We’re running down a stormy sea and rolling through the thunder
“Way haul away, we’ll haul away Joe
“It’s every man aloft my boys or we’ll be driven under
“Way haul away, we’ll haul away Joe.”
My imagination of what was happening on the boat was fueled by a recent letter from a former student, Susan, who lives down in the Keys. In the middle of our discussion of the latest Carl Hiaasen book, she told me of how, on a voyage to the Bahamas, she and her friends were caught in a storm, the engine went out, and with water rising “higher than the berths in the forward cabin, (and) no radio ... it was pretty scary.” I bet it was.
Just like it was scary on the sailboat trying to outrun the weather.
I’m not talking Carnival Cruise Line scary — loss of power, toilets backed up, ice sculpture-melting scary (though the idea of being at sea on a floating septic tank is not particular appealing). I am talking life-threatening, hanging-on-for-dear-life scary.
Not a joking-matter scary.
I lost a friend at sea. A former student. Lovely girl. Art major. Wanted to be a photographer. Booked passage on a tramp steamer, Panamanian registry, bound for Haiti, where she expected to take the pictures that would start her off on her career.
There was a storm.
The ship disappeared. Gone. Not a trace.
I also thought about her as I watched the sloop, its jib down and its mainsail reefed, tacking out and then in, wallowing for a moment in the swells and then breaking free and flying ahead.
Eventually, the storm that was chasing the sailor hit my beach with a burst of energy that sent sand stinging against my legs. After that came the rain in pellets flying almost parallel to the ground.
As the weather surrounded me, I lost sight of the sloop.
The next day, I heard that the sailboat came ashore at Grayton Beach, about three miles west of us. Everyone safe.
“He maketh the storm a calm,
“So that the waves thereof are still.
“Then are they glad because they be quiet,
“So He bringeth them unto their desired haven.
— Same Psalm
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: email@example.com.