Friday Harbor is a busy port with boats, ferries and float planes coming and going at a frantic rate. I sit in the Bean Cafe with other hyper-connected wayfarer’s, tapping away at my quaint laptop, churning out this news dispatch from the Salish Sea.
I’ve dialed back on the barrage of bad news endlessly reported by the media industry to make my own, to shape these fragments– the discombobulated vessel of my prose– into some kind of order.
With the need for quick passages to make the San Juan’s before the full moon I’ve had little time to pause and reflect on the true reason for the voyage.
Scattered among a pile of cheap, tattered composition books are fragments of my attempt to evoke, in written words, the ineffable impulse that draws me ever further toward a north only dimly seen on the drive-in movie screen of my dreams.
Old Hand voyages into the Sea of imagination, over the vertiginous depths of the unconscious. Her course is shaped by a vision glimpsed when I first beheld the vast azure expanse from my dad’s early 50’s station wagon as the Spencer family loudly tooled down Highway 101, fleeing the smog and squalor of L.A.
With my Brother Slim, I would practice the fine art of “body whomping.” It was then I first felt the sea’s loving caress, as well as the thumping shore-pound that handled my young person with all the tender ministrations of Freddy Blassie.
It is this same feeling of ecstatic immersion in the hylic element of Poisidon that pulls me toward a vaguely descried northern way-point. It is a lapis blue vision of eternity seen reflected on the whirling eddies of Deception Pass. Here and now, at this particular waypoint in time, I see the abysmal, turbid darkness overlaid by the counter-clockwise circulation of the divine light.
After a day spent prepping decks and bowsprit for paint, I sip a local sauvignon blanc in the wheelhouse and view the harbor scene. Old Don Reah is building another rock wall on his steep bank, setting boulders to shore the hillside against rising seas. While I admire his fortitude, I’d think he would take a break after nearly 90 years labor on life’s rock pile.
Old Hand lies becalmed while flotsam and weed drift slowly past the bow. I submit to the pull and creak of time and hear the low moan of the hawsers pulling against the weathered dock. Sometimes the almost human sounds start me from revery. It’s seems as if they were made by the phantom pioneers who lie buried in Kane Cemetary near the harbor entrance.
The thought of old age, sickness and death recalls me to particulars—the cerulean sky opens between massed cumulonimbus over Port Madison where fledgling osprey arc in widening circles ever farther from their nests. Each year there’s a whole new crop of them, crying loud in their voracious flight in search of fleeting fingerling.
I am reading the biography of Thomas Wolfe. I love the extravagant, melodic rants of this failed playwright who, battling editors, critics and the philistine aesthetes of the the 20’s, went on to write one the great novels of the 20th Century: Look Homeward Angel. It is sad he died before he could haul his semi-fictional cast of Gants, Joyner’s or Webbers across the continent to the seaside town of Port Townsend as he planed. He caught pneumonia while crossing the very same Strait of Juan de Fuca Old Hand will navigate early next month.
But mostly, Thomas Wolfe’s work inspires me to write–to dare imagine that, after 63 years traipsing this wide, sad earth, I may actually have something to say.
Some, it seems, are born to write, to perpetrate effusive, yet judiciously restrained prose upon the citizenry of this steamship earth– writing which plumbs the deepest mysteries and gets at the heart of unshakable truth. But I have no pretensions to profundity and aspire only to create sea stories which might weather the deluge of time and stand as true as Reah’s solid bulkhead.
The 30 mile passage from Port Madison to Port Townsend is marked by the doleful names of voyages that came to grief on the Salish Sea. It is the saga of sunken tin-pot steamers who plied the vertiginous depths of Admiralty Inlet and now lie some fathoms deep among the fouled chain of time and memory. The place names along the first leg of Old Hand’s forth-coming voyage to the San Juan Islands bear testament to historic, tortured founderings: Point no Point, Skunk Bay and Foulweather Bluff.
Perhaps the names are meant as caution to jaded yatchies who, besotted by the mirror calm of the convergence zone and assured by their virtual, abstract trajectories, sail blithely on over the sun-dappled main while toasting a lowering Margarita sky. What are these names but vague appellations foor that stubborn tyranny of tide and rock that mark this bewitchingly placid and, by turns, malevolent stretch of sea? And what are all our errant eastings, leewardings and embarkations but the the soul’s recurrent flight into the dream time–the Homeric drive by which all voyages are undertaken–and part of the eternal, unquenchable drive toward the further, mythic shore.
My plan is to sail with the new September moon toward a not-too-adventurous landfall in the San Juan Islands and there to blithely hang amid the encantadas of the north; to seek, to groove, to go where no green lubber has gone before, that my soul might find solace, inspiration and release.
Who knows? Maybe even that old Miphisto of the sea, that horn-fisted coot with the line-squall scowl might loom again in the night, his gaunt profile etched against the thundering flash of doomsday. For none but Saturnius McWhirr can skipper Old Hand proper. None but he can set the serpentine track of this labored narrative on a course that is steady and true.