Stars vanished in the rosey dawn and the earthen red facade of the old seafront was reflected on the smooth water of Port Townsend Bay. I served up kippers and joe to Captain McWhirr as he plotted our course across the Strait of Juan de fuca, drawing arcs over a chart of the eastern Straits with an aged compass that might have demarcated the first measured globe.
“Best we are underweigh at 0800 hours.”
“More joseph sir?”
Smiling strangely serene, he said:
“Aye, That’ll do nicely, old son.”
We headed out across the flat surface of Admiralty Inlet with the last of the flood, keeping Partridge Point fine on the port bow.
“ Now lay our course 318 degrees toward the Romeo Alfa buoy. Call me at slack water.”
“318 degrees it is, sir.”
McWhirr went below, leaving the weight of command to me. The calm, blue surface of the straits reached far westward. The regular thump of the diesel engine set a rythym that wove songs of lost schooners into our widening wake, and drew us, with the swirling kelp, into deeper sound.
We bore away northwest. An eagle soared in high cirrus where the great indraught of the sea swept past the headland into the inlets of soul. Gulls were flattened across the blue vault of sky. The bell sounded and the sea heaved in steady writhing swells from the Pacific Ocean as the torpid heat drove all energy from the weary face of the world.
Shal-low-O- Shallow Brown…
A blip on the radar screen moved toward us through the seven concentric circles like a wrathful diety seeking tribute-like an archon who held Old Hand in irons, bound to earthly time, and from which we yet nursed a forlorn hope of deliverance.
And it fills me heart with sorrow…
The waypoint cross of the GPS fixed the moment on the still sea. All space was enclosed in the mystic compass rose, and our voyage was but another leg in man’s perpetual departure beyond the world’s edge; to where the the sunlight’s descent crosses the horizon’s sparkling band, and time intersects infinity.
I went below to find McWhirr gone. There was only a tattered copy of Virgil’s Aeneid. A passage highlighted in gold caught my eye:
From me learn patience and true courage, from others the meaning of fortune.
McWhirr has left for the far shore, cut his painter and retreated through the diaphanous veils that seperate worlds. In a realm between the offices of master and mate he floats supine, hands clasped over his white beard, in surrender to the ebbing stream where all noble hearts must finally hie. He was the true sovreign of the watery sphere which had long held me captive. He is the enlightened aspect of my inner Captain Bligh, Noah of my being, guiding me safely past malestroms where the faithless whirl forever amid skeletal hulks and drowned chain.
Here’s a beautiful rendition of Shallow Brown by Sting.