We piled in the skiff and I rowed toward a dilapidated pierhead while McWhirr continued his narration.
“My grandfather also told a darker tale. He said the streets of old Batavia were paved with sorrow, the walls built with the grief of mothers who toiled over an illusory harvest, it’s ramparts manned by desiccated souls who invested all their goods in the virtual fun-house of Mammon.“
Rubio brought us to the crumbling, neo-classical facade and we passed through the weathered teak door into the club. While McWhirr ordered a couple pints I looked around. A Strawberry Alarm clock tribute band blasted onstage.
Soon McWhirr came with the drinks and said: “Here’s to the Queen.”
I picked up a battered book lying on the table and read:
–And it came to pass that a great swarm of splog descended upon the land and the
soundcloud was darkened with idle slander and empty promises of sensual delights. Worshippers of the true faith were subjected to the false blandishments of priests and the perfidious purveyors of illusory commerce. And the once mighty creatives of the realm looked upon their followers and found naught of artistic merit and grew heavy in spirit, seeing therein ought but Jezebelian allurements by comely maids in unseemly attitudes of licentious repose–
“Ya really read that BS? “
Asked his mate in a voice that sounded hollow and grating-like 50 fathoms of hause-fouled chain.
I’d heard of the splog pirates, but thought them mere paranoid tales by rummy tars around the fo’c’sle stove. And now here they were, as big as life, waylaying the earnest efforts of my myself and my literary colleagues like the nefarious ship wreckers luring unwary vessels with false
lights on the storm-wracked coast of Cornwall.
I continued reading:
-The once proud sites of the righteous became barren wastes of vacuous splogs and brazen images of bouncing titties–
“Maybe there is something to it after all,” says McWhirr.
“Aye, Captain. And look what we have now in this rank grog-shop of the internet-a foul lot of brazen cut-throats who’d just as soon steal your traffic as say how-do-ye-do.”
One such galoot, a skanky brigand with a striped shirt and cutlass, approached the bar next to McWhirr with the slithery movement of a wolf eel saying:
“Eh mates, stand us a pint.”
I hastened to intervene.
“My good sir, may I introduce Saturnius Machirr?”
At this, the miscreant grew pale as an albino beluga and withdrew with an obsequeous bow.
“Most honored to meet you.”
The bewitching breezes that had vexed our northerly course along the bleak, rocky coast gaveway to an absolute calm as we steamed into Sunda Kelepa Harbour and brought up under the ornate, lofty spires of Jakarta. It was as though the anchorage were under the spell of somevengeful deity that held the stagnant seaport in irons– a fitful sleep of waking dream.I gazed up at Jakarta’s towers and heard, high on the ramparts, Rama’s gong-struck plea to deliver a flute-weeping Sita from Ranga’s jangling curse. A sword held against a blood-red sky by masked Barong tragediennes brought down the threadbare, red curtain in the ritual re- enactment of the primal leave-taking and arrival; when carved gods glared from the bowsprit, holding vigilant watch against marauders while we were moored off the savage isle of dreams. I too, have sat hungry around those ancestral fires, a villan, hero or common swab, subject to the changeable turns of karmic law..
.“Skip lively, Mister Spencer.”
The resonant voice was hoarse, as if weathered by eternal watches on the Greenland ice, or worn ragged from hurling oaths into the teeth of a gail. I flaked out 5 fathoms of chain from the locker with hamfisted elegance.
“Nicely done, lad. Ye’ll be a sailor before long.”
McWhirr is a pain in the ass sometimes. He’s a relic of working sail and can be as dark as Ahab in rehab on a bad hair day. He stood stark against the red sky like a weathered piling on a rocky cape. Light flickered through the dark shrouds, his shadow looming on the limp stays’l behind him, as if projected on a movie screen. The harrowing passage through the Sunda Strait had frayed my nerves and I groped clumsily the 3/8ths chain from the locker.
“All right, Mister Spencer.”
I let go the anchor. There sounded a low rumble as I paid out 3 fathoms of chain into the muddybottom of Sunda Kelapa Harbour.
“Have you paid out enough scope, lad?”
“I cast the anchor in 6 fath…” I said.
“Avast, Ya greenhorn! You don’t “cast” anchors. This isn’t fly-fishing! My gorge rises at suchlubberly misuse of sailing language.”
His wrath, like a line-squall, subsided as rapidly as it came.
“Did you know that to raise an anchor you must first let it go?”
“That’s true, sir.”
He always makes these pithy pronouncements like they were scripture. And, for McWhirr the act of sailing is a religious rite. He hails from Zoroastrian, Quaker stock and, for him, a ship is a vessel to carry his weary spirit ascending through the 7 concentric spheres of corporeality to the final landfall of essential being. He has seen the beatific vision reflected on the sea’s mirror and it draws him ever northward in search of the true face of divinity behind the mask of appearance.
Captain Lanyard bent over a yellowed chart: “There’s death at every bend of this blasted river. There are treacherous sandbanks that can sink this tin-pot vessel in seconds and bandits that will slit your throat for a song. Here,” he pointed a bony finger at the chart, “is the passage of Is Geria. Winds can funnel between those rocks like the fiends of hell.”
“Aye, on top of that, the very guards appointed by the museum trustees who sponsor these excavations deal in the illicit trade of artifacts. Their collusion with Turkish authorities can land innocent shippers like us in jail. Are ye ready to ship out on such a mission, lad?”
He turned again to the window and said:
“The illicit trade in antiquities is nearly as old as civilization itself. These sites had already been plundered in ancient times by nomad treasure seekers who sold to dealers in Bagdad. Babylon was already a ruin when Alexander the Great tried, unsuccessfully, to restore the glories of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign.”
“Now the plunder is conducted on an industrial scale by the Levant Company. The stones of Ishtar’s Temple are looted to build the brutal towers of Tomorrowland and the stolen images of the Holy Immortals now entice consumers, like sheep, into endless malls of mediocrity. This must be stopped.”
The Samamaris steamed past the tents of goat herds and armed horsemen whose dark eyes followed her wake with unconcealed contempt.
At last, we came the to archeological site led by the Reverend Cornelius Pritchard who, under the auspices of the Philadelphia Academy, had undertaken excavations to find physical verification of Biblical scripture. The sensational finds of British archeologists had awakened an American interest in antiquity, and this, along with a fervor to prove the superiority of the Christian faith, had led these august bodies to sponsor digs in Mesopotamia.
Captain Lanyard yelled out the wheelhouse door: “Man the docklines! Ya swab!”
He then hailed the engine room:
“Slowly now, Mister Budge…”
I threw the docklines to a stout man on the dock who I took to be Reverend Pritchard.
“Welcome Brethren,” he called.
We made fast, and walked up the bank toward the encampment while the Reverend held forth with pious, stentorian eloquence:
“Yes pilgrims, We’ve found potsherds in an alluvial deposit at 60 feet. Below that, with God’s blessing, we are certain to find the lost city of the Nephilim– those whose evil ways brought down God’s wrath with a devastating flood!”
Just then, there was the loud report of a gunshot. A bullet whizzed overhead.
“Hit the deck!” yelled Captain Lanyard. We dove behind a low dune.
The Reverend said: “It’s the blasted French atheists!”
He grabbed a carbine and returned fire, all the while expostulating in fine preacherly style:
“The nihilist heretics are encamped yonder. Thy want to reach the pre-deluvial city in a missguided effort to prove that the Good Book is fiction–that the site proves the layers below the silt deposits are merely evidence of a recurrent, natural phenomenon. They will soon regret the errors of their blasphemous ways when they are consigned to eternal hellfire!”
With that, he fired a volley into the mud brick of a distant mound.
There was silence. Then a loud oath was heard from the opposite camp:
The bewitching breezes wafting from the intermediate zone that had vexed our northerly course along the bleak, rocky coast gave way to an absolute calm as we stood off the rank harbor of Virtual Babylon. It was as though the anchorage were under the spell of some vengeful deity that held the stagnant seaport in irons-a fitful sleep of waking dream.
McWhirr called from the wheelhouse:
“All right, Mister Spencer.”
I let go the anchor. The silence was broken by a low rumble as I paid out 3 fathoms of chain into the muddy bottom of Moloch Bay.
After 2 weeks of foul headwinds and devilishly flukey breezes, we were ready to don shore-going rig for a nice row to an ancient, stone pub at the head of a dilapidated wharf to splice, as they say, the proverbial main-brace.
The melancholy treble of a loon-bot echoed over the still anchorage as McWhirr sat in the bows of the skiff brooding upon the lurid, crimson sea. Not wanting to disturb his meditations, I rowed on.
I’d heard Saturnius McWhirr was a pious man of Quaker stock who had fallen into some branch of the Zoroastrian persuasion. Or was it some Sufic offshoot of Shi’ism whose adherents await the 12th Imam’s return and wander the storm-wracked shores of this world seeking some vestige of a golden age–a relic safeguarded from the literalist creed by occult signs that can be decoded only in the secret halls of pure imagination?
Be that as it may, McWhirr gazed into the offing as the violet light of dusk fell over his weathered brow and said:
“I first heard of the Babylonian Theme Park when but a nipper on my grandfather’s knee. He told me of the Neo-Art Exhibition, the wonders of the Pharmaceutical Pavilion and how he touched the robe of the King of Wall-mart. He told me yarns of how it’s foundations had first been laid in the 21st Century by drones captured during the great cyber wars.”
“But,” continued McWhirr with a tone of caution, “he also told a darker tale. He said the streets were paved with sorrow, the walls built with the grief of mothers who toiled over an illusory harvest, it’s ramparts manned by desiccated souls who invested all their goods in the virtual fun-house of Mammon.”
“Yes sir,” I said though, in my green youth, I could scarce fathom the depths of his narration..
We landed the skiff and walked the cobbled street toward the the ancient, stone pub. Soon, my attention was caught by the droning whirr of something hovering overhead.
Could this be one of the fabled harpies that had long plagued unwary mariners who sail these latitudes–these droning machines of evil and ubiquitous surveillance that kill with rockets as well as with the bland, droning sameness that reduces our citizenry to penile servitude to the sexless god of materialism?
McWhirr drew his cutlass and, slashing at the malignant thing, thundered:
“Get thee hence, instrument of Satan!”
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.
The crows have the runs. They drop an astonishing amount of blackberry-colored crap onto Old Hand’s deck from their perch in the spreaders. Ah, late Summer.
In Admiral Smythe’s Sailor’s Word Book, I see a familiar term: Plot: 1. To plan a chart of a ships course. 2. To plan the action of a story. 3. A conspiracy. All these definitions are relevant to our theme.
I go over logs from past voyages and listen to music in the wheelhouse. I hear, in Beethoven’s dramatic strains, diagonal sheets of sound driven by the cymbal-crash of lightening before they subside into the ominous roiling calm of deep, umber bass tones.
Course plotting is an arcane, hierophanic science mariner’s employ to secure a favorable a passage through the bewildering eddies of chance. Hardheaded pragmatists as well as the most mercurial romantics have long practiced this art in their attempt to weather shoaling capes, negotiate vertiginous maelstroms of myth and meaning or navigate the harrowing straits between literal and figurative truth.
Shorebirds flute over Beethoven’s sibilant stream on bright updraughts of yellow horns. Shades of tympanic gloom rumble on the blood-red horizon. These are the same tortured, lyric phrasings of Conradian darkness; of swelling narratives built up in the long fetch from imaginal, Austral seas. They are stories of death, resurrection and inspired vision.
I turn back to the Canadian current atlas. Let’s see, if I set out from Port Townsend midway through the ebb I should make Cattle Pass by…
“Have ye reckoned for the easterly set of flood beyond Smith Island?”
The voice carries over the anchorage as if down from the dark, oaken halls of time; as if it’s rich baritone had been seasoned by long watches over Arctic wastes. I squint through the wheelhouse windows to see, outlined against the dusky red glare, the shadowy form of a man in a long, black watch-coat and tattered top hat clutching a lee shroud in one hand and a smoldering pipe in the other. He seems a vestige of the age of working sail, as if all the hard-won wisdom gained in man’s endless toil on the sea were pithily encoded in his melancholy aspect and stern admonitions.
“Have ye checked through-hull fittings? Ye don’t want to invite the whole Salish Sea aboard do ye?”
“Well I’ve been busy trying to…”
“Avast ye greenhorn! Jettison all the hackneyed claptrap of useless words and get to the point!”
I resent these rude intrusions upon my peaceful moorings and, in less charitable hours, wonder how McWhirr’s “gaunt form” would look hanging from Old Hand’s yard arm. He would probably make a good scarecrow.
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.