“Hang on to yer hat, lad. Looks like we’re in for a dusting.” McWhirr pointed at the darkening horizon and commanded: “Ready to man the pumps.”
I scrambled aft and pulled the aged, bronze pump from the lazarette before looking up to see the immense, glassy wall looming over the masthead like the adamant finale of doomsday.
Old Hand rose up the vertical wall to its breeze-feathered crest and launched skyward with a spray of rainbow light. It was as if she sought escape from her natural element, to take her place amid the constellations as guide to unborn mariners of this tropic-this weary globe where man has long toiled on the treacherous seas.
We landed in the trough with a bone-jarring crash as the wave broke with a deafening roar astern.
Old Hand yawed like a stunned boxer shaking off a vicious right hook and steadied up, ready to meet the next one. We mounted the second wave of the set and were again hurled down it’s backside, until I thought we might sound the very depths of the Mariana trench.
Each time McWhirr counted each wave until, after the 8th had thrown us rudely on our beam-ends, he said: “This is it, lad-the 9th wave. Say yer prayers, this may be the end of our pleasant, little cruise.”
The sight that met my eyes as I braced against the wheelhouse was enough to make Blackbeard blanch and Ahab drop to his knees and beg for mercy.
“No, it can’t be that big,” I said, upon seeing the wave’s awesome height. It’s aspect was all the more terrible for its calm refulgence-as gleaming and resolute as an executioner’s ax. The crystalline beauty of it seemed to mock all our puny efforts to survive.
Again, we faced the interminable ascent. As it jacked up over the reef, it turned a back-lit, emerald-green hue.
Good reader, we’ve all heard how time stands still, and the imagination falls prey to odd fancies in times of extreme terror. So it was with me. I thought I saw strange shapes in that massive beast of a sea-spectral figures who swam before my eyes and vanished again like mackerel flashing upon the wave’s face. One such apparition was dressed in a flowing white shirt and tight pants. He had the angelic look of one inspired by the muses and held, in his delicate hand, a goose-quill pen. His melodic words seemed to echo above the dismal keening of gulls that circled overhead:
…My spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am born darkly, fearfully afar…
Poetry from Adonais by Percy Bysshe Shelly
This is my post in some time. I’ve been busy preparing for our trip north to the San Juans.
Again, our crossing of the infamous Straits was placidly uneventful. This is fine by me as I’d rather get my adventure in other ways than getting slammed by the huge waves that can travel all the way into the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca. The pictures
of the huge waves that can travel all the way into the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca have struck my heart with a cold dread. Then there’s the fog which can veil the looming menace of beasts like this bearing down on Old Hand at 18 knots.
Joseph Conrad started writing relatively late in life. He drew heavily from a long career as master mariner in the era of European, eastern expansion.
In A Personal Record he tells of the first impulse to write. Sitting idle in his room at Bessborough Gardens he remembers his initial encounter with the man who inspired his first novel, Almayer’s Folly.
Conrad was 1st mate on a cargo steamer going up a Malaysian river to deliver supplies to a remote outpost. On board was a pony which the Dutch trader, Almayer, has ordered from Bali:
The importation of that Bali pony might have been part of some deep scheme, of some diplomatic plan, of some hopeful intrigue. With Almayer, one could never tell. He governed his conduct by considerations removed from the obvious, by incredible assumptions, which rendered his logic impenetrable to any reasonable person.
The same might be said for the whole colonialist adventure. But this misguided effort is constantly undermined by inscrutable forces antithetical to the rigid mindset of the European.
Conrad describes the limp pony as he hoists it onto the dock in a sling:
…his aggressive ears had collapsed, but as he went slowly swaying across the front of the bridge, I noticed an astute gleam in his dreamy, half-closed eye.
Upon releasing the sling, the pony immediately flattens Almayer and bolts for the dense forest- an outcome which Almayer meets with perplexing indifference.
But Almayer, plunged in abstracted thought, did not seem to want the pony anymore.
He embodies the ambiguous, often childish, desire for dominion over the remotest corners of the earth; a tragi-comic symbol of imperialist hyper-extension who, despite his convoluted plans, succumbs to uncontrollable forces and, ultimately, to dissipation.
Listen to Almayer’s halting, distracted monologue as he reveals to the narrator something of his frustrations:
“…the worst of this country is that one is not able to realize…” His voice sank into a languid mutter. “And when one has very large interests…” He finished faintly. “…up the river.”
Conrad was to later use such chthonic imagery and musical, fractured dialogue in his masterful indictment of imperialism: Heart of Darkness.
A Personal Record tells how the encounter with this “factual” character was instrumental in the birth of a long literary career; a career in which he brought to fictional art an unequaled degree of expressiveness. With the concision of the sea language in which he was so fluent-a language as pithy as poetic verse-Conrad condensed into the microcosmic image of Almayer all the absurdity and hubris of the expansionist age.
Conrad goes on to imagine meeting his alter ego in the Elysian fields and confessing:
It is true, Almayer, that in the world below I have converted your name to my own uses. But that is very small larceny…Your name was common property of the winds…You were always complaining of being lost in the world, you should remember that if I had not believed enough in your existence to let you haunt my rooms in Bessborough Gardens you would have been much more lost.
Though a failure in his wind-born life, Almayer triumphs in the end through Conrad’s belief in the ability of his protagonist to express something deep and dark in the psyche of modern man. This ability is all the more poignant because of Almayer’s fictive power. It is a power that confers reality.
…if I had not got to know Almayer pretty well it is almost certain there would never have been a line of mine in print.
Though I suspect Conrad’s Personal Record may not conform entirely to fact, his character attains a loftier status. He becomes a symbol of human folly that mere veracity cannot express.
Cormorants are huddled like a conclave of robed mystics brooding over lost fish. The wind blows from all directions in Port Madison.
I write windy dialogue that transpires between two contrary characters. I suppose the I of the story refers to myself, but even this first-person identity gets pretty tenuous at times. I am obtuse foil to McWhirr’s exacting command, and he is confounded by my poetic flights. This tension, this ever tipping dynamic, propels the leaky vessel of my prose.
In the voyage of this yarn to it’s “conclusion”, fact and fiction are interwoven to create a tapestry of associative episodes in order to express some ineffable truth about man’s impulse toward adventure.
But to what degree can I actually claim these adventures mine? Where was the line crossed between inspiration and plagiarism? All my powers of expression are called upon to render a fictional account of vaguely recalled events in the transient world of sensations and ideas.
I’ve come close to foundering in a fog of fantasy, relevant only to myself or to those souls fortunate enough (or unlucky enough) to be conversant with sailing lore, and experienced in the sea’s fickle ways.
Where has McWhirr gone? While his vanishing act seems a natural outcome of the narrative flow, it has left me without bearings-without a meaningful waypoint. He’s left me becalmed at slack water, transfixed by sunlight on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with only an obscure missive from Virgil’s heroic verse: From me learn courage and patience, from others the meaning of fortune. Then again, maybe this is all the bearing I need.
Though the dream of finding a copy of the Aeneid happened some 20 years ago, it’s true import remains enigmatic. But I feel it has to do with carrying on a lineage, the bearing of the household gods to establish a new homeland or mode of awareness. It’s also about a mutual need, a pact made with the dead to honor them. My dad’s ghost comes and goes in the story, and recalls me to some forgotten bond. He says I should heed McWhirr.
The View from the Wheelhouse is a fluid one, and successful navigation depends on an ability to tolerate a constantly shifting perspective. The conclusion of this tale is as elusive as a Micronesian landfall.
So I trust this isn’t the last we’ve heard from McWhirr. The wily old coot’s vanishing act may be prologue to his reinstatement on a more believable level of fictional existence.
Wars are started by mistaking the thing in itself for the metaphor, and the inability to see through the symbol, as through a veil, to the symbolized. Scientists have recently discovered that the north wind doesn’t really have a beard and puffy cheeks. We’ve evolved beyond such nonsense. But this knowledge is of little use to the sailor driven on a rocky lee shore by a fierce northerly gale. For myself and everyone, I pray to the household gods.