Between Isla Mujeres and Galveston
My great grandmother crossed the plains to Kansas in an ox-drawn wagon. She and her two sons would sit in the back with their legs dangling over the end because sometimes the oxen would bolt and tear recklessly across the prairie. Grabbing a boy under each arm, she would jump to safety. The boys thought it a game, only hoping they didn’t have to walk too far to catch the wagon. But I know she rode tense and alert, sensitive to every jolt and sudden pull. I know.
Most people don’t realize that a crew maintains a constant watch during an ocean crossing. The 8 p.m. to midnight watch seems a natural completion of the day. Some daylight remains, and the crew keeps me company until one by one everyone drifts down to bed. A few stars flicker then simultaneously the others appear, clicking on like street lamps from horizon to horizon. Securely enclosed in the boat’s cockpit, I lie back and let the stars envelop me. Black sea stretches out uninterrupted by lights. We are alone. Safe. There’s just enough time to plot a course and make a log entry before waking the next watch. Once in the cocoon of lee board and settee cushion, I sleep in a rush of dreams. Too soon, a hand gently shakes my shoulder. “It’s your watch,” says a tired voice. Four hours isn’t enough sleep; I never feel rested. Fumbling into my harness, I climb the steps and clip on.
“There’s a light off the port stern but it’s moving away,” the watchman reports. “And there’s a light to starboard–2 o’clock. I don’t know what it is; it just popped up a few minutes ago.” We discuss wind direction, sails, and course. He turns in.
I look around and note the lights in the distance. For distraction, I listen to music on the Walkman or sing songs to myself. No reading, it ruins night vision. I watch the boat’s path carefully. Unlit boats and rigs are rare, but I have encountered both. I look around–360 around–about every five minutes. My two sons sleep below. The light to starboard grows more distinct, and I take a compass check to make sure the angle of degrees changes, that we will be two ships that pass in the night. I’m tense at nights, especially moonless ones. Lights are difficult to judge–to tell the distance and size of the vessel. We know that most of the large ships don’t see us, and they move so fast.
With dawn, I relax my guard. Eleven-year-old Paul is up early, eager to set his fishing lines. As we ride in companionable silence, the sun rises higher, shooting gold and roses across the sky. Wind fills the white jib and pulls the boat smoothly across the fathomless blue Gulf. A small following sea breaks behind us.
“It’s going to be a dolphin day,” I tell Paul with unknowing prophecy.
I think about my great grandmother crossing the plains with her sons and how the prairie stretched endlessly before them, the grass rippling in the wind like waves on a vast green ocean. We are adventurers too: facing danger, discovering wonders.
Dolphins surface at the bow; and as always, caught up in their beauty and power we rush forward to get as close as possible. Five dolphins swim with us, rhythmically rolling over the bow wake, gentle scimitars parting the sea. We reach down trying to touch silken, grey skins, but they are always just out of reach. One turns slightly and watches us intently with an eye that is startlingly human. Abruptly, more dolphins appear . . .twenty . . . then more on the periphery. Paul and I feel it together, and turn, and behold. As far as we can see, in all directions, dolphins turn the water, undulating gracefully or leaping high over the breaking waves. Paul whispers, “Camera,” but neither of us can move. I will all of my senses open. Take in everything: the dawn, the warm moist air, Paul’s arm touching mine, the lift of the boat, the sapphire sea, the expanse of dolphins. Take it all in. Everything. I, the atheist, am watching God.
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