Sunday, September 01, 2013

From Aroostook County, Maine, to Newburyport, Massachusetts, and back again

I have awaited long the day when I could announce with a drumroll that I am again Casting Off, not merely metaphorically, but actually. I thought I'd be able to say that last month, when K. signed on the dotted line for our new boat, a 36' Mao Ta cutter, Spirit, Secret's successor. She's a blue-water cruiser, a double-ender, an ocean crosser. We are, or will be soon, at last Casting Off. Here she is:

Three feet longer than Secret, but wider, beamier, bigger in every dimension. Already I am in love. So this post was intended as triumphant, as with Caesar's armies returning from Sparta, or wherever—but instead I have chaos and disaster and loss to report—although also their underbelly, their paired twin: hope and light and freedom. Here's how it went.

It's our second day on the boat, August 1, and there's a grand festival going on in swanky Newburyport, our current hailing port. The Yankee Homecoming, of all things, featuring live music all week, dinghies piled up on dock, fireworks, fried dough and clam chowder in the streets. The whole nine yards. We come to town to buy a guidebook and charts and an Eldridge for tides plus to stock up on groceries and water. We drop $350 among West Marine and Home Depot and Market Basket. I send out my money-earning email at the library. Then we wait at a bench beside the dinghy dock as the RIBs motor drunkenly away, and the band cleans up, and the teenagers engage in elaborate mating rituals.

We await the turning tide so we can cruise gleefully back to the boat with nary an oar stroke. Two days before we'd been unable to row against the outgoing current on the Merrimac River. This time there's almost a full moon, and we use the oars more to steer than to row. We get back to Spirit briskly and tie up. K. hefts a few bags on deck but leaves more bags below to steady the dinghy while I clamber aboard.

Then the fatal flaw of hubris. We don't drop the teak ladder. I don't ask for it, and it isn't offered. Both of us think I can make it over the freeboard (far higher from the water than was Secret's) without assistance. After all, I did it more or less effortlessly two days before.

I don't. You can see what's coming, but I couldn't. It's just like when people talk about car accidents. All I remember are brief snapshots, everything happening at once. I remember having one foot on deck and the other back in the dinghy, and feeling spreadeagled, like I wasn't going to make it. I remember looking back at the dinghy and seeing water coming over the side. I remember floating away, with the blue-colored paper bag from West Marine floating away in front of me, and thinking: that's $100!

K. yelled after me to grab the next mooring ball. (Moorings, for the uninitiated, are like anchors permanently affixed to the bottom of the harbor, to protect the ecosystem and to aid the mariner.) I tried, but was unable to. It was then I realized what a fix I was in. The current was sweeping by at a rate of at least six knots. I realized I had to swim, and swim hard. The next mooring was the last before the open Atlantic. The water was cold. The tide had already swept off one of my shoes, and was threatening to carry away my flannel.

I swam hard. I caught the mooring ball. And then I realized I was in a deeper fix. Could he see me? Would he know I was safe and not swept out to sea? How long would it take for someone to find me? How long could I hold on? How long before hypothermia set in?

I didn't know then what I know now: that the dinghy had completely overturned. That everything in it was lost. That my partner in crime managed to hold on, barely, and pull himself on deck to immediately radio the Coast Guard. When I thought of my backpack, containing my computer and my camera and my purse—everything of value I'd brought with me onto the boat—I assumed K. would have rescued it first thing. I just worried about my computer getting wet.

I used my yoga breath. I took turns with my arms, holding on with one side, then the other. Even then, I realized how quickly I'd become tired. I thought about letting myself drift back, thinking that maybe I could hoist myself onto the stranger's boat and find a way to get warm and to radio my location. But then I stopped that line of thought: if I let go, there was almost no way I'd be able to grab onto anything again. My body was carried back in a straight line by the current, parallel to the boat's waterline.

Then I saw the Coast Guard light up its boat. I started to yell for help, worried that they'd go out to sea rather than see me at the mooring two boats down. They heard me, and minutes later I was wrapped in a blanket and safe. I can testify that the major emotion one feels on being rescued by the Coast Guard is embarrassment. I couldn't believe that I'd made such a fool of myself. If only I'd been skinnier, stronger, more limber, I could have made it over the freeboard. If only I'd been humble enough to ask for the ladder. If only I could be a responsible human being, for once in my life.

As I expressed my humiliation, my apology, they were resolutely affirmative: “It happens all the time. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's our job.”

Thank God for the US Coast Guard and George Washington who established them, lo those many years ago, at this very port, Newburyport on the Merrimac River, for exactly this reason—wicked tidal currents and related carnage.

After I was warm and safe and drinking hot tea, I began to worry about my computer. Had K. put it on deck? Of course he had. It would have been his first priority. It had to be safe.

But of course it wasn't. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde by way of Dave Eggers: to lose two computers is a tragedy. To lose three seems careless.

These are the things I've had to think about over the last three weeks, as I've begun to process not just the loss of $2500 worth of gear, but also a five-year-old Moleskin, almost full of story ideas, my dream journal, my everyday journal, my legal pad with assorted yoga notes and boat lists. I am attempting faux Buddhism about it: they are just things, after all. It's just money. The important ideas I'll remember.

And in another universe, if the abstract mathematicians are to be believed, I am dead. In another universe, the computer is salvaged and we are just pissed at each other. In yet another, we're still looking for the perfect boat. In another, we have never met.

In the last universe: I didn't lose my data when I bought a computer two years ago. I didn't institute a rigorous weekly backup process. I didn't recover everything despite myself, as a result of my own insane persistence. I'm not typing right now into a file recovered from my Aroostook backup, on a program recovered from the backup, listening to music recovered from the backup, using settings recovered from the backup.

All this to say: nothing was lost except some money, ephemeral ideas, and my pride. God has his reasons when we don't understand his reasons. If you'd told me that when I was beating my breast over my computer data loss two years ago, I'd probably have hit you. But you would have been right.

So maybe now, in my 35th year, halfway to 70, I'm starting to learn some things. I'm learning that the life I've chosen is one of risk. I haven't lost three computers because I'm careless, but because I've chosen to risk valuable things in order to achieve a higher goal. To some sheer adventure as a cause celebre is insufficient—especially maybe to our families, our parents. But we've chosen this life because it's the one we want, even if it means losing things. Losing money. Losing health, whether by hypothermia or by shoulder bursitis from too much backpack-carrying. Losing dreams, and ideas, and the stories that may have been borne from them.

That's our tax on the life we've chosen. The life we continue to choose. So all hail Spirit, our new vehicle of destruction and rebirth. We live in Spirit while Spirit lives in us.


Lamanda said...

No wonder your phone never works when I call it! You aren't there!! Well I'm very excited for your new journey and keep in touch when you can,

squeegie said...

It's been a while since I've caught up on reading your blog, but what a delight. I renewed the story of your first sailing on Secret with Stella and Maddie and told them of your new adventure. If there is room in your story for a "Little Stella," Stella and I will make one and send it to take on this adventure.

In August Mark and I sailed to the Bahamas for the first time. It was such a delight, even being overcast and cloudy most of the time. I admire your bravery and sense of adventure. Good for you, sweet Melissa, to do what you are called to do.

kari said...

where are you headed?

Melissa Jenks said...

So great to hear from all three of you--yes, my old phone is gone, but I have a new one and I owe emails--it's exciting to be theoretically living aboard again although I'm trying not to raise expectations. The boat may be hauled and prepared for next season. I'm trying to take whatever adventure comes next one day at a time... And I miss all of you.

Red Sonia said...

This one is sobering for me, because I can't stand the thought of losing you. I get your journey of course, and I know that you are in God's hands, but I am selfish so I will continue to pray that you stay on earth a little longer and continue to blog so I can get a bit more connection with your words and stories and perspective. Missing you today!

Anonymous said...

You have surfaced. You have persevered. And finally you are back on the water. I don't know the evolution--a lot going on and I haven't read your blog in a while--but I am delighted that you and K found your way back to the sea.
A new chapter in the life of the adventurer. I am pleased and proud of your persistence. Any word on Secret? Last I read, she was still up at the edge of mangroves. Is your new boat's name Shadow?
You have come a long way in the five plus years since I began your blog.

The Capt'n

Melissa Jenks said...

Thanks, Capt'n. Good to hear from you. Secret is still on the edge of mangroves, with a new owner--based in the Bahamas. Shadow is our dog, and our new boat is Spirit--all good Jungian names.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, Did you ever cast off in Spirit?

You writing is excellent. Time to go mainstream!

The Capt'n

Melissa Jenks said...

Thanks, Capt'n. No, Spirit is still under construction. We had intended a launch date of this year, and now we're putting it off till next year, yet again. I am continuing to work on my writing, mainly fiction, publishing some in smaller journals. I'll try to post links soon.