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A whiff of eternity in a ball of twine

The wind shook the old captain’s house as the matriarch recited “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and other dusty poems of the sea. She was in her 90s then, memory sharp and her voice still strong, with rhythm and cadence. It was a good night to be out of the weather.

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The tidal river swelled as the gale pushed a pile of water up the bay, and the dull echo of thousands of tons of water crashing on the shore and ledges sailed over the fields and swirled around the old homestead. Even after illness confined her to the house, my mother never lost her love for the water or the pleasure and meaning she found in the lyrics they inspired.

Another gale, another fall, and I was perched with a half-dozen fishermen on a rocky point, dressed head to toe in foul-weather gear. The reefs exploded under the heavy swell, and long plumes of spray drifted downwind, the mane of a rampaging local sea goddess who would have been best left slumbering. Boarding seas swept the rocky wall where we fished and clutched at our knees, searching for a careless victim to carry seaward. In my imagination, we were rail-down on an old windjammer, beating into a good blow, trying to round some nameless headland, losing ground, wholly alive.
And now there are but three boats left in the marina. A skim of ice appears overnight on the edges of the coves sheltered from the wind. I step carefully into the boat; there is frost on the deck and canvas covers. It is over, save for the hauling and draining and other put-away chores.
What is it about the water that draws us back when the only company left is a loon in winter plumage, swimming head down, looking for food along the edge of the channel? The breeze is raw, the days short, the water temperature falls like a sounding lead.
“Why” is not a question one addresses in spring, when long days lie ahead. Nor is it a question you ask in summer, when kids leap off the ferry dock, knobby knees tucked into cannon balls, and you run the boat in bare feet with the sun on your back. The time to ponder the imponderables is now, when everything is nearly over.
“The question that arises is why,” the late explorer, sailor and author Desmond Holdridge once wrote. “But I am unable to supply an answer. I know only that the answer would be the answer to many other things. It would explain the enormous urge to have a little boat that dwells in many men. It would be the answer to why men go ocean racing, to why they spend money they need for clothes on coats of paint for fat little craft without beauty in any eyes but their own; it would be the answer to why, every year, a scattered fleet of small vessels steers south and out across the Pacific, manned by rapt dreamers in search of an island which cannot exist.”
That may not be an answer, but it certainly points in the right direction. Sometimes you need faith in what you can’t see but know in your bones. Emily Dickinson, in a letter, observed: “The sailor cannot see the North but knows the Needle can.”
We are among the fortunate because we live and play in a world made of wind and water, sun and waves. It is the clay that has drawn people to the sea since the time we crawled out of it.
At the core, I believe the oceans, like the mountains and forests and deserts, provide us with something even more powerful, more fundamental than rest and recreation and rejuvenation. On rare occasions, they offer us a glimpse of eternity, the opportunity to lift the veil — just a bit — on those “windswept fields of infinity,” to quote a lovely phrase by the old Cape Horner and writer Rex Clements. Perhaps we’re just trying to catch a horizon that can’t be caught.
If that is all a bit too esoteric, I end with a simple memory of fishing off a dock in a small harbor, sitting beside my father, each of us working a handline consisting of tarred hemp wrapped on a wooden reel. I found one in an antique shop years ago; I have but to breathe in through my nose to be swept back a half-century.
“He picked up the ball of twine,” John Hersey wrote, “and put it to his nose and drew in the smell of boats, caulking smell, rope-locker smell — the smell which, savored in deepest gloom of wintertime, had the power of evoking faraway sunlit wavetops, a canted mast, splashing bow-waves, a warm summer breeze on a helmsman’s cheek.”
A poem, a storm, ice on the deck, a sharp aroma — it is a longing that will not go away.

“The cruiser,
the strong little,
deep little boat …
is a complete
satisfaction for man.”
— Hilaire Belloc

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.