In writing conferences we are often admonished to “write what you know” and this came home to me recently as I edited the manuscript for Necromancer. I have written a sea battle for the novel and then another one for the Free Short Story that is offered on the publisher’s website prior to the release of each novel. Sea battles will figure prominently in the third book, the Chaldean Codex. But really, have I been in sea battle?
Well, yes. Sort of.
Perhaps not in a 15th century galleon (though I have stood on the deck of a tall ship in the harbor at San Diego, but that is another story) but I have battled the wind and the waves. When I was 16 years old I had a magnificent boyfriend who was just a bit older than me. He and I met on a school bus when our fathers were stationed on the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. His dad was a sea captain and mine was a flight instructor. Between the two of us we encompassed the purpose of a Naval Air Station.
He was no novice at sea, his dad owned a cruiser and he had been sailing for years. Our first date was on the water. But this adventure occurred at least a year later, after I had become skilled as a deck hand. I could hold my own on the little boats, the Sunfish and Lasers, and knew how to follow orders on the larger ones. I could set and pack a spinnaker…a great triumph for me. But on this day we were in a little O’Day, a sixteen foot wooden day sailer practicing for a regatta he was going to race the next weekend.
After school we met at the marina and checked out the little boat. We planned to practice along the Intercoastal Waterway because he wanted to cruise along the regatta’s route. He was at the rudder and I was on the sails. It all started out sunny and warm and cheerful, as most adventures do. I was telling him a story I heard from my father about the Intercoastal this week. Dad was telling us at dinner how in one of the training exercises the pilots must complete is a parachute drop. The men are in their flight suits and dropped into the water with chutes open and then dragged by a boat through the waves. The idea is to train them to untangle themselves and inflate their vests for a sea rescue in the event that they had bailed from a damaged plane into the water.
This week the Navy suspended that training temporarily. On their first run that week, as they were dragging the pilots through the water, fins began to appear behind them. The Navy was trolling for sharks, using their expensive pilots as bait. We laughed about this, but it wasn’t funny about an hour later.
The Intercoastal is like a huge canal between the mainland and outrigger islands used by freighters for shipping. There are periodic openings in the islands to allow passage to the Gulf of Mexico, and there is healthy traffic on this waterway. It is like an interstate highway for shipping. Our little O’Day seemed big enough in the water around the marina, and comfortable in Pensacola Bay. It was like a toy boat in the Intercoastal. We had to sail around the great aircraft carrier, Lexington. I looked up and up and up. It was like a mountain. And the freighters are nothing to sneeze at either. I suppose it is like riding a bike between big rigs on the interstate…
But we practiced tacking back and forth and zooming through the waves as the wind picked up as it always did around 4 o’clock every afternoon. Florida weather is fairly predictable. But then the sky darkened and it looked like a thunderstorm was brewing. Not unusual at all. We looked at the sky , then looked back toward the marina, gauging distance and time. Uh oh. We were farther away from home than we realized, and the way back was toward the storm and upwind…and the Intercoastal is long and narrow, which means a lot of back and forth against the wind. Very slow and we have to cross the shipping lanes with each tack.
We came about and started the hard work. We made good time in the freshening wind, but as we approached the final turn around where the Lexington was moored, the sea had begun to come in through the channel. We never paid much attention to the tide because we usually sailed in the bay where it had a negligible influence on the water (except for one time when we went aground in a larger boat, but that is another adventure). I remember looking at him. I had not been afraid this whole time. My trust in him was absolute. He was amazing on any sailboat and could make them do anything he wanted. He was their lord and master. But when I saw what the incoming tide was doing to the channel, I turned to see what he thought about that. I remember feeling that stab of real panic at the moment I saw his face. He was frightened. If he was frightened, then we were in real trouble.
The tide was pouring through a narrow opening between two islands, churning the water that flowed through the Intercoastal. Huge waves were created by the surge of the water flowing in different directions with nowhere to go. The bouys had begun to rock and their warning bells added to the sound of the wind in the rigging. These were not swells that you could sail up and over like a hill, but smashing waves from all four directions, like if you had a dishpan full of water and shook it hard. And the wind was picking up in irregular squalls from the approaching thunderstorm and all this angry Nature was between us and the marina. And we were in this, suddenly, very very tiny boat. Then I remembered the sharks. I looked down at the foamy water sliding past the hull just a foot beneath me. I think this was the first time in my whole life that I knew what real fear was. I actually suggested we ground the boat and walk home, but he just gave me a disgusted look.
We both knew what had to be done, so there was no confusion or anything, It was hard work and we were both concentrating with every brain cell…I remember an extreme heightened awareness of everything: wind, water, sky, lines, sails, balance. The little boat was up and down like a bucking horse and it never stopped. We were still sailing upwind, which meant a change in direction every two or three minutes. I was actually looking up at the waves…very scary. We went up up up then down down down then back and forth then up again. Ocean splashed over the rails, we were both soaked and there was no time to bail the water that sloshed at our feet. His arms strained constantly at the rudder, for he had to move it with each wave and the choppy water meant that the bow did not want to stay in one place, and pointing the bow was how we kept air in the sails so we could go forward. I was watching the tell-tales to keep us from stalling, but even with our best effort the current would grab us and pull us backward even as the wind bounced us forward. We were stationary off the landmark I was watching on shore. When we tacked, he pushed the rudder so hard the rails were almost in the water, trying to get some kind of forward purchase. I scrambled up the sides each time, ducked the boom and leaped to the other side over and over until my legs were rubber. I figured we were dead. The storm was closer, the sky was black and it was obvious we had just exceeded the recommended Beaufort wind scale for this class of day sailer. I thought about those sharks again. (If my parents are reading this, sorry Mom and Dad. I never told you this story because I was afraid you would never let me out on the water again).
A big squall was visible ahead. You can see these bastards coming because they disturb the surface of the water in a way that is different from the straight winds. In little boats (and big ones, too, I suppose) you are constantly scanning the water for them because they will capsize you before you can say, “ahoy” if you do not turn or set your sails for them before they get there. He said, “fuck” and “bloody hell”. I just wanted to pee myself. He had me drop my lines and he turned the boat into the squall. We let the sails flap and as we waited for it, we felt ourselves surge backward with the current, losing all the distance we had just killed ourselves for. It didn’t just hit, but slammed. I’d like to think I became one with the wind and the waves and the boat, but this was long before I read any zen. I do remember the crescendo of fear and how it spread out all over me as I held on for dear life as the rails dipped into the water then lifted to pitch and yaw. The strange thing was how after the fear reached a peak it went away like the squall. It was like it passed through me and I felt each stab like electricity, but then it was gone, and I was just tired. We looked at each other, glad to be upright. He nodded to the lines and I picked them up again and set the sails to catch the straight winds. He leaned into the rudder and set the bow. We were both silent the whole way back, as that little boat inched its way toward the marina. We made it back just as the thunderstorm crashed all around us. I loved my boyfriend so much as the little boat glided into the slip and I reached for the dock.
It was after dark when I got home.
The parents asked, “Did you have a good time?”