Evening was setting in although we couldn’t really tell; the sky was just as dark as it had been all afternoon. The clouds were low and monstrous, “the embodiment of evil,” my father called them. He laughed as he said it.
Those clouds filled the space around us. They were dark, and robust, and thunderous. My father stood on the ladder and took a long look at the ocean surrounding us. His 360 degree survey ended on me at the helm.
“Looks like fun,” he chuckled. I found the childish smirk on his face unusual for our situation. We were hundreds of miles out at sea and in every direction around us were thunderheads. On the ocean nothing looks big. But these clouds were so grand and intimidating that I was certain they would swallow us whole before morning. My father sank below and mumbled something about starting the spaghetti.
Click, click, click, click, POOF!
I heard him light the propane stove as I gazed out across the choppy waves. The wind was intensifying, as it had been all afternoon. I felt a strong gust lift us up and push us faster through the white-capped water. I gripped the tiller tighter, as if my clenched fist meant anything to the ocean.
“Aren’t you afraid out there? Out where you can’t see any land?” Friends back home ask me this all the time. I have taken to sea more times than the average terrestrial human, but I’m still green.
That’s what people like my father, old salts or jack-tars, call me. At twenty-one I am much too old to be frightened by strong winds, big waves, and creatures from the deep, but the sea has a way of humbling even the most confident mortals. I could be at sea for four days or forty and I am afraid the entire time.
It is not an upfront fear, not the kind that paralyzes. This fear is the kind that waits patiently in the back of the mind. It lays quietly, very much present yet still ignorable, until it sees its chance. Perhaps in the night, when I wake during my father’s watch and do not hear him in the cockpit, naming stars. That’s when The Fear jumps into action, he forgot to clip in and fell overboard!
“Are you clipped in?”
I push The Fear again to the back of my mind and try once more to sleep.
Sailing a small boat across an ocean is exhausting. It is physically, and mentally, and emotionally draining. An hour of sleep quickly becomes more precious than a brick of gold. No one has time, or energy, to be afraid.
But on this evening I could not help but give The Fear an opening. All around us everything grew darker. The only warmth in the entire world was the glow from the galley where my father was happily preparing our dinner. He was humming ‘Oklahoma’ and I was scanning the sky, counting the lightning bolts.
Our mast was the tallest point for miles. Lightning strikes the tallest thing!
This mast is made of metal. Lighting loves metal!
Even if the lighting struck the ocean…Salt water is a great conductor of electricity!
We’re alone out here. A fire is the worst thing that can happen at sea!
I looked down at my goose-skinned legs, that’s precisely the problem, said The Fear, you have legs, not fins. And your legs are made of permeable skin, not scales. Do you even have gills? Look at you! You’ve got nothing, not a single adaptation to survive in the ocean. What are you out here for anyway? The Fear laughed and laughed, and I did my best to choke it back and put on my toughest old salt face.
My father’s head popped up through the hatch. He held a string of spaghetti in his hands and tossed it my way.
“I think it needs another two minutes. What about you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I mustered.
My father gazed at the seascape. His eye stopped on something behind me, so I turned my head and looked too. Behind our little boat was an angry, towering cloud. It started just feet above the upset waves and reached up, up, up into the heavens. It was black, and it was hateful.
“I’d shorten sail,” my father began, “but I’d rather outrun that thing. I think we’ve got a pretty good chance if we keep on like this.”
“The time to shorten sail is the first time you think of it,” I recited this older-than-time sailor advice, as if I my father hadn’t spent the past fifty years at sea.
Down below the spaghetti boiled over and the stove began to hiss. My father disappeared below to turn down the flame. Moments later he was back. I could feel him looking at me, but I kept my eyes between the compass and the sea, determined not to let him sense The Fear.
“Are you afraid?” The question was so blunt, and the answer so obvious.
My father was silent for a moment.
“I was afraid once.”
I burst into laughter.
“What?” my father asked. His answer had been so genuine, but that was what made it so absurd.
“ONCE,” I laughed. “You were afraid ONE time?”
“I was delivering a boat with one of my friends. We got into some bad weather, a lightning storm like this. I remember I was wearing a stainless steel watch, and there was so much electricity in the air that when I put my hand on the grabrail there formed a visible arch of electricity going from my watch to the backstay.”
My jaw was on the deck, “what did you do?”
My father laughed. “Well, we kept sailing. What were we supposed to do? But I remember being very afraid. I just told myself that if this is how and where I die, then this is how and where I die, and I accepted it and kept sailing.”
We sat silently for a moment, both listening to the wind whip across the water. I suddenly felt foolish for giving in so completely to The Fear. There are times in life when being afraid is useful, at least on some evolutionary level, those fight or flight moments in which The Fear takes control and makes decisions for you. But this was not one of them. Inviting The Fear aboard our boat would not help me steer, or reef the main, or focus for four hours on watch.
I sat on deck and looked out across the now spiteful ocean. With each wave we crashed through, a spray of cool, salt water splashed my face. Out on the darkening horizon, the place where the black clouds met the grey-blue ocean, I saw The Fear. It was there, it was a very real presence, but it could not help me to sail safely through the night. This must have been what my father accepted all those years ago. The Fear is a very authentic and valuable being, but once you’ve established that it’s there you must accept it and keep on your way.
My father’s voice interrupted my contemplation.
“Well, you know what Shakespeare said,” he grinned. “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
I rolled my eyes and laughed. “Yeah, thanks Dad.”
He returned to the galley and finished making our spaghetti. It was a long night, but we kept sailing.
Emma Hayward is a student at The New School in New York City where she majors in Environmental Studies. She has been lucky enough to explore the world via sailboat on a handful of occasions and hopes to spend her life doing just that! Emma’s idols include Beryl Smeeton and Sylvia Earle.