“Watch in five minutes.”
Of course. My eyes have been closed for a total of thirty seconds, good sir, and it’s three in the morning. Is this how ships work all the time?
I slide out of my hammock like a ragdoll, my legs shuddering as I hit the floorboards a bit too loud for everyone else’s sleepy satisfaction. At least YOU still get to sleep, I think to myself, half-heartedly glaring toward the backs of their sleeping heads. I crawl drowsily up the steep steps onto the weather deck and look around in the morning darkness, instantly hit by a wave of biting cold rolling off of the water. My skin prickles.
“You’re on shift till 0700,” my rude awakener mumbles. Seven freaking hundred? Four hours! I haven’t slept in like 24 hours, punk. “Take the helm first, then Jeff will tell you where to go.”
“Kay,” I mutter, turning toward the prow. The ship dips into the waves and a surge of icy wind over the bow rips my breath away. Oh wait. Helm’s at the BACK of the ship. Oops. I turn again and make my way along the pinrail toward the stern. Just underneath the now-vacant bridge deck, I can see the vague outline of a shortish man with a grey shirt and jean shorts huddled in a mess of ropes suspended around his feet; since he’s the only guy anywhere near the helm, I figure that he must be this “Jeff” person.
As I get closer, I see that he’s holding tight to rope spun through a block-and-tackle system, which is attached on two sides to a huge wooden…thing. Sticking in a horizontal arch about 10 feet out onto the deck, the giant wooden thing looks like some kind of huge chair leg.
“You on helm?” Jeff asks.
“They told me to come here,” I reply, trying to make sense of what his hands are doing as they let some of the rope slide before pinching two ropes together again. I step into the maze of lines so that we’re facing each other on opposite sides of the wooden thing.
“Okay.” He smiles and transfers to me a set of ropes he’s been pinching together, unwinding them from the tip of the wooden “chair leg” and swooping them to my side. “So, Billy has the con.” Peachy. Because I know what that means. “Pull.”
It takes me a moment to register, but hesitantly I begin to relax my body weight backward to keep the ropes tight without tiring my arms. Nothing’s happening. Ooookay then.
“This is the tiller,” Jeff interjects, seeing me spacing out across from him. “It steers the ship.” Knew that at least, I think. The diagrams I studied told me this thing steers it. Don’t know how. Guess it does, though. “It’s like a big rudder, so if you want to turn right, you have to go to the left.” He points to the two ropes I’m still pinching, my fingers numb from the cold and from pinching for so long.
He’s speaking to me, I just know it. His words are oozing back out of my ears as my tired brain refuses to make sense of them. He goes on some kind of explanatory rant about using the compass in the box about two feet away and mentions something else about the friction from our pinching keeping the ropes in place, but I’m out of it. About once every five minutes, my mind actually registers that my eyes are still open and seeing things. The other four minutes and fifty-nine seconds of those blips are completely blank. I’m awake, I’m awake. Except I’m not.
Occasionally, Jeff lets the ropes loose for a bit and they slide through the wooden block, sending the huge tiller swerving toward me slightly as my own ropes go slack. I pick up the slack mindlessly and lean back again. It’s gotta be about 5AM, right? Yeah, I’ve been at this for like two hours.
“Huh?” I feel like a thick, suffocating ooze is munching on my brain.
“I said bring the tiller toward me,” Jeff says, perhaps a little peevishly. “We’re going a bit off course.”
“Oh,” I say. Jeeze, who spit in your bean curd? You’ll forgive me if I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve been here a grand total of 21 hours or something.
Keeping the two ropes pinched in my left hand, I shoulder my weight into the tiller. It doesn’t budge. I wrangle with it a few more times before Jeff stops me. “Let go of the ropes.”
I look to my left hand and, a bit fearfully, release the ropes. They slither backward through the block, and the tiller creeps back into Jeff’s waiting hand like some giant obedient puppy. I pinch the ropes again and it stops immediately. Of course. Body tackle it and it doesn’t move. Let go of some pencil-thick ropes and it zips away. Ah, ships.
“Oh, and by the way,” Jeff says without looking at me, “we don’t say ‘huh.’ Use ‘say again’ or ‘repeat.'” I nod, and we stand in silence for a long while as I listen to the waves break against the hull.
I ponder how the ropes work in order to keep myself awake and conclude that I’m simply an idiot. Obviously I could never move a piece of wood when not only 22,000 tons of ship but also strength from the waves is holding it down. But then, how do the-
“You can rotate.” Jeff interrupts my musings. “Up at the front of the ship, there’s a guy on lookout. Take his place and send him back here.”
I nod. “Thanks for the help,” I add, but either he hasn’t heard or doesn’t care to respond. Whatever. I did my best. I really did.
As I head toward the prow, a bright pink flash of shirt catches my eye. You again…. She’s sitting on top of one of the red and black rectangular boxes along the deck that holds I-know-not-what, and next to her is a black something. Taking a quick seat on the edge of the box (mostly just because I’m dead tired), I smile. “Chilly out, isn’t it?” She doesn’t respond.
Megan. That’s her name.
How do I know that?
I try to look at her sideways without drawing too much awkward attention, attempting to place her somewhere in my past. And the black something next to her…I think it’s a bucket. I didn’t know we had any on board.
No sooner do I notice than she curls up a little, her head draped over her knees, and vomits (completely silently, I might add). Oh how I envy those silent pukers. For the first time, I notice the deep, bobbing thrashes the ship is making into the water every few moments. Seasick! I see.
I sit in silence for a moment, unsure what to do. It would be awkward to leave, right? But it’s creepy to just stay, probably. Looking around as if I haven’t noticed her vomit, I spot a big blue jug hanging from the wooden frame in the center of the ship. As quietly as possible, I slide off of the box and grab a small, clean-looking cup from a milk crate hidden beneath the wooden framework. Just as I thought, there’s water in the blue jug, so I draw some and then set the cup next to her without a word. Oh! I need to go to lookout. Right.
I take a few steps toward the prow before I catch a weak, trembling “thank you.”
At the front of the ship sits a huge pile of rope coiled like a giant white python striped with aquamarine. Each strand of rope is about as thick as the width of a cup, and atop the giant mass stands an older man, probably about 55 or 57, wearing a greenish ball cap. He looks down at me once he notices my staring.
“Uh,” I stutter, “Jeff says you’re supposed to go help him at the helm.” He smiles.
“Are you taking my place?”
“I guess,” I say, managing a slight grin. What a relief to finally see someone smile here in this frigid darkness.
He hops down and I clamber up the six feet of stacked ropes to take his place, trying my best not to undo them from their beautifully aligned coil. Before he walks away, he taps on the ropes at my feet, which are now at his eye level. “Just watch for things in the water. If you see something, anything, even if it looks like it’s okay, go report to the person on con.” Con. I think Jeff said that was Billy.
“Okay,” I smile.
“Do you know the point system?” he asks. I shake my head.
Seemingly from thin air, he whips out the Flagship Niagara ship manual, which he apparently already had open to the “bearings” page. On it is a diagram of the ship from above with lines radiating out in all directions from the center of the deck. I know I’ve seen this before, and some part of me tells me that I vaguely understand it.
The man with the ball cap proceeds to explain how to identify bearings so that, if I do see something, I know how to report it. After a few short minutes of practice, I’ve got it down. I think. I can, after some thought, tell the difference between something one point abaft the starboard beam and something two points off the port bow. Thanking him for his help, I climb back up the coil of rope, giving him a final smile as he heads off to join Jeffy. Good luck, I snicker.
It takes all of about three minutes for me to figure out that lookout is my favorite post onboard. I don’t know what it is — something about the wind in my face, the horizon stretching endlessly in all directions, or watching the prow swoop down to kiss the water before rearing back up just amuses me to no end. Oh gosh. That was really cliche.
Thankfully, it seems like ballcap-man is quite happy back at the helm, so I stand lookout for way longer than I worked the helm. In the distance, a vague blue line on the horizon gently morphs to grey. The sunrise?
I’m not so sure.
I stare at the rising grey mass loafing up from the horizon. A cloud? It can’t be. It seems so…close. And it’s not bubbly like clouds, it’s flat. Long. Like a pier or something. I look over the port side, then the starboard, scanning the waters as far as I can see. The slight, undulating waves rise up to meet a cloudless sky, still speckled with the light from a few persistent stars. Turning my attention back to the front, I squint.
That’s not a cloud.
I take a step back, forgetting my place and stumbling into the rope coil’s gaping center. The con. Billy has the con. I have to go find him! I crouch, ready to slide off of the ropes, but I can’t help casting a final glance toward the looming menace in front of the ship.
Can no one else see this huge thing?
I pause to scan it again, a little pang of hesitation and confusion settling in my stomach. It’s so white. Is that snow? Come on, it’s the middle of June. A sudden bluster of icy wind crashes into me, raising goosebumps on my arms and sending a slight numbness through my fingers again. Maybe….I mean, it IS pretty cold.
It must be minutes that I stand there watching the white beast, though it feels like only a few seconds of deep thought. We’ve got to go around it. Billy? Wait, what do I say again? Oh yeah. Dead ahead. Land.
I turn to hop down again, pausing once more when I see a muscular guy in his mid-twenties heading toward the bow. I stand back up and look away as if I don’t notice. I’ll let him look. He’s bound to see it, right? He comes up the starboard side, pausing occasionally to examine a rope tied around a pin before moving on. When he reaches the very front of the ship, he gives a good yank to one of the lines and then turns back around and vanishes into the darkness.
I hook my feet under a part of the rope beneath me nervously, looking around. I can’t take this any more! Squinting one last time toward the greyish-white mass, which hasn’t moved or shifted like clouds should, I edge toward the side of the rope coil. They won’t be angry if I’m wrong, right? And if I’m right, it’s important, I think.
I slide off the side of the rope coil, stupidly (or tiredly) forgetting about the possibility of rope burn until the sizzling on the back of my legs tells me that I’m an idiot. As soon as my feet hit the deck, I head off toward the helm. Important people are always back there, right?
“I’m relieving you.”
I squint into the slowly brightening darkness. Yellow shorts?
A tall, blond guy, probably 20 or so, walks toward me with a smile. He quirks his head at me as if he’s saying, “Are you in there?” I just stare.
“I said I’m relieving you.”
I open my mouth for a moment before anything comes out. “You what?” Oh my brain. Half-baked connections are whizzing around in there somewhere, and I’m coming out with something vaguely like ‘pinching ropes tiller moving us toward land gotta tell Billy lookout white thing.’ Yellow-shorts-guy is…who again?
He smiles. “I’m supposed to stand lookout now.”
“Oh,” I manage. My sleep-deprived brain suddenly returns to what I’d been doing. “Oh! Have you seen Billy?” Mr. Yellow Shorts climbs the rope pile in one deft lunge of his long legs.
“Billy? Um…” He looks around, pausing when his eyes pass over the front of the ship.
He sees it too! Oh thank goodness.
“Hmm. Funky cloud. Oh yeah, I think Billy’s below deck at the moment.”
I climb back up onto the coil and plop down at the edge of the ropes. “Nevermind.”
I guess I should be relieved, but at the moment I feel more like a moron. Yep, running aground on a cloud. Totally possible.
“I’m Pip, by the way.” I look up at him. Well that’s a sailor’s name if I’ve ever heard one. “Welcome aboard.”
Oh, what a day I’ll never forget. Learning the hard way that you can hallucinate when you’re extremely exhausted is, err, a little frightening. Thank goodness Pip showed up before I made a fool of myself telling Billy we were going to slam into a…cloud.
In my defense, it REALLY DID look like an island or something.
Memorable quotes from this day’s ship log:
“I took lookout, where the sunrise clouds played tricks on my eyes. The clouds dead ahead became a white island studded with trees that we were going to hit.”